Category Archives: nature

On pest prevention


Office supplies in the garden:  sowbug-proofing the tomatillo seedlings

So many of the tricks employed to outwit garden-munching critters have seemed somewhat familiar to me, in different contexts.  I was thinking about it last night when I was rigging up these little collars.  “Ah,” I thought.  “This is a barrier method,” as in…contraception!  Yes, it’s true:  one can indeed draw parallels between pest prevention and, uh, well.  You know.  And yes:  the ultimate prevention of all would be not to garden:  abstinence works, right?

In all seriousness (not that birth control isn’t a serious issue), the sowbugs were having a field day with some of my greenhouse seedlings, and I needed to pay attention.  Sure, I do plant more than I need as both insurance and because I like to share my plants, so I can spare a few to the sowbugs (roly-polies, pillbugs); they tend to favor the weaker plants so are actually doing me a favor.  But it is a bummer to come into the greenhouse and see leaves sitting on the ground, stems munched straight through.  The plants are only vulnerable for a short time:  the greenhouse gets too hot and dry for the bugs’ preference, and the plants also toughen up and become unpalatable.  But in the short interim, these index cards work just fine.

On ectotherms

dscn3464From the archives:  our daughter at 2

Yesterday was a downright chilly day with a high of 40*F., and rainy too.  Our lone resident frog in our pond still sang his lovely tune, albeit much more slowly.  I took our daughter outside to hear it and to see if she had noticed the difference.

“It’s cold out here, so the frog is slowing down.  It means he’s not putting so much energy into his calls,” I told her.  “He’s got to save his energy because he’s cold-blooded, baby.”

“No, Mama, he’s not cold-blooded.  He’s ectothermic.”

Dang, but you gotta love Montessori!  She’s five, and I had to go and look up the word to see if she was correct.  (She was.)

Happy Earth Day.

Natura abhorret a vacuo

img_1061Bubbly trouble

We have a little pond that I dug in the yard outside our dining room four years ago.  It’s a blobby Y shape, holding about 750 gallons of water, and has been home to various amphibians, snails, bugs and some goldfish; it’s also chock-full of water plants and bordered by a decent-sized perennial garden with some bushes thrown in (buddleia, rose, dogwood, mock orange, tree wisteria, forsythia, hydrangea).  It has a small pump and waterfall, and a bench.  It is a pleasant little place.

Lately, we have been serenaded by a single Western chorus frog and a couple of toads.  The windows are open now and it is nice to hear the bubbling of the pond, the calls of the amphibians.  It’s actually more than nice.

You see, we killed all the animals that were in the pond this winter.

Mostly inadvertently, of course.  This is an instance of one’s green save-the-earth principles (let’s not waste the electricity by running the de-icer) actually have done more harm than good.  In most winters, see, the pond will ice over but it won’t last long.  This year it iced over and stayed that way, trapping all gases under the ice and killing all the fish and frogs.  Tom pulled out close to 100 frogs and all 30 of our goldfish.

So, yes, it is great to see some creatures return.  There are a few green frog tadpoles that also survived:  nowhere near the 100 that are gone, surely, but there’s hope for the future.

It is an indulgence to us humans, this little pond.  But by digging it, stocking it with fish, and enjoying the natural critters that come requires us to do what we can to ensure the pond critters’ health, safety and welfare.  Otherwise, I need to triple the size of that little pond and make it fully natural…something I doubt I will do, given how hard it was to dig through that damned clay to begin with.

On adventures in seed-saving

img_1027The Milkman’s child amongst the green Amish Deer Tongue seedlings

I’ve been saving most of my seeds from one year to another for a few years now.  In some instances, growing things to save their seed is actually more arduous than growing the plants to simply be eaten…but some veggies are not so very hard or complicated.  Beans are probably the easiest, right up there with saving seed potatoes from one year to the next.  Lettuce, thankfully, falls in the “easy” category.

A couple of years back, I mentioned my slam-bang way of saving lettuce seed.  Likewise, planting the autumn volunteers from the fallen seed of blooming plants is another way we keep our greenhouse in salad all winter, as is planting little greenhouse volunteers. But one thing I haven’t really addressed is the potential for cross-pollination amongst the various lettuce types that I grow.

