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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mystery Mushrooms

Mystery mushrooms
What a surprise to come out into the garden one morning and discover that all those arborist chips laid out in the pathways around the planting beds harbored a crop of their own. With all the recent rain, mushrooms are now popping up everywhere. Since arborist chips are made up of decaying plant materials ground up from removing or pruning out trees, this recent discovery actually makes some sense. Sometimes I wish I had the time and expertise to know my mushrooms beyond Chanterelles and Morels. Mushrooms are expensive to buy in the store. Having a potential bonanza in one's yard is a plus. A neighbor actually had several Morel's popping up out of his chips surrounding his blueberry bushes. No such luck here.

The underside
There is a concern that mushrooms can harm happless pets that dine on them. I don't think our mob would bother. Besides being over fed, our cats act psycho pretty much year around, regardless when mushrooms appear. Our dog stays inside other than being on a leash outside. Don't know about these guys, but some mushrooms make good dye materials, giving off unusual, hard to get colors of purples and blues.

But, since I'm no expert and really don't have time to research all of this, I'll just enjoy these gems as a curiosity and remember that many mushroom fruiting bodies represent root rot in trees.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Potatoes in a Can: Some Harvest!

Potatoes dumped out in the shape of the can.
Now that the growing season is starting to wind down, the potatoes were ready to harvest. Excited to see the yield, I dumped the can over onto a tarp. I immediately saw several large potatoes and a lot of roots around the perimeter of the molded soil. What I ended up with was less than exciting though; only 8.5 pounds of the spuds, total. That will last us a couple of months at most.

The idea of this experiment was to grow potatoes in a way that you don't end up damaging them during the digging out process. Plus, I didn't want to use other traditional stacking methods such as old tires which contain all sorts of nasty chemicals or wood which is heavier to move and not as convenient. So, with that said, I've decided to give it a whirl next season with a few adjustments.

The yield doesn't look promising.
First, I'm going to plant a little earlier, add more compost and still fertilize with some bone meal. Second, when I add more soil to keep up with the growth, I'm going to add a few more seed potatoes to the mix, to maximize the number of plants I can squeeze into the can.

I have to admit, it was a slick system for harvest. After picking out all the potatoes, I simply discarded the greens into the compost and then scooped the soil back into the can and put the lid on. Nice and neat. We need all the help we can get in that department. I figure I can get another use out of the potting soil mix which was an investment. And I might get some more potatoes out of it, as many of the roots and perhaps some microscopic seeds remain.

Not as much as I had hoped.
In the mean time, there's an explosion of tomatoes, another nightshade family crop. I'll be freezing some sauce and drying skins for concentrated tomato seasoning. You can read about that technique here.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Weeding With A Flame Thrower

Doing in the weeds while trying not to torch the Lavenders.
Sometimes you just have to get out the big guns. The minute my back is turned, the weeds know and burst forth in abundance. Now, I'm not one to advocate nasty chemicals. One solution would be to use salt. Another, vinegar. I've tried them all. I've mulched and pulled and planted out, but there are times when you just can't win.

Not liking the idea of contributing to Ortho or Bayer, I tried one last trick in the book. Fighting Fireweed with well,  fire. Instead of supporting Bayer, I was about to run off to the garden center and get one of those propane torches designed to target weeds. You simply blast them with 1500 degrees of fire that cooks their little roots. Then Roland proclaimed out of the blue that he had a torch. After he dug through his work van for a while, he brought out what I would describe more as a flame thrower. Not the cute little tip that heats an area the size of a quarter. No, this thing could take out a large shrub!

No, I'm not burning my toes off!
So, I set up the hose in order to grab it and spray out any unnecessary fires that developed and got to work. The whole apparatus consists of a 3 inch torch end connected by a hose to a large tank; the kind that usually gets attached to gas barbeques. You squeeze a handle on the torch like you would a watering wand. Upon my first blast, a napalm size flame shot out and took out the weed, head to toe. It also took out some of the lavender, which is highly flammable due to its essential oils. So, I decided I'd better wet down the areas first where I wanted to torch these invasive opportunists. That worked better. I only took out several lower lavender branches when I got too close.

It worked really well on most everything except of course, creeping buttercup. If hell has a weed, it's creeping buttercup. A week later it was baaaaaack.

I'll have to admit, I had a distinct feeling of power and satisfaction while setting the weeds on fire. "Take that you #%!&#! weeds!"

By the way, the torch also works well starting charcoal to barbeque. A few seconds of blasting flame and the charcoal is lit.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stubby the Squirrel Gets In On the Act

Corn feeding apparatus.
It's that time of year when the first harvest is just starting to come in and planting for a fall crop is in place. In trying to keep some semblance of control with the whole thing, I've found that there's been an interloper getting in on the act.

