Monday, June 24, 2013

Monday June 24th

Not an awful lot to report today, things just keep growing. Despite daily bush shakings, we don't seem to have too many tomatoes forming. Not sure what that's about, but last year at this time I was harvesting the first of the cherries. We are a full month behind, and the plants look healthy, but it doesn't seem right to me. One thing is for sure - we are pretty much out of bees. There are none on the place and I don't know whether it's the ongoing collapse of the honeybee as a species, or that there is not water in the ditches, or if it's simply because we're turning more and more into a desert. The lizards and White-winged Doves are thriving, which supports that last possibility.

The eggplants are big and healthy and also fruitless. I've done a bit of paint brush fertilization, again with no results. About the only real success we have at the moment are a couple of at-will sunflowers that are simply striking. Looking at last year's photos, the planted plants were 3'-4' tall by now, again we're paying the price for that late April trip to Spain.

June 17th

June 24th

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wednesday, June 19th. The lights didn't work all that well.

A little sun and a little water and things grow like crazy here. It's no wonder that agriculture has played a role in our little valley for more than a thousand years.

We left on the 12th to participate in my little kid's wedding, leaving our neighbor in charge of all things living (flora and fauna) around our place. We returned to no losses in either case, but an amazing growth spurt in all things green. Everything had added height and bulk, in particular our peat pot sunflower experiments which doubled and tripled in size. Of course it takes a few days away to really see the changes, but these changes was extraordinary in only 3 days.

Two days later - widespread destruction when the masked bandit returned for a rampage. I had accidentally left the water running on Sunday night, soaking the areas surrounding the raised beds  and it occurred to me that the last time I'd done it, Rocky had paid us a visit. This time the damage was extensive - holes dug around the base of every raised bed, fences crumpled under his bulk, plants dug up and most of our Cosmos and Zinnias trampled flat. I suppose I should have taken some photos but I was just too angry and instead threw my energy into repairs. It seems now that he's grown accustomed to the glare of the lights, so we doubled down and salted all the walkways with Kritter Ridder (a chokingly awful concoction of black pepper powder) in hopes that it would turn him off for a while. We put down so much that the air outside was akin to sitting in the back room of a Mexican restaurant on Relleno night - almost too bad to sit and watch the sun go down while having a glass of wine. So far this stuff has worked in moving him away from his latrine, we'll see how it does out back. Two days now and no more trashing. It may be that careful water management, lights and the repellent will do the trick. We'll see.

Week to week - things change -

May 20th
June 4th
June 10th
June 17th

First Sunflower

Monday, June 10, 2013

Monday, June 10th

Not a huge amount of change from last week, by and large, everything is just getting bigger. The notable exception is our tank of Hollyhocks, coming on slowly since February and now starting to bloom. These are a legacy planting, seeds from a horse business friend of My Lovely Wife who died several years ago. It's our second year with them, and now we're getting plants from seeds.

A few Sunflowers are developing flowers as are two of the Eggplants which had a sudden growth spurt. No fruit on them however. Every plant that came out of a peat pot is thriving, and the second planting of Cosmos and Zinnias continue to get taller each day. Even the 100° heat we're now sliding into doesn't seem to stop the growth. As long as there is water.

Eggplant flowers
1st Sunflower

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Sun and the Garden

 Obviously the Sun plays a most significant role in the success of a garden. We chose a spot out back where we pretty much have unimpeded exposure from 8 in the morning until 7 at night. It changes a bit as the summer rolls on - more shade from the one close tree as the Sun dips lower, longer shadows in the fall when it falls below the mesa earlier. But in general we are guaranteed the 6+ hours that sun loving plants purportedly crave.

I doubt many of us really consider where the Sun happens to be in the sky at any given time in the year. We know it's low in the winter, particularly if your southern exposure is ringed with trees. We know it's high in the summer, baking our brains when we get out of the car at midday. But generally, the Sun is "just there." While that true, the real story is far more compelling.

Last June I decided to shoot an Analemma, a multi-shot project that traces the path of the Sun through the sky. The word comes from the Greek ἀνάλημμα which translates as "pedestal of a sundial." Using conventional cameras, it is extremely difficult to do because it means leaving your camera hard-mounted outside somewhere and taking a photo 24-50  times on the same frame of film using a solar filter. It's been done a dozen or so times, the first by a gentleman named Dennis DiCicco between 1978 and 1979. When using film, the roll is developed at the end of the year and then printed on some interesting background that was not part of the original shot (Greek hills with temples on them are very popular choices.)

