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Friday, April 22, 2016

Purple rain on Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! Today the wind and a blossoming crabapple tree delivered a beautiful shower of petals that pooled in purple puddles on the lawn and garden. (OK, maybe the color purple is a stretch ... raspberry* maybe?)

No matter, I hope you find something in your backyard farm worth celebrating today. Further, I hope that in honor of the day you will commit to any change -- big or small -- to better care for this planet we all share.

My Earth Day pursuit this year is to minimize water waste in the kitchen.  I collect the water that normally goes down the drain when we rinse dish cloths or pour off cooking water by keeping a plastic dish pan in the bottom of the sink. This gets emptied into a gallon pitcher that I keep on the counter by the sink, then taken outside to water plants. Sometimes I even have the watering can right on the counter for this purpose. For the dishwasher, we scrape dishes into the garbage can instead of rinsing and spraying them off in the sink and having to run the disposal more frequently. The dishwasher works better when I turn on the sink to get the water hot first, so I collect this water so it also doesn't go to waste.

This is a little thing, in fact it feels like just a drop in the bucket of water conservation when I see neighborhood sprinklers water the sidewalks, but it's something I can do. How about you?

*Thanks, Prince, for the soundtrack of my youth.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Off-site gardening: Factors to consider before starting roots away from home

Joining a community garden or using extra space in a friend's yard is a great way to grow crops when you don't have room at your own home. You may also know a business or school willing to loan you an area for the summer. Another option is to do as reader Dave Bentz did and purchase vacant lots in his city to convert to gardens. 

I have done three different gardens away from home: a community garden plot offered to university students; part of my husband's grandma's yard, which we shared with his brother; and, most recently, a section next to our friend's cow pasture in our town. My kids called this the "cow garden". We lived in an apartment for the first two gardens, but raised a home garden at the same time we had space near the cow pasture. 

No matter what kind of off-site garden you pursue, maximize the experience by considering these factors:

1. Time. 

This is the single most important factor. Be realistic with how much time you can devote. Include travel time. We dedicated Mondays to take our children to the cow garden and work together. Without a scheduled commitment it is far too easy to say, "Eh, we'll just get to the garden later." Such was the case with our first off-site garden, the university one. Although I was super excited for the plot, the garden fell by the wayside behind our busy jobs and school, fatigue from my first pregnancy and the fact we had only one car. The garden was too far for me to walk when my husband used the vehicle on his job. Excuses, excuses. 

2. Location. 

Go close! If that's not feasible, find a spot that you pass during your regular commutes and routines so you can keep an eye on the garden beyond your scheduled days to work there. Use the same criteria as you would siting a home garden: Does it get adequate light? Fences, trees or other structures that cast shade should be north of a garden area. Afternoon sun (from the west) is harsher than morning light.

3. Space.

There is a space/time relationship just like there is a location/time connection. The bigger the space, the more time it will require to set up and maintain. If you are using a space larger than your home garden you may need to expand your thinking, too. For example, our first summer at the cow garden we planted veggies as close together as we do at home in their grow boxes. If we had known how ferocious the weeds would become, we would have allowed space between plants for a rototiller. 

4. Water

Does the plot have access to water? This is a must in dry climates. Will you pay for water? Is it a sprinkler system, hoses or both? If it is sprinklers, do you have a contact person readily available if something goes wrong with the pipes? (Another reason to check your garden regularly.) One of the biggest contrasts between my home garden and the off-site cow garden (raised simultaneously) was in the watering method. At home I use soaker hoses, drip lines or water plants by hand with a watering can. I seldom get weeds because the ground between plants is not watered. The cow garden's shooting sprinklers, however, watered EVERYTHING. The weeds went wild. The cow garden automatic sprinklers were high on stakes. This overhead water delivery, and the frequency of it, caused more powdery mildew and fungus problems in foliage than I ever had at home. Squash and tomato plants did not fare well, and the tomato skins frequently split.

