Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Privacy and Politics

There's been a lot of buzz about the organic garden that the Obamas are growing at the White House. Good for them. I'm supportive, but not quite as gleeful as I expected, and I think it comes down to this:

To me, gardening is an intensely private activity. While I might talk about it, or write about it, actual gardening is like meditation - or maybe it *is* meditation. The physical realities of weeding and sowing and cursing and watering are supplemental to an entire mental reality, the emotional and intellectual world of my garden that I don't discuss much.

On occasion, I joke about having a farmboy come and weed for me, or build me a trellis, but something deep within me rebels at the idea. I want my garden to be mine alone, where only I know what the sprout is likely to be, and where only I get to decide whether a plant stays or goes. The idea of having my garden in the most public residence in the land, aided by a group of children, planned by someone else (even if it's a really great chef) makes me cringe. It's hard for me to get excited on a personal level, even though I like the idea.

I think that's why I'm deeply horrified when cities intrude on the privacy of the garden, declaring wildflowers to be overgrown weeds or lawns too brown to bear. Blanket prohibitions stir the libertarian in me - if someone wants to grow a yard of dandelions, who am I to protest? (I will make exceptions for things that are a clear public hazard - no mercury in the water supply.)

This doesn't stop me from judging other people's gardens, of course - where would we be without the great Puritan pastime of passing judgment on one's neighbors and feeling superior? But that judgment shouldn't extend any farther than that, unless we can argue a serious public health or ecological disaster in the making.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Spring Restraint

There's an additional burden to reading blogs when you're trying to save the soil in the north - everyone's posting photos are all their stuff. Gardeners in DC have sprouted favas. Gardeners in the south have planted tomatoes. Meanwhile, there's still no fruit blossoms here (soon, soon), and the ground has that dangerous, boggy look to it - a couple clear days don't counter last week's rain and snow.
The favas might be fine, but I'm going to give the garden time to dry out a bit more. This will mean more weeding, and less prettiness, but I really think it is the right thing to do - for the soil, if not for my spring pea crop.
Still, it makes me jealous, seeing those favas pop up. I want *my* favas to be popping up. I am glad there's a spring here, and it's not time to plant tomatoes yet. As much as I love the tomatoes, I'd like to honor the spring crops, too.
So what I've been doing it plotting my beds with semi-obsession, until I think I've got it just right - not too many overlapping crops from last year, enough pole beans, space for herbs and flowers. Not enough cover crops, but there's plenty of beans from nitrogen. I'll continue encouraging the clover in the paths, and sow plenty of rye in the fall before it gets too cold. (I say that now with confidence -we'll see how things go.)

My beds are laid out not quite correctly - they're slightly strange sizes, depending on how easy it is to get to them. This is my general layout.
The external path is required by the garden rules, and cheerfully ignored by pretty much every gardener. Half the trouble is that things *grow*. The rest of it, of course, is our desire to grub every spare inch of space.
I'm good about keeping the path at the bottom of the garden; to the west, I tend to create a sort of barrier of old vines and sticks - compostable stuff that will take a while to break down. This is part habitat for predators, and part laziness. There's a hill next to the plot, and I can't really see anyone voluntarily walking along that side, but them's the rules.
The internal garden path - the main one - is just wide enough to maneuver a garden cart down, to dump leaves or manure. When harvesting, I'll usually pile things on my jacket or into a bag if I'm prepared for harvest that day, and carry it out to the main paths. As I said, I try to encourage the clover. I like clover; it fixes nitrogen, it's pretty, and pollinators like it. Plus, it should help reduce erosion somewhat.
Last year, Bed 1 was favas, fennel, herbs, turnips, and onions, Bed 2 had beans and my sad corn and pea attempts, Bed 3 had tomatoes, peppers, a tomatillo, and a basil, and Bed 4 had some more tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, dead squash, dead melons, and radishes. I'm doing a partial rotation, which unfortunately leaves many of the same families proximate, but that's what happens when approximately half the garden is in the bean family and approximately half is in the tomato family. Here's the highly theoretical current layout. All the brown-red dots are poles for beans. The onions are perennial bunching onions, grown for the greens rather than the root. (The lower right corner says onions - that's a lie. That's actually basils. Have I mentioned that I'm growing lemon, cinnamon, anise, and sweet basil this year?Future thoughts: I'd like to have a bird-bath and seat-like thing (rock? chair? log?) in there at some point.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Worm Bin

I've been contemplating how to compost my food scraps for awhile. This is partly because compost is awesome for plants, smells good, and makes me feel like I'm got an army of microbes at my command. Mostly, though, it's because I feel intensely guilty tossing food into the landfill. My city, like most US cities, doesn't separate and compost food scraps. For homeowners, the choices are pretty broad - you can have a compost heap, a compost bin, a turner, worms, windrows, bury your stuff in the ground, chickens, pigs, a goat, etc.

Unfortunately, budget and apartment dwelling limit things considerably. For example, I'm pretty sure the electric lines run straight through the narrow grass alleyway that is all the great outdoors I can lay claim to. Also, the ground would require a pick-axe to cleave it. So burying is out. So is heaping, as the landlords dutifully sweep through every few weeks to mow and remove extraneous crap.

Worms are the logical choice, of course. E. foetida, red wrigglers (or wigglers), are commonly used to compost food scraps. I've been wary, because I'm not usually very good with maintenance activities, and if the worms aren't happy, they can run. This sounds terrifying, as if 1,000 worms might take up arms and march through my apartment. I'm not creeped out by crawlies, but 1,000 worms trying to get out, chased by my cats, might try my patience. Also, worms are pricey - at ~$35/lb., they're not quite a bit more expensive than heaping stuff together and letting the microbes do all the work. And the warnings about keeping the right moisture levels and acidity make me nervous, because I have no idea what 60% moisture feels like. (Do you?) So like all things new, it's intimidating.

But I have a cunning plan. I rescued an old plastic organization system from the street last year. You know the type - it usually goes in your garage, and has a few shallow drawers, and a couple deep ones. It's probably 4 feet tall. My plan is to turn this into my worm tower over the summer, and if I love it, move it inside over the winter. I'm not sure how this will work out - the sides of the bins are clear, for one thing, and the shelves aren't tight together, so getting the worms to move between levels might be a challenge. But it's worth a try, especially since I have a load of cardboard boxes that are no longer good for holding things together. Those will serve well as bedding. And thanks to Geico and the local cable company, I have colorless computer paper. And thanks to my worthless union, I have newsprint! So having all that, how could I not order some worms, cross my fingers, and give it a go?

Of course, I have fantasies about using the worm castings to feed my seedlings, which will grow big and strong and feed me and the worms all over again. But even if I never use the castings, I'll feel much better having recycled some of my waste close to home.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Haha, not dead

So, not dead. I suck at regular posting, apparently. I've completed my seed orders, and as usual, my promises to focus on one thing have gradually fallen away. I was going to make this a soil building year, but then there's awesome new varieties to try, and herbs to grow, and co-planting to experiment with.
Here's my seed purchase list for this year. It *looks* shorter than last years list, but only because I didn't get free seeds this year. (It's okay, Seed Savers. I still love you.)

-Masai Bush Haricots Verts
-Kentucky Wonder Pole Bean
-Multicolored Pole Bean Mix
-Windsor Fava Bean
-Taylor Dwarf Horticultural Shell Bean
-Black Coco Bean
-King of the Early Bean
-Blizzard Snow Pea OG
-Easter Egg Radish
-Shinden Risoh Daikon Radish
-White Egg Turnip
-Prisma Shallots
-Mustard Mix
-Fish Hot Pepper
-Some Like it Hot Pepper Mix
-Verde Puebla Tomatillo OG
-Green Zebra Tomato
-Cherokee Purple Tomato
-Sun Gold Cherry Tomato
-Sweet Basil
-Anise Basil
-Wild Bergamot OG
-Zefa Fino Fennel
-Broadleaf Sage
-Danish Flag Poppy
-Akanata Mame - Sword Bean
-Kyoto Kujo Negi- Bunching Onion
-Ginkaku Korean Melon
-Tae Baek - Korean Radish
-Kurogoma -Black Sesame

The plot's legume heavy this year. I also requested a couple trial varieties, but I'm not sure if they'll pull through or not. I'm also holding out hope for purple tomatillos and Purple Russian tomatoes. I haven't sorted through my seed box to see if any are left from last year. If not, I may have to do an emergency purchase. And I'm going to do some cover cropping - rye and vetch, and buckwheat.

