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

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:

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 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.