The advent of digital photography greatly simplified the project however, requiring only your willingness to dedicate a camera and tripod for a year, some time positioning the shot twice a month and a copy of Photoshop. The process I used was pretty simple - I began with a nice morning photo of my backyard with no sun in the frame of reference that would serve as my baseline. Then on the 6th and 21st of each month I went out, aligned the camera to the top of a fence post and the eave of my bike shop and took a picture at precisely 12:18:32 (I messed up and lost 18 minutes during my set-up for the first Sun picture.) From there, I loaded them into the computer, overlaid the latest photo on the baseline photo, carefully aligned my two reference points and cut the center out of the Sun and then pasted it "in place" onto the baseline and then deleted the now useless bi-monthly shot. The result after 28 photos and a year of work is this -

You can see a couple of interesting things here. The crossover does not take place on a significant date, like an Equinox or Solstice. The fact that one of the dates is My Lovely Wife's birthday (April 2) is probably cosmologically significant but how I am not sure. Another is the size of the upper and lower node. Because I live at latitude 35° North, the Sun is never directly overhead going no higher than 78°. At the Equator where the Sun reaches 90°, the Analemma would be directly overhead and equal between top and bottom. In the Southern Hemisphere, at my equivalent latitude, it would be the same shape but with the smaller node on the bottom. The difference in shape is due to the tilt of the Earth and how that affects our virtual position on the planet, relative to the Sun.

There are two components to the Earth's journey around the Sun that cause this Figure 8 to be formed. The first is the tilt of the Earth's axis (23.4 °) relative to the Sun and the second is the elliptical shape of our orbit. If the Earth stood straight up and down and orbited the Sun in a perfect circle, and you went out each day at noon and took a picture, the resulting Analemma would look like this -

 24 Suns superimposed on each other and honestly quite boring.

Now we all know that the Sun moves up and down the sky during the year, lower in the winter, close to overhead at the height of summer and this is due to the tilt. It's what changes the lengths of our days, gives us our seasons, creates temperate zones and allows for ice at the poles. As the Earth moves through its orbit, your position on the globe effectively changes and that is where we get Solstices and Equinoxes and all the variation in between. If the Earth orbited the Sun in a perfect circle but had its tilted axis, the resulting Analemma would look like this -

 The path of the Sun would be vertical from high to low, up and down from a central point.

The effect of the second component - orbit  - would not be as obvious if you simply went outside and looked at the Sun at noon everyday. In fact without a photo, you probably wouldn't notice it at all. This effect manifests itself in a difference in the Sun's position relative to the time on your watch - instead of being in the same place, it's going to be a bit further ahead or behind due to the Earth moving more quickly through the pointy ends of its elliptical journey. Three photos during the year  from an Earth without a tilted axis but with an elliptical orbit would look like this -

The Sun would lag or shoot out ahead of a centered point depending on where the Earth happened to be in its yearly trek through outer space.

But because we are blessed with both components, we end up with a habitable planet and a cool shape in the sky if we take the time to capture it.
The work was pretty interesting in the end. In addition to the lesson in celestial mechanics, I also learned something that I think I already knew - New Mexico has some pretty nice weather. Of all the photos I took, only a few had cloudy skies. And even then, they were not cloudy enough to stop my progress. Here are the raw shots presented in a grid -

And as a added bonus, I was able to create a video like the one I did above of the seasons. It shows trusty Sol making his way up and down and around, this year, next year and for the rest of the time he hangs in the sky. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

3 Weeks In

You don't notice a lot of difference when you sit out in the garden every evening. Of course everything has obviously changed but mostly you're tuned into small things, like the progress of the seedlings or perhaps the center of the eggplant plants which for some reason have seen an amazing growth spurt. The few tomatoes that have sprouted are still green, most of the plants look about the same, and really your intense focus is on what might have died, and plugging all the little geysers from the drip hoses.