I'm really excited about the bergamot (bee balm), which is supposed to grow cooperatively with tomatoes, and attract insects that eat or parasitize nasties AND attract pollinators. Oh, and it's supposed to make a mean tea.

I'm planning a veritable fence row of pole beans, because it's fun having something so clearly enthusiastic in the garden. Squash and melons are out, except for my own last attempt at growing melons. (I love them, and cannot come to terms with the total non-response of all things squash and melon last year.) These are small and fast, and Korea has a short growing season. I'm also planning on buying row covers for them. If it doesn't work this year, I'll add melons to my black list.

Things on my blacklist from last year:
Corn - because it attracted umpteen thousand beetles and didn't pollinate, leaving me one mockery of a kernel of corn amongst all the ears, and because it sucks nutrients and has a long season. Seriously, this is not a small-plot friendly crop.
Cucumbers - two cucumbers are not an adequate return from three plants. And one was bitter.
Eggplant - I don't have anythign against eggplant, but it wasn't prolific enough for it's deliciousness. If I only sort-of like a plant, it has to have a redeeming factor, like being fun to grow, or super attractive, or something. Mine weren't, so they're off the plot until I gain a passion for them or read a *really* tempting description.
Lovage - because it is disgusting. Seriously, seriously disgusting. People eat this? Voluntarily?
Marjoram - just not enthusiastic enough to warrant a place in the herb patch. I got three sprigs.
Squash - I think I need to baby my plants more, or maybe I just am doing it wrong, or maybe my garden hates squash. Either way, all the plants died horrible, horrible deaths.

Some of this looks like fertility issues - pollination and/or soil. Hopefully the soil will improve with time and cover crops (and every other type of organic matter I can lay my hands on). Maybe I'll try marjoram again when I've upped the soil quality. I love winter squash, so I can't imagine I won't attempt it again. But sticking with the tried and true - tomatoes, beans, more beans, radishes, turnips, tomatillos - and the only the deeply loved finicky ones - peas, shallots - and the experimental - sage, sesame - until I get the right mix is the way to go. Maybe eventually I'll have spare space again to trial big plants on, but a hill of squash will fit a load of other plants. Diversity is definitely my preference, especially when production is questionable.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Big Chill

There's not much garden stuff happening now. I'm impressed by all the blogs that show people digging out leeks and waving frozen bunches of turnips in the air. Some of my turnips never got pulled up, but they're going to be there in the spring. So there.

I keep meaning to go out to the garden and see what everything looks like under the snow, because I think it would be pretty, what with all the structures and everything. A few things prevent me from doing so:
1) I should find my camera first, replace the batteries, test it, find the computer cable, and replace the computer cable because I remember it not working.
2) There's a very real possibility I'd break my ankle trodging through the garden.
3) It's really, really cold.

We've got some sort of arctic thing moving through, which wouldn't be so bad except for the wind, which manages to wick the temperature all the way down to -30. Fahrenheit.

Mom wants to what I wear to stay warm, and the answer is: a building. With the heat on. (Har, har.)
When I have to leave (to, say, go to work), I am wearing:
Hiking boots - the rubber toes helps keep my socks dry.
Socks, pants, shirt - all normal weight and quality. I should dig out my long johns, but haven't.
A sweater
1-2 scarves
A pair of alpaca-blend mittens and a matching alpaca-blend hat
Occasionally, a pair of black knit gloves that had their fingertips accidentally removed. (It involved a bucket of water and a frozen pole.)
A Lands' End Serious Weather Coat, with Serious Lining, hood up.

The key bit is the Serious Weather Coat (not it's real name.) But the other key bit is to get inside as fast as possible. This means no long leisurely strolls through the countryside. I know there are people that do that, just as there are people that run on the icy sidewalks, but I like to feel all my limbs all the time.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Fall of Hope

So the blog experiment didn't go so well this summer. I seem to have lost a few entries somewhere, but more than that, I found it difficult to keep up - and the farther behind I got, the worse it became. But with the change in seasons, in presidents, and in gardening activities, hopefully I can reestablish a pattern.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rooftop Gardening

Go read cityfarmer.org's recent tour of Rocket Restaurant's rooftop garden.

Cool, cool stuff. I would feel nervous about the weight, although he talks about using light, fluffy soil. I just have visions of buckling and crashing through the roof. I don't like heights, and I don't want any extra stressors while I've up there, like wondering whether the landlord is going to discover the roof beginning to cave in. However, I think this would be a really interesting opportunity, especially if you have a water spigot up there. (Hauling water is bad enough with a wheelbarrow and/or bucket, and yes, I've done both; up flights of stairs would be unbearable, especially during Pdx's dry summers when pretty much all water would need to come from the gardener.) I wonder how much more it would cost to build buildings with stronger roofs with spigots?

What I love most is that this is a business. I bet it is cheaper (or a close call) to grow salad greens yourself if you're a restaurant, given the steep cost of greens and assuming that they're sourcing local and organic/eco-friendly. (We can get a bag of spinach for $2-3 here in season, but Portland's market is usually more expensive. And how many bags would a restaurant go through? Even with a discount, I bet it's a pretty high amount.) It's nice when restaurants have a garden attached, but it says something really great about Rocket that they're willing to go an extra step when the space isn't easily available. I envy their year-round climate, though - even mache would be better than nothing. Also, having grown the crop, they're sort of obligated to use it, which makes seasonal eating that much easier.

I still think gardening in the earth, on the ground, is most inviting - container and balcony and roof gardening doesn't appeal much to me, partly because I haven't ever had a sunny exposure and/or accessible flat roof in my apartment, and if you're going to travel to garden, you might as well try to get into community garden. And it shares a problem with the community garden in that you have to go there. Ideally, at least by our current standards, you don't have to travel to your garden because you live there, or you're there naturally, all the time. Under normal circumstances, I do think this is ideal, and it certainly makes it easier to do a little weeding or a little enjoying of your space without making it an event. I don't know many people who hang out on the roof enough so that gardening wouldn't be a separate activity. Of course that's not possible everywhere, and of course it's good to have plants in many places (as long as they're "good" plants - seeding your roof with kudzu would not be good. Although think about how horror-movie cool it would be to watch the building being consumed.)

It would be interesting to consider the environmental impact of something like this garden vs. growing under grow lights inside, especially with crops that can be raised under energy-friend fluorescents, like lettuce. There's probably no right answer - how to you calculate the pump power needed to get water up to the roof vs. the power to do fluorescent lights, or compare the tiny amount of mercury in a fluorescent to the additional steel beams needed to make a stronger roof? I imagine plastic breaks down faster outside, and more water is used. The soil probably contains more elements that need to be shipped (i.e. perlite). Still, it feels better outdoors, and no doubt the conditions - if you're growing the right crops - are much healthier. I think something like this garden in Chicago (above) might be even better - the roof is lower, reducing wind - I bet those extra stories make a big difference. Or maybe I just like sunflowers. Hmm.

But looking at these pictures, I get a strange sensation . . . and further google imaging proves it. The uniform for men doing rooftop gardening is khaki shorts and a white T-shirt. (Picture yoinked, then lost the url, but it's from a Canadian rooftop garden news article. I'm extrapolating that the gardener is not the guy in the tie.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


The clouds are moving out, the barometer is changing, and like magic, I can feel a migraine tightening around my head. No aura this time, just blam, migraine, complete with nausea and lights dancing around the edges of my peripheral vision.
Damn, damn, damn.
Hopefully something magic will happen and I'll be better enough to go sweat in the sun for awhile.

