Monday, June 29, 2009

Zucchini Are Rampant

It begins. You see to the left a picture of the first of many zucchini that have already been born and, within a day or two, will be ripe for eating. I counted a half dozen that I could recognize as zucchini, with many more blossoms heralding future zukes. Prepare your doorsteps, folks; "Leave a Zucchini on Your Neighbor's Doorstep Day" is coming sooner than usual this year! (Note: The official "Leave a Zucchini on Your Neighbor's Doorstep Day is--I think--August 8 each year.)

In addition to the zucchini, my Ireland Creek Annie beans are the first to sport blossoms, so it won't be long now before the soup beans will be coming on. As my loyal readers may recall, I planted several different kinds of soup beans in addition to green beans. I've never harvested soup beans before (Mexican bean beetles and neglect took last year's attempt), so it will be interesting to see how much of a pain it is. And yes, I see the bug in the picture, but I am happy to report it is merely a cricket, the soul of a deceased Chinese emperor come to visit my humble garden.

Tomorrow I will need to transfer my tomato and pepper seedlings into bigger pots. They are a bit too small for the garden yet, but need more room for rooting. Here's a look at the seedlings. The tomatoes are looking a bit spindly on the left. The pepper plants are looking quite healthy in the back, and the oregano seedlings are coming on strong!

Yesterday I planted green onions, okra, and cilantro/coriander, and mammoth sunflower seeds directly into the garden and lightly mulched with grass clippings. It's probably too late in the season to be planting these foods, but what the heck, every one of my gardens is an experiment of some sort. The whole planting season has been late due to the three-month-long April showers. If they don't take, I can always adjust next year.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Creative Gardening Tools: Newspaper as Mulch

Do you have newspapers piled high in a box or bin somewhere in your house or garage that you'd like to get rid of? Here's a tip: instead of sending it off to recycling, shred it and use it as mulch in your garden or around your flowers and shrubs. You'll want to then top it off with grass clippings, hay, chipped tree mulch, or something similar (otherwise, the newspaper will just blow away and look like hell), but you'll gain lots of benefits from using shredded newspaper as an underblanket. I've used grass clippings--shown in the picture--to cover up the newspaper.

[Note to self: Next time, pick a wind-less day for mulching. The shredded newspaper won't blow all over the yard and I won't get grass clippings in my mouth.]

Using shredded newspaper not only gives you a use for those newspapers that might instead clutter up the landfill, but it also works as compost for the soil, helps retain moisture around your plants, and prevents weeds from taking over. Newspapers are safe for mulching since the newspaper industry has switched over to soy-based inks.

Shredded newspaper mulch doesn't stop all weeds; let me be clear about that. But it significantly reduces the number of them that will sneak through, particularly if you lay the mulch down thickly. If you want extra weed protection without chemicals, tear up some food-grade or corrugated cardboard and lay that down first, then the shredded newspaper, and finally, whatever you've chosen as your topside mulch. Ultimately, the cardboard and newspaper will all break down and become part of the soil that the little beasties feed on; additionally, you won't have the leachate that you would get if you lay down plastic. (Plastic is bad, very bad, and should never be used around food.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Be Afraid...Be Very Afraid

In one day, the zucchini plant I took pictures of last night has decided to blossom. The blossom in the foreground will open tomorrow, and quite possibly the one in the background as well. The beginning of the Day of the Zucchini (a la Day of the Triffids) is here! Beware! If you see zucchini plants wandering the streets...cover your eyes and run!

On the bug front, I still see no sign of the Japanese Beetles in my garden--they have decided that they prefer copulating in my decorative trees. I mentioned yesterday how they eat holes in the leaves, creating a kind of lace-like effect. The picture here shows an example of the damage they have wrought in just one day. We have not yet had the opportunity to douse their fiery passions with a soapy water mixture, and today, I'm wondering whether that's a good idea. If we make the tree an unwelcome marriage bed for them, they may decide to take up residence in my garden. But they are also too far up and out on the tree for me to be able to reach most of them in order to scoop them into a bowl of soapy water. Does anyone have advice for me that includes neither chemicals nor the admonition to join them in their insect frenzy? Please?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Bugs Really Bug Me

I looked out the window this evening after working in the garden. I thought I saw black spots, so I closed my eyes to rest them, then reopened them. Black spots. I shook my head (I'm not sure what I hoped to accomplish by that) and then looked again. Black spots. So then I looked more closely, and realized that the leaves of the trees that vine around the upper deck were covered with black spots. And the black spots were moving...and glinting in the sun.