We've done well so far, having lost nothing. Some of the tomato plants have taken off while others have advanced more slowly, but none have succumbed to the leaf wilt that killed most of our heirloom varieties last year. We're trying grafted plants this year, and we're encouraged based on a few articles we've read suggesting that grafting can be a cure-all for soil borne diseases. Ten days in and we've had 100% success with the transplanted peat pots and a second round of seeded Zinnias and Cosmos are now appearing above the soil. Knock on wood, no visits from our Masked Visitor since we installed the Kleig lights. The Sunflower garden along the outside rails is planted, fenced and staked and full of little plants.

The true story lies in comparative photographs. You can see it plainly here, the left was taken on the 20ᵀᴴ of May and the right last night, 15 days later. These two pretty much tell the story. Click on the left photo, and when the gallery opens, click back and forth between the two. It's quite amazing.



Saturday, June 1, 2013


It's not a surprise that we have Raccoons out here in the country. For years though their presence was limited to paw prints around the place and an empty bird feeder. While there never seemed to be much going on with them out in the garden, they were probably the culprit in the Case of the Missing Watermelon, a few years back. We had a nice developing fruit that one night ended up detached and under my bike shop. I always thought "squirrel," but I was never sure.

Last year though one of those masked bandits terrorized our house sitter. He showed up one evening, sitting by our back door and calming unscrewing the lid to a plastic jar full of dog biscuits. She chased him off and food-proofed the outside shelves, but clearly we had a now permanent outdoor pet. My suspicion is that given the ongoing drought and the lack of permanent water in the closest irrigation ditch, we're going to see more of this and if the increasing amount of paw prints in the dust out by the little horse's water buckets is any indication, we're going to be seeing a lot more of it.

As we began working the garden this year, the amount of digging going on in the beds remained about constant. Each night there would be a dozen or so little holes dug in the beds and around the base of the frames. Again, I've always attributed this activity to squirrels because we do see Sunflowers popping up in the most unusual places should water happen to fall there. Last year I had a 10' Sunflower growing in the compost pile and this year I have a couple of giants coming up in a pot. The local squirrel steals from the feeder in the front yard and stashes seeds all over the place.

However, on the first morning following the installation of the rabbit fence, I came out to find it crushed on both sides of two of our beds, as though a big animal had climbed in one side and out the other. Not the work of a 2 pound squirrel. The same little holes were dug here and there, although now freshly planted Marigolds were lying in heaps and the rows of our wildflower seeds were destroyed. I fixed the fences and sat in front of the computer, searching for "Raccoon control."

As it always is with internet advice, it takes a lot of wading to get through the swamp of stupid replies. I remember one time searching for a way to keep bananas from going brown too quickly. The most common answer was "Bananas don't go brown in my house because the kids eat them real fast! LOL!" In other words, and I know this will come as a shock to most of you, but the internet is filled with bored and lonely morons.

I did however find some useful information. The little holes that get dug are due to a Raccoon's sweet tooth for worms and grubs, something that you're not going to change. The Mennonites in Pennsylvania play Jimi Hendrix at night in their corn fields to keep them away. Peeing in circles around your beds doesn't work, but shooting Raccoons does. Getting them trapped is the best way of dealing with them if you're a respecter of animal life like I am. In short, the best answer is probably to find a way to scare them off.

And that's when I decided a motion detector might be the easiest first step. I installed a little solar powered unit out by the back pens a couple of years ago to light up the hay pile for night feedings. Relatively inexpensive at $49, it was so sensitive that I had to block half the sensor to prevent the horses from triggering in all night long. And being solar powered, it didn't need AC to be run out there. We decided to start there and see what happened.

I installed it down low on one of the posts that support my bike shop porch and tested it once the sun set - it worked like a charm. We sat back and waited, checking the fences each morning. It worked for about 10 days, until one morning, the bed furthest from the light showed that telltale pattern of crushed wire on two sides.

Not much digging and damage  - it appeared  he came in at the farthest point, stumbled around, tripped the light and made a hasty retreat. So, perhaps solutions come in incremental steps. Back to Home Depot for a second light, this one with two LED heads and enough brightness to make our garden look like a nighttime action movie location shoot. 

Since then, no more visits. Which leaves only the Raccoon Latrine he's set up on the edge of our back patio as a work in progress. For that we'll be resorting to a repellent composed of four or five known nasty pepper derivatives. We're waiting only on a non-windy day to do that application, because the prospect of getting Pepper-based Raccoon Repellent in our eyes is understandably unattractive.