A science experiment- you can grow that


Tomato A, with rich chunky, water retaining compost.

Tomato A, with rich chunky, water retaining compost.

I had a paradigm shift this spring. I love that. I have always read that tomatoes are heavy feeders, that they need rich soil, so I have planned my rotations to give that to them. I hopscotch my compost bin around the garden, trying to balance out the need for soil improvement with the pain in the neck factor of walking all the way to the back corner of the yard when I need to dump avocado peels.
I read in The Tao of Gardening, by Carol Deppe that tomatoes will produce fruit earlier when they are grown in poor soil. So, they would be heavy feeders if they were allowed to be, but it makes them slow and lazy.
I decided to test it. I had the lovely, chunky nutrient rich black soil, with some still identifiable avocado peels (those things take forever to break down) where I had intended to place the tomatoes in the first place, and a few feet away, some clayey, brown soil. It wasn’t terrible, It has had compost added to it in the last few years, but it wasn’t the rich soil I usually reserve for the tomatoes. They both get about the same amount of sun, and while they are different varieties (Fourth of July and Juliet) they both have about the same number of days to maturity and I have given them the same amount of water.

Tomato B, no soil enrichment.

Tomato B, no soil enrichment.

In my day job, I have had a paradigm shift as well- I have always taught English, and beyond that, I have always been an English teacher, with that mindset. This past year, I have been working with students who are learning English in their math and science classes. It’s been weird. Good, but weird. I had to think in a way that I’m not used to. Staving off dementia one hypothesis at a time.

So the hypothesis in this tomato experiment was that the tomato plant with lush soil would produce a lot of leaves, but would fruit later, and the plant in poor soil would make fewer leaves, but would fruit earlier. Well, on August 4, I don’t have ripe fruit from either of them. The one in poor soil has slightly pinker fruit, but not by much. There are many more tomatoes on the plant in richer soil, so i would prefer to balance out quantity over earliness. Another detail, which I wasn’t hypothesizing about, is that the one with rich soil is much more drought tolerant. When we left town, temperatures got over 100 degrees F. When we got back, the plant in good soil was still lush and green, and the one in poor soil was slightly withered. I think it hasn’t completely recovered from that drought stress, where the other plant had enough moisture reserve in the soil that it did fine.As you grow, remember that it isn’t just about the fruits and vegetables, you can experiment and learn and improve.

Science- you can grow that.

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Dear Asparagus


I don’t know why I can’t quit you.I keep trying to grow you, trying to make a home for you that you can keep coming back to, year after year. And I keep coming back, broken-hearted.
I try to tell myself that you aren’t worth it, my kids don’t like you, you’re difficult, you make my pee smell funny. But inside, I know it’s just a lie- I want you, I miss you. I find myself worried when you aren’t home, I find myself looking in the ditch, knowing that if I found you, I would bring you home and clean you up, cook you, and eat you. Maybe pickle you, if there was enough…

I just love you, and I can’t face paying 3.99 a pound for you at the grocery, and you aren’t even at the farmers market. At least not when I’ve been there. Are you avoiding me? It doesn’t matter- I forgive you. I’ll keep trying to make this relationship work. I’ll dig a trench near reliable water, but also in complete sun, I know how much you love the sunshine, I’ll plant out your little roots, and watch for your little shoots to poke out from the soft compost.  I just love you too much to give up on you.

Signed:

Carrying a Torch

 

A Memorial. You can grow that.


I was out for a run this morning (zombies weren’t even chasing me- I was running for pleasure) and all over the neighborhood tulips are blooming. My heart bounced up at all of them, but especially the red ones.

They look pink in this shot, but I assure you, the tulips are red.

They look pink in this shot, but I assure you, the tulips are red.

My dad was not what you’d call a keen gardener.  I remember planting radishes with him when I was very little, and he took great pride in his lawn, but he certainly wasn’t where I inherited my love of plants. He did work hard on his red tulips, though.  He planted them beside the front door, and after they bloomed and the foliage faded, he would dig them up, and separate out the daughter bulbs, or offsets, from the ones that had bloomed, then save them on screens he had built until fall, when he would plant them again. I can only ever remember him having red tulips- not sure why.

My dad died about 11 years ago. Kate barely remembers him, and Will only knows him from stories and pictures.  The spring after he died, we planted a Burr Oak tree in the back yard, and it has thrived- it so represents him- strong and tall. He was an oak.  Additionally, that fall, I ordered and planted 100 red tulips, which I put under the oak.  That next spring, they bloomed strongly and vividly- a blanket of red under the little oak. I didn’t follow my daddy’s example, and dig them up and sort them. I never do- I try to select varieties that naturalize, and just let nature take its course.