We've been putting out dried ears of corn on the squirrel bungee cord hanging on the front porch for our resident squirrel, Stubby (click here for the scoop on that story). We were wondering how one squirrel can go through so much corn. She's the only squirrel we've seen on the cob, and it gets replaced every couple of days with a fresh ear. Well, this spring came the answer, when corn plants started growing all over the planting beds, especially in the parking strip.We also have pumpkins growing everywhere and they look like sugar pumpkins which is fine with me. 

The three sisters, courtesy of Stubby.
The fact that the squash and pumpkin were planted among some peas I have growing wasn't lost on me. Stubby inadvertently completed the three sisters, a traditional way of crop planting by Southeast Native-Americans, although the legumes used were beans, not peas. The corn loves the nitrogen fixed by the peas and the squash shade the roots and keep the peas cool and the moisture in. The corn stalks closest to the peas are the tallest. The peas can grow up the corn. This fall it'll be succotash time. And pumpkin pie time too. Hopefully the corn is a kind that is edible by humans and hopefully the coons won't discover it first. Corn is coon candy. Of course Stubby gets a share. After all, it was her handy work.

I have to keep on top of the squirrel planted pumpkins in the blueberry beds. The leaves of the squash are prickly, difficult to work around and shade out the ripening blueberries. They also shade out the cranberry bushes as well, so I've had to make sure that any errant leaves get pruned off.

New corn coming up in the Camelia sink!
I'm surprised the corn even germinated after being dried and bagged for squirrel use. I wonder how many neighbors are growing (or not growing) corn as well.

This morning we just discovered a new batch of corn sprouting in the Camellia sink!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Using Russian Comfrey for Compost Tea

Purple/blue flowers places Comfrey in the Borage family.
Out of all of my gardening resources, I've found more useful info from Prince Charle's book, Organic Gardening. One of the topics that I found most intriguing was his use of Russian Comfrey Bocking 14 hybrid (Symphytum x uplandicum) as a composting tea. His gardeners at Highgrove not only use it in the ornamental beds and kitchen garden, but also on house plants. So, of course I had to get some.

As it turns out, Bocking 14 Comfrey is a superior variety for composting tea. It is fast growing, very high in nutrients and does not set seed nor does it have a creeping root system that will take over your garden. Once established, its leaves can be cut three to four times a year, with the final harvest in the fall. I have it planted next to my cold frames.

Liquid Comfrey tea is made by steeping the cut, bruised leaves (whack ‘em on a tarp with a hoe or crush the leaves by hand if used in smaller quantities) in a container of water. As the leaves rot down, add more leaves with more water. The result is an extremely stinky, putrid brew (hold your nose, folks) rich in nitrogen and phosphorus and particularly high in potash. The leaves are also full of silica, calcium, iron, magnesium and other essential nutrients to help your fruiting plants thrive. If you want to go and get all detailie about it, here's an article about the many uses and plant nutrients in Comfrey. There are several videos on the subject on YouTube.

Usually ready within 2 weeks after the first cut, apply as a 10% solution, or roughly 1-2 cups per gallon of water. I have it fermenting in a 5 gallon bucket. If you have a lot of it, use a rain barrel with some chicken wire on the bottom to access the liquid without clogging the spigot with slime. Keeping the lid loose, lets air in to help with the process. Some folk may even advocate a small fish tank pump to oxygenate the solution, as research has shown that compost tea is more effective when air is circulated through, although most recipes do not call for aeration. Perhaps that would tamp down the odor some. Other than that, one simply adds more water when adding more Comfrey, which also adds more oxygen anyway.

Another method is to simply place cut up leaves in a bucket with a weight on them. The leaves decompose into a black goo that is diluted 15:1, water to goo. This reminds me of making sauerkraut but instead you could call it comfreykraut, I guess.

Bocking 14 fermenting away in a bucket.
I have to say that it does smell like something died. After applying it, the garden stank for awhile. And the liquid formed a white film on top: perhaps a yeast of some sort? It also attracts flies, so keep away from doors and windows. I also use the leaves as a mulch for my beds. I just harvested my fava beans, so after whacking in their roots to take advantage of the nitrogen, I put a layer of Comfrey leaves on the beds with some compost over that. Let the leaves wilt a little first so they don't per chance, sprout. The leaves will compost in, replenishing the beds with nutrients. I've applied the tea to my tomatoes, annual flower containers and broccoli. This is best as a fertilizer for flowers, fruiting vegetables, berries and fruit trees. Root crops may seed too fast and lettuce may bolt. So far, the annuals have really popped alive.

