Monday, April 28, 2008

It's Spring...No, It's Winter...No, It's Spring...No, It's Winter...

Dear Mother Nature,

I know "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature," but really--who's fooling whom? Haven't you read the The Old Farmer's Almanac, which says that April 17 is the last frost date for the Springfield, Illinois area and April 22 for the Chicago, Illinois area? Please--give our poor little peas and beans and other early spring crops a break!

Early this morning, my Forecastfox widget alerted me with a big, ugly red stop sign that we had a severe weather alert for Decatur, Illinois. According to, a




Argh! I have been so good at getting seedlings started, getting plants in the ground, taking care of them, and now this! A gardener's nightmare.

I dug through my old fabric and old sheets and scrounged as many scraps and old linens as possible to cover the beans and peas. I draped them over the fences to try to keep out the worst of the weather, but we're also supposed to have freezing rain, so I'm not sure how effective they'll be. I may have to start all over. I also covered up the few tulips I had sprouting in a nearby mess of branches and leaves.

C'mon, Mother Nature, give a poor eco-friendly girl a break! Bring on Spring!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Suggestions Needed for Ex-Pool Area

The house my roommates and I are renting once had an above-ground pool, which was removed long before we moved in. So we have no pool (which is okay, because it would be WAY too attractive to mosquitoes), but we do have a real eyesore of a spot where the pool used to be. Of course, the water and gas lines below the pool area were never removed, so I can't dig the spot up for gardening. Additionally, I'm guessing the ground in that area is probably rife with chlorine and other pool chemicals, so I wouldn't want to grow anything there anyway.

The question for you is this: what the heck do I do with this area? (Clearly, it will need to be raked.) How do I make it an attractive part of the backyard, which will be, in large part, a huge garden by the end of the summer? I'm entertaining any and all suggestions!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Gardening Is a (Painfully) Great Workout

I'm in sad shape for being nearly 43. (Yes, that's my real age.) When I got home from work today, my roommate informed me that he had tilled the garden plot for me. (I would say "Bless his pea-pickin' heart," but we don't have peas to pick yet.)

Unfortunately, we have clay for soil, so the tilled portion doesn't go down very far. I decided to use some of the compost and organic soil I had on hand in the trunk of my car to plant green beans in just one section of the garden. The Empress and Ideal Market green beans looked ready, so I sectioned off a part of the garden with some fence I bought at KMart last year for next to nothing, added the compost and soil, and planted the beans (9 Empress plants and 10 Ideal Market). The soup beans look like they'll be next--they're getting pretty tall.

I was delighted to see the earthworms making their way up from down below into the fresh compost and soil, but disturbed by the news that in the U.K., New Zealand flatworms are liquefying earthworms! This is not good news for gardeners. Let's hope the earthworms don't get imported to North America.

While I was outside, I raked some leaves (which I can't do for very long). Unfortunately, I didn't even make a dent. I gave up on the raking and put some shredded paper and mulch around the snap peas to minimize erosion and retain moisture.

I feel productive for having gotten more planting done. If I do a little every day (weather permitting), I should have a pretty awesome garden in no time!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Springing into Action

At last, spring is here!

I've been itching to till my garden, but in order to do so, I have to rake off the poisonous leaves and add the compost and organic soil to build up the garden. In order to till, the soil has to be dry enough that it won't compact when we till, but it seems that after every nice day or two, we have a significant rain.

So yesterday I decided it was time to set up the compost bin I bought on clearance at Lowe's for a ridiculous $62. Yes, I know, I could have just heaped the compost, but my goodness, this bin is black (and thus will absorb heat to help cook the compost), has slots that allow air to flow through, has another level I can add to it, and even has a hinged lid! Pretty exciting, let me tell you! It does everything but dance! After setting up the bin, which was pretty simple, I threw in shredded paper, cardboard, dead non-poisonous leaves, food scraps we've been saving, coffee grounds I begged from Panera, and some tiny twigs. I watered it all down to get it moving in the right direction.

Today was the second nice day in a row, and a quick look at my Amish Snap Peas, which were spindly and droopy, told me they needed some serious planting. So I picked a nice sunny spot in the yard (not in the garden), raked off the few black walnut leaves that covered the ground, and used The Claw (my favorite garden tool, purchased several years ago) to loosen up the ground. I then added some organic soil. I'm not certain they look much better tied to the tongue depressors swiped from a friendly doctor's office. I think I will have to find taller stakes.

My biggest worry is that we may have some hungry neighborhood rabbits who fancy feasting on my tender pea shoots. So I fenced the peas in with four $1 gates garnered from The Dollar Tree. Before you ask, yes, I do realize that rabbits can hop and conceivably could overleap the fence and eat the pea plants despite my efforts. But I'm not sure how else to keep them out, and I'm hoping the fence will deter them. I thought about getting a pellet gun and eating the rabbits I pop, but I'm not all that fond of the idea of dismantling and cleaning a rabbit for cooking.

Beans will be following the peas very soon. I planted a couple of varieties of green beans and several varieties of soup beans on April 9, and a few days ago, they were just pushing through the dirt. On Saturday, I walked out to the porch and--Bam!--they were a few inches high! Last night I raised my grow lamp up one notch, and it looks like I'll have to either raise it another notch or swap the tray for the tomato tray, where the seedlings are still small.