Planting Out

Today I carried my first pots to work, with the intentions of planting them out in the garden later today. I put my peat pots in little Gladware containers, and carry them on the bus like that. For the bigger tomatoes, I think I'll need to carry them in a 5-gallon bucket, since they're both large and top heavy. I'm setting out one tomato in honor of the traditional "you can plant tomatoes on Memorial Day in Madison" folklore. The weather is wavering between hot, thunderstormy, and cool - 44 this morning. By far, I'm not the first person to put out tomatoes - there were some in the garden at least two weeks ago, but they appear not to have grown much. Some people even have peppers out. So my goal is to carry a few to work and then to the garden each day until the only thing beneath my grow lights is my indoor sprout/salad mix collection, and an indoor tea garden. The lemon balm is finally shaping up nicely under the lights; I think with a little outdoor time, it will be perfectly happy.
The Amish Paste I'm setting out today is among the least happy. Thin, leggy, and small. I'm hoping that it will either thrive or die quickly so I don't have to kill it myself. I'm also setting out a lemon balm, a lovage, and what I suspect is a sweet marjoram. Cooking delinquent that I am, I'm not really sure what to do with sweet marjoram, but fragrant plants are always welcome. (Unless you're mint.) Or comfrey, which is actually an issue around the edges of my plot.
Anyway, these plants give me an opportunity to see good green in the plot, and to experiment with my hole-digging technique. The tiller has stood me up for the third time, so I think I'm just going to start working the soil the old-fashioned way- lots of sweating, blisters, and water gulped from the hose. (Beer is a luxury reserved for people who live in houses and don't have to haul the bottles up a hill and find a way to keep them cool.) I've got 1-3 inches of leaves over the whole plot, which makes it look nice and really does cut down on weeds. Not as much as I'd hope, but some.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Remembering the Fallen

Yesterday, I made a last-ditch attempt to rescue some of my seedlings. It's at least another week before I put out the first of the hardiest of the summer seedlings (tomatoes) and probably two or three before I think about eggplant, peppers, or cucumbers. So a little tidying up was in order.
Two 4' shelves seems like a lot of space when you begin planting things, but as the plants expand, the space quickly becomes tighter and tighter. Sacrifices must be made. Up-potting must be done (again). And as in eany good expansion effort, some must give their lives to the cause.
There's the eggplant that the cat ate the first leaves right off of. The Sandia pepper I accidentally brushed with the force of falling water. The tomato I crushed with my elbow. The tomato I forgot that was sandwiched behind the bigger, meaner tomatoes (I'll get to them in a moment) and so, cut off from water and light, shrank to nothing. The cucumber that got caught in a draft on a cold spring night, and remained sullen for weeks - it was just recovering when I ripped it out so I could rescue a pepper from the clutches of the giant tomato plants. An eight-pack of onions, and another of nasturtiums, given for the same cause.
A mass dispersal was necessary because some of my tomatoes have grown large and mean under their pampered conditions. Without the aid of fertilizer, they grew stews thicker than pencils, branches that extended across the lights, and tendrils that shaded out shorter, less aggressive plants - mostly eggplant and pepper, but even some of the smaller tomatoes. These bullies are almost exclusively Fedco heirlooms tomatoes. I don't know if it's the freshness of the seed (most of the other seed was packed for 2006 or 2007), or the variety (Big Mean Bully will be the name of my first created cultivar), or what - I treated these tomatoes exactly the same as the others. To be fair, one of my yellow tomatoes (Giant Yellow Gourmet Stuffer, I think) is also large, but less invasive. My tomatillos are very happy, too, but my peppers and eggplant remain healthy but not enormous. So the shorter plants got moved into space vacated by less important plants. It gave me a chance to eat a large portion of plants - onions, nasturtiums, cucumber roots, a basil, a thyme, a lemon balm. Sort of a weird impromptu salad. It was fun.
Pepper update: I have *one* Sandia pepper sprout, among 12 seeds planted. I'm praying it survives. I have two Thai hots, two Georgia Flames, and a couple others, but peppers are definitely not the winning species at Chez Chick. I overplanted on the seed, with good results for everything else, but not so much with the peppers. I know the germination is supposed to be erratic, but still.
So: several small tomatoes I hope will thrive eventually, plus 4-7 big tomatoes I have high hopes for, plus a few "rescues" that replanted themselves and thus have been allowed to live for awhile. 2 enthusiastic tomatillos. 5-6 eggplants that seem very happy, plus one or two that don't. 6ish peppers, plus rescues. Sage, thyme, lovage, 10ish happy basil plants, 2 sullen holy basils. All in all, not a bad haul. If even 25% of these make out, I should have home-grown tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and herbs. If they all do, I will have to start sneaking around the farmer's market, dropping eggplants and tomatoes into baby carriages and unattended bags. Next year, I want to start peppers earlier, and tomatoes later. The eggplants have worked out fine.
Interesting note: Cucumber roots have an aftertaste *just like* cucumber. Who knew?

Organic matter should be easier than this

Plot is still not tilled; the worker missed my appointment. I have half the plot covered with leaves; today I'm hoping to finish the job. I have 9 big cart-loads on the plot, which doesn't sound (or look) like much, but by the time I get down the hill, to the mulch pile, load the leaves, and get back up the hill, it's pretty tough. Sometimes the leaves are wet, and that really adds weight.
The plot catty-corner to mine is full of raspberries. And when I say full, I mean full. No-way-in, gouge-out-your-eye full. I met the gardener who gets to deal with that, and she left not ten minutes later, after being poked in the eye and gouged deeply down her arm. I have to admit, I felt a little smug as I bent back down to wrangle the spiny joys of a thistle. (Bull thistle? Canadian thistle? Who knows. Let's just say that I have removed this particular plant three times, and each time is appears, completely whole and hale and bursting with enthusiasm, and bigger than before. The taproot I dug up was a foot long, as big around as my wrist at the top, and still an inch round where it broke off.)
So the plan is to cover the rest of the plot in leaves, and then, if I can stand it, add more. I'm convinced only organic matter can turn my soil into anything worth planting over.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Rain . . .

Thunderstorms and rain off and on kept me out of the garden this weekend, and it's happening again today. Grrr. And the changes in barometric pressure have triggered a migraine that has me seriously contemplating this "Egyptian papyrus which describes therapy of migraine by bandaging a clay crocodile with herbs stuffed into its mouth to the head of the patient." Hey, whatever works, right?

And I just looked out the window and it's SNOWING. This means:
1) Ha, ha, woman I saw put tomato plants outside in Wisconsin in April - they are now dead
2) I was right when I said it would snow again before spring was up, and other people (including Wisconsinites who should know better) are wrong.

Ah, that's like a like analgesic right there!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

So a gardener walks into a plot . . .

Monday I found my plot. For one thing, it's quite a bit smaller than I expected; 14x23', roughly. (Yes, I took my tape measure.) That's about half the size I'd been planning on, so that throws things off. Most of that area I had planned to put in beans and squash, so I have to decide what I'm going to do without. Potatoes, probably, for starters, and much fewer/no carrots and parsnips and other veggies that require loose soil.

My plot's pretty new; it was only cultivated for the first time last year, by people who my neighbor described as "planting a whole bunch of stuff and vanishing." It shows; the remaining stalks showed that something grew last year. I found plastic tags indicating tomatoes and peppers (the boring kind you get from the greenhouse). And there are two onions that somehow survived the winter without protection of any kind. I hate to take them out, but they're in the middle of my planned beds, and I need to dig in stuff around them.

There's a fair amount of junk I need to haul away; bottles, broken plant containers, and random trash. I scratched my arm pretty badly pulling up one of those hideous short green mesh fences with SHARP WIRE EDGES. Thank goodness I remember my last tetanus shot (May 2005) - sometimes travel has peripheral advantages. I took out the worst of the weeds, piled up most of the organic matter from weeds and dead tomatoes on one end of the plot (to be hauled/composted), and dug up a bed approximately 14x2.5'. One wheelbarrow provided ~1 inch of organic matter, and a healthy quantity of worms. I put in a few onions, a sprinkle of forget-me-nots, and a few salad greens.

I'm seriously considering tilling - just once. There can't be that much microlife in the soil now; I found an entirety of one worm in the clay I disturbed. Not a good ratio at all. I've been reading a lot about not tilling, to avoid disturbing the fungi hyphae, which create a giant web throughout the undisturbed soil, doing all sorts of good things for plants and bacteria, but physically loosening and mixing in compost is incredibly difficult work, and I'm not convinced that the bed I "prepared" is properly prepped at all. It should have been better mixed and loosened deeper.

