Soil- you can grow that!


Hens and chicks in leaf litter.

Here on the front range of the Rocky Mountains, we have alkaline clay soil that ranges from tan to brown in color. I can jump up and down on the blade of a shovel and not make a dent. I use a thrift store knife to cut weeds off at the root, and I have broken two- snapped the blade clean off in the hard soil.
Except in places where I have mulched.
In shrub beds around the yard where I have been piling leaves and wood chips, I can slice into the soil like it was chocolate cake. Well, maybe brownies.
The best explanation for what happens when we add organic matter to soil that I have read is from Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening. Imagine sandy soil is a jar of marbles, water just pours through, moistening the marbles, but not staying in the gaps. Organic matter works like little sponges in between the marbles, holding onto the water and nutrients. Imagine clay soil is like a pile pf playing cards. Water sits on top in a puddle, slowly sinking in. Organic matter works like little sponges in between the cards, creating space for water and air.
So, if you want to build soil, and believe me, you do, here are some ways to do it:
Compost– My favorite compost bin is one that has no bottom, and can be moved around the yard. Every six months or so, I put my bin under another tree, or next to a bush, and when I dump out coffee grounds and orange peels, I enrich the soil in that space. When the bin is full, I move it to a new location, spread out the pile, and have automatic mulch in that zone.
Leaves– I have two big ash trees- they drop copious leaves which I sweep off the patio and rake onto my asparagus, and raspberries, and strawberries, and veggie beds. You may not live in a neighborhood with big trees- some cities have leaf exchange sites where people who don’t want leaves can get rid of them. A few years ago, I participated, and a man brought over a flat bed trailer with a mix of leaves and fresh cut grass. It was heating up as we unloaded the trailer and I spread it around. It made lovely mulch.
Wood chips– I get a pick-up load of wood chips pretty much every year. The goal is mostly to keep weeds down and hold moisture in the soil, but they slowly break down to build soil as well.

A mix of autumn leaves and dead tomato plants, with some sticks on top so it won’t blow away. By spring, it will all boil down to the level of the top of the raised bed.

– I am lazy about “putting the garden to bed” because I know that the stems and leaves of the plants themselves will break down into soil. Weeds with seed heads I usually throw away, although I don’t get all of them. I intentionally leave some seed heads, like for coneflower or sunflowers, for the birds to eat. Tall stems also catch blowing snow and leaves around them so they act as tiny snow fences.

So, whether you have sandy soil or clay, your garden can benefit from adding organic matter to it. This is a great time of year to begin a garden- pile up leaves and let the worms and other critters turn them into soil for next spring.

Rabbit Hole Warning: See CL Fornari’s You Can Grow that site for more ideas of what you can do, no matter where you live.

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Organic Apples- you can grow that


I have a list of the “dirty dozen” on a post-it note over my desk- the fruits and vegetables that you should eat organically grown versions of, if you can get them, because of pesticide residues. Number 1 on the list, and in our hearts, is apples.
Celery, spinach, and bell peppers are on the list, but nobody around here eats enough of those to make a difference. Apples, though…we eat a lot of.
We have a giant old tree that produces sour apples, not our favorites, and about 7 years ago I planted a Golden Delicious tree. After falling down, but not being entirely uprooted, in an early fall storm last fall, it has produced prolifically this year. Prolifically enough that I thinned once in June, then again in July, taking off unripe fruit that I was worried would break off the branches.
Backyard Orchard (link) has helped figure out what to take off and what to leave, how to prune, and when.
Now the organic part… I didn’t do anything. Last year I stapled paper lunch bags to fruit I could reach, and that was effective, but this year, I was talking to a colleague, who said that since she had put up bird feeders, her apples were much cleaner. A few got wormy, but the birds came for appetizers, and stayed for dinner.
I didn’t put up feeders- the squirrels tend to get to those anyway, but I have a lot of plants that feed birds, like coneflowers, We have been building up the garden for about 12 years, making habitat for pollinators, and birds and snakes and us. Several years of building soil and habitat has made it so this summer, we didn’t have to do much- the apples kind of took care of themselves. After a summer of doing nothing, my apples look great. They are small, which tells me I need to thin more aggressively next year, and probably water more. However, they are bug-free, and pesticide free.
I am a few days late in posting this for the “You can grow that” meme, created by C.L. Fornari, a garden writer who wanted to get other writers involved in writing encouraging posts, letting people know that it isn’t that hard. It strikes me funny that Miracle Gro has a marketing plan called “you can gro that” that kind of tramples over the top of C.L. Fornari’s meme, which I have been participating in since March. I am not sure what the future holds for the meme http://wholelifegardening.com/blog/. But you should know, you can grow (yes, with a w) apples.

Toad in the grass


Eggs and bacon, on top of spinach and greens. Squeeze of lemon, pop the yolks, mmmmmm

My college roommate introduced me to a dish called Toad in the Hole- a fried egg in a hole torn in a slice of bread. I don’t know how I grew to adulthood without knowing about this concept- combining eggs and toast in a happy little unit.

It has taken me another 20 years to find out about cooking an egg on a bed of sauteed greens- the same homeliness of the egg, with the virtuous feeling of eating a pile of spinach. I have been calling it Toad in the Grass, which I realize is a horrible name, but I have seen it elsewhere as “baked eggs” which seems like an even more horrible name.

