Category Archives: weather

On Mud Season

DSCN0420Parsnips are better for the mud and cold

I do love living in one of the temperate stripes of the planet that experiences true seasonality.  Four seasons are the given.  Living here on a farm, however, I count six!  Let us start with spring.  Spring, summer, autumn, mud, winter, then mud.

We are in the second mud season of 2013.  My rubric is a simple one for determining it:  is the ground slippery, do your heels sink in, and are those hoses frozen?  Mud season.  2012’s second mud season began in November! This mud season switches to winter when it finally gets cold enough to hang the windows on the chicken coop.  (No frozen combs on the biddies please.)  It was mid-January when that happened, a final dip in cold accompanied by our usual snow…a never-ending, sometimes-melting, never-warm-enough-to fully-thaw snow which ended (at least I think) this week.

(This year might have the herald of a seventh season.  We tapped our maple trees for the first time on 10 January, for a quart of nice and dark syrup.  An aside.)

Many naturalists divide the seasons up further, looking for signs of things starting or ending (phenological signs) like the return of the whooping cranes and red-winged blackbirds (my own signs of spring) or the juncos (winter).  Gardeners can be even more discriminating:  I live for a first shoot of asparagus, a first ripe tomato, or even the first godawful squash bug.  Gardens have about 25 seasons by my estimation.

But yes, we had an actual winter.  Albeit it was a wee one, lasting maybe 8 weeks, still, it was long enough to keep me out of the gardens proper and fishing for sustenance in the greenhouses and root cellar only.  I have been able to hobble along with the basics for, what, the 5th winter in a row now, not needing to shop for vegetable staples like carrots, celery, broccoli or Asian cabbage; these things, though quite ugly and slug-slime-trailed, were still unequivocally edible in the greenhouses.

The skies were sunny and and it was warm a week ago Sunday, the last scrim of snow sluishing away, and you could find me in my boots with a hoe and a shovel, making dams and channels and trenches to speed the meltwater’s flow hopefully THROUGH said outdoor garden.  (Read about my perimeter garden trenching adventures here.  Yearly I now “only” need to get the garden’s water out and gone.)  Let us just say that clay soil needs help from its gardener, and no raised bed is too high, no path-borne swale too dippy, tripping hazards aside, in my quest for a puddle-free growing area.

There were four chicken backs (am I alone in having bags of these things in her freezer?  My husband always seems to draw the short straw when he goes down to fetch a chicken meal to thaw and almost always grabs a bag of these stock-making backs) bubbling on the stove inside, so I spied the ragged greens of carrots, leeks and turnips poking through the snow, and figured they’d be great to add to the finished stock for soup.

I am always shocked by the starch-to-sugar conversion process a vegetable undergoes after a trip through a deep freeze.  I mean, really.  The same seeds were used for both the indoor greenhouse carrots and the outdoor frozen, snow-covered carrots (and turnips and leeks) and my goodness those outdoor examples are like eating CANDY.  Seriously.  I had to up the acid content of the soup by setting out a shaker bottle of our verjus (green grape vinegar) to bring it back to dinner and not dessert palatability.

It happened again tonight when I found a couple ugly muddy garden kohlrabi:  my secret stir-fry what-is-THIS-morsel sucking up the sauce but imparting some shocking sweetness of its very own.

So though I cannot really abide Mud Season, it does hand us a few edible benefits.

DSCN0434Nix and I stay high and dry in the new greenhouse

On seasonal freak-outs

What’s hoppening?  Like everything else, even the heavily-pruned hops vines are frightening in their output at this time of year

It happens every year at about this time.  Despite my best efforts, the garden overwhelms me!  Once the corn begins to tassle, I simply need to put my blinders on and ignore the weeds.

Granted, I am able to keep the beds weed-free.  I just need to find the beds amongst the uninvited foliage.

Dinosaurs in our midst:  juvenile bronze turkeys doing their morning perambulation.  They, and five home-hatched chicks, remain the only baby fowl on the farm

This feeling of being overwhelmed somehow does not stop at the garden gate.  Other cyclical tasks, once eagerly anticipated, are forgotten.  This year it’s the meat chicken order.  (You would think that a woman who is tied to her computer all the work-long day would maybe give the emptying freezer some consideration, but no.)  Granted, this year has been ridiculously hot and dry, so every week I would mentally think “next week shall be cooler (thus I can place the order).”  But weeks continue to go by and I begin to feel like this:

Is it an empty nest if it is just chickens?

On life without rain

Lookee!  Rainbows above #3 AND raindrops on the lens

You know, growing as we do here under clouds for three-quarters of the year, you think would enjoy the sun.  I do!  Those long hours of unimpeded solar rays hitting my garden’s leaves?  Heavenly.

But it’s the Severe Drought I admittedly am not terribly happy about right now.

The skies occluded, darkened and broke on Saturday evening.  I stepped on the back deck, inhaled that still-familiar yet longed-for scent of rain, and surveyed all the rain-sensitive items that I had allowed to accumulate for the month and a half of cloud-free skies.   Hurriedly I retrieved them all, throwing them higgledy-piggledy into any dry space (back porch, garage, tractor shed, goat shed, new greenhouse) and then proceeded to the garden.  I went into the garden IN THE RAIN and  turned on the hose to water the garden as usual.