Something bit me, and my arm is now covered in lovely strawberry-pink dots. (I was examining this in class while my prof was lecturing on the dangers of Scarlet Fever, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and other Really Scary Diseases. Allergies pale in comparison to those scary things, but I did spend an unhappy few hours last night wondering why I had neglected to stock my medicine cabinet with hydrocortisone cream. Fun fact: vodka, applied topically, actually helps with the itching. Another fun fact: Just because you enjoy putting your hands in mulch, dirt, and weeds doesn't necessarily mean that's the best idea you ever had.

Also, one Red Ruffled Eggplant is up (barely, as of this morning). This is a Hmong variety, which is appropriate considering the large Hmong population in the area. I really want my Purple Laos to sprout; I haven't given up hope, although I'm beginning to wonder about some of the tomatoes I planted two-three weeks ago. The radish seeds I planted Sunday were up last night; I knew they were fast-sprouting, but that's *awesome*. They're very cute. (And doomed; they're part of my indoor green collection, which is destined to be added to the rice cooker as an American version of Seven-Herb Rice Porridge, a traditional Japanese food for the 7th of January. It's not the 7th of January, of course, but then it's not going to have seven herbs, either.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


I didn't spend as much money as I expected today, but it wasn't for lack of trying. The weather was gorgeous today, and there were lots of people with the same idea. (Trying to spend money, that is.)
The bamboo canes I bought weren't what I had in mind; they're pretty thin, so I'll see how much bracing is necessary. But I found a very reasonably priced light, so I have space to start a few more seedlings; I'm not sure, but I think it will be a few more peppers, a few more tomatoes, and flowers. Oh, half a flat is now devoted to my apartment nibbling garden; herbs and lettuce for consumption on the premises. We'll see how that goes.
I also thinned most of the plants that double-sprouted; it's disheartening, but I'll be sorry if I don't. Hopefully, I'll have a few more seedlings over the next few days; tomorrow I go to the garden to start laying things out.

Seedlings up!

The first seedlings are up - not from the seeds I planted first, under my desk light, but the others - which means that in slightly less than a week, the following have germinated:
-All my sweet basil
- The Turkish Orange Eggplant
- Representatives from each pot of heirloom mix tomatoes
- Probably a piece of Amish Paste (I didn't want to poke it - it's pretty freshly emerged)
- Giant Syrian
- Excellent sprouting of marjoram and thyme (which look more or less identical - it's a good thing I remembered to write everything down.
- One tomatillo
- Both lemon balms
Not a bad showing at all. I'm going to the nursery tomorrow, and plan to pick up "real" seedling trays and fertilizer (among other things), so I'll probably do a little more sowing tomorrow night. Does this mean I should give up on my lamp plants? Probably so; the quality of light under the compact fluorescent may not be good, and I only put one seed per pot, which was a mistake. And there's some pretty happy green algae growth there. It may be time to admit defeat and scrap them. We'll see - I may wait another couple days. I know there will be a point where I feel vindictive enough to dig out the soil and look for sprouting. I just have to wait for it.
Next quandry: pre-sprout anything else? I have quite a few summer flowers, but I could always use more herbs and hot-weather vegetables. I'd like to set up a permanent apartment herb-and-baby-green tray. Hmm. Something to chew over.
Until then, I better go to bed. Tomorrow morning, maybe more things will have sprouted!

Update: One of the desk tomatos heard my threat, and has emerged. Maybe it will survive. Another tomatillo shoot is up - no peppers as of yet. It's really cool how fast the seedlings can emerge; from a little spindly thread of stem to distinct leaves to some of my heirloom mix, which are a good 1.5-2" tall.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Taste of Home

From the wonderful, not-updated-enough blog of outsidethebox.com

I wrote briefly about my love of peppers and Big Jim chile in particular last week. This week, I happened across a pack of New Mexican chile pepper seeds - not Big Jims, but Sandias. The Sandia Mountains were an integral part of my life until I left New Mexico - I lived in them, oriented by them, saw them everyday . . .

So it's fitting that Sandia would be the cultivar I found. We'll see how it does up north; New Mexico State warns direly that green chile grown outside Hatch (and presumably Las Cruces) is not as good, just as some grape vines are particularly well suited for Italy or California.

It will be hard to do a taste comparison, since I'm unlikely to find anyone with a large propane-fueled chile roaster who will put my freshly roasted chiles in a large garbage sack to haul home. (You non-New Mexicans may think I'm kidding. I'm not.)

In other news, none of my seeds have sprouted. Yes, I know it's only been 8 or 4 days, but I want to see sprouting!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I seem to be growing a lot of two kinds of plants – those that are mostly root vegetables, and those that are vines. Part of this is the joy of heirloom gardening; almost all old-school tomatoes are indeterminate (i.e. vining); so are many beans, although there’s a few older bush varieties. Most heirloom peas are tall. Most squash are not bushy.

So lots of my plants go up. I’m a big fan of vines, especially ones you don’t have to tie to things (yes, tomatoes, I’m looking at you). On the other hand, I’m a big fan of less labor, and however you cut it, trellises are labor. Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is how to make all that trellising as low labor as possible.

Since I’m not in my own space, I need to use something that can come down at the end of the season (or after I leave/move spaces). Bamboo, according to sources in the know, is relatively cheap. It’s also renewable, light, and comes in long sections. There’s also varieties that grow around here; I doubt that’s the variety in the gardening center/hardware store, but the potential is good. So I’m trying to come up with a way to plant/configure these poles that is aesthetically pleasing, but relatively easy and (most importantly), stable.

The teepee is traditional – three or four poles tied together at the top for climbing beans or squash. I don’t like that the poles will be closest to the paths, while the fruit will be farthest into the row; stretching into masses of scratchy squash leaves for every harvest seems a little more like pain than I like.

Since so many things are going up this year (and hopefully next), I’m considering something more along the lines of this:

which is beautiful and simple. I may try strings on the vertical, especially for the lighter crops. If I’m feeling very ambitious, two of those frames linked together (at the top and/or bottom) would be more stable.

If I’m feeling ambitious at some point, I love the clean look of these designs: http://www.tucsongardener.com/Year02/Spring2002/trellis.htm.

I don’t really want extra tool (drill) but I do like the idea of bolts and wingnuts. It won’t happen this spring, but maybe after my bamboo trellis goes the way of the compost heap.

Also, this is totally the sort of thing I’d pay a handy-person a little extra to put together . . . if there are any starving artists handy with a truck for delivery and a drill, they could make something. (But generally the prices charged are completely out of hand. I don’t need my trellis buffed, polished, painted bright green, or inlaid with butterflies. I just need it upright for a season.)

Monday, April 14, 2008

It's like Magic!

There's a feeling you get after days of looking for the first seed sprouts, and finding only dirt, and then you see a little flash of green - like magic. And then there's the feeling that comes when you realize that it's only green discoloration on your perlite. *sniff* Is it mold? Or fungus? A sign I'm overwatering? But if I don't water, the seeds will dry out.
No seeds up yet. I think the soil isn't quite warm enough; what does the ambient temp need to be to raise soil temp to 70F?
I did swing by the gardens today; it's really too wet to be out there, but there were people working the soil anyway. I hope that works out for them. I'm going to wait another week or so, and hope it dries out some. In the meantime, the gardens are just off the lake, in a really beautiful part of the city. All the ice is off the lake (even up to last week, we had dangerous blue ice - you wouldn't want to be anywhere on it, but the lake was technically iced over).
I scored a few packets of seeds from the boxes (literally) donated by various companies. I love you, various companies! Especially those of you (Heirloom Seeds!) that donated this year's seeds and not just old ones.
It's interesting to see what's there. Of course, I don't know what people donated, but what remains now is:
-No peas to speak of. Either they weren't donated, or they were snapped up. (Ha, ha - get it? Snap peas? Snapped up?)
- Approximately 1 giant box of summer squash seeds, almost all one variety.
- A few beans, mostly yellow wax. (Nothing like equating a bean with ear wax to make me want to plant it.)
- Even less corn, but interesting varieties, including an heirloom blue sweet corn.
- A huge box of flower seeds, mostly marigold, funny sunflowers (ie dwarf or fuzzy or deformed in some way)
- Lots of heirloom tomatos
- Some root crops, including a 5 pound bag of beet seed. I would expect beet seeds to look like turnip seeds, because in my mind they're almost the same crop, but they look really different. Or else the package was mislabeled.
- Plenty of lettuce and endive seeds. No spinach. Maybe 2 arugula. No mustard. Very strange.
I was very restrained - I got a few packs of flowers, and a pack of beans because I loved the packaging. OK, OK, I might have also got some salsify. And sage. And rutabaga. And, all right, I may have a slight issue with the overstocking of seeds, but I can't help it. It could be worse - do you have any idea how expensive art supplies are these days? I am sharing seeds with a co-worker and my neighbor, so it's not completely out of hand. And I gave some pea seeds to someone who was very distraught there weren't any left.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Indoor Planting, Part Deux - The Reckoning

It is still wet, so all gardening is happening indoors.