I hadn’t really noticed much change when I harvested seeds from same-colored, different-leaved types of lettuce in times past:  the genotype for leaf expression must remain fairly steady between generations.  But what I have discovered, happily, is the variant for both color and spotting seems to be fairly readily cross-pollinated.  So, what the hell does this mean?  It means I get spots from my Freckles Romaine on the second generation of Amish Deer Tongue lettuces that grew next to it.  It means I get a blush on the green Bibb lettuce that grew next to Red Sails, a loose-leaf lettuce.  It’s not happening all the time, but maybe 5% of the time; it’s fascinating to me.

img_10251Please, tell me that I’m pretty

I figure I have the next 50 years of my life to kind of figure out this whole botany thing.  But for now, I just say, look, let’s eat that pretty salad.

On nature, tooth and claw

sad_henSad Ruby on Friday

I have a bit of an update on Ruby and her eggs.

Early Friday morning, I exited the house on critter chore duty and I was greeted by the sweetest sound.  “Goodness,” I thought, “Earl has learned to imitate Ruby and her sweet coo,” when actually it was our Ruby that I was hearing…and seeing!  How in the world…?  What happened?  Why is she out and about, why is she not sitting on her eggs?

She couldn’t have gotten out on her own, and I was right.  Apparently, a raccoon got into the brood chamber and attacked her, and eaten all her eggs.  We were all so sad, but not as sad as Ruby herself.

She’s safe now, back on a bunch of (dummy) chicken eggs, and I have thrown the Chicken Tractor over her nesting chamber, so now she’s doubly (triply, counting the new fence) secure.

But that particular raccoon won’t be bothering her again.


Mean omnivorous bastard.  Our daughter wanted to make a coonskin cap out of him.

On that nesting instinct


Doesn’t she look cozy?

Our girl turkey, Ruby, has gone broody.  Nothing would make us happier than if all the hard work of sitting on a nest for 28 days actually yielded a turkey poult or two, but I’m not overly hopeful.  I don’t know how effective our tom, Earl, has been as far as mating goes:  Ruby hasn’t been the most cooperative of mates, you see.  She’s a flighty girl all around.

So flighty, actually, that finding her nest was something of a challenge!  Every day she’d fly out of the pen with the geese, in search of fresh greens and general mischief (well, mischief is something the geese excel at, whereas Ruby just kind of tags along, hanging with “the bad crowd”).  At one point in her time out of the pen, she found a nesting site, and for longer and longer periods, she’d simply be “gone,” apparently sitting.  That time stretched into a longer and longer period until last Friday when she didn’t return to the pen at all.  Huh.

Saturday morning came, afternoon, evening; snow threatened for Sunday so we moved her, and her clutch of 7 eggs, to the goose/turkey egg hutch (mostly ignored by the intended poultry; the guineas, though, love it and it’s there that I find their three eggs a day).  She’s been sitting ever since.

It is interesting to note that, for the first time in many years, wild turkeys have been spotted in and around the area.  About a month ago I noticed the geese and turkeys running in their pen, very agitated; I went outside and saw twelve, maybe 15, wild turkeys in the field just behind their pen.  Whooshwhooshwhoosh, all the wild birds flew away, gigantic brown birds, without a peep or a sqwawk amongst them.  A few days later two wild toms ran in front of my car as we went into town for some errands, and then, last week, I saw Ruby in the same field behind her pen with…two toms!  She was chasing them, though.  Can I tell you how gigantic these birds are?  They look easily to be 1.5 times the height of Earl, which means they’d come up to my waist, easily.

So I do not know if Ruby was tramping around or if she was merely being territorial; I suppose time will tell if those eggs yield some wild-looking poults.

On phenology

img_0771Crocuses in snow is a phenophase of spring’s arrival

Friday is the best day on public radio in my humble opinion.  We get Diane Rehm’s weekly wrap-up in national and international news, and we get Science Friday.  This last Friday didn’t disappoint:  one topic was back-yard climatology.

I thought of this show on Tuesday when, while on trip to the greenhouse for dinner’s onions and carrots, I heard the year’s first frogs.  This is neither early nor late as far as my limited experience tells me, and I did feel a twinge for them because of course the daily high on Wednesday was 25 chilly degrees.

“Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate. The word is derived from the Greek phainomai (φαινομαι)- to appear, come into view, and indicates that phenology has been principally concerned with the dates of first occurrence of biological events in their annual cycle,” according to Wikipedia.