Yes!  Welcome to El’s Glass Half Empty world in Drought!  Frankly, I did not care what I looked like, slowly getting damp myself while I soaked the ground of the beds.  It stopped raining not a quarter of a turn through the regular watering route.  In other words, I was right to worry.  Though the open land was rung-out-sponge damp, the ground beneath the boughs remained bone-dry and cracked.  Regular resumption of hose duties in the garden remains the standing order.  I am thankful for the electric pump, frankly.  (I bow to the pump, low bow, salaam.)

I will not recite the litany of ills that attend a drought.  But I will say it is all very strange.  And…the car is filthy.

On rushed seasons

22 March is shockingly early for the first (measly) asparagus harvest, don’t you think?

The girl barges in through the back door Wednesday afternoon and announces “It sure is quiet out there!”  That morning’s trip with the dogcrate full of roosters guaranteed that the regular sounds of backyard bucolia have returned here.

My call to the butcher’s wife brought the usual guffaw from her.  “SEVEN roosters? You ARE a softie, honey.”

Jellybean and some of his wimmin.  What you can’t see is his torn-up wattle, poor thing.  Now he’s back to being #2 Rooster.

Er, not really.  The seven in question were late-summer chicks too small for the Thanksgiving turkey trip to the butcher in question.  We endured their presence until we just couldn’t (“we” includes the harassed hens and of course the now bloody and pissed-off Mary Ellen and Jellybean) any longer.  And since one guy was keen to “sleep” in the huge blue spruce which shades the henyard…well, let’s just say an early spring’s open windows and one obnoxious night bird are not exactly compatible.  It’ll buy you a trip to freezer camp, dude.

I envy those of you who are actively eating down the contents of your freezers.  I am somehow unable to ever see the bottom of a freezer (understandably, not a bad problem to have), what with the seasonal binges like a rooster harvest.  Things simply get replaced.

The new greenhouse:  I had planned on harvesting these greens by the end of April, not March…

One thing not easily stored is the lettuces.  My best-laid plans of harvesting one  older-lettuce-filled greenhouse and then moving on to the next baby-lettuce-filled greenhouse are crappy plans indeed with daily lows beating average highs here.  Three solid weeks of temperatures in the 70s/80s mean that the 100s experienced in the greenhouses are not good for anything currently in there…including the 100 cells seeded with tomatoes.  Sigh.  Time to reboot, clean out, reseed.  Weather, you know, just happens.  My plans would’ve been perfect in a normal year.

The routine on Sunday and Thursday nights:  gather ye CSA bags as ye may…

But what are we going to eat in May?  I wonder!  Better start seeding lettuce rows for the fickle world outside.

The nightly haul:  leeks, lettuces (Amish Deer Tongue and red romaine), atop bolting collards, asparagus and onions…with herbs. 

On the downsides of a mild winter

Occupational hazard:  a farm girl’s glasses will fog when she goes from 40 outside to 85 in

I don’t know about you, but I have found this mild winter very enjoyable.  Perhaps it’s the memory of those long winters spent in Minnesota.   Every Minnesotan has “I lived through the cold” stories, but I don’t know many people who had to get their car’s manual transmission gear fluid changed:  despite its being garage-kept, I couldn’t get it in reverse or first gear when the cold was in extremis.  So I humbly accept any day the mercury doesn’t go below 30 with gratitude.

This weather has come with unexpected downsides, though.  One, the animals are just messed up.  Chickens want to sit their many eggs.  Earl the tom turkey is feeling love in the air, so Ruby spends her days hiding from him under the back deck’s picnic table.  (Luckily, the hose remains unfrozen so I am able to clean up after her, but I do feel her pain.)  The fuzzy goats are happy to be outside, but that’s mud between their hooves…not pleasant.  And here in the Fruit Belt there is gloomy talk that fruit won’t set without the usual extended hard frosts of normal winter.

It’s also had an unexpected downside for the resident gardener.  That spring panic that normally hits in April?  You know, when you can’t seem to finish any one project because they all beckon?  It’s here now, in February.  Sigh.

Gratuitous photo #1:  new kitten Blossom

Gratuitous photo #2:  Blossom’s sister Scarlett enjoys the front porch’s space heater

On winter

Because it has been such a slow slide into winter, I have been in denial that the frozen-ground, the-garden’s-truly-dead period comes along with the season.  But it’s arrived here, and our first snow (normally dumped then melted) has stayed and stayed.  Ugh.  The dark days.

Can you find Chicken Patty?  Some chickens are Rhodes scholars, some are just dumb.  Patty’s in the smart camp because she managed to negotiate the 7′ high fence around the garden…and is harvesting worms from underneath the sheet mulch.

It’s tough work chopping carrots out of the ground.

But it’s quite toasty in the old greenhouse.

Everything has been put to bed, under covers……and as you can see, things are still bright and fresh in here.  If you look closely you’ll see I have been successively taking the outside leaves of each plant for my customers’ and our own salads.