5. Soil. 

Will it need extensive improvements? If the area has not been used for recent plantings, find out what was there in the past -- old leaky cars could suggest chemical leaching.  It may be worth your while to do a soil test first. At the cow garden, in spring our friend cleaned his barn and spread the manure into the plots. Since the cows had been feasting on weeds, those seeds simply got relocated. The weeds were bionic. 

6. Sharing.  

If you share the space with someone else discuss the division of duties at the beginning of the season. Maybe you work together to till the soil in the whole area and join forces again in fall to clean up. How will you set up traffic areas so that no one's plantings are trampled? Be courteous when planting your crops, remembering that tall ones, like corn, can cast shade or block sprinklers. Pumpkins, squashes and other vine crops will amble well past their boundaries. (There's a reason my kids called it the cow garden!)

Yum, banana squash. Moo.

7. Equipment.

Are tools, hoses and other implements on the property or will you need to bring your own each time you come to your garden? Consider keeping gloves, a spade and a harvest bucket in your trunk so you are ready for impromptu visits.

8. Commitment for the season.

Are you relatively certain the property where you garden won't change hands before the growing season ends? I appreciate that our cow garden friends didn't open up their property for gardening last spring, on the off chance they would need to sell. They didn't want someone to go to all that work without the harvest.

So there you have it. Off-site gardens can supplement your own backyard farm or give opportunities to people who have no space otherwise. I fear my disdain for the cow garden weeds and watering issues came through loud and clear in this post! Still, I am grateful for these new gardening lessons, and to have extra space to produce a harvest like the one above, all picked on a beautiful September morning.

Check out this site for a weekly roundup of ideas from fellow homesteaders.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Surprising yucky discovery in stored seeds

Last summer I purposely let some pea pods mature to brown on the vines so I could harvest the seeds to plant this spring. This weekend I pulled the seeds out to put them in the garden. I was surprised that so many of them had holes. What in the world? I smashed one with a knife to see if I could figure out what caused this. I don't know what I expected -- mold, fungus, maybe? -- but I was utterly surprised to find that a bug was inside. Apparently it was playing dead, because I got another surprise a few minutes later when it slowly started moving.  

I learned these are cowpea weevils. Adults lay eggs in developing legume pods or stored seeds. The larvae and pupae grow inside the seed and emerge as grown weevils. These can produce a new generation of adults in three to six weeks.

Don't be complacent if you find a hole in only one seed. One hole signals that an adult has emerged. You likely have an infestation with the insect in other stages inside the other seeds. Best to throw all of them out. And not to the compost heap, I might add, where they still can flourish.

If you recently purchased seeds and discover holes in them, I recommend taking them back to the store and asking for a replacement or refund.

My seeds were in a plastic sandwich bag which wasn't entirely sealed ... my mistake. I further erred by leaving them in a kitchen drawer (I forgot!) instead of in a cooler place. Weevils love the warmth.

I will try to save pea seeds again this year, with this added step: FREEZING. Make sure the peas are completely dry before storage; to test this, pound a few with a hammer on the driveway. They should make a brittle cracking sound and not have any gummy interiors. If frozen before completely dry the extra moisture can expand in the seed and make it crack. Freeze in a moisture/air tight container. If the mature peas were exposed to insects while on the vine, the life cycle will be in the egg stage. Freezing will kill the eggs before larvae make a dent.

As cozy as a pea in a pod? No thanks.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Gardens as healers

This is a tale of two trees. Framed in the blossoming peach branches in my yard is the view of a pine tree across the street. Both trees, as it happens, were planted the very same spring day. Both trees, and I desperately wish this reason hadn't happened, are memorials to young men lost. The peach tree is in honor of my brother; the pine in honor of my neighbors' son. They died a month apart that awful winter of 2009. Both were 29. 

Having a piece of my garden dedicated to my brother has been very healing for me. I don't remember planning this when we purchased the peach tree, but its fruit ripens around Ben's September birthday. 

Ben was in a coma for about a week that July. It was dire. That he emerged and we had him again for a spell, even if it was just until February, is a miracle. The thing about a coma is that time and ability get skewered for everyone involved, not just the patient. I was too consumed with worry and hospital visits to address much else, least of all my wilted garden.