Crap. I know that glint. It's Japanese Beetle time.

I've had run-ins with these buggers before. They are voracious leaf- and fruit-eaters. They nearly destroyed my okra crop a couple of years ago. When they eat, they reduce the leaves of whatever plant they attack to a fine lace and leave other leaves looking like they have been burned by fire. Then they lay their eggs underground, where the grubs overwinter so they can come back and destroy my plants again the next year.

So you can imagine my distress when I saw them, especially with my garden doing so well. I downloaded a couple of documents about getting rid of them. Apparently traps don't work well. My best bet, according to the literature, is to go out in the early morning when they are sluggish and knock them off into a bowl of soapy water. It's too late this year to plant flowers and other vegetation that do not attract the time they matured, the beetles' migration/mating season will be over. I don't want to apply chemicals, so other than the soapy water trick, there's not much I can do. I'll spend time knocking them off tomorrow, and David will spray the trees down with a soapy water mixture. We'll hope that's sufficient. So far, I haven't seen them in the garden, and hopefully they don't like what I've planted so far. Maybe the onions will keep them away.

And trust me, these bugs are "gettin' jiggy wit' it," and in my trees, no less, and in plain sight, where my children (read: kitties) can see them in their pornographic glory!

First Harvest of the Season

After hubby and I returned home from seeing Topol in Fiddler on the Roof in Chicago, I toured the garden to see how my plants were doing. I was ecstatic to see that six Sun Sugar tomatoes were ripe and ready to pick! After taking a picture, David and I promptly ate them. Tomatoes don't last long around here, especially the Sun Sugar ones. They are naturally sweet and also great salad tomatoes.

I staked the rest of the heirloom tomato plants now that they were all standing tall and straight (and yes, Michelle, even the tiny ones are doing well)! I'm happy to say I haven't lost a single tomato plant so far.

I am also happy to see that the Beefsteak tomato plants are preparing to fruit--they have blossoms galore! For example, on this one plant, in just this one cluster, I have seven blossoms open and four more preparing to open! All of the original hort sale tomato plants have blossoms, so it won't be long before I will be able to report many more tomatoes.

The zucchini are doing very well also. The plants are huge and green with very large leaves (the stakes you see between the rows are bean plants. Maybe not the best planting idea, but we'll see how it goes). I didn't lose any of these plants, either, and I'm beginning to feel the first tremors of fear that I may be overrun with more zucchini than I can cook, freeze, and give away. I decided to take a peek inside one of the plants to see what the blossom status is. OMG. The core of the plant is nothing BUT blossoms! And this is only the beginning, and only one plant. So prepare yourselves, dear readers, to receive zucchini in the near future.

I also got down on hands and knees--not an easy task, mind you--and weeded the beans and onions. With all the rain we've had, I had a lot of weeds encroaching that needed to be pulled. Luckily many of them came up easily by the roots. Tomorrow I will dig newspaper out of our recycle bin and shred it and mulch between the rows to keep the weeds down. So far, the grass clippings around each plant are doing a really good job of keeping the weeds away from the plant itself, so with the newspaper trick and grass clippings on top of that, I should be in good shape.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tomatoes are Fruiting!

It continues to rain almost daily, although we were supposed to get pop-up showers today and didn't. It was nearly 100 degrees today, and if the humidity wasn't 100 percent, well, it was close enough to call it. Within just 5 seconds of walking outside, my head started to sweat, and a collection of sweat-drinking flying things swarmed me. I was able to get some pictures taken of the garden, however, and plants are loving this wet weather!