And as you can see, they’re quite tempting.  I think I will make it through winter just fine.

On the upside of the end

Rewards:  long-term garden residents Buttercup squash and Romanesco broccoli

Another gift to the hard-working gardener is the harvest of the vegetables that take forever to mature, like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and winter squash.  Perhaps our tastebuds are simply trained to the harvest calendar, but it’s just about now that these things seem so darned desirable…and tasty.

And some harvests allow you to contemplate infinity.  Witness a close-up of the broccoli:

isn’t that crazy?  And I will have you know that I hosed off the cabbage moth caterpillar poop and powdery Bt before getting out the camera.  I grow both ugly and pretty, equal opportunity.  Romanescos almost never get this large for me; this is one of three impressive ones as the others are much more gnarly and small.  And: they taste more like cauliflower than broccoli, if you’re curious.

There are still more late harvests to come.  Threats of frost hustled me to get out the cabbage knife and hack off a head of tender Romanesco.  Other head- and flower-growing brassicas can take quite a bit of frost:  some of the tight cabbage heads, especially the wavy savoyed ones, will last for a while, and much of the cauliflower and most especially the Brussels sprouts will last through Thanksgiving.  But…can I wait that long?

On summer’s end

Green tree frogs (Hyla versicolor and H. chrysocelis) live in the liner of our pool

It felt great putting on a light sweater to go milk the goats this morning.  Am I a bad person for wishing for summer’s end?  Or maybe just a bad gardener?  This summer, however, was for the record books.  And I don’t like to live my life by making records.  (Let the whining begin!)

The small person is big on little frogs

Normal years have us hitting ninety maybe three days a year.  This year topped 13.  Yes:  I shouldn’t complain, as Michigan doesn’t get hurricanes or Texas-sized droughts…we’re not even prime for earthquakes, and we live too close to Lake Michigan for tornadoes to hit us.  Somehow that doesn’t matter when there’s enough personal drama that even record rains and heat don’t register.  But sayonara, Summer.  I’ve had it with your drama, weather and otherwise.


(The pool is the concession I made to my husband years ago when I told him we can’t use the a/c any longer.  It is pleasant, and it helps maintain marital peace.)

It’s usually the second week of August where most newbie gardeners give up the ghost and leave their gardens to the weeds.  I may be no newbie, but it’s been a tough year in the epic weed/bug battle and it’s left me a bit frustrated.  I have the CSA folks to grow for now too and can I say that my fifth planting of summer squash might bear fruit this year?  Yes.  The rest of you might be swimming in zucchini…and I am officially jealous.

The budding herpetologist.

So I am thankful for my determinate tomatoes, the Bellstar Paste:  you gotta love a plant that doesn’t sprawl, is the first to set fruit and is also over and done by the third week of August.  Oh, how happy I am when I pull those plants!  Others come out too and I find myself in a flurry again, adding compost, reseeding, pulling out nonperfomers:  if summer was a wash for some things, then it stands to reason that autumn will be wonderful.  Gardeners are nothing if they’re not hopeful.

And I’ve got hope, lots of hope.

On losing time

Ground cloth/weed blocker makes a good shade cloth for tender lettuces

Ping/bang/scrape, buzzz….ping/bang/scrape…buzz:  it’s got to be summer, I can no longer deny it.  The June bugs hit the screen of our bedroom window as I sit reading every night in the light of the nightstand lamp.  June, already?  Yes.

I have learned to ignore or at least tune out the clanging gong of the seasonal imperatives this late spring/early summer.  How can I not?  With everything clamoring to be The First Priority, isn’t it easier to stay in bed, or maybe go to the beach?

15’x60′ addition is at least fenced and tilled:  garden beds need to be installed and filled and, well, planted

Yes, I am trying hard to take my own advice:  it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  Winter’s late stay, spring’s sodden unhappiness…these things do affect what comes out of the ground, including what should be going into it, and when.  So indeed the garden expansion is two months behind.  So be it!  Corn in September, not August; beans in August, not July.

Besides:  wouldn’t you just rather be a kid, and play?  Or at least sit down and watch one do so?  Eleven day old baby Ivy with mama Cricket, out to pasture

On seasonal shifts

Nothing like a little April SNOW shower

Winter danced in and out before it settled in, and spring apparently feels the need to do the same.  That’s fine.  I find I am still behind, gardenwork-wise, so a late start to the season is to my advantage.

Not that I am wishing a late season on the rest of you, of course!

On pea-planting season

I often feel like a poultry Pied Piper

There is a small window of time between melting snow and garden season when the chickens are allowed to run around unpenned.  They wander fairly widely, mostly in pursuit of the newly-sprouting grass, but mainly they all make a beeline for the gardens.  Deeply mulched beds need to be deeply scratched to find those worms within, you see, and then there’s the magic of The Compost Pile.  Oh the delectable wonders to be found in that monstrous pile of stank (if you’re a chicken, that is).I have set the compost bucket down to open the gate.  They have found it.

And then that window closes.  Slams shut, if you ask them: whaddya mean, we need to stay in here all day?  Their protestations are mighty.   Squabbles break out.  Feathers fly.  They are now confined until Happy Hour, usually around 6pm-dusk.  And they can tell time, so…at 6 you better be prepared to spring them loose.

