Sunday, April 19, 2015

April Happenings: Spring is Here

We've made a start on the edging and mulching

The lettuce has just poked through and it is hard to believe
that these teeny tiny leaves will amount to anything
The Daffodils are just beginning

The peas came up on Thursday, Day 14 and
I planted the second planting on Friday evening

Tomatoes are seeded, peppers are just making a sho
 and the egg plants are looking luscious

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme

After such a long cold winter it is so nice to finally have our outdoor life start up again.  Even if it is work.  I spent yesterday filling pots, counting pots, ordering more pots and running out of potting soil.  Today, after run to the store for more soil, and a trip to the farm for some composted horse manure, I began seeding lettuce in the cold frame. Tim commented as we left Home Depot with out respective items, that I am always buying stuff to grow things: soil, seeds, soil ammendments, and Tim is always buying something to kill things: weed killer, traps, poison....  I also cleaned a perennial bed, and rearranged my herb garden.

In a corner along the walkway from the garden shed to the vegetable garden, I have a grouping of large rocks which shelter my "perennial" herb garden.  The rocks hold heat as long as they can and shelter the herbs from the winter weather.  There are many herbs that grow back well from established roots and seed and may be considered perennial in your climate zone.  Most of those are invasive herbs like mints, Oregano and Lemon Balm, all of which I keep along the back side of a perennial bed, under the tree line where the tree roots starve them of moisture and the limbs limit their sunlight.  They still manage to survive tho not get out of hand too badly.  They sure do ramble.

Spearmint can often be found wild along stream beds

In the rock cluster along my vegetable garden walk way I keep my Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.  I know that list sounds unimaginative and that there are a lot of other herbs to be had in a garden, but these are some of the old stand-bys.  We’ve all heard the Simon and Garfunkel song Scarborough Fair, and Carly Simon also recorded a nice version of it a couple of years ago.  Have you ever wondered what it meant?  

Sunshine Fair II by Marty Leone pictures exactly the kind of country fair I imagine when I hear the song Scarborough Fair

Scarborough Fair is a traditional ballad that originated in England and parts of it trace back to as far as 1690.  The song relates the tale of a young man who instructs the listener to tell his former love to perform for him a series of impossible tasks, such as making him a shirt without a seam and then washing it in a dry well, adding that if she completes these tasks he will take her back.   The herbs in the song symbolize virtues the singer wishes his true love and himself to have, in order to make it possible for her to come back again. 

  • Parsley was said to take away the bitterness of heavy vegetables, and medieval doctors took this in a spiritual sense as well.  We all know Love cannot thrive with bitterness.
  • Sage has been known to symbolize strength for thousands of years
  • Rosemary represents faithfulness, love and remembrance.  The herb also stands for sensibility and prudence. Rosemary is associated with feminine love, because it’s very strong and tough, although it grows slowly
  • Thyme symbolizes courage. At the time this song was written, knights used to wear images of thyme in their shields when they went to combat, which their ladies embroidered in them
Although these herbs may seem commonplace in a garden, there are many unique varieties.  I love variegated leaves and I was able to find several variegated varieties to plant last year. I have green and white Sage whose new leaves are a deep pink or purple, yellow and green Sage, and variegated Thyme

The minuscule leaves of Variegated Thyme are my favorite

Purple or Tri-Color Sage

Variegated Sage
I don't devote much time to herbs, and honestly I do not use them in cooking as much as I should, but in April when you are starved for something green and alive, a collection of bedraggled herbs are a virtual Miracle.  I had made notes last fall as to what I wanted to change about this little grouping, and this was the perfect time to do it when the plants are still dormant and just beginning to awaken.

The Herb Garden Today
 I moved the large Purple Sage which I had transplanted last summer from some large pots that had overwintered to the center, and rescued the small green and yellow Sage from the center and moved it to the edge putting an ample amount of compost beneath it.  The taller parsley, which I hadn't expected to survive at all was moved to the back between a pair of day lillies.