My father-in-law made the hour-plus trip to our house one day during Ben's coma. I don't remember why. He is a doctor and very proud to share his medical expertise; he knew more than any of us how hopeless the situation was and could have easily -- and maybe even justifiably -- inserted himself to tell us so. Instead, he looked around for tools and headed to the garden. I sat, defeated, at the edge of the patio, only occasionally lifting my head from my hands to watch him water my thirsty patch. The way he held the rake, tines up, to make the hose a mobile shower head was ingenious. He and I exchanged no words in the backyard -- our relationship was tenuous anyway, and it would have been hard to speak. Yet I've never forgotten the way he tended to me when he tended my garden.

When my neighbors' son died that March their friend set to work in their front yard. I watched from my kitchen window as this woman tackled weeding, cleared space for a flowerbed and planted bright, cheerful pansies. That spot is where the pine tree now grows. I joined her one afternoon while my baby napped. Regarding her motivation to comfort, she told me she didn't know what to say, but she did know what she could do. During her labor over several days in the front yard, she was an ambassador for the family, helping to greet and give updates to other concerned neighbors, many of whom came by while the family was at the mortuary. Her kindness continues to inspire me.

Sadly, the woman's son died this autumn. I sent condolences and helped with the funeral, but I want to do more to show her I care. The only way I know how is to get my hands dirty in her yard. Spring comes on its own, no matter what we do, but when we work to remove the effects of winter we get to bask in the sunshine longer and feel its warmth more surely. 

In the case of the peach and the pine, I see these two trees every day and smile to know their tragic backstories are tempered by the acts of loving gardeners.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Getting a jump on next summer's grasshoppers

Cluster of grasshopper eggs. Photo courtesy of CSU Extension, by permission.

"Don't count your eggs before they hatch" is sound advice for opportunity seekers. When it comes to pest control in your backyard farm, minimize opportunistic grasshoppers by destroying eggs before they hatch.

Keep an eye out for egg clusters as you dig in your garden this spring. The eggs look like grains of brown rice stuck together.

If you find such a stash, take the time to put it in an airtight container that you later discard. If you leave them be, these eggs can hatch into the garden's most ravaging enemies. According to Planet Natural, a study showed that six adults per square yard on a 10-acre pasture ate as much as a cow.

Because of grasshoppers' mobility, they are extremely hard to control. Strong pesticide sprays will harm bees and other beneficial insects. Natural baits are available, such as those containing Nosema Locustae. Grasshoppers get a spore from ingesting the substance (most types are powder), which causes them to eat less and eventually die. To be effective the bait must be applied to known hatching areas when the grasshoppers are nymphs.

Destroying the eggs you find is a no-cost companion approach to any baits you may try.

Female grasshoppers lay the eggs about an inch underground in late summer/early fall. The eggs survive the winter, hatch in mid to late spring and look for tender foliage. Remove any unwanted plants and cultivate around the ones you keep to turn the soil and expose egg clusters.
Grasshoppers like lettuce, carrots, corn, onions and beans -- leaves and all. Oh, the beans! I can definitely attest to that. They frequent tomato plants, too, where during harvest time I find myself close enough to deliver finger flicks to the head. (Oddly satisfying.) Grasshoppers generally don't like squash and peas as much, although in large population cycles where demand exceeds supply, they may eat anything. 

Ducks, guinea fowl and chickens can take a bite out of a grasshopper infestation. Other grasshopper control methods include row covers (although the insects can chew through some fabrics) and trap crops. Plant zinnias around your garden border to attract and divert grasshoppers from pouncing on veggies. Such a grasshopper hangout is a more contained space to use baits.

Handpick and destroy as many grasshoppers as you can. Follow-up egg removal efforts this spring by capturing late-summer mating grasshoppers in the act, thwarting a new generation. These ... um, preoccupied specimens are easier to catch! Yes, I had a picture, and no, I couldn't bring myself to post it. As Jimmy Fallon would say, "Ew."