Some of you, I’m sure, are such great record-keepers that the emergence of the first forsythia blooms or the arrival of the first robin has made it into your garden notes.  Well!  You want to help figure out the effects of global warming on these events, at least as it relates to your piece of the planet?  You can sign up and actually make these recordings known.  Check out the USA National Phenology Network:  they’re looking for volunteers to record just these very same observations.

On bird brains

img_9664Luckily she doesn’t need to get by on her smarts

“She’s not going to be a Rhodes scholar,” I told Tom this morning when I came in from doing my chores.

“Oh no.  What did she do?”

Nope; I wasn’t talking about our daughter.  I found the hen turkey (our farmyard favorite) attacking her image in the dressing mirror that Tom broke this weekend.  It took me a bit of effort to pull her away from the mirror, to put the mirror in the garbage can (where it should’ve been to begin with but let’s not mention that, shall we) and to console her that she’d done a great job.

Poor girl.  And I was singing her praises recently about how smart she was, too….

On cross-quarter festivals

For the past few years I’ve picked up The Old Farmer’s Almanac at the feed store in November for the coming year.  It’s a bit of a lark, really.  It normally sits on my nightstand, vying for space with the 6-20 books I am juggling at any one time.  I find it a fun flip-through, a kind of pocket agrarian Wiki, that gives me a tiny something to think about before I turn out the light.  I flipped through it Friday night and realized that, thankfully, Candlemas is on Monday.  Candlemas, Groundhog Day, Imbolc:  all three of these quasi-religious festivals overlay an important earth-based event.  It’s the halfway (cross-quarter) point between winter solstice and spring equinox.


After a long winter like this one, I can see the need for a party, even if it’s only to celebrate the fact that we’ve made it through half the winter.  Now raise a glass with me, will you?

*Interesting thing about Imbolc:  this is the day that The Winter Goddess (Cailleach, an old woman) in Celtic lore would gather her firewood for winter.  If it was sunny, then she’d have enough light to gather more wood, thus meaning the winter would be longer.  Does that sound familiar?


On becoming sky watchers


On Thursday the child and I had to be somewhere around sunset.  We do not normally see this daily event for two reasons.  One, I (and by extension she) am normally never anywhere at sunset but at home:  me usually logging miles around the floorspace in the kitchen, she usually joining me or doing her own thing.  And two, there’s a forest across the street that prohibits our seeing this daily occurrence.  Anyway, this Thursday sun as it set was HUGE.  Like, light-up-the-sky-and-think-it’s-on-fire enormous.  Has anyone else noticed this?

“It must be perihelion,” I told her.  “We’re as close to the sun as we’re going to get this year.”

“But why is it so cold if it’s so close?” she asked.  (Seeing the sun set in the lake in the heat of Summer, that sun is tiny.)

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But you should find out,” I told her.

On the way home that evening she saw the moon.  “I see the wolf moon!” she said.  I’ve taught her the names of all 13 full moons.  (The full moon is actually tonight but I certainly wasn’t going to rain on her parade.)  Because we live in the country and the sky is unobstructed and light-pollution free, I figured we all need to be a bit more aware of the heavens above.  This was something we all used to know, to be aware of, just like canning and cheesemaking and gardening…

On turkey hormones



Maybe it’s the wacky weather, but our tom turkey has hit sexual maturity.  (Re:  weather.  The less said the better, as I would rather not jinx us, but let’s sum up by saying 1* to 63* in 4 days, and all 18 inches of snow is now melted and has moved through our basement.)

Is it all the sun?  He has been practicing the traditional pose for about a month off and on (mostly off) but his “on” switch appears to be thrown, and stuck.  As I blearily did critter chores pre-coffee this morning, I kept hearing this noise.  Pft.  Pause.  Pfftt.  I realized it was the tom.  Apparently, he needs to suck in some air to fluff up!  Such…puffery!

Of course our hen turkey wants nothing to do with him.  She’s escaped the pen twice today.

img_9268He:  HeybayBEE.  You come here often?  She:  Psst, lady!  Get me outtahere!

Tree hunting


The nine of us (three humans, three geese, two turkeys and a dog) went tree-hunting on Saturday.


We always get the most Charley Brown-ish of trees.  We don’t exactly grow the Christmas kind:  ours are white pines, which are quite pretty, but rather bough-spare.

img_8857Everyone had fun running around out in the cold.  Except the tree, perhaps!