The once-neglected Sun Sugar tomato plants are now looking tremendously healthy, and have produced their first fruits/ It was all I could do to keep myself from picking them early and savoring their sweet, summery taste. But I refrained in order to let them ripen. They should be ready in a day or two. The heirloom tomato plants, which were a bit wilty after I planted them a few days ago, are now standing up straight! Depending upon the heat tomorrow, I may try to get out and stake them; if it's too hot and humid (which is predicted for tomorrow), I may wait a day or so. They are small enough and straight enough that I don't need to worry for now.

The zucchini plants have filled out nicely, and I expect to see blossoms within a day or two. People, I fear I will be overrun with zucchini! Of course, given how many plants I installed in the garden, that comes as no surprise to me. I will be grating and freezing a lot this summer, I suspect! The onion and shallot shoots continue to grow, as well, so I should have a lot of those come fall.

The cucumbers are now getting their squash-like leaves, and it won't be long before they'll send out their tendrils to grab on to the dirt. My goal is to try to train them up the fence. We'll see how that goes.

The bean plants are gaining strength and will do better as the zucchini grows a bit more and begins to shade them.

I can also see the Mammoth Dill, which isn't so mammoth right now, peeking its shoots above the grass clippings.

In the seedlings department, the Beefsteak tomatoes have risen, as well as a couple of pepper plants and some of the oregano and basil.

Just writing about all this food is making me hungry!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Planting Tomatoes. And More Tomatoes. And Still More Tomatoes.

My friend Michelle kindly supplied me yesterday with 14 varieties of heirloom tomato plants, 28 plants total. The varieties include Black Cherry, Bloody Butcher, Ox Heart, Black Tom, Sungold Select, Brandywine, San Marzano, Orange Banana, Cosmonaut Volkov, Costoluto Genovese, Soldacki, Peach Tom, Green Velvet, and Orange Strawberry. Some of them sound downright tasty. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing the different tomatoes they produce and putting them all to a taste test!

Today I braved the 87-degree, ridiculously humid weather and planted every one of them. I didn't want to take the chance that it would rain AGAIN before I could get them in the ground. Or that I would leave them sitting around, neglected, like I did my first batch of tomatoes. I didn't have enough stakes, so tomorrow I will need to run to Menards to pick up additional stakes for support.

Speaking of which, my previous neglect of the hort-sale tomatoes didn't seem to do any lasting damage. With some grass clippings, stake support, and regular grow juice from Mother Nature, these plants are really greening up, filling out, and blossoming!

With today's planting of the heirlooms, my tomato plant count is now about 38. Which doesn't count the seedlings that I'm waiting on . . .

Okay, so maybe I'm a little tomato crazy. But you know, tomatoes do make great salsa. And you can can or freeze them (I'll be freezing them; I don't have the patience for canning.) And honestly, I suspect many tomatoes will never even make it into the house. They'll be eaten right there in the garden, warmed by the sun, their juice dripping down my chin. That day seems so far off right now, but it will be here before I know it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Mulberries...Brought to You by Bird Dung

I was outside this evening, compulsively checking to see what growth today's rain brought, when I spied a nasty bit of purplish bird dung. Ick, I thought.

And then I thought, cool.

Because the purplish bird dung means that I have mulberries! Which means that soon my hermit crabs will be dining on mulberry mush and I'll be making mulberry freezer jam. I've never made it before, but I have all the ingredients for it. I don't have the patience for canning, so freezer jam it will have to be.

I also noticed that the cucumbers have sprouted above the grass clippings, so soon I will have cuke plants vining their way up the fence. The occasional cuke will make it into a cool cucumber salad or cucumber/tomato salad or pasta salad, but the majority of them will become freezer bread and butter pickles.

The food just can't grow fast enough for me.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Settling for Seedlings

The ground is still wet and spongy, so I haven't been able to do any planting the last few days. I have searched the house and garage from top to bottom for my leftover heirloom seeds from last year to start, but can't find them. Good thing my life doesn't depend upon it.

I was so frustrated, I finally went to Menard's and purchased some Burpee organic seeds to plant. I started Beefmaster tomatoes (my favorite--I love the rich, meaty tomatoes best for BLTs and just eating off the vine) as well as California Wonder and China Giant peppers. In the herb category, I planted parsley, (no sage--rarely use it), rosemary, thyme, more sweet basil, and oregano. I already have dill in the garden (although it hasn't come up yet), so the only herb I'm really missing at this point that I'd like to have is cilantro for salsas and salads. I started all these today and put them on the plant warmer and under the plant grow light, so hopefully in a few days I'll see some shoots peeking above the soil!