The Parsley not only survived the deer trimming it off, but the coldest February
on record with many nights below -20*F

After our busy day of hauling and shoveling and scooping, we sat in our chaise lounge chairs and watched the birds. Two years ago I put up a blue bird box.  Last year the house wrens got to it first.  I don't begrudge the house wrens their home, but they are such shy little birds that they are merely an idea of a bird on the edge of your peripheral vision and never seen.  Today, Tim said, that obviously the blue birds had gotten the utilities turned on and they were in and out inspecting the place and making plans for the future,  This is the beginning.  From now until Mid-Summer it's all uphill from here.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Spring Cleaning

With the weather warming up and the sun shining it is time to air out the house, chase the dust bunnies out of forgotten corners and give everything the once over.  Historically, back in the days when house were heated by wood or coal stoves, there would be quite a layer of coal dust and soot over everything.  House wives would wash down their walls, take the rugs out the beat and use a lot of elbow grease.  When wall paper became more common place, spring cleaning got a little more complicated.  You couldn't necessarily attack your walls with hot soapy water.  The paper would come right off.  So a substance was needed that you could spread on your wallpaper and then safely peel off taking the dirt with it.  After coal stoves went by the wayside, the manufacturers of wallpaper cleaners were in a bind.  Kutol had a bit of a brainstorm, added a little color and sold it as a toy.  And Play-Doh was born.

I've been giving the house a little more attention lately, and the sunny afternoons allow me to see the dirt in the corners a little better, but I'm glad I don't have to spread Play-Doh all over my walls.  I mention a couple of post ago that I have all the equipment to do laundry the old fashioned way - by hand.  I have copper boilers, wash tubs, wash boards, wringers, rug beater, hand plungers to agitate the wash, wooden tongs to pick the whites out of the boiling water, pulleys to run my clothes line across the alley, and line spreaders to keep my lines from tangling together.  I even have line winders, an old line prop to raise the line up and keep the sheets off the lawn and a host of clothes pins.

About a week ago my mother emailed me and said "Mickey left something here for you."  Mickey is the gal who has a nice little greenhouse where she starts her own plants for growing saleable produce and sells the extras.  She always has something unique and more than once she has saved me with some fun tomato variety when mine failed.  For instance the year my Absinthe plants failed to germinate but Mickey had some

 Mickey also like old stuff.  Last spring she mentioned that she had a box of clothes pins I might like.  And that was what she left at Mom's house (along with a loaf of home made bread for Mom).  So now I have a nice original box of clothes pins for my laundry collection,  Thanks Mickey!

And on a gardening note the sun finally came out enough for my Crocuses to open up :)

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Clean Slate ~ Good Friday

It is actually a pretty nice day out, despite the fact that it looks dreary.  For one, it isn't snowing.  It's 60 degrees and the sun peaks out now and then.  The sowing instructions for Garden Peas are: plant in early spring as soon as soil can be worked.  Well, people without raised beds are out of luck.  There is no way anyone will be getting out there with a tiller this early.  But the raised beds are ready to go and the first peas and carrots are in.  I will plant another batch in two weeks.

Different climates have different markers for when to plant peas.  In some areas of the country (and sometimes here if you're lucky) the date is St. Patrick's Day.  Here it is usually Good Friday.  Some people are skeptical about that since Good Friday can vary so much from mid-March to late April.  But it is always the first Friday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.  And many farmers and gardeners plant and breed livestock by the moon cycles.  So, weather permitting, I always plant my first peas by Good Friday.  Another good marker is waiting until the forsythia bloom.  But my peas are always sprouted by the time the forsythia even start to bud.

