Thursday, May 30, 2013

May 20th - May 27th - things come to life.

No matter how old and cynical I get, I'll never stop being amazed at the power of seeds. It's simply amazing to me that you have that little hard capsule that does nothing until you add a bit of light and some water and voila - life! My peat pot experiment worked out pretty well with 100% results from the packaged seeds and only 9 duds out of a total of 51 overall. They took about 10 days to come up. The Cosmos and Zinnias, hand seeded in the garden were much faster, appearing in about 5 days.

One thing we've done over the past year is develop a composting set up. Really simple, just two bins hemmed in with some chicken wire and t-posts. The "seed" of the project was some grimy stuff that had built up and rotted along the north facing parapets on our roof. Along with 25 bags of dried leaves. Over the course of the fall and winter we added a lot of household garbage - coffee grinds, fruit and vegetable remains, more leaves and a lot of water. Of all the stuff recommended by the composting geniuses on the web, only paper goods turned out to be a bust. Coffee filters still go in simply because they're easy to handle, but tissues, paper towels and the like don't. They simply don't break down very well. The most entertaining item was "100% compostable" plastic cups from our favorite coffee shop. They don't break down at all.

As with most things, we were hardly diligent about maintaining the piles unless you feel that dragging buckets of ice from the horse tanks and dumping them in the bins on the sub-zero mornings meets that criterion. In any event, without much technological intervention we ended up with 5 wheelbarrow loads of the finest black soil you can imagine. Now it's time to move the stage one pile into the stage two bin and start again with the leaves.

We finished up all but one section of the garden this week, getting a 4 really nice Basil plants in along with the last of the marigolds. The four orphan sunflowers that came up in the walkways and that I had roughly transplanted actually took hold and made a good case for survival. I wasn't sure they were going to make it after showing severe shock. But a couple of days with shade canopy turned them around and now they look great.

Fruit actually started to appear on some of the tomato plants and on one of the eggplant plants (is that right?)  which was a bit of a surprise. You worry about when the plants start producing when they're only been in the ground a week, and these buds almost certainly came with the plant from the store. But it's still nice to see because like you, I am really sick of eating tasteless hot house tomatoes. I had a couple off of our pal Chidi's plants when we were in Tucson last week and while you think those red things in your February Caprise  are tomatoes, I assure you that they are not. One taste of a home grown makes you long for July and August.
With the last of the wire up and irrigation lay out complete,  we now wait to transplant the 41 peat pot sunflowers. The set-up is nearly done, and evenings sitting and observing are now taking on that magical wonder, just as we knew it would.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

May 15th: We get down to business

It is now a tradition in our homes to go somewhere cool in April. In 2011, we took the final Grand Tour of China, making sure to get over there before my language skills went down the drain. Last year, Spain with a week in Valencia and a week in Madrid. This year Spain again, although later than last year and so a bit of a problem in terms of getting our garden going. As it turned out, we had two hard freezes in April, bad enough to kill the buds on the Mulberry and Locust trees and so had we begun to plant when we did in 2012, everything would have been lost.

Each year we debate about what kind of plants to buy and where to buy them. We know in our hearts that the best tomato plant ever was found at Lowe's in June in a pot. But still we try to be more selective and to try interesting cultivars even if every heirloom tomato we've purchased from some hippie stand has given up the ghost after producing one red-purple marbled fruit. I hate to say it, but the big box stores have the best plants. This year we mixed it up a bit, picking up plants from Home Depot and three local nurseries - Osuna, Jericho and Alameda. All were purchased in the second week of May and in the ground on the 15th and 16th. Mostly regular cultivars - Husky Cherry, Early Girl, Beefsteak. We did brave an inevitable heartbreak with a couple of interesting hybrids from Alameda - heirlooms grafted onto some sort of really macho rootstock. We'll see how those work out. And of course one spindly little orphan Chocolate Cherry that will be the heartwarming tale should it survive. Three different kinds of Eggplant, a first this year - Black Beauty, Japanese and White Globe.