Just 3 starts has given me enough Comfrey to keep my garden going well. Being a tuberous perennial herb, these plants should last for many years. I found Bocking 14 Comfrey mail order at Horizon Herbs out of Oregon.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Our Little Green Roof Shows Amazing Potential

Finished green roof. Mason bee boxes nest in the gable.
Of course, now that the green roof is finished there hasn't been much of any rain in the forecast. Only the night after it was planted, a gully washer tested its merits. It passed muster with flying colors. Water was pouring off of the other, more conventional roofs here, but scarcely a drop came off the green roof. After all was said and done, only a few drips emerged out of the drain pipe. That means it was doing its job; that is, mitigating storm water run-off. I'm looking forward to seeing how well it does in a prolonged period of rain.

Although installed more and more in commercial developments, green roofs are underutilized on residential structures. The benefits of a green roof are many and include: mitigating and cleaning storm water run-off; reducing the urban heat island effect; providing summer cooling and winter insulation, thus lowering energy costs; providing habitat for beneficial insects and providing noise insulation, just to name a few. Green roofs have been used by different cultures for hundreds of years, but we are just starting to understand how well they function as a viable roofing system. Being that we live in the Norwegian ghetto, having a green roof keeps up with Scandanavian tradition as these roof systems planted with turf on birch bark water-proofing were quite common in that part of the world, once upon a time.

The perception of green roofs being expensive and high maintenance is unfortunate. In reality, most green roofs require little to no maintenance. Just the occasional pulling of unwanted seedlings or top dressing every few years with compost is all that’s usually required. Like any type of garden, it’s about the soil. A low-nutrient, free-draining soil will cause much less of a weed problem than a soil rich in organic matter and nutrient levels. Dead heading is not necessary, and the use of drought tolerant plants such as succulents, eliminates the need for constant irrigation.

This roof is called an ‘extensive’ roof system, meaning that the substrate is less than 6 inches thick. ‘Intensive’ roof systems have much deeper substrates, allowing for larger shrubs, grasses and even trees. Extensive systems are lighter weight (around the weight of a tile roof) and the plant materials used most often consist of succulents which can grow well in a shallow, rocky soil. Last fall, I picked up 9 sedum tile flats for half price at a big box store.

This roof system caused Roland to exacerbate an eye-rolling habit he usually expresses around me. It started with my initial proposal of installing a green roof the minute he announced that he was going to build a garden shed, followed with, "How do I do that?"

Installing the front drainage gravel.
So, after showing him many pictures from my green roof books, the first thing he did was build a bowl on top of the structure. I liked the rafter tail details on the green roof pavilion at the Arboretum, so I had him replicate that. Of course, it couldn't be a simple shed roof; he had to put a dormer on it to make it more appealing. That only complicated the water proofing part. Tar paper went on and sat there for two years whilst he figured out in the back of his mind what to use. Pond liner would have been an inexpensive solution for a straight up small shed roof, but having that gable complicated things a bit. The liner needed to be weldable and regular roofing materials often used in large commercial installations is very expensive, even though we needed so little of it. However, while at the big box, he came across the solution - PVC shower pan liner. It's a heavy gauge, weldable and only somewhat expensive instead of extremely expensive ($85 vs. $400 for the roofing stuff - eye roll). So, he picked up some scraps at a discount and then stashed them until he could get enough of the stuff to do the job. A year went by and still no green roof. Sedums over wintered in their trays. There the roof sat until the Edible Garden Tour. Now I had leverage. Deadlines make the world go around. 

Installing the liner.
Roland came home with the rest of the liner and we proceeded. He laid down new tar paper, then the liner which he glued together with PVC cement. We had an argument about laying down some landscape fabric over the liner. I felt it would help keep the fines from flowing down and protect the liner. Roland saw it as unnecessary and slippery to walk on (more eye rolling between whining). I do know that if you use a separate drainage layer, having a geo-textile is extremely important to keep the fines from clogging it up, but I'll admit, it may have been unnecessary here. I like to fault on the side of caution. Roland built a wooden grid system out of pine to help keep the substrate from shifting down to the bottom. It is designed to last long enough for the plant roots to get established. A metal screen set back 6" from the bottom end of the roof held back the substrate and allowed for a row of pea gravel to go into that area for added drainage. He installed conventional flashing for the edges.

The substrate mix.
Next, came the substrate, or growing medium. On this roof, the drainage material consisting of lava rock, was mixed in with compost and a small amount of perlite. I needed 12 cubic feet of material, so the ratio was 7 cubic feet of lava rock, 4 cubic feet of compost and a cubic foot of perlite. I mixed it all together on a tarp and schlepped it up to Roland in 5 gallon buckets. He now complained about the treacherousness of the round lava rock - like walking on ball bearings - while he walked around the roof distributing the materials (more eye rolling ensued). 