The reason for their confinement?  The garden has been planted!  Yes, St. Patrick’s day, traditional pea- and potat0-planting day, was wonderfully warm and even sunny, so I locked up the birds and began the season.  These wily critters easily can fly over the 5′ fence encircling the gardens, and once they do, inevitably they will scratch up things that they should not.

Queen Ruby asks “but can’t I stay?  I won’t scratch things as much as the chickens,” to which I reply, no, m’dear.  She loves sprouts even more than worms.  (and notice the greenhouse roll-up side is up!  this is the earliest ever that I have had to do that.)

On blizzards, and groundhogs, and greenhouses

Stuck in the normally shoveled driveway (the 24″ side is the correct depth)

Wednesday was a snow day.  Boringly, that blizzard that hit everywhere hit here too…how could it not?  We’re quite used to snow here (we usually get 80″ per year) and Feb. 2nd’s storm was different mainly because it was paired with a bit of wind, too.  (shrugs) What can you do?

The girl was home from school, and so she and I had lots of time to discuss the meaning of the day, Groundhog Day.  “Gimme some other names for groundhogs,” I said.  “Whistle pigs and woodchucks”  she said, ever reaching for a gold star.  We discussed the older traditions of Imbolc and St. Brigid’s day, especially the notion of winter’s continuance, and how having a sunny day on this day means more winter.  “So the old lady was the Irish woodchuck,” she said.  “I wonder what it was before it was the old lady?”  Ah!  Perceptive child.  All traditions, religious or otherwise, are usually just pauses in the undertow of time. Something will overtake the whistle pig, eventually.

Keep in mind these things are between 9′ and 10′ tall

Recently, however, I have received a ton of questions about my greenhouses.  So I thought I would show you what’s going on in them despite the white stuff outside.  Here’s a bit of a photo journal, taken on Thursday at lunchtime.

Little teensy wrist, huh?  And a waist-high drift standing between me and dinner!

Here:  I have made it in:  and it’s quite toasty inside.  (23* is the worst it’s been indoors all winter.)

But turning around, this is what’s climbing up one side!  It’s quite okay to have snow 5′ or more up the sides, but up and over the top is kinda unusual.

I’ve knocked some of the snow off from the inside, but yeah, I might have to tackle some of it out here too.  Maybe some other day.

But other than the fact that I’ve clipped these lettuces into mere bonsai of their former head-y selves, I haven’t made a dent in the mache.  This is a typical bed.  Dinner!

On wishing for a snow day

The lake, yesterday

We spent part of a snowy Sunday afternoon attending a school event.  I discovered in that funny way one has of thinking “I am the only person to think this way” that indeed, it isn’t just students who hope for snow days.  Parents do a fair amount of wishing too.

“Spoon under your pillow tonight,” said one.  “Oh no:  wear your underwear inside-out,” said another.  “Do both,” said a third.

Well, school is in session today, but we’re at home.  And I am glad.

It is pretty miserable outside right now.  I won’t get into the tit-for-tat description but let’s just say going about in the dark to do the milking and then animal chores was not its usual pleasant undertaking.  But all the animals are warm, fed, watered and happy, and have adjusted themselves to this colder world.  They move around a lot less, eat a bit more.  Just like we humans, come to think of it.

Does anyone else have a hard time adjusting to winter?  I don’t mean, necessarily, adjusting to the cold, for that will happen with a bit of time.  I mean simply that I have a hard time managing all this free time I seem suddenly to have once the snow comes to stay.  My weekends are filled instead with…laundry!  housecleaning!  ugh.

I much prefer getting dirty to getting clean, I guess.

May all your snow days be warm and toasty, with plenty of snow shoeing, sledding, hot cocoa and keeping warm.

On changing seasons

Every year I go through incredible seasonal denial when the earth tips away from the sun.  I need actual physical events like the first threat of frost to jolt me back to reality.  Frost!  Crap! In the first week of October?

Chilly broccoli

So yes, frost.  Brr. I guess it’s no longer summer.

Patchy frost too.  “Killing frost” as many Floridians know is a magical number: anything below 28* for something like 4 hours of time will severely damage tender vegetation, citrus trees, etc.  But “patchy frost” here means there’s frost in the lowest-lying areas only, and perhaps the thermometer didn’t dip down quite so much as to outright kill all vegetables still standing out in MY garden.

All buttoned up.  I wonder if those tomatoes on the bench will ever ripen…

I thought ahead, though.  This weekend I put the plastic back up on the end walls of the greenhouse.  People of Southwest Michigan should thank me:  my precaution all but guarantees we’ll have a scorcher of an Indian summer.

But inside the house this weekend?  Spring!


The school’s egg incubator came home with us on Friday.  (I kind of insisted:  they were due to hatch today (Monday) and I…had a feeling they’d hatch before then.)  We excitedly heard the peeppeeppeep from the first eggs Saturday night, and I was up helping the first one hatch at 3:30 a.m.  Another followed on Sunday night.  They’re back at school now, with more eggs hatching.  The house is almost too quiet now.