My favorite pea varieties are Wando and Maestro.  Wando, however, is a very tall pea topping out over 6 feet high,  My pea fence is less than 4 feet high, and that poses a problem because when the vines outgrow the fence, the wind blows them over at a right angle.  This makes it nearly impossible to pick the second shorter row because the neighboring vines are laying on top of the pickable peas.  So I purchased the Extra Tall Pea Fence from and I think it will be tall enough to support the taller varieties.  This year I finally got the bright idea that instead of planting one bed with a row of shorter Maestro next to a taller Wando and then at a later date, planting a second bed just like it, I should plant a row of Wando in one bed, and the Maestro in the other and then two weeks later, plant a second row of Wando next to the Wando... duh right?  It's the simple things that escape me.


Last fall I planted a lot of daffodils, woods hyacinths and crocuses to brighten my garden and I am anxiously awaiting them.  The older established bulbs have been ready to bloom for two weeks and today they are finally brave enough to open just a wee bit.

After planting the peas I went around with a bucket and began picking up all the old leaves and dead foliage that collected under the snow after we gave up leaf blowing last fall.  Most of them are oak leaves, and most of them collect in the corners, but after the corners were cleaned up I started on the walks just to get everything looking ship shape.  Until I came across a leaf that was surprisingly heavy and squishy.

Closer inspection revealed that it was not a faded leaf at all but a very grumpy brown frog.

Besides peas and crocuses and leaves, my eggplants are up about an inch and doing well and I am on my way down to plant three different varieties of bell peppers along side of them.  I am anxiously awaiting the delivery of my strawberry plants and the sprouting of asparagus.

Let Spring Begin!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Waiting Game and Quirky Mass Marketing

As I wait the allotted 10-14 days for the most adventurous of my eggplant seeds to sprout, I reflect on the fact that gardening is often an exercise in watering dirt.  Each day I go to my flat of dirt filled pots, inspect them carefully, and add water.  Tim asks if everything is alright with my plants?  What plants?  Everything is just fine with my dirt...  In the larger scheme of things, gardening is a lot more about dirt than it is about plants.  And dirt is a lot more about compost...

The pride of any successful garden is a good compost pile

The one thing that always consoles me when I have a gardening failure is that if I am not growing food, then at least I am growing future compost.

Our green waste is composted in a large black drain pipe prior to being integrated into the larger pile.

 Another thing that consoles me as a horse owner... if I am not riding, at least I'm maintaining a source of horse manure.  A well tended manure pile is an excellent source of mass quantities of compost.  No matter what farm animal it comes from, chicken, goat, horse, or cow, and no matter what sort of bedding is mixed in, the important part is that the farmer turns and tends the manure pile.  This breaks everything down evenly so that when it is ready to be loaded up for the garden, it is barely distinguishable from potting soil.

One aspect of gardening that Tim is always involved in is the fetching of compost.  We load it into a tarped trailer, haul it home and shovel it into a pile where we continue to turn and "fluff" it into "black gold".  This is the time when it is necessary to have some large equipment both at the loading end and the unloading end.

Once I get it home, I deal with it in smaller quantities, sifting the larger uncomposted parts out and adding them back into the pile.  If you truly think that you have nothing left to do in the garden on any given day, go out and get some well sifted compost to side dress your plants.

There are few things prettier than a bed of healthy plants wearing a fresh layer of compost.

But even being a no nonsense dirt farmer who buys her beans in bulk and takes great pride in her very large manure pile, I am always intrigued by the 21st Century mass marketing which makes gardening look so easy and colorful.  The goal of a good marketing plan is not merely to sell to a large portion of the existing market, you must also sucker in new buyers who have never gardened before.

Click here for the YouTube demonstration of Gro-ables Gardening.
This is like Lunchables or Pudding Snack Packs for gardening.  Who needs tractors or trowels?  Or cow poop? Just buy a kit at the store, stick it in your cart, and cart it home to your patio.

It almost appears as if no hard work or dirt are involved!

Everything comes with a bar code and instructions!
I have to admit it's a clever idea and rather appealing.  And actually, that might not be a bad way to start a single zucchini plant which will take over the garden and produce dozens of pounds of food.  But at the same time, that is the long way to go about planting a row of beans or peas.  Can you even imagine?

