Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Planting peas, Fritz and Otto

I got that lovely "breathing not an option" cold. The kind that sets up in your lungs, making you hack so intensely that you feel like your body is trying to cough up your toes. Whee. The other 2 were able to kick it in 3 days.
The weather took a turn for the amazing. Oh yes, today is supposed to get into the high 70's and the next several days are supposed to be just as wonderful.
I am planting the next set of peas. Cabbage, leek and kale also going in. Lots of leek this year as I love tossing them into stew. Homegrown leek are much less gritty, and for the price of one leek at the store, I can get a packet of seeds and grow hundreds.
Peas and beans are nitrogen fixing (meaning they grab nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil), the flowers are pretty... but the taste of peas picked right off the vine and popped seconds later into your mouth... like candy.
I remember when I was about 6 being at my Mom's cousin's house in Germany. A small farm with a stable, the world's most evil jet black pony, the rabbit hutches, the ferrets, the big garden, rows and rows of peas. They put me and my next younger sister to work helping to pick the peas. Our cousin told us to try one and after that they desperately tried to get us to stop.
It was an amazing farm. There were pigs in the barn, but we were not allowed to see them. You see, Uncle Fritz had a glass eye from an incident involving a pig and a pitchfork. Not kidding. His brother, my Uncle Otto, loved to fish. In particular he liked to catch eels and smoke them. Have you ever seen confirmed chocoholic little kids pass up dessert for more smoked eel? Yeah, it was that good.
My attention (after being physically removed from the pea patch) zeroed in on the animals. The trained ferrets that would scamper all over us hoping to steal candy from our pockets. Trained you ask, why yes they were. For a long time that part of my family used ferrets to help hunt rabbits.
The pony, oh I was soooo intent on winning him over. His ears were pinned, stomping his itty bitty hooves, he just wanted to squish me. No fear, I had a plastic replica that looked just like him, he WILL love me, just as long as I had enough treats. We settled on taking treats nicely and a few neck scratches. He protested by chomping the air, but not directed at me.
The big, fat, cute bunnies... oh were they sweet. We rounded up treats for them, petted and snuggled them, and later it seems we ate them. Chicken cacciatore, they told us it was chicken! Only after dinner when we went to give them one last snuggle did we realize some of the hutches were empty.
Even though some of the family are avid hunters, I think all of us are genetically predisposed to caring for animals. Like Uncle Fritz and Otto used to have a pet skunk (orphaned baby they found). They also had a deer. Yet another orphan that was adopted. Fritz raised it and Otto teased it. They used to leave the door open and it would walk in and out as it wanted. It was a buck and on Christmas back then some of the ornaments were made of chocolate. The deer loved chocolate, effectively eating every ornament it could reach. Deer don't forget. While it adored Fritz, he grew up and stayed close to the farm. He hated Otto. Otto teased him one last time and the buck, sporting his pointy antlers, chased Otto up a tree. When Bambi goes bad, he goes very bad. Otto was stuck in the tree most of the day until Fritz got home. Otto needed some stitches, Fritz meanwhile gave the buck more treats.
I need a farm. I need an evil blood lusting pony and big, fat, tasty bunnies. I guess until I get my farm I will just plant peas in my yard, remember the past and dream of what may yet be.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gardening and just getting started

The time of year has arrived for the gardening itch to kick in full force. There is something exciting about walking out into a plot of dirt and dreaming about what may be. Every year is a gamble and diversity is the means to hedge your bets.

First things first, know what growing zone you are in. It isn't going to be a date set in stone as mother nature loves to throw a few curve balls for last frost/ first freeze, but it will give you a rough idea to work with. Soil temperature is going to be a more accurate guideline overall as to when to plant, knowing what zone you are in will give you an idea when to start transplants.

Speaking of soil, it is always going to be a work in progress. You can have it tested to give you an idea of what may be lacking, what ph it is, etc. If testing isn't feasible, no worries. Here is a rough generalization of amendments to consider: compost compost compost!

  • if you have clay, one of the easiest amendments is going to be compost. It will help give loft, improve drainage and add nutrients. Clay tends to contain a good amount of trace minerals, what ones and how much really depends on your location.
  • if you have sandy soil, again you want to add compost. Sandy soils are quick draining and usually lacking in nutrients. Compost in this case will help retain moisture.
So if you are looking to buy a soil amendment to get started, aim for compost. If you are thinking the compost labeled as "organic" means chemical additive free, granola approved, eco-warrior sanctioned, guess again. Lovely marketing ploy, compost is not something that is able to be certified organic. Reality is they are able to use that word (often in big prominent lettering) under the definition of the product being carbon based. So materials like processed municipal biosolids qualify under that description. It is also not regulated for quality.

Shoestring budget doesn't mean you can't have a Victory garden, it just means creativity and resourcefulness is going to be your greatest attribute. If purchasing truckloads of finished compost isn't an option, look for alternative local sources as well as make your own! Call up local stables, check at feed lots for sources (that tip courtesy of Terry), hit up the local Starbucks (grounds for gardens. Sometimes they need to be reminded of this program they offer and often it may take a bit of time to get them into the routine to save grounds for you. The payoff is those grounds can be turned right in to the soil. They will act as a mild nitrogen source as it contains only about 2% nitrogen, of which only a fraction is readily available and the rest is slowly released as it breaks down in the garden.). No Starbucks? Then try calling and asking other locations like restaurants as some are willing to help if you provide a suitable lidded container. Check with your local town as some have free compost and mulch for their residents. Look to your kitchen and yard as well for materials to be composted.