If that’s not adorable enough, we also have baby bunnies.  That says “spring” to me too.

Five, or make that six, or even seven, funny bunnies

On weather gambling

I was asked by a far-away friend how the gardening year has been so far.  “Four words,” I said.  “It’s a no-hose year.”

Not full power but coming close.  See this post for what it looked like two months ago.

Wet.  Sunny.  Hot.  Wet.  Sunny.  Hot.  There’s not been much that has been unpredictable, weather-wise, in the late spring/early summer around here.

This certainly isn’t anything to complain about.  No, really; the last year we had insane amounts of rain is the last one to which I can directly compare, and I will take this year, thanks.  And I am much happier with the garden’s reaction to this rain now.  My sweat has turned into equity.

You see, in 2007, we had lots of rain.  We’d been here for a year and a half and thus had only two summers’ worth of observation and (more importantly) soil and land improvement under my belt.  I lost a whole flotilla of crops that summer due to the unending drip-drop…everything got hit.  Badly hit.  Drowned roots = dead plants, see; gone were my hopes of complete veg self-sufficiency…that year was my first attempt.  So that fall I trenched and installed perforated drain pipe around the garden (300 or so feet of the stuff, and through clay, too) and I have consistently added more and more vegetative matter to the existing outdoor beds.  It’s helped, a lot.  The plants are healthier and the growing ground is less wet.

Here’s something new:  black garbanzo beans

But a little less rain would help things along!  Every spring, I do actually till two small areas of my garden:  these zones are too big for raised beds but wonderful for the sprawl that is The Winter Squash Vine.  This year, though, no dice.  Can’t till in wet clay, and it never goes longer than two days without rain.  So it looks like I will have to forego another ginormous winter squash harvest…which is just as well considering how unloved that fruit becomes in our household come January.  Likewise, I have seeded the outdoor root crops three times now, which are some truly awful gambling odds.  I don’t like to gamble with my carrots, man!  Luckily, July is around the corner so indoor carrot season is fast approaching.

Purple Peruvian fingerling potato flower

Interestingly, I read a recent article about my extension service’s adoption of greenhouses (high hoops, hoop houses) in my area for…fruit growing.  Really.  This shouldn’t surprise me as I live in The Fruit Belt but I can definitely see the advantage of growing cherry trees under cover here.  Doesn’t that sound…odd?  It makes sense though.  Wet/Sunny/Hot/Repeat means your cherries are going to explode on the branch, their roots are taking up too much water.  Modulate the water, the wind, the bugs, the birds, and the temperature swings and indeed these plastic bubbles will grow fruit just as easily as they grow veg.

Anyway, I look back at 2007 and realize it too was the year we put up our first greenhouse.  With that greenhouse went my worries about weather extremes…and up shot my odds for veg self-sufficiency.  You wanna improve your own odds?

You know what I am going to say, don’t you?

It’s great for drying things, for extending your seed-saving efforts, and of course for many different kinds of veggies and herbs

On being heat wimps

I have to remember that warm weather has an upside

The mercury in the non-greenhouse thermometer reached 86 degrees F. yesterday.  You’d think it hit 106 the way we were carrying on around here.

I will readily, easily admit I prefer cool weather.  We didn’t get to 90 all last summer and that was quite fine by me:  canning was still a sticky endeavor (and considering I was canning food for 135 schoolchildren as well as our own needs perhaps “endeavor” is an apt term) but otherwise it was an enjoyable year.  And now, well, now our blood is still thick and our entire aspect is crabby.

Case in point:  Five hens are sitting on eggs and, when they come out for their daily water, food, dustbath and, er, bowel clearing session they create QUITE the ruckus in the yard.  They cluck mightily and pick fights (!!) with everyone, and it appears to be catching.  When not molested by broody hens, our other chickens stand droopily with heads lowered and wings out, trying to take advantage of any breeze.  But once one gets a-squawking the others remember past grudges and the feathers then fly.  This heat and humidity has caught them off guard too.

T-bell the goat stomps her feet on the milkstand.  We got actual tears yesterday when our daughter realized her kiddie pool (six year old kiddie pool) had a hole, and her mood was only lifted when I told her she could spray ME with the hose.  The dog keeps losing fur and I saw one cat wrapped around the base of a toilet at one point in the afternoon.  And who wants to cook in this kind of weather, much less garden?

I suppose if we’d been eased into it instead of thrown in the boiling pot we’d have been less upset by how hot it was.  Go ahead and laugh:  we’re complete hot-weather wimps!

On garden time

It’s 2:40 behind…

I’ve figured out the secret to getting more time in the garden!

It’s simple:  let your garden clock get blown down in a rainstorm and let its back fill with rain.

Way back when I felt that every minute spent away from our toddler was a huge motherhood sin, I installed a cheap kitchen clock on the garage wall within full view of the gardens.  And it’s been a wonderful clock.  Thriftily, it uses one double-A battery per year, and its time has been reliably accurate (to my dismay: when I needed more time it didn’t give it to me, of course).  I noticed it had wound down last week so I took it down (I can jump to reach it), replaced the battery, then I never bothered to find a ladder to reinstall it.  (I didn’t have time to, you see.)  So of course at the first puff of wind it fell off the sill where I had placed it and then got drenched.