The plant material - sedums with Hens and Chicks.
The next day Roland took it upon himself to pull out the largest chunks of lava rock claiming that he was going to break his neck and couldn't get the sedums into the medium (more eye rolling). He divided the succulents and planted the whole roof while I was at work. I came home to a lovely roof all planted up and a crate full of large lava rock chunks. He had added a bit more compost too. A drain hole leads down a chain to a rain barrel to capture what storm water runs off there is, being slowly released off the roof thanks to the mitigating properties of the roof materials. I'll periodically water it during our dry season while the plants get themselves established.

A lot of folk who came through the tour commented on the green roof. They thought it was a great idea and looked really nice.

I proclaimed to Roland, "I think you should convert the roof on the front porch of the house into a green roof when you re-build the front porch deck."

His response? More eye rolling.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Successful Garden Tour - Wish We Could Have Been There

After a week of busting our humps getting the place ready for the garden tour, the place has never looked better. Nothing like a deadline to get things done! Thanks to my lovely daughter, Shawn and her wonderful husband, Rick for being the tour guides by-proxy while we were gallivanting about in Boise.

It never fails that weekend activities always come in conflicting clumps. Between winning tickets to the Antiques Road Show for Boise (Nooooo, couldn't get 'em for Seattle), Sustainable Ballard's Edible Garden Tour and a big sale going on at work, last weekend proved to be an exercise in juggling, compromising and making difficult choices.

Winning tickets to the Antiques Road Show is a crap shoot, so we decided to take advantage of the opportunity and make an extended weekend out of it. Unfortunately, the ol' job situation turned it into a whirlwind trip of three days instead five. I was lucky to get any days off thanks to a big sale scheduled for that weekend, but my boss came through for me so "I wouldn't be miserable." He probably didn't want a grump at work.

We had a good time in Boise despite the hot weather. The thermometer hit 103 in the afternoon and dropped to a balmy 91 by 10:00 PM. Thank God for air conditioning....and copious amounts of hefeweizen with lemon, of course.

The entry point where you also check in your firearms.
The Road Show part lasted a whopping two hours. Talk about efficiency in line management. We had our assigned entry time of 8:00 AM and could line up at 7:30. So, after getting up at the butt crack of dawn (and losing an hour to mountain time PLUS a 10 hour drive with the dog making monkey noises in the back seat), we grabbed breakfast at the hotel and drove on up the the Boise Expo Center about 10 minutes away. Parking was easy. We went through the first check point then on to another building where the main line up to get into the production area was located. That snaked around like the TSA lines a the airport, only friendlier. Then the first table where you were assigned tickets for the items you brought. Folks were schlepping all sorts of stuff on all varieties of carts, wagons and bags. Our items were small, so we had two bags which contained some of my grandmother's costume jewelry, two of a series of contemporary NW Native prints, an old sapphire ring, and a set of Stickley Brothers book ends.

The main line to the item tickets table, TSA style.
After we got our item tickets we proceeded into the production area to stand in the individual lines behind a circle of curtains used as the backdrop for the production. No cameras allowed at this point. Cell phones off. The appraisers were lined up on the other side of the curtains and the filming was done in the center. You couldn't hear a darn thing of what was being said out there, but there were several stations being filmed at once. We went to the jewelry appraiser, a gal from Rago Auction house. To our surprise she said the sapphire is a synthetic! She said it is a mid-century Continental birthstone ring set in 18 karat gold (we knew that much) and worth $150. Good grief! Why would anyone stick a synthetic stone in a 18 karat gold setting! One could speculate that the stone was swapped out at some point. I've also heard that real stones were hard to get back in the 1930's so synthetics were often used instead.

Where you get your items assessed and get your tickets.
We also learned that the bookends were from around 1914 and worth $50-75, in our opinion way undervalued, although the guy ended up taking them to another table to get info on them. He told us that we could probably find a book with the stamp number in it to find out the pattern. Thanks. The prints had the poster guy stumped (the poster fella you always see on TV), and again weren't valued except as decorative items and my grandmother's jewelry were worth as much as the ring.

It was fascinating to see how the production was done. After we went through our lines we headed to the next room where you could go into the feedback booth (which we didn't) and then on to the sponsor's displays. We stopped at the Subaru booth and entered a drawing for a Tiffany lamp and then out the door at 10:15 AM. It was still cool enough out that we weren't entering a heat blast. We went back to the car with a feeling of "what just happened?" The appraisals were fast; not surprising since they herd through 6,000 people in a day.