Nature’s course with tulips is that the bulbs form offsets every year, and they don’t send up flowers until they are big enough. They may come back after a couple of years, but if they aren’t divided, they tend to peter out. Last year, there were one or two flowers, this year I don’t see any.

It strikes me that grief is like that- early on, a blanket of red, and as time passes, the feeling fades, only to be brought up again, with a reminder, or a dream, or a pun. (One of my colleagues recently broke her arm in 3 places. I laughed and told her to stay out of them places. No one in the teacher’s lounge laughed, but Daddy would have.)

Now, I’m not saying that oaks and red tulips are a universal memorial, but if you are grieving someone, think about what they loved, and what you can plant to help their memory stay with you, so that when you smell lilacs, or see daffodils, or pass by a lily, you remember.  You can grow that.

(If you are curious about why no blogging recently, nothing’s wrong, just very busy with they day job, family stuff, and of course, exercise and coffee. I’ve got some ideas of things to write about, and I will, as I have time.)

Garden in a Box- you can grow that


I live in a semi-desert. You wouldn’t know it from all the green lawns and sprinklers and weeping willows around, but it is pretty dry here. We rely on snowmelt from the mountains being stored in reservoirs, and as more people move here, we want to conserve the water we get.

My city water department, in conjunction with Boulder’s Center for ReSource Conservation (yeah, I don’t know what the deal is with the capitol s… it’s annoying) is selling gardens in a box. They have for several years. The Center has hired designers to put together some preplanned gardens with drought tolerant plants. People who live all over the front range of Colorado can participate, and several city utilities give rebates. Depending on where you live, your local utility may offer something similar. Google it.
I have pooh-poohed the idea of a pre-planned garden in the past- I felt like I could design my own gardens, thank you very much. Plug in some iris, srpinkle on some larkspur- BAM! its a garden!
This year I had a lot of space to fill, though. We got rid of our swing set, and so we have about 400 square feet of weedy grass to convert. I plan to put in a couple of fruit trees, but I want flowers around them. Grass also typically takes much more water to look good than the xeric flowers and shrubs that I like.
The preplanned garden was a great choice for us because of the water use thing, (which is why the water department wants to sell them-once they are established, the plants

I took pictures of planting time, but only with my phone,  Remind me to use my real camera...

I took pictures of planting time, but only with my phone, Remind me to use my real camera…

are happy with natural rainfall) and also because it is a boatload of plants for not very much money. Remember, I’m frugal.
How much? That’s a very crass question…oh, wait, I brought it up. Well, with a rebate from the city, it was $110 for 29 plants in 4 inch pots, which covers 100 square feet.
My typical way of planting new gardens is to get my mother in law to give me divisions from her garden, and divide stuff that I already have, which is essentially free. However, the garden I chose has plants that are new to me, and my wonderful mother-in-law. Maybe someday I’ll be able to divide these, and give back to her. Someday.
If I were getting these plants at a nursery, it would cost more, and I would be unlikely to choose these particular plants. I’m a person who reads about compost for fun, I read seed catalogs and garden books and even listen to the garden guy on the radio. I think about plants a lot, but I hadn’t heard of most of these before.
The garden in a box is expanding my horizons, and saving me on my water bill, and it could do the same for you. You could grow that…

Die! Larvae, Die!


I know everybody is tired of people complaining about the cold- it is February, it’s supposed to be cold. So, I am going to turn it around, as I sit at my desk, gazing out the window at…hey, what is that squirrel eating? Avocado pit? Stupid squirrel, get out of the compost pile!

Where were we? Ah, yes, gazing out the window at the frosty back yard, I am both gleeful, and hopeful.

Gleeful, knowing that here on the flat it is -2 Fahrenheit, but up in the mountains, it is colder. Maybe cold enough in the woods to freeze the pine beetle larvae that are eating up our trees. Maybe it will be cold enough, long enough, to destroy a large percentage of the larvae, and we can get our woods back.

I say our woods, knowing that foresters and naturalists and others who take the long view see that pine trees falling to pine beetles doesn’t kill the forest, it just changes the forest. I’d like to be one of those people who take the long view, but I can’t. I love the woods, and I hate to see the trees go brown and topple over.

Pine beetles have always been here, but typically young trees can survive the attacks, and bitter cold kills many of the larvae, so there has been a balance in the past. Recently, winters haven’t been cold enough for long enough to kill them. So the forest changes.