Today, I finally got my shop lights set up. One sort of exploded and tripped the circuit breaker. Good thing I didn't wait until night to try this project out. So I now have one four-foot long light, which hums reassuringly when it's on. My cat enjoys lying on the shelf above it and purring with it, which is very cute.

For all of you without easy access to a car, extra cash, or a greenhouse, allow me to introduce you to the wonder that is Gladware. Pop your mini-peat pots in there, water, and you have a very portable, bus-friendly, water-proof, clear (so you can see the water levels), markable (for those seed names), and easily obtainable (people throw them out/leave them behind all the time) container. Using various plastic containers, I can fit 35 pots under my one light, which I think is quite adequate for now. In fact, it works out just about right.

Some of my seeds have gone walking, including my much-anticipated Georgia Flame pepper seeds and my fractal broccoli. I have no idea where they could be, but I hope they show up soon. I'm saving a couple pots for my Georgia Flames. (Come back!)

Also, Fedco sent me a pack of mixed heirloom tomato seeds. I love a good mystery, and so it's hard not to plant them. There are no clues as to what's in the mix - the website says "You’d love to be adventurous and try them all but you haven’t space for that many tomato plants? Or can’t make up your mind which ones to select? Here’s the solution: Skip the fuss and leave the choosing to us! We’ll mix together a bunch of varieties (all organically grown seed) in one packet. You’ll get different colors, sizes, shapes and flavors. All you’ll need is an open mind, a good sense of observation, unjaded taste buds and acute deductive faculties. Then you can figure out which ones you like and order them by name next year." I know this would drive some people nuts, but I love it, and appreciate the thought (what, not everyone wants to buy individual packs of every variety?). There are 31 varieties of heirloom tomatoes on their website, though, so you have to be a *really* good investigator. Or lucky.

Anyway, 35 pots is enough for: 1 eggplant of each variety, 2 Thai peppers, 1 each of other varieties, 2 tomatillos, 9 tomatos (I know, I know, but did you read the paragraph about mystery seeds?), a thyme, a rosemary, a lavender, a marjoram, 2 lemon balm (1 for the garden, 1 for the patio/indoors), 3 sweet basil, 2 thai basil, a mint (for the patio), and a couple empty pots for replants/rediscovered seeds. Not, as one garden book suggests, lettuce. (Hint: any plant you can consume in less than 3 weeks from planting goes outdoors.) Nor, I'm afraid, cabbage or broccoli. They'll just have to tough it out with the other plants.

Monday, April 7, 2008

"Capsicum." It rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? Not like "Solanaceae," which is simultaneously hard to pronounce and sounds like a variety of cancer. Capsicum is upbeat, punchy, pithy. And we could all use a bit more pithiness in our lives.
Capsicum includes both hot and sweet peppers, and as far as genus rivalries go, vies with allium (onion, garlic, shallots) for best flavoring group ever. I don't care much about sweet peppers, but hot peppers are essential.
Wisconsin is a land of plenty in many ways. We have master cheesemakers. We have beautiful herds of cows. We have corn and soy, and brats. (Not to mention beer, oh best beloved.) However, spice is not something that is common. In restaurants, I ask for 5-star hotness, and assure the waitresses that, really, I want it hot. If I'm lucky, what arrives produces a moderate tingle. Even in Thai restaurants, one of the places I've generally assumed to be free of mid-Western understandings of heat, where spicy = Tobasco.
What's even more amazing is that we have immigrants; Madison, at least, has Korean, Thai, Hmong, and other heat-loving palates.
So what's in the garden and market becomes even more valuable as the source of vital heat.
The farmer's market, of course, has peppers. There is, in fact, a pepper stall. (My favorite bit is that the mild and sweet chocolate peppers sit next to the habaƱeros of fire without any sort of distinction, as though inviting innocent Wisconsin market goers to choose. It's like the lady and the tiger, but botanical.) And the little finger-long Thai peppers are ubiquitous, and can be brilliantly hot, like biting into lightbulb.
So why worry? In Wisconsin's short season, wouldn't it be better to grow things you can't get in the market?
Peppers taste different, for one thing. Try replacing New Mexican green chile with a Thai version of similar heat, and the taste just isn't the same. I think this is one of the things that marks fake Mexican food so distinctly - making the jalapeƱo the sole source of heat, instead of one of a constellation of flavors. And there are subtleties in flavor, too. Big Jim is my favorite New Mexican pepper, good enough that I can forgive it for being the biggest type of New Mexican chile (biggest usually is not a bonus in my book), for being a latecomer (1975!) and for the horrifying appelation "NuMex Big Jim." (It's the Nu that is really irritating.) I almost placed a separate order for it this year; common sense won out, but next year, it's going in. Also: Dear market gardeners of Wisconsin, please grow and roast New Mexican chile for me, because I am tired of going through airport security with frozen bags of chile and cold packs. Thank you.
This year I have six options for peppers.

Balloon Pepper - little funky-shaped peppers that look a bit like off-color habaneros to me
Candlelight Pepper - the narrow, finger-length peppers so common in the market - gorgeous.
Georgia Flame Pepper - not from the south but from Georgia-near-Russia. Supposedly hot and good for salsa. Hopefully also good for drying and adding to things.
Thai Hot Pepper - another small peppered plant, hot and gorgeous. I may have this confused with candlelight peppers - the pictures are pretty similar.
Tobago Seasoning Pepper - supposedly "mild", whatever that means, although Seed Savers also thinks it's "variable." (Yay!)
Wenk's Yellow Hots - how could I not, after this line? Seed Savers: "Grown by the late Erris Wenk, one of the last large local truck farmers in Albuquerque's South Valley." Hey, I've been there! How could I not plant these? RIP, Erris. Marked as both medium hot and hot. Supposedly good from canning and pickling, neither of which I've done before.
So, knowing that I have options, I really only need a plant for trial of Balloon, Candlelight, and Thai Hot. (That means I'll plant 2-3, because I'm perverse like that. Also, things die.) Georgia Flame is the one I want lots of - the peppers look very ristra-y, which means they may dry well. Or not.
Either way, I'll have options for my endorphin high, which is excellent, because cayenne is getting really boring.

First tomatos

I gave into temptation today, in celebration of the opening of the community garden and the first weekend with beautiful weather. I planted four tomato seeds, stuck them under my desk lamp, which now has an eco-friendly-ish fluorescent light bulb, and looked closely for signs of growth.
I planted one Amish Paste, one Syrian Giant (I keep thinking of the Princess Bride's Fezzik), one Purple Russian, and one Roman Candle. It's like the tomato version of "It's a Small World After All."
The seeds look different than I expected - desiccated. You know how you get two types of lemon seeds - the full round, slick kind and the flat, shriveled kind that always end up in your lemonade because you don't own/can't be bothered with a strainer? The tomato seeds look like the latter.
Photo from http://www.appalachianseeds.com because I still can't find my camera-computer hook-up.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Seeds in the Office

My apartment is dark. Not quite "I live in a basement" but definitely no sunny windowsills to be found. My glass looks east across a brief grassy stretch (I'm being generous here) onto a brick wall and into my neighbor's dining room. (Interesting stuff, other people's eating habits.) There's also a tree nearby. As a result, the "put seeds in a sunny spot" doesn't work for me, despite the assumption of every gardening book I've read that everyone has several wide, clutter-free, sunny windowsills ripe for quickening.
However, my office does, in fact, have exactly such a spot. It's southern facing. It gets loads of sun, filtered only by blinds which could easily be pulled up. There's also 9-10 hours of fluorescent lights. The ledge is a good 4-5" wide, and of course there's a corner of my desk as well. I don't think bringing in flats of seedlings would be wise, but what would be wrong with a few appropriately spaced pepper and tomato seedlings? And some basil. And maybe a rosemary. And, of course, the ubiquitous spider plant. And marjoram is supposed to keep away unwanted visitors - could it be this easy to keep out wandering students and staff?
People have done more with less, that's for sure.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Breathe deep

I caught my first whiff of soil on my way home last night. There's been enough snow meltage so that the ground has been visible for a couple weeks, but last night was the first time this year I've smelled earth - that marvelous, rich, intoxicating smell that's as alluring as chocolate.