Our hotel, The Riverside, was located next to the Boise river (duh), so we grabbed the dog and walked along the lovely river walk to downtown Boise to see the Farmer's Market. It's a large set up in the middle of downtown Boise (about a mile and a half from the hotel) where several main streets are closed off. I was delighted to see a number of organic farmers and ranchers there. I purchased some coffee, bread and hand-made peanut butter. The crafts people were the typical ones you see - pottery, jewelry, etc.. Boise is a conservative city, so I imagine that the few progressive, crunchy granola's are represented here. Sitting next to the Boise river. I talked to Shawn on the cell for a while. She had plenty of questions about what the different crops were, our techniques, etc. She and Rick were enjoying being the docents.

We walked back to the hotel, stopping at the outdoor cafe/bar for a beer and a bite. They allowed dogs, so Snorky sat on a chair with a bowl of ice water at hand. The rest of the day involved sitting in air conditioning, and finding the only large antique mall in town which contained the usual garage sale worthy items you usually see anymore. We were going to check out the botanical gardens outside of town, but it was just too hot. We ate dinner at the Crab Shack, duly dissing the quality of the crab (we're naturally crab snobs) and then got ready to leave town the next morning.

The Geiser Grand Hotel, Baker City, Oregon
The way home felt faster, even when we spent two hours in Baker City, Oregon to stretch our legs and gawk at a part of the Oregon Trail. Baker City has a grand old hotel called the Geiser Grand Hotel (I'm sure it's pronounced gizer, but I kept calling it geezer). Very Victorian with the elaborate scroll work inside and out and the obligatory corner turret, beckoning to the days when area gold mines supported a robust economy. Now the town's main street supports consignment shops, antique stores and several other marginal small businesses. Being a Sunday, not much was open. It's main economy now seems to be tourism, with a museum about the Oregon Trail and recreational activities including connecting itself to the highway that goes up to Hell's Canyon.

The Oregon Trail came before the town, bi-passing it around 5 miles to the north. An interpretive center afforded a possible afternoon of pioneer education, but we opted out instead taking a short but hot hike on part of the rutted out area that was also adapted as a road to several mines. It was very hot and open. When we got back to the car, Snorky made a B-line to under the car as the only shade until we shoved him in the car and blasted the A-C. After that intermission, it was onward toward home. When we got to I-90 we hit the wall of stop and go traffic near the pass. A wreck and road construction created a 10-15 mile back-up that took 1-1/2 hours to navigate through.

Visitors during the tour.
Shawn reported that at least 100 people came through our place during the tour. It would have been fun to talk to folk and answer questions about our food production and what we've done to the place. I guess our place was all the buzz on the tour. Although we had a fun time on our road trip, we found the Road Show a bit disappointing and feel that the appraisers are glorified pickers for the production and we were volunteers coming to them for that end purpose. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. If you didn't have anything instantly recognizable that wowed them, they quickly blew you off. Sorry to say that my cynicism gene got a recharge.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Sustainable Ballard's Edible Garden Tour

The Sustainable Ballard folk invited us to participate in this year's Edible Garden Tour to be held June 29th. It's a walking tour of various edible gardens within the parameters of a certain area of town. The rotation hit our neighborhood this year.

There's nothing like a deadline to get things done. Roland's been diligently finishing up the garden shed's green roof structure (upon penalty of death) while I've mixed the substrate and acquired more succulents. I've been weeding, pruning, organizing and planting. I've also made signs and blurbs for various plants and processes so folk can learn about certain whats, whys and hows of the place.

My daughter Shawn and her husband, Rick will be the docents as we will be gone that day, but I have every bit of confidence that they will do an excellent job representing our vision. And they have cell phone access to us too.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Mason Bees Are Placed Out....Finally!

What to do with that gable end on the garden shed. That's been our quandary for the last year or so. Finally, the answer came to us in the form of mason bees. One of the few perks of working at a garden center is the occasional free stuff. The supplier of mason bees brought in a bunch of boxes of the bees in for the employees. Never one to pass up the free box, I brought around a dozen or so home. I figured there wouldn't be a whole lot of takers, given that mason bees require special accommodations.

Mason bee houses installed into the garden shed gable. Note the boxes of bees sitting on top. They go out to pollinate and then come back to lay their eggs in the tunnels, sealing off the openings when filled.
So, Roland came up with the idea of incorporating mason bee houses into the gable ends of the shed. There are several good web sites that give information on how to build mason bee housing and about mason bees in general (PDF Here). The key is to get the tunnels right. Roland used a router bit and carved out half circles in a bunch of boards. When two halves are put together, they form a tunnel. Of course, you can purchase pre-made houses of various sorts, but if you have a wood worker in the household....