Now, it keeps completely wild time!  When I took this photo, it was noon.  Garden time, right?  Too bad nobody else lives by it.

On charming harvests

Our daughter was hospitalized on Easter.  Long story short, she became dehydrated after a bout of stomach upset, so we spent some long anxious hours with her in the ER and then overnight in a room.   All it took, really, was 24 hours of IV fluids and some oxygen and she was back to normal.  And:  she was STARVING.

After actually reading BOTH fish AND macaroni and cheese on the hospital menu for lunch, she scarfed both down, completely, scarily, today.  We’re home now and the only person I am trying to keep out of the Easter candy is myself; even in extremis she’s not a sweets-eater.  She of course gets anything she wants for dinner tonight, and she called in another seafood order.  Okay, I thought; large carbon footprint on tonight’s dinner, but there has to be something to offset it.

Actually looks big from this angle

It’s been hot here for the past week.  I thought I might check one particular patch of the garden and indeed I was rewarded.  Asparagus is probably her favorite vegetable.  It was a tiny harvest (the first ones always are), but it was more than enough for the small person.

On the unending winter

A bit of Florida sunshine in my cloudy Michigan kitchen

Our winter has been a fairly “regular” winter this year, unlike in other places.  The only thing I have noticed that has been slightly different is it has not gotten terribly cold, or windy…good for the home-heating bill, frankly; we’ll squeak by on one 250-gal. tank if all’s well.  But I am itchy for spring.  Maybe it’s the unending predictions of “lake-effect snow” which means we’ll get 5″ where others get but a whisper, maybe it’s because I know it’s nearly March but it feels like the last week of January, maybe…it’s because the kids aren’t here yet.

I am perennially looking for signs of spring.  My sighting of that robin yesterday means nothing:  he’s been here all winter.  I haven’t heard the whooping cranes flying north above us yet, I haven’t had a decent day to either tap the maples or trim the fruit trees and grape vines.  I, in other words, am in a winter funk.

The only sign of spring so far is that the turkeys, both of them, are horny.

SO!  If life hands you lemons, well…what to do?  Tom came home with three bags of organic lemons “on super sale, I know you don’t go in for the imported things but maybe we can make a lot of lemonade.”  Lemonade, bah!  Many of these will become lemon curd before the weekend is out.

On the weather

They’re 9 1/2 feet tall in the center if you’re wondering about how deep it all is.

When we lived in Minneapolis, weather WAS the common point of conversation.  I am not quite sure why this was:  if it had one cause, say, or many.  Was it because winter weather could KILL you in Minnesota, and thus isn’t it fine we’ve escaped death, or was it because it was a common point of misery thus shared?  I would not say that Minnesota is filled with miserable people, so I think it was more of the former.

Here in Michigan, though, winter’s really not much of a point of conversation.  By the unwilling, it’s endured; by the winter-lovers, it’s smiled upon; in general, though, it’s not much discussed.  I cannot tell you how far down in a typical conversation with a friend that the weather factors in:  maybe Item #20, and only because the weather could interfere with our plans. Or:  the conversations go like this:  “Can you believe they didn’t close down school today?” when the local schools were closed due to the 8″ of white stuff that fell overnight.

Ruby, Earl and the poultry condos

But I know many people read this blog from snow-shy locales; places blessed by only a few frosts in the winter months.  And I know it seems, to them, just weird that we happily endure life in the snowbelt.  The snow has begun to fall in earnest now (earnest means a daily 2-8″).  This means my morning chore list grows a bit longer:  the poultry, because they’re so numerous this year, appreciate a daily plow through their run.  Their coop is in one area, I set water in another area, feed and their condominiums in a third area so that they’re forced to walk quite a bit during the day…which means I have a lot to shovel.  Makes them less stir-crazy, less (literally) cooped up.

And I dig out my greenhouses every morning.  It’s just something I like to do, as it makes the evening quest for salad so much easier.

The daily drift…

…and the evening salad…

See?  Salad, in January, in Michigan!  Come hungry for dinner!

On a cold end

Stepping into the new greenhouse, it smells…kinda like damp licorice.

This isn’t a bad smell at all, incidentally.  Outside now it’s all crisp, white…winter blandness; that particular fresh smell that accompanies the howl of blowing snow. It’s a scent you’d love to bottle, this clean frostiness, but it is particularly devoid of botanical stink. The greenhouses are a bit of a relief to that whiteness.  Step inside, and even if it’s early morning, you still smell…earth.

But back to the licorice.  The anise-y smell is coming from The Fennel Forest.  I said they’d be good until Christmas, and they are, barely.  A bit of frostbite, but that’s fine; chopped, tossed up with some crisp apples and a yogurt dressing…mmm.

On fall foraging

P1010392Evening foraging trip to the pond behind our property

There is something about winter, you know?  Passing through this harsh and food-free season makes me eager to shake off winter’s traces with a rash of spring-green foraging.  I do it again now that fall breathes winter’s foreboding breath.  I seldom forage in summer.  Spring, though, and fall, and I am in kneeboots and gloves, briar-wicking clothing, knives, pruners, bags and baskets on my person.  Sometimes I cannot wait until I am past the age of respectability and can go about my business looking like a bag lady at all times a year; as it is, it’s only when it’s time for a free harvest that you’ll find me, wild-eyed and eager, tromping through the woods and fields.