Meanwhile, Mother Nature's grow-juice (read: rain) has resulted in some very healthy veggies: the tomatoes have greened up and have a lot of growth; the zucchini are taking off. Yes, all 12 zucchini plants are doing well, so if anyone needs zucchini...well, I'll have plenty to provide to others as well as plenty to freeze and use! The picture at right shows one of the plants with a stray robin's egg next to it, perfectly positioned by nature to show scale.

So far, the bunnies have stayed out of the garden, even though I have not yet put up the rest of the garden fence. They like to play in the front yard down by the retention pond. The cattails make perfect cover for their bunny hide-and-seek games. David and I watched them last night cavorting around, hopping straight up in the air at times, running into each other, playing leap-bunny, and generally having fun. As long as they stay in the front yard, we will not have to reduce them to bunny stew.

OK, I was just kidding about the stew.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rules for Mulching with Grass Clippings

It's 80 degrees out with no breeze and an ungodly percentage of humidity that only the Midwest seems inclined to produce. It rained just a little sometime this morning, so I thought maybe I could get some planting done before the next rain, which could be any minute now.

As flies, gnats, and other buzzing creatures swarmed around me, I began to suspect that this was not the best time to plant.

However, I'm seriously behind in my planting, so forward, hoe! A planting I did go. I planted a row of Old Mother Stallard soup beans, and decided I have planted way too many beans. We will have to keep windows cracked this winter to dispose of the excess methane produced by so many beans as it is. I skipped the Hutterite and October beans, which was a good thing, because these poor seedlings have been bound up so long in their little peat pots that they are near death. The cuke seedlings didn't make it, either, so I planted cuke seeds today straight into the garden. I took the two boxwood basil plants that have been on the verge of dying in their pot as well and planted those, and threw in a row of Mammoth dill seeds next to the cucumbers. I mulched everything and then, arms flailing at the bugs, I marched quickly into the house to shower.

As I was planting and fighting off a determined swarm of flying annoyances, a couple of thoughts occurred to me that I would like to share with you so you may learn from my experience.

  1. Do not leave grass clippings in a wheelbarrow in the rain. They will smell like cow dung and attract flies. Big, nasty, annoying flies that scare the crap out of you when they buzz your head.
  2. If you despise spiders, it is best to use FRESH grass clippings, not the clippings that have been sitting in the burn pile, mildewing in the rain. Apparently spiders really dig these kind of clippings.
Once I have cooled off and rested, I will plant some tomato seedlings to plant in a couple of days. Provided the rain stops long enough.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Lady of Shallot (with Apologies to Tennyson)

Since the ground was too wet to plant today because of the rain yesterday and this morning, I decided to see whether the rain had resulted in any plant growth in the garden. The beans I had recently planted had perked up, and lo and behold, the zucchini plants--all 12 of them--are starting to look like zucchini plants now! It won't be long now and I'll have to break out the zucchini recipes. My favorite is Zucchini Chocolate Sheet Cake; close behind is Cagley Casserole...a zucchini casserole recipe given to me by a former neighbor, now deceased, named Mrs. Cagley. She was my gardening buddy, always bringing me shallots, rhubarb, and asparagus from her garden, while I provided her with zucchini, lettuce, and tomatoes from mine. She was a wonderful neighbor, and always had helpful gardening tips at hand to help out.

The shallots (planted in her honor) and onion sets, both yellow and white, are sending their shoots up through the grass clippings now. It will be a while before they will be ready to harvest, but I'm delighted they are doing so well so quickly! I'm not entirely certain what to cook with shallots (other than just to use shallots as onion replacements for a slightly different flavor), but I'll do some recipe searches before harvest.

What I'm most pleased about, however, are the tomato plants which, after being inexcusably neglected, have rallied! The new leaves on top are a deep verdigris, and all but the two smallest plants have at least two small tomatoes a piece. A couple of the plants even have additional blossoms, so provided that I keep them well watered, they should produce well for me this season.