Mason bees are like flying salmon. You simply place the boxes of eggs next to the houses of tunnels and once they hatch, they fly out, do their thing then come back to the same place to lay the next generation. Each box of bees contained the eggs of 8 females and 4 males. Since we were late getting the boxes out, it didn't take long for them to bust out. It's a temperature thing. Hopefully, the holes will fill. The females control the sex of their prodigy. As in much of the animal world, the males are expendable, so their eggs get laid in the front part of the tunnel, lest they get devoured by another critter that finds them tasty. In the fall, we'll break apart the houses and store the eggs in the refrigerator for the next season. If you don't harvest the eggs, they can get attacked by mites. In early spring, the eggs go back out next to the cleaned (and sanitized!) houses for the next go around. Since the bees are the first pollinators, it's important to get them out when the fruit trees are blooming. They can handle colder weather than other bees, so are out before the other bees appear.

Mason bees aren't aggressive, so are easy to work with. In fact, it's just a matter of letting them do their thing. With the proper habitat and happy bees, it's possible to get enough bees over time to share with others. With colony collapse disorder destroying bee populations, mason bee populations need to be encouraged.

Now to finish that green roof!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Reviewing the Seasonality of Vegetables: Consider Lifestyle

Now that I've been cultivating veg going into the 4th year, I've been determined to better fine tune when I plant certain crops. Not that couldn't plant these crops at other times, but I've decided that there are certain times that suite my life better. As much that seasonality is about crop cycles, it's also about lifestyle. And if the plant has a flexibility, it's good to grow it to best suite how you use it. Given the limited space here at Mog Cottage, in some instances I would rather use the space for more seasonally sensitive crops. Seasonality is also about when pests peak too.

Those telltale holes mean cabbage moths have been at it.
Take kale. Every year I plant kale in the spring only to fight with those pesky cabbage moths ((Mamestra brassicae)) putting up an elaborate hoop house with Reemay to hermetically seal off the kale from the world. All this to keep a leaf eating larvae off my kale leaves. This year may be particularly bad given the warm winter we had. I was given 3 broccoli starts this spring. Since I'm not eating the leaves, I just covered them long enough to produce enough leaves where moth damage won't be so disconcerting.

Last year, I didn't get kale planted until August. Actually, I have been known to let kale go to seed and it comes up on its own quite well, even in late fall! At this point, the moths were pretty much gone while the kale started to grow (draping a bit of Reemay over the bed long enough to establish the plants). Kale over-winters nicely here and I like to use kale mainly in the fall and winter months in soups and stews. It also takes up a lot of space. So, the kale can grow and hog the beds when other crops won't grow because it's too cold. It slows down when the weather gets frosty, but perks right back up when the temperature returns to the mid 40's. In mid-spring, it goes to seed, so it gets yanked. I have enough kale seed to last longer than the seed will be viable.

With that, my winter beds consist mainly of garlic, onions, fava beans and kale. Occasionally, I'll plant other cabbage crops such as Filderkraut and, yes, purple sprouting broccoli is on the list. I recently purchased a new packet of the Ed Hume PSB seeds that famously exploded and lasted three years until an infestation of aphids took it out.

So, for summer, I'm planting a great substitute for kale: Swiss chard. It's a great leafy green from the beet family and can be used in most any recipe as a substitute for kale. It takes up less space, leaving room for summer crops. In fact, Swiss chard has a higher nutrient density than kale containing copious amounts of Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Copper, Beta carotene, Isoleucine and Phenylalanie. Swiss chard is a biennial that pretty much over-winters too, but tends to look rather ragged with time, so I pull it out when it's time to plant the kale.

Although chard supposedly attracts moths too, I've experienced only one issue with Swiss Chard: mollusks. I end up mulching with Slug-go and spent coffee grounds as no amount of Reemay keeps those buggers out. Here, in the great Pacific North-wet, slugs and snail season is 12 months. In the gardening world, it's always something.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Growing Potatoes in a Can

I love getting tips from other gardeners, especially when they work brilliantly. Last year, I received a tip about the best way to grow potatoes. Tired of skewering and slicing my potatoes while digging them out, this year I've planted them in a can: a garbage can that is.

I ventured forth to the big box store and purchased a galvanized garbage can with lid. I had Roland punch 5 drainage holes in the bottom. The bottom happens to be recessed up into the can (like the round ice cream containers) which makes drainage work well. I put about 12 inches of potting soil with some bone meal in the bottom. I then placed my seed potatoes down on top of the soil, distributing them around 4 inches apart. Since the bottom of the can is narrower, you can't place too many at first. I then covered the seed potatoes with more potting soil, around 4 inches deep. I then waited for the first signs of growth.

Now, several weeks later, the potato foliage emerged but it wasn't quite deep enough to add more soil, so I waited and then forgot about them. Several weeks later, KABOOM! With a spell of warm weather, I had potato foliage to the top of the can. I imagine if I had paid attention, I could have witnessed the stuff grow before my very eyes.