Now the new larval threat is Emerald Ash Borer- they haven’t always been here- they came over from their native China around ten years ago, and are spreading. Native ash trees have no resistance. Signs of the insects have been found in Boulder County, (Boulder! Dang hippies!) and they are under quarantine. No products made from ash trees are supposed to leave the county, no mulch, no firewood, no nursery trees. Knowing that we are right next door, though, and that beetles don’t respect county lines, makes me wonder if they are soon to be discovered here in Larimer county.

They attack…well, not attack really. I mean the bugs are just living their lives, right, having sex, making babies, but it feels like an attack. So, the adult female ash borer lays her eggs in bark crevices of branches of ash trees. The larvae develop in the space between the bark and the wood, the cambium. The thin green layer of cambium is where sap flows, where water and nutrients flow out to the leaves from the soil. If enough larvae develop and destroy the cambium, that branch dies. If enough branches die, the tree dies.

The long view of the forester or the naturalist is hard here, too. Even harder, actually, because as much as I love the woods, I don’t live there. I have 2 big ash trees in my yard, and there are many more in my neighborhood. Losing these big old shade trees would will break my heart. Sigh. They will die eventually.

The city of Minneapolis has set up a system of proactively chopping down ash trees, and replacing them with different varieties of trees. Yep, chopping down trees that are fine, because in a few years they won’t be fine.

How does this connect to the weather? (Remember, 600 words ago I started out by saying I wouldn’t complain about the cold?) My hope is that the trees that are currently infected will be so cold during this cold snap that the overwintering larvae, curled up in their little serpentine tunnels under the bark, will freeze and die. Mwahahahahaha. Die, little larvae! Die!

For more info, and some alarming photos, check out http://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/will-we-kiss-our-ash-goodbye/

This is not optimal!


Yeah, I can see why you would say that it was not optimal to have a tree right there.

Yeah, I can see why you would say that it was not optimal to have a tree right there.

Our friend Grif and I were touring the perimeter in the dark cold of the winter solstice, mostly checking to see if his theory that the previous owners had covered up a brick façade with vinyl siding was correct. Hey, it was the 70’s- people did crazy things. We went around to the south side of the house, and Grif said “Whose canoe?”
“Oh, it’s ours. We don’t take it out very much, and usually it is tipped over on its side by the side of the house.“ It had fallen over, and filled with snow and ice.
Grif was shining the flashlight on the tree growing out of the foundation. He wasn’t really listening to me. “This is not optimal.” He said. “Did you all know you have a tree growing out of your foundation?”
“Umm, yeah.”
“You really have to get this out of there.”
“Yeah, I know, we chop it down every year, but it keeps coming back from the roots.” Although, now that I think about it, did we chop it down this year? Because, it is like up to the peak of the roof, and we may not have taken it down last summer. I don’t go over to the side yard very much, and when I do, I think, yeah, I should probably take out that tree that is growing in the foundation of the house, but then I do something else instead. Like drink tea. Or read the paper. Or eat potato chips.
I don’t love the Sisyphean task of cutting it down, only to have it grow back from dormant buds. Or maybe it is more like a herculean task, where the tree is like the hydra, where you cut off the head and two more grow back. Now, how did Hercules solve that one? Flaming swords, I think, and help from his cousin. That is probably the one tool I haven’t considered.
So, how does one get a tree out of a foundation? Here’s the plan:
Step 1:chop it down before it leafs out. Plants store carbohydrates in their root systems in the fall so they have energy to grow again in spring. If I chop it back to ground level now, the energy from the underground carbs will be directed into dormant buds on what is left of the trunk. Every time I go to that side of the house, I can cut off any green leaves that sprout, and eventually, the energy stores will be depleted, and the tree will die.
Step two: with a sharp spade, dig around the tree on the sides that are accessible, and cut off as much of the root mass as I can reach.
Step 3: poison and shade I don’t like the official poisons that are sold to us as weed killer. It is partly that I am cheap. However, there are things that are not poisonous to me that may prevent the tree from coming back. Salt. Vinegar. Wood chips. MMMMMM…. Salt and vinegar chips.
Wait, focus- we need to get the non-optimal tree out of the foundation. Trying it this weekend. I’ll keep you posted.

Is it Spring yet?


Melt, snow! Sigh...

Melt, snow! Sigh…

There’s this guy I work with, who starting with the very first day of school, will ask: Is it Summer yet?