On a child’s-eye view to the season


That’s our daughter in the crazy-colored coat.  What you can’t see in this photo is that she’s dancing from one foot to the other in anticipation.

Today is the last day of school, and it’s a snow day!  Practically every school in the Lower Peninsula is closed due to snow and ice, and the child is horribly disappointed.  It was to be Pajama Day as well as a whole roll-out of Solstice, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas-related celebrations.  Poor child.

Seeing Santa yesterday was entirely her idea, or rather, an idea she picked up from school.  I certainly try not to feed into the myth (I tend to have a no-lying policy) in that if she asks, I say, “Yes, honey, some children believe Santa will come, and we’ll just have to see if he comes here too.”  In point of fact she’s a lot more interested in his reindeer and, according to her father, she didn’t ask Santa for a thing but grilled him about his flying sleigh-pullers instead.

This has nothing to do with gardening, I realize.

On thanks for small things

img_8018I am so thankful for gorgeous waves, beautiful skies, bracing winds, singing sand and….img_8003…wet dogs in early winter.  (Penny, the hardest-working critter on the farm.)

On the wisdom of cats

I’ve decided it’s Farm Critters Week here at Old Vines.

Little Edie, our barn kitty, has the life of Riley.  Other than my screaming at her for climbing the greenhouses, she’s got a fairly posh life for a working animal.  Tom built her the most sound little cat house in the tractor shed out of many bales of straw and a down-filled sleeping bag.  It even has a windproof flap.  We lock her up every night as we worry for her safety at night…that, and we expect her to kill all the mice in my adjacent potting shed.  She is not the most terribly thick-furred cat, but life outside seems not to bother her.

I work at home three days a week.  Mostly, I work on the back porch:  it’s close to the critters, and has a great view.  But it’s not insulated so I commute to the front porch to work during the winter (I did winterize this porch).  It didn’t take Edie long to figure out the front porch is a fun place to be, too.  In the morning she’ll come to the front door and ask to be let in.


Then she’ll nap most of the day away.  (The porch faces southwest so the light here is quite nice.)


And then, if she wants to go outside, she stands by the door and lets me know.


The indoor cats are not too happy with this treatment.  Echo simply wants to kill Edie, and Nixie is sad she’s denied the front porch daybed.  Ah well.  Unlike our worthless indoor cats, Edie works for her kibble, after all, so she’s due a bit of compensation.  She’s still finding a vole or a mouse every day or two.  (Good kitty.)

On picky eaters

img_0855Pic from last winter.  I thought it would be a nice point of contrast to show lovely greenhouse greenery against the snow and new igloo.  I didn’t expect her to eat it!

We’re often asked what tricks we employ to get our daughter to eat.  Everywhere we go, people are normally pretty amazed at her un-finicky eating habits.  I wouldn’t say she eats everything with extreme relish.  And she (and her parents, frankly) is a rather skinny kid: always falling around 5-20% of the national average for her age, she’s not bony but just slim.  But put a plate of frisee in front of her, or some sushi?  It will be eaten.

I’m not 100% sure what to point to.  We never gave her baby food.  She breastfed for(ever) a long time; she only got her first experience with real food when she was around 14 months.  I’m a from-scratch cook, and she’s always had a place in the kitchen.  Of course she’s had an extended upbringing within the garden itself.  She loves her chickens’ eggs.

I guess we do kind of hold the line at the table, too:  we don’t have much tolerance for pickiness.  Even with her least favorite things (sauerkraut, turnips) there’s usually something else to eat that she loves.  Tom is a picky eater (extremely so) and I try very hard for the girl to never see this or notice this.  (He’s not allowed to complain, for one, within her earshot.)  And we do play certain games with our food.  Take salad, for example.  As you well know, we eat a lot of salad around here.  She can tell you what’s what in her bowl because she’s planted it or picked it.  “That’s Brune d’Hiver, and that’s my favorite, Freckles,” she’ll say, “and that’s your favorite Amish stuff Mama, and that’s Nana’s arugula.”

Maybe she eats so well because her parents love to eat?  Each dinner is a celebration, really.  The warmth and happiness of the dinner table is my favorite time of day.  I guess it’s rubbing off on her, too.

On sitting

Brune d’Hiver lettuce seedling

I have three chairs, one bench, and two stumps in the veg gardens and greenhouses and I never use them for sitting.  Indeed, as I have mentioned before, they tend to be clutter-catchers and nothing more.