If you decide to create your own compost you should know what is good and what should not be added as well as how you want to compost. The whole composting issue is for another day, let's just leave it for now as I can't ever get enough of it!

Don't get swindled by the hype. Gardening is one of those activities where the more you know, the more you can save. Some of it may take effort, or staying on top of things, some of it is as simple as knowing what container works best for saving seeds.

What plants to grow... what plants to grow? Big box stores will have transplants of a few varieties that are supposed to be a good cultivar to your area (ideally). My only issue with them really is that more often than not the ones I see are root bound, infested with various pests, or also are sporting diseases. Usually I see better options at the smaller nurseries, but still you need to keep an eye out.

Seeds. Gardening is a lot of trial and error. Some plants offer more per growing area than others. Beans for example not only offer a pretty good sized crop for the amount of space they use, but they also add nitrogen back into the dirt as well as good material for the compost once they are finished. Go for as much variety of different kinds of crops as you can. Although hybrid varieties tend to be created more for productivity, disease resistance and the like... heirlooms also have their endearing qualities.

Buying seeds can get really pricey if enthusiasm gets the better of you. Try to look at it more like taking care of an investment. Some sell mini packets and then for a little more $ sometimes the next larger size can have twice the amount. Some seeds like parsnips and onions don't retain viability very long, but then you have others like tomatoes, beets, peppers, etc. that if stored correctly can hold their germination for quite a few years. The key.. storing them in an air tight container with desiccant, out of light, and in an area where the temperature is consistent.

OP (open pollinated) and heirloom seeds are like the gifts that keep giving. Some need a bit of work to make sure they do not cross, but those efforts can pay you back significantly in the end. Here's an example, I bought a packet of dill for $3, roughly 300 seeds. Planted in late spring (2 successive plantings) I let half go to seed to be saved for later plantings (the other half of the seed heads were snapped up by a neighbor for pickles). The amount of seeds I have from that for later plantings... well let's just say I am set for the next 5 years even if I don't save any more.

There is an amazing book out on saving seeds. It is called "Seed to Seed" by Suzanne Ashworth. If not in your budget to get this seed saving bible, pester your library to get a copy. Just take it in small steps when you do read it as it can seem overwhelming otherwise.

There are other sources as well, not that I recommend them necessarily, but I find it entertaining to experiment. I have saved seeds from particularly tasty tomatoes and peppers I got at farmer's markets. I've planted cloves of garlic that were from the store. Potatoes same thing, except I find they usually have issues like scab which can take a few years to eliminate from the soil. Bunches of basil.. tossed them in water and they rooted. Repotted them and collected several more cutting before letting them go to seed and collecting those as well. Winter squash is kind of tricky, butternuts I have had luck with seeds from those out of farmer's market purchases, also had luck with hubbards. Spaghetti, acorn and pumpkin (all C. Pepo)... not so lucky. Squash flowers produce a ton of pollen so it will make any bee a raging floozy.

Well enough rambling for today. I have more seeds to start and compost to turn before the family wanders home with outlandish demands... like feed me.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Stuff N Tings

Random thoughts, interests

Spring is so close that it has me climbing up the walls. Heat, is it here yet?!? The white fluffy stuff I appreciate... in pictures or from far far away. Maybe visit it on occasion wouldn't be so bad in small amounts, or from a window. I quickly get over the whole "look how pretty it is outside!" right about when the shovel hits my hand.

It dumped snow last night. Trees bent under the weight of the wet blankets of white, the electricity flickering every now and then to remind us to get some things together just in case it goes out.

My dog is outside racing about in the snow full force with his very chapped nose plowing the way. When he really gets going, you can't even see him through all the snow flying about. He's a rescue mutt, liberated from clueless neighbors who thought a puppy was a good idea until they realized they come untrained. Rottie, german shepard, chow and collie mix he is the best dog I have ever had.

His dual coat is so thick that in under a minute he has softball sized snowballs covering most of his body. Eau De Wet Dog Stink. As soon as he thaws, he will get his daily brushing. His coat is so crazy long and thick that we have to brush the carpet before we vacuum. Not kidding. He has killed every model of pet vacuum we have purchased.

My daughter is currently outside making snowmen with her best friend. Forget the happy, cute typical snowmen most people would make... this child discovered The Far Side and Calvin & Hobbes at a very very young age. Their snowmen as a result are in varying stages of mutation.

I have yet to start even more newspaper pots for more trays of plants for the garden. I like folding the square ones as they fit better in the trays, and I hate picking out tape from the garden. They work out well. At 2 layers thick the plants are able to grow through the paper once they are transplanted.

The propagation unit was a score at a garage sale. $75 for a barely used 3 tier unit. It holds about 12 flats, which almost is enough room for all of my starts and extras for friends.