And then today there was two inches of snow. More to come next week.

But community garden assignments are announced late next week. Knowing where I'll be will be awesome. I'm hoping for a corner of the fence, the better to create privacy and insta-trellises. I'm so not looking forward to the construction phase of trellising, especially since I want to create them strong enough to trellis my tomatoes and cucumbers and (maybe) winter squash. I haven't quite figured out how that will work, but apparently leaving indeterminate tomatoes on the ground (even clean straw) is Not Okay. I'm inclined to go with conventional wisdom on this one.

Of course the trellis I really want is expensive, difficult to haul, and impossible to store - my back-up plan is giant bamboo canes. Environmentally sustainable (and how) and sturdy, and even potentially pretty. Binding them together is an issue - I don't really believe that twine is going to cut it as a support. Zip ties? Wire? Nails? I think it would probably be best to avoid things I could get embedded in my flesh - I'm already accident-prone.

Until then, I will dream - and keeping smelling the dirt every now and then.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


I've never liked poinsettia. Not ever. But while I can summon some appreciation for the normal colored varieties, these are wrong on some fundamental level. (Sorry, but it is.) Most wrong? The pale blue.
I'm not a big fan of weird concoctions in general, but these look especially freakish. Yes, Wisconsin can be boring in the winter. But that's no excuse for the cotton-candy leaf colors. Ewwww.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Counting Down

Gardeners in warmer climes are already planting, but we're in that frustrating cusp where spring is coming (really), but you know there's going to be a little more weather. To be precise, five more inches of winter arrived this weekend, covering the skeletons of icicles fallen off the roof. It looks all clean and pristine again. There is some leaves and mud visible, but not as much as I hoped. Then again, the icebergs punctuating the city where the plows dumped the majority of the snow have been briefly covered. (They're hideous, since they're layered with road filth and the markings of various dogs throughout the winter. Think of them as a grosser form of tree trunk - you can tell the history of the ice flow throughout the winter if you cut straight through it, with varying rings of filth and ice.)
Community gardens will release plot names April 5th. I'm assured everyone who applied to my garden got a piece, so I'm busy dreaming. I'm not sure about planting right now anyway, considering that the land is probably relatively clayey, and working clayey soil before it's ready is a bad idea. Also, it may be traditional to plant potatoes around St. Patrick's Day, but it's hard to envision them doing anything other than rotting right now. A slow, cold rot at that. Still, there's rows to mark, rototilling to feel angsty about, and what's going to go wrong if I plant a few rows of turnips and lettuce and they don't come up? It's not like I don't have thousands more seeds to plant later if they don't.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


This year, my emphasis is definitely on edibles. I realized last year that I had no idea what many of the plants I ate looked like. Tomatos and squash, yes. But recognizing turnip sprouts was an impossibility. And I'm pretty sure that I ate a few weeds while nibbling on my intentionally planted greens and pea shoots. (Note: Grazing is not a recommended practice unless you're gardening in organic and pesticide free spot.)

So the goal this year is to figure out what things look like. A secondary goal is to grow some things simply because they're pretty. And this guy here would be my official mascot. (Thanks, bugguide.net!) He is the caterpillar version of a black swallowtailed butterfly. The caterpillars eat fennel and wild carrots. The sites don't say anything about parsnips, which is too bad, because I'm planting many more parsnips than fennel.

So a few extra fennel plants are going in, just in case we do get some butterflies. Ironically, the black swallowtail is much more common in Arizona and New Mexico. I've never seen wild carrots or fennel in New Mexico, so I can't figure that one out, but maybe I was in the wrong backyard. Still, perhaps a few stragglers will make their way to Wisconsin.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How do you store your seeds?

How you save your seeds is supposed to be tremendously important - temperature, humidity, and light all affect whether seeds sprout, die, or stay safely dormant. People have schemes of varying elaborateness to store their seeds - from envelopes in the closet to carefully mixed silicon crystals, sealed jars, and temperature controlled fridges.
Today, Norway opened the ultimate seed bank near the north pole. If your seed vault doesn't look like this, you're doing it wrong:As soon as I heard about this, I immediately envisioned my dream job: alone, in the Arctic, with high speed internet and the responsibility to thaw out and replant seeds as they became at risk of going dormant. I mean, how fun would that be? (There would need to be free coffee. But it's Norway - isn't that one of those worker's rights things those Scandinavian countries spring for, along with 36-hour work weeks and months of maternity leave?) Unfortunately, there will be no staff on-site, so my dreams of being the next Gregor Mendel - Mr. Freeze hybrid will have to wait.
The seed bank isn't open to the public; it's intended to be a last resort in case plague or fire or floods threaten our food sources. I think the logistics of this scenario need work, since there cannot possibly be enough of every kind of seed to renew world resources. But I'm sure they have a really good plan - after all, these are scientists we're talking about, right?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Down the Garden Path

I sat down with Coleman's book last night. It's about market gardening, but at some point, the difference between "ordinary" vegetable gardening and organic, sustainable market vegetable gardening is pretty subtle. He offers suggestions for the size of rows: 42" or 60" of vegetables. I went for 42" - although that garden soil looks fluffy and comfortable, I have no desire to have to lean on it to reach the middle of the plot. (There lurk nettles and goatheads and stickers, not to mention the cutest little milipedes known to man.) Unfortunately, he recommends paths designed for your walking tractor (preferably Italian, and blue). Nothing for the person who doesn't have a walking tractor. Bizarrely, this seems to be a topic neglected by those other OCD gardeners out there. 12"? 18"? 24"? How to combine the most comfortable space with as much growing ground as possible?
The math works out nicely in a 25'x25' plot with 42" rows and 18" paths, so I guess I'll plan for that for now.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Pesky Pests

With all the bad press about Japanese beetles, it's often easy to assume that we're in an all-new pest high. New varieties, growing numbers - Orem, Utah spraying the entire community (!) with pesticides that will prevent gardeners "from harvesting vegetables or fruit from their gardens for the next three years." (!!!) (http://ag.utah.gov/plantind/JB-MayorLetter.pdf)
According to the mayor, this is necessary so that the beetles do not destroy agriculture in the state of Utah. He also implies that this, along with the heavy spraying, will eradicate the Japanese beetle.
So it's in this context that I'm reading Jeffrey Lockwood's book, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shapes the American Frontier.
After reading about the ravages of the locusts, which weren't confined to the American frontier at all, but in the Middle East and Europe and parts of Africa, I feel confident in saying that we really should be more appreciative of our pest problems. The Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) formed tremendous swarms - in one recorded case, at least 110 miles across - that decimated everything in their path, eating not just plants but dead animals and inanimate objects (tool handles, for instance, and the clothes of the farmers who tried to kill them). They left between 100 and 150 eggs per square inch of land, consequently hatching millions upon millions of offspring. And the hotter and drier the weather, the more likely they were to devastate the land.
Reports from Salt Lake indicated that the insects would drown in the lake and then wash ashore, forming 6-foot walls of rotting insects around the lake.
So I have a suggestion for Orem: how about holding a Japanese beetle appreciation day, to acknowledge that, as voracious and invasive as the beetles are, things could always be much, much worse?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Retooling the community plan

So the land-owner who offered me space in his yard to garden apparently doesn't want to offer me much space in his yard to garden. So I'm sending in my community garden applications again - this time in several places, with the hope that waiting lists will turn into ground at some point.

I have options: the closest garden offers plots that are only 6x4 (maybe). The middle garden has slightly more space (10x8), and the farthest garden has plots between 20x20 and 25x25. Guess which one I really want?