Some years are good, some not so good.  What often holds true in the garden holds true in the neighboring fields, deserted orchards and woods around here.  This, despite the cold, was a good year.


The boletes are in.  And it was a great year.

I am not about to tell you how to find wild mushrooms, or where.  Consider the world of mushrooms to be a bell curve:  at one low end, the edible mushrooms; those in the hugely humped middle are inedible; the other low end are mushrooms that will outright kill you.  The ones that you can eat, though, well:  woodland heaven.


On the balance of the equinox

P1010241In about a month, I might actually be able to find the paths in the garden again, too (butternut squash, beans, and grapes at the top)

Happy September equinox, everyone.

Depending on your hemisphere, this means it’s either the first full day of spring or the first full day of autumn for us all.  Fall, in the days before my greenhouses, was a point on the calendar where I felt the most mortally vulnerable.  Ack!  All my plants are winding down and dying on me, I would think…and I am of course winding down too!  But, now that I am a year-round gardener, the end of one thing simply means the beginning of another.  Bye-bye tomatoes, hello turnips.  Hello, escarole; see you next year, peppers.  And look at the promise of all those little seedlings!

What I need to remind myself is that the beginning of fall is not the end of something, it’s the balance of the calendar.  Equal day and night and all that, no extremes, just a slow slide into darker days, a slow fade from the time of doing outdoor chores in the light-filled 10:00 evenings.  And darker days mean more time with the oven turned on, as I am more inclined to bake and roast and make pots of stew, cure and smoke meats, and, of course, take care of the bounty that is Apple Season.

I do adore the smell of autumn, though:  the high sweetness of the ripe grapes and apples, the fecund mustiness of fallen leaves, the acrid whiff of burning leaves and woodsmoke.  It might not hold the verdant promise of spring within its scents but it does hold its own promise:  a bountiful Harvest, and thanksgiving.

Can’t you just smell the applesauce bubbling on the stove?

We’ve returned

P1010067Lights on September 11th, with me and the child atop an adjacent roof deck

It’s so fun to get away from the farm!  Quite hilariously, everyone we saw suggested completely non-urban things to see:  the High Line, Governors’ Island (free ferry), Central Park.  No, we insisted:  we need dirty sidewalks and jostling people and street vendors and no nature, thanks.  Other than the fact that it. rained. every. single. day, mostly all day, we had a good time.  Tom’s show was fun.  It runs until October 10th, so go see it!

(The above picture:  there’s a memorial held about 5 blocks south of the World Trade Center site atop a parking garage.  It’s pretty moving, as the columns really do look like the original buildings, albeit lots skinnier and taller.  Our friends invited us for dinner that evening; they live in Battery Park City facing this site.  And:  it stopped raining long enough for us to go up to the roof to see it.)

P1000951Girl with bag of booty on the TKTS stair

The one crummy thing about constant rain is that short people like a certain five-year-old I know will not be able to stay dry under a parent-held umbrella.  One trip to the Hello Kitty store in Times Square rectified this:  a nice bright yellow poncho kept her nice and dry.

On August oaths

P1000709Greenhouse-grown ratatouille fixings

I am not sure about all of you, but August’s garden kicked my butt.

This entire year in SW Michigan has been as strange, weather-wise, as it has been elsewhere in the US.  So sure, let’s pick an easy scapegoat:  the weather!  Nothing I can do about the weather but complain, right?  But no.  Sure it was hot, sure it rained a lot, sure there were weather-related events stringing together long before August that worked against this gardener’s interests.  But other things conspired to keep me busy in places other than the garden this month.

And I suppose that’s it:  we’re always going to have obligations other than weeding the garden, right?  Than just getting out there and doing the daily tasks necessary to keep things running smoothly?

As Year Five of a summer garden, Year Two of a year-round one, I am getting a handle on any season’s ebbs and flows.  And what I realize now is this:  August is a busy time.  Busy for weeds, busy for bugs, busy for the human inhabitants of this farm.  If I am ever to come to a place of happiness with the August garden, I need to realize the limits of my time and try to use the warmth and enthusiasm of August’s weather to my advantage.  So: what does this mean?

It means that next year, nearly the only things I will have growing in the outdoor garden in August will be dry beans, corn, and winter squash!  They require NONE of my precious time.  I’ll have the fall-started crops, but I’m planning on cutting way back on summer squash, beets, and canning (green) beans.

So!  Tomatoes, cucumbers, take heed:  you will all be either July or September crops, no exceptions!

(do you think the tomatoes will listen to me?)

On garden worries

P1000732Wet Swedish Fingerlings, aching for harvest

I admitted to a friend of mine that I have been having some episodes of insomnia lately.  My cause for worry?  Not global warming, not the health-care fiasco, not a terrorist attack.  Nope.  I was worried about my potatoes.