This batch is made with spinach and beet greens from my garden (the beets were supposed to be micro greens, but I kind of forgot, and now they’re macro).

Saute the greens in olive oil and the water left on the leaves from washing them.

This is about two cups of mixed spinach and beet.

When the greens have reduced by about half, crack an egg or two on top. Cover and let cook until the eggs are mostly done. Then turn on the broiler and cook the gooey stuff on top. I added parmesan cheese this time, but I don’t always.

T

The eggs look kind of like eyes, maybe call it green monster? Another horrible name.

I also had 2 slices of pre-cooked bacon (you should cook bacon in the oven- it works really well) that I threw on top. Sooooo yummy.

Strawberries- you can grow that


One of my peak experiences in gardening was not in my own garden, and in fact, I didn’t do any of the cultivation. Friends of mine in college lived in a house with a strawberry bed, next to a flagstone path. One beautiful June, I would go to their house, sit in the sun on those red sandstone pavers, and eat perfect, ripe strawberries.

Of course, I had to have strawberries and a flagstone path at our house, when we finally bought one.

just a few more days…just a few more days…

I actually have planted strawberries in many locations- before I got married, and moved every year or so, after I got married, and …moved every year or so. It may seem ridiculous- planting a fruit that takes several years before it produces in house and apartments that I knew I would be moving out of. Maybe it is ridiculous, but it seemed like a good investment in karma.

Strawberries do produce sparingly the first year, but after that, they spread and produce more. They reproduce by sending out stolons, or runners, with baby plants on the end.  I let the “daughter plants” take root and grow, so I always have some plants that are 3 or 4 years old, and about to peter out, some 2 year old plants that produce well, and some baby plants that are getting established. Most gardening books recommend cutting off the stolons the first year so you get more fruit.

New vocabulary word for the day- stolon.

A few years ago, I was at my sister-in-law’s house, and she was transplanting strawberry plants out from under a huge pine tree. Apparently, the birds that stole her berries perched on the tree, and ummm…seeds grew…in perfect packets of fertilizer. Yeah, you know what I mean, bird poo. They didn’t get enough sun under the tree to produce very well, but it made a perfect nursery for baby plants.

Strawberries are heavy feeders, so I give them compost, and mulch them pretty heavily, except where they have grown into the gaps in the path, where I can’t get mulch to go.

I plan to transplant these guys out of the gaps in the path, and may try them in containers.

Here in zone 5, the front range of Colorado, they ripen in early to mid June, this is later than you can get them in the grocery store, but oh so much tastier. And organic. And with a very small carbon footprint. Here’s where I get preachy and link you to a story about strawberries from California.

If you order plants in winter, you can get a bundle of 25 for around 25 dollars. They go a foot apart, so that is a lot of space to devote to  strawberries, but you can tuck them around other things- for example, there is a giant rosebush in the same bed with my strawberries, as well as iris and a mock orange. They are also available this time of year in nurseries. In fact, at the grocery this weekend, they had hanging baskets of them in the doorway.

I have had slug issues in the past, but this year has been so dry, I don’t expect them. I’ll put out saucers of cheap beer just in case.

Diagonal Apple Tree


I’ve written before about my travails with my Golden Delicious apple tree( it’s my favorite-). After 5 years of struggling in my orchard without quite enough water, the poor guy went horizontal last October in an early season snowstorm. I pulled it back as close as I could to vertical, which is about 75 degrees, (I don’t know, I don’t have a protractor!) and tied it to 2 stakes. My most recent worry was a late season snowstorm, when rain turned to snow on April 2. I wasn’t so much worried that the buds would freeze, I was worried that branches would break off, or that it would go horizontal again and just keel over completely.

It didn’t. So, that’s good news, I guess, if not exactly worthy of a whole blog post…My worries were groundless. The blossoms look fine, and it is getting warm enough for pollinators, so we should have some apples- Golden Delicious, my favorite.

I am keeping the stakes in place, the tree is still leaning to the north, and the 2 stakes pull is pretty steadily to the south. I may add another stake to take some of the pressure off. This June, I again plan to put paper bags on the fruit to get organic apples– I’m bringing my good stapler home from work.

A Year’s Worth of Garlic, part deux


Last summer, I harvested some lovely garlic from my garden, and we have been eating it pretty much all winter. We have not had to buy it at all, and we still have several heads- it may not get us all the way to July, but it will be darn close.
We also planted more- I saved out the best cloves to plant, and also bought some hardneck garlic to try. I would link to that post, but can’t figure out how...can someone please teach me how to use link within in WordPress?   ooh, somebody did- thank you!

Hardneck garlic has a bonus- it sends up a flowering stem called a scape, and they can be thrown into soup, or sliced for stir fries. Or smoothies…nah, maybe not smoothies. The scapes will fill a gap with garlic flavor after all the heads of garlic from last year will have sprouted and gotten mushy.
I planted it last fall when the soil was still warm, and lo and behold, it has come up. It has been pretty much the only part of the garden I have watered this spring. It has been super dry, and I probably should be watering my young trees right now…