My biggest concern right now is getting the rest of the garden planted! I know I sound like a broken record, but please, Mother Nature, may we have a couple of days without rain? Pretty please?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

"Nature Deficit Disorder" Leads to Health Problems

Just after posting my blog entry for today, I picked up my June/July 2009 issue of Organic Gardening and read this clip on page 20:

Richard Louv's 2005 bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, spurred a national dialogue among parents, educators, conservationists, and health professionals. Ten years of research led Louv to link children's lack of exposure to nature with disturbing health trends: the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. Consequently, U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) introduced the No Child Left Inside Act, a $100-million-a-year initiative to reconnect kids with nature that he calls "a smart investment in the future of our planet."

So folks, don't just stop using antibacterials to clean; get your children outside and let them eat dirt and run barefoot through the grass!

Staking Out the Beans

Yesterday, I planted two rows (16 plants total) of pole beans, staked them and labeled the rows, and mulched around them. Additionally, I put up part of my garden fence (once I finish planting, I'll finish enclosing the garden.

Those two little rows wore me out so much that I went into the guest bedroom, flopped on my back on the bed, and took a zombie nap for a couple of hours. I was completely non-functional the rest of the evening.

Today, I managed to get out, plant two rows of soup beans (Lina Cisco's Bird Egg and Irish Creek Annie)--about 8 plants each), staked them, and watered the whole garden. That was enough for the evening.

At this rate, I might actually have my entire garden planted by August 1. [sigh]

Anyway, I planted today in my bare feet. Yes, people, I ignored my mother's advice from my childhood about not running around the yard without something on my feet and planted my toes in the grass and soil. The grass was soft and silky and cool as it caressed my soles; the dirt rough and rocky and...painful. Despite the pain, I managed to plant the two rows of beans before putting shoes back on for the staking. So why even bother to tend the garden with tender tootsies?


Microbes? Why would I want to capture microbes with my feet? The answer: for better health.

I know, it sounds counter-intuitive. We're supposed to avoid bugs at all costs, according to social norms. We're supposed to antibacterialize and disinfect our homes to avoid breathing in a single bacterium. That's supposed to be healthy.

But it's not. In fact, our urge to over-clean everything just may be at the root of several illnesses, not the least of which include an increased incidence in asthma, allergies, and autoimmune disorders. A review of the "hygiene hypothesis," by Fernando D. Martinez from the University of Arizona Respiratory Sciences Center lends credibility to the hypothesis that lack of exposure to microbes in childhood may result in allergies and other conditions. When a person is exposed to microbes, the body works to develop immunity toward those microbes--in a sense, the microbes act a bit like a vaccination. When a person isn't exposed to these microbes, the body doesn't have a chance to develop an immunity, and therefore may react allergically to these microbes when exposed to them later in life.

So...I'm inviting microbes in. How about you?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Creative Gardening Tools: The Kitty Litter Bucket Rain Barrel

The day after I planted the sickly tomatoes, the zucchini, and the onions and shallots, the good- weather reprieve was over and we were back to April weather. Three rounds of rain followed by hail that day, rain the next day, and rain yesterday have saturated the ground. Everything is soggy, and therefore my beans and cucumbers are not yet planted.

Luckily, the hail really only damaged one tomato plant, which I should have attached to the stake a little higher. I'm hoping when I tie it back to the stake it will already has baby tomatoes that I don't want to lose.

I did, however, have the foresight to put out some rain barrels--Fresh Step kitty litter buckets! I never know what to do with them and don't want to throw them away, but they make excellent rain buckets. I saved the lids this year so I can cap them and prevent skeeter babies from swimming around in them. I also had the foresight to put a rock in the bottom of each one so they wouldn't blow away in the gusty winds.

So here is a rundown of the short-term gardening projects I have left to complete if Mother Nature ever gives us a break:

1. Plant cukes, beans, and dill seedlings
2. Put up rabbit fencing around the garden
3. Add compost to the garden
4. Put together the gated arbor
5. Put together the bridge
6. Start remaining seedlings

Wow, the list seems overwhelming when I don't know when we will have dry conditions again. Keep your fingers crossed for a couple of dry days for me!