But this morning, rapidly cooling coffee in hand and touche-pas kitty in my lap, I sat on the bench.  I sat on the bench and thought, and listened, and tried to simply live in the moment.  The birdsong is changing:  it’s migration time, and we have new visitors.  The sun is changing:  at this early hour, it’s barely over the cottonwood at the corner of the property.  The weather is changing:  we are near peak with leaf color.

Maybe I need to do this more often.

Typhoid Edith

“Hey!” says kitty. “Come here so I can poison you!”

Ugh.  Our new barn kitty, Little Edie, has given both Tom and me poison ivy.

Yes indeed.  Outdoor pets are quite able to pick up the urushiol oil from poison ivy, and carry it around on their fur.  And Edie is such a sweet cat:  unlike our two indoor (lazy, totally standoffish) cats, Edie is a complete attention slut, jumping on you when she sees you and rubbing her little self, and all that poison ivy oil, all over you.

We have learned our lesson, my shirtless husband especially.

On autumn olive berries

On Sunday, my mom came up to pick some autumn olive berries (elaegnus umbellata).  These tart little red berries are found on a shrubby tree that grows with some profusion around here.  These shrubs are not native, and reproduce with great readiness, and thus have the reputation of being “invasives.”  There are many things, native or not, that I personally consider more invasive on my land (thistles, poison ivy, wild roses, silver maples) so I kind of give these trees a pass.  Wildlife and human life at least can eat these berries.

Little yellow seeds, clear juice, thin skins

The berries are about the size of peas.  They are round and spotty and they’re a wonderful rusty red color, contrasting nicely with the dark green of the tops of the leaves of their shrub/tree.  The “olive” in their name comes from the leaves’ passing resemblance to the shape and color of that of olive trees…but only the underside of the leaves.  The underside leaf color is a lovely light sage green, and, in the wind, the tree’s leaves do change color.  The berries have a small yellow seed inside.  It’s entirely edible, lending a bit of crunch to the berry, and a bit of a tang.  They start tart, end sweet.  The closest thing I can say they taste like is perhaps unripe gooseberries.

Mom is a bit of an Atkins nut.  I suppose every family has a member who has fallen into a cult at one point of their lives.  You still love them.  My point of mentioning this is that the freezer jam she makes with these berries and that godawful poison Splenda is her favorite jam, so when I told her the berries were ripening, she completely juggled her schedule to come up and pick.  And pick she did.  She picked about six cups of the berries for me, too.

I have made jam with the berries, too, and not with Splenda (shudder).  I like it, but not as much as other jams I make, so this year I decided to make a fruit chutney with them.  Chutneys are so versatile, and their sweet/tart/salty/spicy mixture is such a great foil for the blandness of cheese and crackers or the predictability of all those chickens in our freezer (30+, plus 6 birds still running around).  Chutneys are also a great way to use up all the stuff still coming out of the garden (orange and green tomatoes, sour apples, carrots, celery, hot and sweet peppers) or still taking up valuable space in that freezer from last year (cranberries).  So I got creative last night and made some berry chutney.


On a wildly productive season

I love seeing red:  Jimmy Nardello’s peppers and a couple bells

So yes, I ran out of canning jars Tuesday.  This is a sign that the garden has been quite fruitful this year.  I thank my lucky stars, too.

You see, so much in the garden is out of our hands.  It is complete hubris to think a good garden season has anything to do with the gardener:  it is due to about a thousand other factors, of which only one of them is me.  I really do believe so much about why plants grow (or don’t) is unknowable.  I read books like this one about soil and this one about microbes and my mind blanches at the thousand million cajillion variables that go into any one seed’s becoming one productive garden plant.  The dirt, the soil, is as vast as the cosmos above, and about as easily understood.  And then there’s weather, and then there’s the insect world, and then there’s wild fauna…there’re a lot of things, in other words, that work against that little seed.

Whatever the reasons, all things seem to have aligned to benefit this gardener this year. I just go to the garden and do my happy dance of gratitude.  And then I fill up the Mother of All Colanders and get to work on preserving the booty.