So, off I went to the big box store and picked up some more potting soil. 2-1/2 cubic feet later, I had gingerly added more soil to the top leaves of the potato plants. I'll add some more soil when the top grows more, but I can't anticipate them getting much bigger. Deeper soil layers helps keep the potatoes from becoming green, which you want to avoid since that's a sign that the tuber could be producing the nasty, toxic alkaline solanine, as potatoes are in the nightshade family. All parts of a potato plant are toxic except for the tuber.

Potatoes are light feeders, but bone meal helps increase yields. Potato tubers are actually underground stems that store food for the plant. Roots don't have nodes which are called 'eyes' on potatoes. Potato eyes are actually stem nodes. The stems grow out and produce more tubers for more food storage for the plant. Actual roots also come out of the tuber as does the plant the grows towards the sun. The potato plant actually produces seed off its flower, but it takes longer to get it to produce potatoes, thus the preference for 'seed potatoes' which is a form of vegetative reproduction. Growing potatoes vegetatively helps ensure a consistent, true to type crop.

The potato geek taxonomists have divided potato growth into five stages. Stage one involves sprouting and root growth. During stage two, the potato starts forming leaves and branches for photosynthesis. In the third stage, stolons develop out of leaf axils (nodes) on the stems and grow downwards for new tuber development as swellings on the stolon. If the weather gets much hotter than 81 degrees F., tuber formation often halts. The tuber formation bulks up during stage four, when the plant invests a lot of its resources into this process. At this stage it's critical to keep optimal soil temperature, nutrient availability and balance and pests control a top priority. The last stage is maturation where the plant canopy dies back and the skins on the tubers harden. This is when sugars convert to starches.

To harvest, I'll wait until after bloom and when the foliage starts to die back. All I'll have to do is dump the can onto a tarp and pick out the potatoes. I'll put the soil back in the can and put the lid on to store over winter. Next year, I'm getting several more cans so I can produce more varieties. I'll try stretching the soil with compost. Upon harvesting, potatoes need a curing time, but I'll write about that at that time.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Marcel in Recovery Mode

Marcel assumes his usual position.
Marcel had a followup visit at the vet yesterday. He's doing well and his stitches should come out next week. In the mean time, he taken to being a house cat quite well, although he may be a bit bored.

For Marcel's entertainment, Roland came home with a cat toy the other night. After a healthy competition to play with it, Snorky promptly confiscated the thing and buried it in the sofa cushions (where all his bones reside).

People in the neighborhood who know Marcel belongs to us have asked about him, since he hasn't made his usual schmoozing rounds lately. We haven't seen any missing cat signs go up though.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Marcel, Our $600 Free Cat

Marcel with stitches and a drain tube in his chin.
Our latest mog, Marcel is becoming another Floyd. Since I brought him home last summer, Marcel has become the neighborhood cat, visiting everyone in a daily routine, even venturing through neighboring cat doors and open windows while working the neighborhood kids for cat treats. He's fearless. Everyone within a 2 block radius knows Marcel. People have offered a trade in exchange for their cat. He just turned 1 year last April. Marcel has been all about adventure from an early age. He's the neighborhood snoop and project supervisor.

When he was 6 months old, the week he was due to go into the vet for shots and to get neutered he went missing. After several days, I put an ad on Craig's List and Roland checked the missing cat list at the local shelter. Low and behold someone 6 blocks away had taken him in to see if he was chipped (not yet) and left their name and number on the register. They also took Marcel back to their home. Apparently, he had wandered off (probably followed someone) and landed in this woman's kitchen with their other tuxedo cat. The day I called, the women had taken him into the vet to get fixed, chipped and shots. She obviously was ready to keep him. Marcel has a way of endearing himself to anyone.

"Oh, well we were going to have that done," I declared merely, just happy to have him found. "So I'd be happy to reimburse you for it. What's the total going to be?" (Thinking around $200)

"$394," she replied.

Swallow. Hard. "Oh, I see."

"We took him to a vet who's the mother of my daughter's best friend," She continued. "I hope you don't mind."

I called Cat's Expensive and paid the bill. I suppose my choices were to pitch a fit and not reimburse her, probably having to give up the cat or collect him with bad energy about the whole thing, or offer half declaring that she jumped the gun and that my vet would have only charged that much, but I decided to just pay it and move on. The woman is keeping our phone number just in case. Several weeks later, I took Marcel to the same vet for a follow up visit for booster shots and another $40 bucks, just to keep the chashectomy services consistent.

He developed a habit of sleeping on top of cars. Fast forward, several evenings ago, Roland got into his van to run to the store. He didn't see Marcel on the roof among all the lumber stacked up. So, off they go up the street with a neighbor running behind trying to flag Roland down to no avail. Roland didn't find out about it until he got back. At some point, Marcel must have jumped because he came running back and hid in his favorite bushes. A neighbor girl saw him and told me that he had a bloody chin. The neighbor across the street also helped look for him and Roland was able to finally coax him out of some shrubberies. Indeed, he had a lovely cut in his chin. The interior of his mouth had some blood in it too. No broken teeth though. He must have taken a leap when the van was in motion and the momentum cause a face plant.