What’s to worry about potatoes?  Plant one in the ground, you get back 8-10 potatoes:  that kind of math should cause me no worries, right?  Well, true to form, our August has been a wet one.  And wet soil can mean rotten potatoes.  So every nightly thunderstorm, every nightly sprinkle, CLICK my eyelids flash open and I worryworryworry.

The first year the skies opened up in August I was told “this is highly unusual.”  Normally our Augusts see about 4″ of rain, nothing to sneeze at, but every year since I was apprised of what is “normal” we have had, in some instances, more than twice that number, sometimes on the same weekend.*  And here, the last day of August, we’re 3″ above normal.  Time to get the spuds out of the ground, and it’s time to find the time to do so.

(*If something happens four years in a row, isn’t that, well, NORMAL?  Like most things, I think we need to adjust our thinking.)

It’s a pity.  Leaving them in the ground (without rain, that is) is a great way to store them.  I would simply harvest them before the frost.  Ah well.  I have harvested about 75% of them and, well, I can now sleep at night!

On garden pests

I thank my lucky stars, such as they are, that we’ve not been hit by late blight this year, and my heart and stomach go out to all of you disappointed East Coast gardeners.  It has been wacky weather all around, hasn’t it?  Our spring and summer have been cool and very, very dry.  While this means I simply water more than usual, and things are slower, it also means we have a lot less to worry about as far as insect pests in the garden.  So…there’s an upside after all!

Normally by mid- to late July we’re battling air squadrons of Japanese beetles, but it’s an off year for them.  I’ve picked a few off the grapes and our one wisteria tree looks like Spring Break, it’s so covered with the things, but honestly there’ve been too few of them to really call them “pests.”  (The wisteria disagrees.)  Bean beetles and potato bugs are likewise no-shows.

This is not the case for all insects, however.  It’s been a banner year for tomato hornworms.

P1000480Small bowl of yum!

Luckily, I have a skilled hunter to help find them, and hungry chickens to help eat them.

On finding some shade

Recently I was discussing my greenhouses with some non-gardening folk and it was brought to my attention that hoophouses (polytunnels, etc., i.e., what my greenhouses are) are…not pretty.  “I don’t think we could have them in our neighborhood,” came the supposed-to-be-softening following statement.

I will here admit I was thrown by this comment.  Word to the wise:  do not EVER tell a mother that her baby is UGLY.  She might just pop you one.IMG_1654

So, here I am, about to tell you more things that *I* can do out here in the country, where aesthetics obviously do not matter (!!).  Most gardens aren’t as blessed as my (UGLY) country garden is with all its sun.  Sun, sun I have, in spades.  It’s not the best thing for tender things like lettuces and certain brassicas because sun (mostly just heat) causes them to toughen and bolt into seed.  I do what I can to extend the lettuce season as far as I can, knowing I’m chasing a fleeting thing.  I interplant, usually growing lettuce seedlings in between quicker, taller-growing things like fava beans and broccoli.  And I seek the shade of the few tall perennial things located in the garden, like the lovage pictured above.  This tall, now blooming plant is south of this lettuce bed.  Aesthetically pleasing, no?

IMG_1652And note the ugly baby at the top right

And then I do hee-haw things that no self-respecting HOA would ever allow, like putting weed block over old political sign frames, and fastening it down with clothespins.  Effective, I will tell you!

On pretty things

We’ve lived in our house for five springs now, and only twice have we had a full bloom on the tree wisteria in the side yard.  Usually frost gets the young blossoms, whose flowering coincides with that of the apricots and plums; when the wisteria blossoms die, so too does the hope for a big harvest (or any harvest at all) from these lovely stone fruits.  This year, we have blooms.IMG_1278

This picture doesn’t do it justice.  The smell is delicately sweet.pretty_2

And of course the blossoms are gorgeous.

Here’s hoping this turns out to be a fruitful year!  I *adore* apricot jam, don’t you?  Or plum jam, or dried apricots AND plums, and clafoutis, and dicing them up in salads, and and and…

To plant out or not to plant out

That is the question!

IMG_1254But I’m ready!  Tomatillo blossom

My non-scientific answer to that question is to ask myself, well, will the plant sulk?  Our normal temperature range at this time of year is highs in the low 70s and lows in the low 50s, but there is still the rare potential for frost and an even rarer instance where it could get to be 80.  This range, then, is not ideal for the heat-loving solanaceae family (peppers, tomatoes, eggplants).  It’s even worse for cucumbers and beans.

SO, I wait.  It’s hard! Especially when I didn’t have the greenhouses to distract me, this time of year is one spent waiting and watching the 10-day forecast.  Hard work, this waiting, this watching your lovingly tended seedlings grow more and more leggy and spindly.  But it is best for the plants.  Get them in the ground and they either become victims of those munching creepy crawlies or are simply done in, fainting like corseted Victorian maidens.  Or they survive.

But Thursday is Plant It Out day in our school gardens, so I will be “risking it” with okra, tomatillos, tomatoes, peppers, and those really fainting- and sulking-prone eggplants.  So, cross your fingers for us.  Unlike here at home, we’ve got the school calendar tick-tocking away on us.  Some plants might just have to sulk.