I may still ask around the neighborhood for little pieces of ground to plant melons or winter squash - I sort of envision little bits of food plants scattered across the city. There are plenty of spaces that aren't being utilized well. It's certainly more convenient to have a garden of my own, though, and the community gardens are nice because you don't have to talk to people.

I still think that borrowing a non-gardener's land isn't a bad idea. The advantage for the owner is fresh food, a nicer looking yard (hopefully), improved soil, not having to mow . . . kind of like having a hired gardener, except some of your produce goes missing. (For most harvests, this is No Big Deal - just plop a few extra plants out.)

Friday, February 1, 2008


Calendula, or pot marigolds, were one of the first plants suggested to me when I started my garden last summer. I didn't buy any, mostly because I couldn't find seed and couldn't be bothered going to look for plants, but they're going in the earth this year.

They are Wisconsin's Herb of the Year, a title bestowed by the Master Gardeners, who have apparently run out of "real" herbs recently. (2005 was the Year of the Scented Geranium - ack.) There's lots of cultivars, but they're almost all orange-yellow and cheerful looking. The flowers are also edible; Monsoon Wedding has marvelous scenes full of (what might be) calendula, including a rapturous devouring.

They're also supposed to be good for cuts, scrapes, bites, and burns. With the possible exception of the last, the garden is precisely the place where all that happens. Most of the sources are mysteriously vague about whether the leaves or flowers or roots should be rubbed on the skin (or made into ointment, or boiled into tea), but it's worth a try. I am Tasty Meat as far as biting bugs are concerned. I'm not sure about the USDA's stance on organic producers that slather themselves in DDT (perhaps I should email them?) but I prefer to stay as pain-free as possible.

The other interesting thing I found is the shape of the seed pods. Check this out. They're sort of cashew-shaped. (Much thanks to the Wisconsin Master Gardener's Program, from whom I yoinked the pictures.) Why a cashew-shaped pod would be a reproductive advantage, I can't quite figure out. Would they catch more wind like that? Protect the seeds better from slugs and snails? Stay more intact? Perhaps it's all just an interesting coincidence - one random mutation that didn't hurt, and gradually became a feature.

Go, NOG, Go!

Ok, perhaps NOG isn't the best acronym. New Orleans Gardeners are rebuilding. Actually, I bet this isn't completely new, as I bet many people who were able and chose to return did something with the yard. The article discusses several aspects, including the decomposition of plants introduced by the hurricane - perhaps compost in disguise? - but not, surprisingly, erosion. Surely those masses of water removed or rearranged the top soil?

My favorite gardener in the profiles returned to his garden to remove all his rocks. Sure, plants can be replaced, even if you may not live to see them in their full glory, but if you have good rocks, you have to hold onto them.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

2008 Variety Possibilities

One of the interesting things about planting so many heirloom varieties is that you get a lot more climbing things. Almost all modern tomatoes found in the catalogs are determinate. They grow to a certain height, set fruit at once, and die. Lovely for farmers, but not so lovely for most gardeners, who may not want to spend harvest weekend putting up a garden’s worth of tomatoes. Many of the older varieties are vining tomatoes. They grow and make fruit and flowers until frost (or disease or pests) strike them dead. The same is true with beans – almost all the beans in the catalogs are “bush” beans. Hmmm. I love climbing plants – there’s something satisfying about watching plants cover a trellis or fence (or fellow plant). Last year, bindweed or morning glory nearly consumed the community garden, swarming up and over everything in its way. It took near-daily vigilance to keep the vines from covering the garden in a blaze of blue and white flowers and brilliant green leaves. Where there was no fence, it clambered up tomatoes and sunflowers just as happily. I like to imagine it dormant under the ice, plotting to vault from the mass of dead oat grass over the tender seedlings yet to be planted.

I am planting vines this year, then. All my tomato varieties are indeterminate – partly luck, but also because they’re from Seed Savers, and the urge to grow and set fruit at will has not been bred out for the convenience of the commercial grower. Most of my beans are bush habit, which is actually sort of a good thing, considering how much fun it is to make trellises. The limas and (shockingly) the Climbing French Beans climb. And, of course, my peas. Last year I bought Dwarf Grey Sugar Peas. They were neither dwarf nor grey, and there weren’t very many peas. Instead of being the 2.5-3’ advertised, my plants hit the top of the 5’5” fence and kept going. This year I have naturally taller varieties (Golden Sweet and Mammoth) and one short variety (British Wonder). We’ll see what we see.

So here are the variety choices for 2008. Even I realize that there's no way that all of these can be fully planted out, so I've got a lot of reading to do to figure out how much of what to plant. These are just the seeds broken out into categories.

I pretty much plan on planting all the peas. I’m especially excited about the Golden Sweet, which is supposedly one of the varieties Mendel used in his experiments. And beans are marvelous, and supposedly easy to save for seed. Other than that, I want to plant a variety of things and try saving seeds. Squash and melons are among the easiest things to give away - no washing, no packaging, just the handing over of pre-packaged flesh. I'm sitting down with Eliot Coleman's graphs tonight to see when I should expect to plant and harvest the other sorts of bounty. Hopefully I can work out something.

Arikara Yellow
Climbing French Bean
Jacob's Cattle Gasless

Lina Cisco's Bird Egg
Sieva Lima Bean
Vermont Cranberry Bean
Windsor Fava Bean


Bull's Blood

Romanesco Broccoli

Copenhagen Market Cabbage
Mammoth Red Rock Cabbage
Des Vertus Cabbage

Five Color Silverbeet

Country Gentleman
Golden Bantam

Armenian Cucumber

Double Yield Cucumber
Jelly Melon Cucumber
White Wonder Cucumber

Goyo Kumba

Lao Purple Stripe
Red Ruffled Eggplant

Turkish Orange Eggplant

Copperhead Amaranth

Sweet Basil Genova strain.

Thai Basil
Garlic Chives Allium tuberosum
Zefa Fino Fennel
Lavandula angustifolia
Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis
Lovage "Magnus"
Sweet Marjoram Origanum majorana

Common Mint Mentha spicata
Triple-curled parsley
Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis

Broadleaf Sage Salvia officinalis

German Thyme Thymus vulgaris

Lettuce and Greens
Amish Deer Tongue Lettuce
Red Leprechaun Lettuce
Arugula (“wild”)

Curly Cress
Green Wave Mustard
Hon Tsai Tai
Red Shiso
Perilla frutescens
Reine des Glaces Lettuce - (a.k.a. Ice Queen)

Amarillo Oro
Minnesota Midget Melon
Eden's Gem Melon Emerald Gem Melon
Jenny Lind Melon
Pride of
Schoon's Hard Shell
Small Shining Light Watermelon

Clemson Spineless Okra

White Wing Onion

Harris Model Parsnip

British Wonder Pea
Golden Sweet Pea
Mammoth Melting Sugar Pea

Balloon Pepper
Candlelight Pepper
Georgia Flame Pepper
Thai Hot Pepper

Tobago Seasoning Pepper
Wenk's Yellow Hots

Anna Swartz Hubbard Squash
Chirimen Squash
Fordhook Acorn Squash
Galeux d'Eysines
Jaune et Verte Squash

Sweet Meat Winter Squash

Purple Tomatillo

Amish Paste
Bloody Butcher
Giant Syrian Tomato
Gourmet Yellow Stuffer Tomato
Plum Lemon Tomato
Purple Russian Tomato
Roman Candle Tomato

Purple Top White Globe Turnip

Flashback Calendula
Painted Tongue - Salpiglossis sinuata
King-size Strawflower Mixture - Helichrysum bracteatum
Mahogany Midget - Coreopsis tinctoria.
Sacred datura - Datura wrightii

Black Peony Poppy
Wildflower Mix - Dame’s Rocket, Black-Eyed Susan, Shirley Poppy, Blazing Star and Bachelor’s Button.

Ladybird Nasturtium
Tall Climbing Mix

Tip Top Nasturtium Mix

Rostov Sunflower
Autumn Beauty Mix Sunflower

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Seed Savers Love

So a month or two ago, I appealed to several seed companies for support with my seed project. Since I do plan on distributing the food free, it seemed like they might be able to kick in a couple packets of older seed - I don't need 95% germination rates, after all. Since the yard I'm planning on sharing is big, I can't really afford to fill it all on my own. I never heard anything back, so went ahead with my plan to plant what I could, with the budget I had, and work up from there.
Yesterday, I got home to find an envelope from Seed Savers on my doorstep. How nice, I thought - they sent me a few things. I tore it open, and the thing practically exploded with the force of the packets within. It was seriously like Christmas. And New Years. And maybe a birthday. I'll try to dig out my camera tonight and take a picture of the bounty.