There is something very exciting about growing plants. Let's hope I can keep them alive...and uneaten!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Good News on a Gloomy Day

I'm itching to get out into the garden, but the weather hasn't been the least bit cooperative. We've had quite a bit of rain lately here in Central Illinois, so I haven't been able to get out and work the garden soil to prepare for planting. I've had to content myself with planting seeds in Jiffy pellets and biodegradable planting cups and turning my enclosed porch into a greenhouse of sorts.

Today, it's gloomy again: overcast, rainy, with a chill wind blowing. I dragged myself out to the porch to turn on the space heater, seedlings mat, and grow light for the plants.

Oh. my. God.

I have seedlings sprouting!

The kohlrabi and green bean seeds are stretching their stems upward, seeking what barely passes for sunlight. It's been a mere 4 days since I planted these seeds, and already they are straining to LIVE!

I did a happy garden dance on our porch, which I think disturbed my roommate as he was on his way to work. Luckily, since he has to hurry to work, he won't have time to call the men in white coats.

When I was a kid, I did a bit of baking now and then, and I would sit in front of the oven, waiting for the cake to rise and get done so I could frost it and we could eat it. It seemed to take forever. Mom always told me "a watched pot never boils," but I can't help it. I'm a type-A personality and I want SOMETHING to happen RIGHT NOW!

I have been staring at the Jiffy pellets every day, wishing the seeds to grow. And my little seed-buddies rose to the task quickly and cheerfully. Only four days!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Apparently "No-Till" Doesn't Mean "No-Rake"

Yesterday, I started several seedlings--tomatoes, peas, eggplant, green beans, peppers, kohlrabi, spinach, and strawberry spinach. You can see my setup at left--I'm using the Jiffy pellets and trays. I also have a grow light I bought on clearance at Blaine's Farm & Fleet on the left, and a seedlings warming mat underneath the tray on the right (also courtesy of Farm & Fleet clearance). The little green Post-It tags tell me what variety I planted, and each row is a variety. On the right, I have two rows of some varieties; hence the separated tags. I trade off the seedlings trays so each day one of them gets "sun." And yes, I planted 48 tomato plants (6 of each variety). I'm a bit of a tomato nut. I just cannot eat the plastic tomatoes from the store.

So today, when I got home from work, I was feeling antsy to look at the garden mess left over from last year. Oh. my. God. I forgot that I hadn't even taken the tomato cages down! We also have a million thousand too frackin' many trees in our yard, so we get inundated with leaves. Since I'm going to begin my composting endeavor this year (no sense in not trying to learn how to do everything at once, of course), you might think that the sea of leaves in our yard would be a good thing.

You would be wrong.

Apparently, black walnut leaves are poison to plants, horses,, at least according to the article "Black Walnut Toxicity to Plants, Humans and Horses." The article does suggest that black walnut leaves may be composted separately and tested for safety by trying to grow some tomato plants in it, but I'm not too keen about eating tomatoes grown in poison. If YOU want to try it, go right ahead--I'll be glad to supply you with leaves, but you have to come get them. And rake them up. And bag them.

[Pictured: last year's garden plot, which runs from the chair at left to where the grass weeds show on the right. The garden extends about a yard short of the fence, which is barely visible in the back. The trees mark the fence line. Notice how the leaves seem to cling only to the garden and not the lawn.]

Sunday, April 6, 2008

I Think I Can Be Classified as OCD

It happened. I received my seed catalogs a few weeks ago and knew I had to place an order immediately. When my gardening buddy, Michelle, saw the Seed Savers certified-organic, heirloom bean sampler I had ordered, she asked me how many beans I was expecting to plant. (Garden-ese for "please, may I have some?"; of course, I promptly supplied her with some from each of the six varieties.) She also suggested donating some to our local college horticulture program, which I'll do. And then, I'll probably save the leftovers for next year and add some new varieties to the mix.

[Left to right, back row: Hutterite Soup, October, and Good Mother Stallard; front row: Jacob's Cattle Gasless, Ireland Creek Annie, and Lina Cisco's Bird Egg.]

But I didn't stop with beans. No, you just can't sustain yourself on just beans for a year. I've added plenty of veggies to the mix:

Peppers - Orange Bell, Chocolate Beauty, and Buran

- Amish Paste, Sweet Pea Currant, Red Zebra, John Baer, Marglobe Supreme, Illinois Beauty, Cherokee Purple, and Beefsteak (my favorite)

Lettuces - Amish Deer Tongue, Bronze Arrowhead, Forellenschuss, Red Velvet, Susan's Red Bibb, and Yugoslavian Red Butterhead

Other Greens
- Strawberry Spinach, Apollo Arugula, America Spinach

- Black Beauty Zucchini, Golden Zucchini

- Florida High Bush

- Plum Purple, Early Scarlet Globe

- Chioggia, Bull's Blood, Detroit Dark Red

- Danver's Half Long, Scarlet Nantes, Dragon

- Clemson Spineless, Star of David

- Green Arrow, Amish Snap

Green Beans
- Ideal Market, Empress

- Double Yield, Boothby's Blonde, A&C Pickling

- Cutting Celery

- Australian Brown, Red of Florence

- Fernleaf Dill, Grandma Einck's Dill, Omega Flax, Santo Coriander, Cilantro/Coriander, Chives, Greek Oregano, Giant Parsley from Italy, Rosemary, Cinnamon Basil, Genovese Basil, Stevia

Edible Flowers
- Dwarf Jewel Mix Nasturtiums, Empress of India Nasturtiums

So, as you can see, I have ordered far more seeds than I have room for in my garden. I got a bit carried away due to spring fever. But all is not lost--I will share some seeds and save some seeds for next year!