So, the next morning off he goes to our vet, Dr. Zile at Greenwood Animal Hospital. An overnight stay, x-rays and 5 stitches later, he's now a house cat for the time being. He lays around on his back and takes his medicine well. No broken bones. Plus, this episode only costs us around $200 dollars with deferred payment. Dr. Zile knows that we're good customers.

"Just pay us when you get paid," exclaimed Dr. Zile. "I know you always pay us."

I love that vet!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Lasagna Mulching the 'Lawn'

An old tax assessor's image of Mog Cottage. 
I've never understood the obsession with the perfect lawn. I hate lawn. Yes, it has its places as landscape wall-to-wall carpet (in parks) or area rugs between ornamental borders, but I personally don't care for it on a number of levels. First, lawn is high maintenance. You have to mow and edge and feed the stuff copious amounts of fertilizer and water if you want it to look like anything year 'round. This fact brings up my second complaint: copious amounts of fertilizer and water required for it to look like anything adds to run-off that pollutes streams and ultimately, major water ways like Puget Sound. Ever look at ponds around a golf coarse? On hot summer days they become bubbling caldrons of excess fertilizer that promotes algae blooms.Yuck.

My third complaint is that most folk don't realize that lawn is comprised of plants. In our region, usually fescues and oat grasses. Yes, the grass you mow down to within inches of its life is comprised of a complex plant root system that prefers specific conditions like full sun. Even the so called shade tolerant grasses. Most lawns are forced to thrive on 4 inches of builder's top soil (brought in after they've scraped off all the native top soil to sell off) when the grass would prefer at least a foot of organically rich soil. So most lawns in developments look like crap without the constant chemical applications and huge amounts of water that run off into our waterways. What's worse, in this PNW climate of conifers and glacial till, the soil is full of clay, very acidic and lawns are often forced to grow in shade. This misallocation of grass seed is a grand recipe for moss that thrives on moist, shady acidic conditions. Grass prefers sweeter soil. So what do homeowners do? They resort to copious amounts of lime and Moss-out. Ultimately, a losing proposition except for the chemical companies that make billions on the whole scheme.

Talk about the poster child for male insecurities. I can't think of another marketing scheme that feeds on male insecurity (other than the physical stuff, but that's not for this blog) as much as promoting the perfect grass. It's a direct hit on male burb status. For the most part, it seems like a male obsession. Perhaps it's the women who send them out to conquer the grass in order to get them outside and out of their way on the weekends. I had an uncle who told me that mowing the grass was the only exercise he got. Sadly, he passed away at age 58 (or was it 59).

There's a cat in there somewhere.
And grass can look like hell, if left unkempt. Being a nonconformist entity, Roland is one of the few men I know who doesn't care if the grass grows tall and seeds everywhere. He considers it a cover crop - to cover the cats.

I say, take the stupid lawn out! We don't live in manor houses in England (where this whole thing started eons ago) and the stuff's a pain in the patootie. There are far better uses for that spot of ground, like growing food. If you want a green patch, there are a number of ground-covers that look lovely as replacements and add interesting texture. You can put a stone or gravel path where you need to tromp around.

An organic way to remove lawn is to layer cardboard or copious amounts of newspaper and woody mulch. Commonly referred to as sheet mulching, I prefer the term lasagna mulching since my yard is primarily planted with edibles. First, cut the grass as short as possible. Apply several layers of cardboard down (you can get refrigerator crates from appliance stores) and then at least 3-4 inches of woody mulch. I use arborist chips. Wet down or do it when it is going to rain. And don't pick a windy day. Now this process takes some time - around a six months to a year to thoroughly settle in. I finally finished the front area and will not be planting or doing anything except maintaining the escapee's around the edges (but that didn't stop me from buying plants, of course). I'll probably apply salt or vinegar to problem areas. The cardboard and chips will compost in, attract worms and feed the soil. The decomposing grass goes along for the ride.

Epimedium 'Fire Dragon'
I purchased a gallon container of the ground cover Epimedium 'Fire Dragon' for under the Camellia. It takes dry shade, will colonize the area and blooms lovely little bell-shaped yellow and pink flowers. I'll just have to keep it alive until it can be planted. I didn't do a good job taking care that the grass stay shorn last year, so now I have to contend with digging out what seeded into the planting beds (and containers. Argh!). It will be an on-going chore as grass has a habit of coming back if all of the roots aren't completely removed.

Grass is taking over the beds!
Grass belongs in, well, grasslands.