We plant Sunflowers, Zinnias and Cosmos from seeds. My crop of Sunflowers last year was spectacular and so I used seed heads to form the lion's share of this year's plantings along with a couple of packages that were in our stash for who knows how long. Instead of going into the ground, I went with peat pots to start them off. Ground planting works just fine if you wait until after the frost, but it's hard to know what's really going on when half come up quickly, half wait a while and the third half never shows up at all. At least with peat pots, you know what's going on. The Zinnias and Cosmos went straight from the package into the ground because we overplant like crazy. The most amazing thing about these two are the $2.99 packages that have 6 seeds in them as though they were handpicked at a special Greek Orthodox Convent on Mikonos and shipped across the ocean on a 17th century caravel manned by Columbus re-enactors. The cost of these becomes even more amazing when you find a bag of a million seeds for a dollar more at Home Depot all of which sprout faster.

Irrigation and layout are the next concerns. We've evolved from sitting out there hand-watering (Zen-like but time consuming) to using drip hoses. I found the first one under a pile of brush in the front yard, having been purchased years ago with the express purpose of fixing a dead spot in our front pasture. It sat buried out there and yet worked like a charm when given a new job. Hunting for that same hose at the stores though proved fruitless and we ended up with a similar product of a smaller diameter. As last year taught us, these hoses are cheap and don't last more than a month or so. Forget about using them a second time because after a season, they're more patches than hose (they have a tendency to produce gully digging geysers) or more clogged than not. It's now known to be a sure thing that you're going to have to replace them annually, which I suppose is made more palatable by their sub $10 price tag.
 Decent water coverage is what we're after, and in these gardens - 8x4' a 50' hose pretty much does the trick. It takes about an hour to an hour and a half to really water deeply and although there are often dry spots on the surface the wicking factor takes care of the roots. The hoses really do work quite well in spite of my hatred of products that don't hold up. Last year I spent a lot of time cursing the Chinese and their shoddy manufacturing before realizing that these hoses and been "Made with Pride in the USA."

The rest of it lies in the details - rows for the seeds, planning who is going to shade whom and little stuff like that. We have gotten smart enough to install tomato cages when the plants go in the ground instead of trying to insert them into an existing jungle.

Oh, and Marigolds - we heard that they were good for repelling Rabbits and Deer. Nix on the Rabbits, I had to wire the garden last year after Dobby the Yard Rabbit clipped off the tops of my Russian Mammoth Sunflowers. This year I opted for a more sturdy, vinyl coated fence instead of the rather cheap and ugly chicken fence I used last time.

Marigolds do work well for Deer though. I can certify we've never had a Deer in our garden (or anywhere else on the place for that matter.)

By the end of Day One and Day Two, we had two of the three gardens planted, screened and irrigated. One more to go. 

Here are the Work In Process shots for our first days of planting -

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why we garden

I don’t consider either of us to be particularly good gardeners. Over the course of our 20 years together, we've tried hard to make the place look good, adding trees and vines and lawn, but the truth of it is, we don’t have much passion for maintaining our landscaping the way it requires. Or better yet deserves. Our front yard has lawn that belies the fact that we carried hundreds of 50 pound rolls of sod in through a narrow front gate seventeen years ago. And a good third of it stills show the devastation of our septic system replacement. But nature has put a kindly arm around our shoulders and dropped an at will tree here, and allowed some of our original plantings to flourish, so that the net result is a pleasant, shady place to spend an afternoon, putting your feet up and watching the birds in the feeder. In other words, it’s a nice oasis.

Where we do succeed though is in our summertime vegetable garden. We have about 100 square feet in raised beds out back and over the course of the last 9 years we've slowly learned and refined our little patch to know what works and what doesn't.  We've gone through many different plans and attempts and approaches, before finally arriving last year at the kind of success that meant we simply had too many tomatoes to eat.

More importantly, our garden has become a place of peace and quiet. “Let’s inspect the garden” is now the catchphrase for sitting out there after the evening chores, watching the sun paint large shadows across the beds and feeling the heat of the afternoon slowly ebb away. Sometimes there is a breeze, sometimes the sky is filled with puffy white clouds that change to pink as the sun disappears. Occasionally a Goldfinch will land on the tomato cages and preen while his cousins the hummingbirds do aerial battles overhead. In short, no matter how bad the day was, there is always the garden to bring you back to center.

Every year I intend to write a journal about our garden – when did we plant, where did we get the plants, how has the irrigation worked, when did things come into bloom and fruit – and every year I forget. So this year, I’m going to do it here and hopefully have a decent record for the future. We’ll see how well I stick to the plan, when I could be sitting out back instead.

2004 – The Beginning