In another two weeks it will be Good Friday and I will be chomping at the bit to get my garden peas in the ground.  With any luck the snow will have melted by then.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Return of Spring - the Ides of March

It was a foggy, cold, dank March morning that smelled of Spring.  That is to say, it smelled of frog bellies, earth worms and skunk.  The Robins have made their first appearance, mingling with larger flocks of Starlings and riling up the Cardinals to defend their territories and scarce food supply.  They appeared as flashes of brilliant color against the shabbiness of the wet brush.  Tim and I (and many other locals) had gotten out of bed early to nurse our Spring Fever at the local junque auction.  We have been looking for a potato fork to replace the one I broke off under a frozen clump of horseradish last December.  But as with most things, you see them everywhere until you need one and then they are as scarce as hen's teeth.

Tim and I wandered the tables of the auction house, surveying the loads of junk.  We love auctions like this, and if you ask me "are you a junk buyer?" I guess I would have to say "yes, I am" because the tables of junk hold a lot of things that look just like the selection at home.  We often wonder how many times these items make the auction circuit.  They are left behind in old houses, the flotsam and jetsam of past lives.  If you are a Hobbit fan, you will know that the term for this is Mathom :anything which they had no use for but were unwilling to throw away. 

My Empeco kitchen tin collection is based on the Sugar Coffee and Tea tins on the right which belonged to my great grandmother.  The flour tin had been lost and is replaced by one with a slightly different patina.   I use the bread and cake tin on my counter to hide bags of chips and boxes of crackers, but the child's toy version in the center is the real prize.

 Or this junk just belongs there, on that shelf where its been for fifty years.  Why disturb it now?  Then someone gets tired of moving them one too many times and off they go to the sale only to be bought up by someone else and put back on a shelf.  I idly wonder about the people who buy thread bare Persian rugs and vintage Red Cross uniforms and then realize they probably buy those for the same reason I buy old tins and enamelware - just to have.   As I walk through our home, I look at pieces such as the ladies spittoon and the old crock and realize that we have them simply because they were here when we got here, many with their origins or importance lost to time.

But today I spy something I've actually been looking for.  Not a potato fork, something much less useful.  Something just to have,  A 1930s advertising tin that used to contain Campfire Marshmallows.  Yes, I was actually searching for a eighty year old marshmallow tin.  Specifically.  Because that's the kind of gal I am.  Our home is full of things from a different era.  Our porch contains every item needed to wash, dry and iron a day's worth of laundry the old fashioned way, but as yet I've managed to resist the urge to try.  Our dining room hales from the turn of the last century.  I've overheard our nephews, twenty-something professionals, talking amongst themselves saying that our house looks like something out of a magazine, and I hope they mean something good like Country Living or Flea Market Decor and not something like Hoarders and Junkmen.

Besides the large items, I also have a full collection of washboards, rug beaters, line winders and pulleys, irons, sprinklers and other various and sundry laundry paraphernalia.

So anyway, I had been looking for a Campfire Marshmallows tin to use as a base for a Christmas centerpiece (next year) and there it was holding a selection of baseball bats from rolling off a table.  I already collect tin containers, but usually they are green flour and sugar tins made specifically by Empeco Metal Packaging Corp.   When I saw a Christmas arrangement on Pinterest with a Campfire Marshmallow tin as a base I thought "now that is right up my alley".  But of course, I couldn't use one of my existing tins.  No, the true charm of this arrangement is the winteriness of the marshmallows, and the little marshmallow snowman faces in the arrangement.  The fun of this arrangement is that it gives me a reason to add a piece to my 1920s/30s tin collection!  The search was on!