For I know what it means to have a shitty harvest.  Last year was such a year:  amazing rain in August did in so many of my winter storage veggies; bugs did in my winter squash.  There are some things in this gardener’s control, though.  So I did the Scarlett O’Hara thing and also dug a trench and buried pipe all the way around the garden beds and somewhere along the line also decided another greenhouse was in the cards.  I also, stupidly, grew too many seedlings this year:  many were destined for our daughter’s school garden, and we needed fewer than I optimistically grew.  Sucker that I am, I didn’t just compost those extra tomatoes and broccoli and cabbage; no, I planted them.  (For future reference, a family of three does not need 70 tomato plants.)

So I am gleeful this year, and feeling quite flush with garden goodies.  Our iffy harvest last year, the first of our complete “live off the farm” year, meant there were some rather thin meals last winter and early spring.  One should be thankful for what one has, and believe me I am.

If you drive by and see me doing the happy dance, though, just honk, okay?

On turning seasons

DeMieux endive in the seedling bed: move me soon, it says; getting big in here

No, it is not fall yet; don’t get mad at me for mentioning it.

Rather, it was really cool this morning (55*) when I went out to start working in the garden. When it’s that noticeably cool, then dang, I am hit by a feeling of panic again, that nagging suspicion that there’s something I have forgotten to do. What is it?

Perhaps I was simply undercaffeinated.

Anyway, having these greenhouses means one needs to kind of take your succession planting to a new level. I have never been a chess player, but I believe the theory of moving pieces around a board strategically has some relevance to the garden in this not-quite-end-of-season time. So I look at what’s occupying the greenhouse beds now: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants inside; tomatoes, squash, beans outside (in the future greenhouse space). It’s still really hot inside the greenhouse to transplant cool-loving things. But outside, someone’s going to have to meet the compost early if I am to expect a successful transfer of the seedlings I am growing elsewhere.

But yes, the turning season DOES mean salads are back on the menu.

On small garden tasks

Things have been so busy, food-wise, that I’ve needed to juggle to shoehorn in the rest of the things of life. The garden luckily doesn’t require much of my time now, except for harvesting things, but it still requires some of my time. Mornings before work are now time for gardening. (Mornings previously were blogging time, so we shall see how many posts I put out over the next few weeks; forgive me if I am absent.) I adore the gardens in the morning: so damp, so still.

I’ve done a couple of garden maintenance things this week that I thought I should mention. One, I topped the Brussels sprouts: I removed the top growing leaves (about the top 4″ of stalk) to force the plants to put their energy into making sprouts for me. I do adore tiny sprouts, but having an entire harvest of all marble-sized sprouts is annoying.

Off wit’ ya head!

The second thing: I got out a small cup of vegetable oil and an eyedropper and I dripped oil on to the tops of my corn, right where the silks come out of the husk. I have Barbara Damrosch to thank for reminding me to do this: the oil suffocates the eggs/larva of the notorious corn borer. If you don’t have a field of corn to do, this method does work. Me? I have only about 8 rows of popcorn, and I planted it really late, so some corn is ready to be oiled up now. You should do this when the tassels are about 4-5 days old.

The corn borers, though, have had complete license to attack my outdoor tomatoes. Ick, how disgusting. Makes me want to uproot the plants that much earlier! And I just might.

On being a creature of habit

The uniform’s getting a little shabby. So’s the gardener but let’s just not go there.

I have a friend, let’s call him Joe because that’s actually his name, upon whose routines I could invariably set my watch. It gave me comfort, knowing that even though I was in Minneapolis hours away from him, at 8:15 in the morning he was in a certain cafe, tearing his paper apart (sports first) and eating his bagel in a particular way. All that of course was thrown out the window once he married and became a father, but routines are kind of a good way to rule your day.

Never thinking I was a routine person myself, or even one prone to patterns of any kind, I had to change my opinion once I became a pseudofarmer. I realized quite quickly that if I did not have routines and even select outfits I would merely be running around with Gardeners’ ADD all the time, not really accomplishing anything. So yes, I have routines. And yes, I have a uniform. It is with some sadness that I reveal I have completely blown out my favorite pair of boots and, even to a conspicuous non-consumer such as myself, I need to replace them. Likewise my olive Carhartt carpenter pants used for gardening: I’ve blown holes in the knees (diligently and badly patched but I fear it’s for naught).

So. I thought maybe I should mix things up this year, and I bought a pair of really large bibb overalls at the Goodwill. I had to take them in a bit and even so I swim in them: a good thing when it’s hot, but a bad thing as they keep getting bigger until I wash them and shrink them down to normal. You know, I really don’t care for the overalls, hayseed image of myself aside. I really need to get myself a new pair of Carhartts. Too bad they don’t usually show up at Goodwill.