As a result, some of the things I forgot to order are now in plentiful supply. So is pretty much everything else. Beans, arugula, lettuce, broccoli, beets, cabbage, chard, corn, cucumbers, eggplants, lovage, spearmint, thyme, melons, nasturtiums, okra, peas, peppers, squash, tomatoes, sunflowers, turnips, and more flowers for the flower patch, including my only seriously poisonous plant, Sacred Datura. I'll compile a list for my records and put it up at some point soon. Many, many thanks to Seed Savers for their support.

It's also interesting that all this bounty - what could turn into hundreds of pounds of squash alone (even a packet of 25 seeds could produce upwards of 300 lbs.) can all be fit into a padded envelope now. Also, it's sort of amazing that there's no overlap between varieties I ordered from Fedco and received from Seed Savers (although there were several packets of the same variety of a couple different things). So support Seed Savers if you can - they are awesome, generous people.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Seed Order

So last night, I placed my order for seeds. I’m sure I got too much, violating the “think small, and start smaller” principle. I want diversity, though – turnips alone is not going to cut it. I ordered from Fedco. I like their co-opness (co-opisity? Co-opism? Co-opship?) and their variety of heirloom varieties. Even nicer is that they’re in Maine, so they understand northern climates and will usually warn people if something won’t finish before the season ends. Also, although the catalog descriptions are upbeat, they do note negative characteristics – tomatoes that crack, spinach that bolts early, potatoes that give it up at the first sign of beetles.

I didn’t order near as much as I wanted to order. I wanted pretty much the whole damn catalog. And most of Kitazawa’s catalog. (I refrained from ordering from them before I really knew what I wanted for Korean cooking, but I would love to do a Korean corner next year, with the stuff for kimchi, veggies for banchan, and those little 1-serving melons.)

Windsor Fava Beans – called broad beans in Britain. These I got because of a newly awakened crush on British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, and his totally cool gardener. Broad beans aren’t given much attention or space in American catalogs and gardens, but according to the Brits, the tender tops are edible. Also, I think I’ve been conflating fava beans with lima beans. I have a terrible aversion to limas, but they’re not really the same thing at all.

Vermont Cranberry Beans – for eating dry. I like the idea of dry beans. I’m used to pintos, but I’m having trouble finding them in northern catalogs, and suspect they need a long hot summer. If this goes well, I want to try a black bean next summer.

Golden Bantam Yellow Sweet Corn – an heirloom, open-pollinated sweet corn. I keep hearing that sweet corn is not sweet corn unless it’s picked from the garden and rushed inside to be boiled, salted, and eaten. I’ve never done this, so I don’t know. Seems like time to find out, doesn’t it? Also, I want to experiment with growing beans up the corn stalks.

Mammoth Melting Sugar Snow Pea – In general, I try to avoid descriptors like “mammoth” in my variety names. Size is not really what I’m looking for. But Mammoth is supposed to be prolific, easy, and sweet. And I never get enough snow peas.

Jenny Lind Muskmelon – small, heirloom muskmelon (green, not orange like cantelope). I love good melons. Bad melons are awful, but a perfectly ripe sweet juicy melon on the porch in July (or August) is heaven. I’m not really in prime melon territory – you need to be farther south for that. But that’s not going to stop me trying. I like that these are serving-size melons, small enough to carry away and eat alone.

Sweet Meat Winter Squash – a blue-grey, hubbard-style winter squash that keeps well. The squash tend to be big (8-10+ lbs), but a good compromise between taste and storage (supposedly – I’ve never eaten one). And they’re blue.

Harris Model Parsnip – I’m going to put myself out there and say: I love, love, love parsnips. Roasted. In soup. Baked. And, uh, raw, when they have a sort of licorice-y, tweaky tang that is low-calorie goodness. I’m guessing my soil is not going to be the deeply aerated, organic mattered loam necessary for prime production, but how can I not try?

White Wing Onion – Onions are something I feel okay buying – I love them, but they’re cheap, and the seed goes away eventually. These I got because I pushed a wrong button on the order form. Oh, well.

Des Vertus Savoy Cabbage – Gene Logsdon swears by savoy-type cabbage. I like cabbage fine – it’s not my first-choice veggie, but it’s good – and savoy-type cabbage cost an arm and a leg in market if you find them. Des Vertus is not special, except it’s open pollinated.

Hon Tsai Tai – if this is the vegetable I think it is, it’s a favorite from Korea (it’s not advertised as that, but many, many vegetables come from and go to China and Japan, so it’s not outrageous to expect some carry-over.) Slightly bitter, but fantastic in stir-fries.

Green Wave Mustard – part of my ongoing quest to eat more leafy green things. Also, mustard is pretty tasty.

Curly Garden Cress – love watercress, but don’t love how quickly it goes bad. This is supposed to be a good substitute from the same family. May grow indoors, with the rest of my herbs, and eat the baby leaves.

Turkish Orange Eggplant – I like it when vegetables are small. These eggplants are supposed to be about egg-sized, and used in stir-fried while young and green. They turn orange when mature. Also, the seed was cheap.

Thai Hot Pepper – I eyed these plants at the market all last year. Small bushes bear loads (no, really, loads) of tiny, brightly colored peppers that are quite decently hot, and can be harvested at almost any stage. I like them red, but I like spicy food. The plants are very pretty, and the peppers are pretty good. The flavor is not as excellent as some peppers, but the size, convenience, and heat makes a good case for them.

Zefa Fino Fennel – another variety courtesy of Jamie Oliver. I’ve had fennel seeds, but can’t remember having fennel root. An experiment, since I don’t think it’ll do well, but Fedco didn’t warn northern gardeners against it, so worth the 90 cents to plant a few. Highly recommended by several catalogs.

Red Shiso – I really wanted Korean shiso (tulkae). This is Japanese shiso, and tastes quite different to me, but I’m not placing a separate order for one plant. It’s a relative of mint, so it’s supposed to spread readily. It’s fantastic in stir-fry, raw, on meat, with tofu.

Copperhead Amaranth – My “feed the birds” project, and an experiment. Amaranth is one of those old, old grains, native to this part of the country (not in the woods – maybe in the prairie?) It’s got good essential amino acids, and doesn’t need to be hulled. I probably won’t eat very much, if any, but I would like to offer the seeds to the bird population next winter.

Herbs – mostly for growing inside, but I’ll probably start a few outside too, for the variety and fun of it. Sweet basil, thai basil, garlic chives, lavender, lemon balm, sweet marjoram, mint, rosemary, broadleaf sage, German thyme

Solar Flashback Calendula Mix – I haven’t been a huge fan of marigolds, but these are pot marigolds, which of course in the world of gardening is something completely different. Bright, easy to grow, and supposedly pest discouraging, I’m growing these simply because I like the gold and orange flowers.

Tall Climbing Nasturtiums – The plan is to let these climb the sunflowers. I’m such a fan of climbing plants, it’s not even funny. I just like them. Also, I like the idea of eating flowers. And they’re pretty. My neighbor’s nasturtiums did really well last year – not quite morning glory well, but smother-the-tomatoes well.

Black Peony Poppies – fluffy balls of gorgeous rich maroon-black color. Real peonies are expensive perennials, so these are sort of the annual version of “hey, I like this shape – how does it look in the garden?”. Will be planted behind the calendulas. I wish I had the hollyhocks of the same color, but the seed-buying has to stop somewhere this year. Also want California poppies, but I’ve heard that they choke in heavy soil.

Autumn Beauty Mix Sunflowers – Tall, multi-stemmed sunflowers for the flower-patch and bird-feeding attempts. Yellow to gold to red to maroon.

Wildflower Mix – the bulk of the flower patch, augmented by more poppies, sunflowers, nasturtiums, and calendulas. Dame’s rocket, shirley poppies, black-eyed susans, blazing stars (which look an awful lot like gayfeather), bachelor’s buttons.