It makes me wonder about his career choice- if he is so miserable working at a school, maybe he should try something else? Maybe he would be just as miserable elsewhere, some people are like that.

I try not to be like that, carpe diem, and be here now and all that, but since the solstice, and the days getting incrementally longer, I keep thinking about plans for spring.

We are going to get rid of the old swing set that people never swing on anymore, and for years I had thought about having a little seating area back there-but now I think plants instead.  A peach tree, or two. I have been reading up on “holistic orchards”  which advocate the middle road of preventive care, rather than chemical sprays at one extreme, or laissez faire at the other. (Guess which extreme I am at?) I wonder if the preventative maintenance would get me more fruit for a little more work?

On sunny afternoons this winter I’ll go out and putter- mostly just sweeping leaves off the patio and looking up at the trees. I also do a lot of staring out the window by my desk.

Garden design is hard work.

 

Why did I put my compost pile so far away?


That black bin...way over there...that's the compost bin.

That black bin…way over there…that’s the compost bin.

It has been really flipping cold. Pardon my language. I keep my orange peels and coffee grounds in a big plastic cup on the back of the sink. If I have to put on boots and a scarf and assorted warm woolies to dump that cup, it just isn’t going to happen that often. The next time the temperature gets above 50, I’ll move the bin closer to the house. Like, right by the back door.

 

Rosemary- You can grow that!


At the farmer’s market last spring, I was chatting with this charming German woman who sells pastries (wait, is that offensive? like saying “nice smelling eighth grader” implies that most of them stink? am I saying that I don’t expect Germans to be charming? Maybe she’s Austrian?)Anyway, I had bought a rosemary plant at another stall, and she mentioned she had seen a lemon rosemary cookie recipe, and wouldn’t it be great to have lots of rosemary for recipes like that.

The hardiest rosemary I have heard of is a variety called Arp, and it is hardy to zone 6.  We are technically zone 5, which means we get colder in the winter than it can survive. I say technically, because the zones are changing, with global weirding and all. Zones are determined by the coldest expected temperatures in the winter, and for several years, we have not reached those coldest temps.

I have a two pronged approach to growing my rosemary over the winter, so I have enough for those lemon rosemary cookies (you knew it had to be about the cookies, right?) The first prong was to plant the rosemary in a raised bed right by the house which has a frame over it. The bed is sheltered from the wind, and easy to water, but free draining. If the weather gets really bitter, I can put a plastic cover over the frame. Since rosemary is a Mediterranean plant, it wants soil that drains well, cool temperatures in the winter, but not super cold.  We have just started a cold snap, with the radio weather people predicting lows “well below zero” for tonight. I put a plastic milk jug hat over the plant before it started snowing.

are you okay in there, lil buddy?

are you okay in there, lil buddy?

In case that plan doesn’t work, and I wind up with a skeleton of a plant in the spring, I have also taken cuttings and rooted them on the kitchen window sill.  They are alive now, although I am not sure how they will take the lack of sun as December stretches into January, February, March and April…

Squeee! they are like tiny little evergreens...

Squeee! they are like tiny little evergreens…

Most windowsill herb kits don’t work well, because most windowsills don’t get enough light.  You may see rosemary plants cut into topiaries this time of year, as indoor herbal christmas trees. I would say, if you buy one, cut into it, and make cookies and roast and stuff with it- having fewer leaves will make it more likely to survive the winter in the house. And let me know how the cookies come out.

You can grow that is the fantastic idea of C.L. Fornari, who urges garden bloggers to recommend what to grow to people on the 4th of every month.

 

Saffron- you can grow that. No, really!


Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world- the stigmas of the autumn crocus flower must be picked by hand, and each blossom has only three tiny strands. $1500 per pound was the quote I found on the internet, and the story said that often the spice is adulterated with the flavorless anthers of the flower- only the red strands have the classic flavor used in paella, and ummm… yeah, pretty much paella…
Confession, I planted saffron crocus several years ago, and then I dutifully harvested some, and then it sat in an envelope in my cabinet for a while. I think when I ordered the bulbs, I was like “Most expensive spice in the world? Challenge accepted.” (Actually, I probably bought the bulbs before the “Challenge accepted” meme started, and now here I am, using the meme well after its expiration date.)

Autumn crocus

Autumn crocus

I do have to say, it is very easy to grow, just like a regular crocus, plant the bulbs in fall- the biggest difference is that it sends up leaves in the spring, but only flowers in the fall. Then pick out the stigmas, place in an envelope, and forget about…oh, I mean, make paella.
Anybody have a good paella recipe?

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