But the boots! I’ve replaced my eight year old Blundstone 500s (architect black of course) with a more appropriate mud-colored brown pair. These things are great: I used to walk to work in them (7 miles roundtrip) and obviously they’ve withstood years of farm life. The new pair will be my walking shoes for our trip to Boston; don’t think I will wear them to Tom’s opening, though. And it will be a while before they see the garden.

Old habits die hard, you know. And there’s still some life left in the old ones. There’s lots of life left in the old gardener!

On controlling one’s greenery

Ah! August! Are you overtaken by weeds yet? Are you afraid to venture forth into your gardens?

Some things certainly can overtake your lives, gardening-wise. Besides just plain old weeds, there are some things we grow that, well, get a bit overwrought. I have no problem at all with getting out the trimmers and taking a whack at things. The hedge clippers come in handy at this time of year to deadhead perennials down to nothing. Forcing them to stop making seeds actually allows them to bloom again, especially enthusiastic bloomers like coreopsis and monarda. And there’s nothing like a machete to really get your ya-yas out.

As you know, I have no problem hacking up my tomatoes, either. But squash, vining squash plants like pumpkins and other winter squash: yep, I hack those up too if they’re in my way. Some of my cukes are branching ones: the Boothby’s Blonde have a mildly annoying habit of sending up thousands of side branches. So I hack away. Lest it sound like I have nothing better to do than butcher my plants, I am rather busy at this time of year. Somehow though if things are really bugging me with their verdant enthusiasm I do get out the shears and get snipping. Makes me feel like I have some semblance of control. Ah. The little juicy rationalizations that get us through the day.

Because I have no control at all over the weeds in the paths of the new greenhouse beds right now. There are just not enough hours in the day. And I am…mostly okay with that. Mostly because I have that machete.

On winged pests

What a big category, “winged pests”!

Every July we are ambushed by Japanese beetles. Everyone thought this year might be different because of the torrential rains that hit the Midwest earlier in the season, drowning the ground-growing pupae. Well, those rains missed us and we are having a banner harvest of beetles! Ick.

They mostly leave my gardens alone: the one thing they seem to really like (runner beans) I planted late enough (planted with the Peruano beans, actually) so they’ll miss them. So I find and squish a few when I do a garden perambulation; no big deal. Organic does not mean bug-free, after all. It’s the fruit trees and grapes that see the worst of it.

What these beetles do is Swiss cheese the leaves of growing plants. The plum tree out my window here is positively lacy, they’ve done so much damage. The grapes, though, are okay, as are the pawpaws, cherries, peaches and small apple trees. Tom sprayed clay on them. The clay (kaolin clay) is actually the same stuff used in some makeup: it’s a very fine white powder that, when mixed with water, will coat leaves and make them unrecognizable to fruit- and leaf-eating pests. Its downsides are two: rains wash it off, and it does interfere slightly in photosynthesis, though the latter would be worse if the beetles ate the leaves. The clay is typically used in managing pests on apples. It is as organic as you can get, considering it’s dirt.

Tom sets a few traps for them, too. He also hand-harvests with a canning jar half filled with soapy water: go out in the early morning and scrape them into the jar. The soap keeps them from flying away. Then, he gives the trap’s and jar’s contents to the chickens. Crunchy on the outside!

On microbes (our friends)

I’ve got my 25th high school reunion coming up soon. It freaks me out a bit that I could be that old, because, believe me, mentally and physically I still think I am 17. Anyway, the class secretary sent around a questionnaire filled with deep queries like “have you achieved your dreams?” Well, when I was 17 there was NO WAY I would think I would aspire to be a farm wife. Yet, here I am.

I have kimchi bubbling away on the kitchen counter right now. I am capturing another sourdough starter as my last one faded. I am researching and watching the progress on our grapes because this year is the year of verjus, vinegar and wine. I am embracing those unseen critters whose existence and steady reproduction make a lot of what makes us healthy and happy. I want to be a microbe farmer!

I didn’t put that on the questionnaire though.

Berries for breakfast

The prickly wild blackberries are putting out right now. They are quite tasty and plump after all the rain we’ve had recently. I thought this photo was funny: The kid is in her purple phase, as you can see by her new glasses and choice of pjs. Her favorite color is actually orange. I am kind of glad our optometrist doesn’t sell orange glasses, though.

With blackberries comes poison ivy. This is also the time of year when bottles of rubbing alcohol and dishwashing detergent are by every sink and in the tub. Both remove the urushiol that makes poison ivy such a poison.

On farm critters

2008 has definitely become the Year of the New Barnyard Animals, whether we intended it to be or not.

I am certain other farmstead types know of this: you buy a farm, you buy animals (or otherwise acquire them) at an alarming rate. Well, this is our fourth season here and we have fortunately only had a slow acquisition of animal life here. Some animals, though, have just showed up. Like Pigeon, our favorite thief. And now meet our new barn kitty, Little Edie.

She is a dead ringer for our own (indoor) black cat, Echo. Echo is also not at all thrilled she has arrived, but then again Echo has always had issues. She scares the heck out of our dog, too, but the chickens/ducks and chicks/poults/goslings seem unintetresting to her. And of course we think she is pregnant. Tom wants to let her have her kittens, but that is beyond irresponsible, not only for the kittens themselves but for the wild birds that come through our land. I am just fine with having one spayed barn cat, as long as she likes to catch mice and voles. Luckily, she’s a fine hunter, having caught four mice and one vole to our count, after a week of farm life.

The slow-growing meat chicks are just that: slow! I am happy about that. They seem to like to run around and scratch and even jump on a perch, so they are definitely not the same as our last batch of meat blobs. The poults are still quite adorable, and still quite tiny. They still live with the goslings (who are of course getting huge). The goslings groom them, and the poults love to sleep on their backs, so it’s a decent relationship. I swear the poults look like miniature ostriches. They still have their googly eyes and bordering on ridiculous skinny little legs. I adore them. The goslings are also beyond cute: they chirp so readily, and follow you around the lawn. They cannot get enough grass, it would seem. Once they get their feathers they will have their own patch of grass to eat but for now they’re in the tractor during the day. They eat down the whole patch of grass under it. Mowing AND fertilizing!

The ducklings are ducks now. Whew! That didn’t take long: how about a month? They are now bigger than our biggest chicken, Maggie, who’s a quite gigantic seven-pound Black Australorps. They are a cream color, and they are so soft. If you can catch them, that is.

That’s all for now; quite enough critters, if you ask me. Next year will be the year we actually breed poultry on the farm. Step by step, not all at once…let’s just say we like things to progress at a manageable pace around here.

On fast-growing weeds

One way to do in the weedy things that want to take over your garden is to eat them.***

In July and August, I don’t bother with lettuce. Even though it’s not super hot here (we get only 2-4 90* days in the summer) summer really is not the best season for lettuce. Romaine seems to hold its own, as well as some of the tougher leaf lettuces, but…I feel it’s best to wait until fall for the daily huge salad. (That, and it’s Slaw Season around here!) Instead, I’m harvesting weeds.

Pursulane has a very high percentage of Omega 3 fatty acids in its little crunchy leaves and stems. It can be tangy, but it reminds me of cucumber. Lamb’s quarters can be used like spinach. This fuzzy-leaved plant might take some getting used to, texture-wise, but it’s also chock full of good vitamins. And then flowers. It’s great to grow edible flowers.

So, the only problem with a salad of weeds is I don’t let enough of them grow.

***Note: I am loath to tell you what to go out and eat. Please buy or borrow a book on wild edibles before you go foraging!

On water life

For about the last two months, there’s been an American toad looking for love in our pond. This guy has a call that is like a long, low, trilling whistle; one note (or near enough for my ears), somewhat insistent. People would think it was a cricket, but it’s lots louder than that. There have always been somewhat raucous chorus of green frogs in the pond too. I am not so sure if they’re looking for love or just being bellicose. Either way, they’re welcome to do their shouting.

There are still a few green frog tadpoles in that pond now. We’re slowly watching their legs sprout. There must have been two batches of tadpoles, as there are a bunch of tiny green frogs in there now too. The new froglets, including their soon-to-be-lost tails, are about 4″ long. Lose the tail and they’re about 2 1/2″. The adults are 6-7″ if you stretch their legs out.

I love the pond. It’s outside our dining room, about 12′ from the house. It’s not too big, but big enough to support quite a slice of water life. I like encouraging this little slice of biodiversity.