There are always five pound Campfire Marshmallow tins available on Ebay in a variety of ages and conditions at a variety of prices,  I was shopping for tins in the $20-30 range and expected to pay $10-15 shipping on top of that.  With that in mind, I would bid up to $25 and with the 20% buyer's premium and sales tax I would be paying full Ebay retail but have the tin in hand.  We waited a couple of hours.  Tim bought a couple of items.  We watched weighed silver sell beside tin toys and old tools.  It was a good place to pass the morning while the fog and drizzle outside masked the progression of the sun.  It seemed that their random picking from this table and that to keep every one's interest would go on forever, but finally, the auctioneer picked up my marshmallow tin.  

There are a lot of buyers there that pick for their shops and antique mall booths.  The other half seem to be older retired men who stop by for some coffee and gossip, but bidding on the tin was brisk.  I started at $5, and three others jumped in by the end, but in a short minute it was mine for $25 on the dot.  Seems that everyone else had been doing their homework as well.

So back to gardening.  You can only buy so much junk before you have to go home and get back to the business of growing food.  Last year I put my eggplants in damp paper towels on March 22nd.  This was because I was working with old seed.  This year I have fresh seed and I am looking forward to some beautiful eggplants this season.  This past week, on a warm sunny day (yes there actually was one), I got some potting soil out of the bin in the cold frame and put it in my potting bench so I could fill my pots in the comparative comfort of the garden shed this year instead of like last year, bent over the cold frame in a March snowstorm.
Johnny's Seeds Eggplant Clara
Today I happily filled pots, standing upright, under lights, in the "potting shed".  I left about a third of the pot empty, and put a layer of seed starting mix, a light weight, sterile medium, on the top to hold the new seeds.  Then I wet them down with a watering can and brought it into the house.

This year I'm simplifying things by using the Italian Trio of eggplants from Renee's Garden.  The clever thing about buying a mix from Renee is that she makes sure the seeds are color coded.  If you want two plants of each, you make sure you plant two of each color.  Simple as that.

Renee's Seed Italian Eggplant Trio
My eggplants are now started, on a heat mat and under grow lights in the basement.  This takes up half of one flat.  April 1st I will fill out that flat with bell peppers.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Is It March Yet?

Yesterday the temperatures were in the mid-twenties and the sun was out.  Dressed for sitting in my office, in layers and wool, I had to roll down my car window as I drove around mid-day doing errands.  I saw a person wearing short sleeves.  Out of doors.  I didn't button my coat.  Having survived the coldest February on record, we are emerging from the depths of winter with our eye on spring and as the temperatures climb out of the single digits, we are shedding our layers.

Since I first owned a car with a thermometer, in the winter of 2002/2003, my lowest noted temperature has been -16.  Considering that I am generally out driving around every day of the week before 9am, that is a pretty thoroughly researched benchmark. Our hill, sheltered as it is by woods, is usually on the warmer end of the spectrum, but on my drive to work in the mornings, as I descend down the back side towards the lowland the coldest air would sink and I would watch the thermometer drop from -12*F, then -16....  I would sit at the first stoplight next to the large neighborhood produce stand, which is bustling all summer, and watch the thermometer hit -23.  A few miles later past my friend Mickey's little commercial greenhouse I would get the lowest reading.  Three days it was below -25 with my seasonal record being -30.

Last week Fed Ex delivered some expanding pea fence I had ordered from  Rather than leave the large boxes on the porch, or cheat and store them in the garage, I slung 40+ pounds up on one shoulder and headed across the lawn to the garden shed.  We've have foot after foot of snow that has not melted.  Tim has shoveled our roof twice.  The snow in the lawn is way over my knees and the bottom layers are so dense that they trap your foot, render your natural balance mechanisms ineffective, and threaten to throw you down.  I trudged fifty or so feet through this impossible, impassable terrain to the garden deck, misjudged the edge, and floundered until I was waist deep and sinking.  I threw the boxes in the general direction of the door and finished the last ten feet on all fours, wading towards the surface.

When the new boxes were stowed in the shed I considered staying to shovel off the cold frame again so it is not crushed under the weight of the snow, but there was nowhere to shovel too.  The last time I shoveled two feet of snow off it I brought the surrounding snow levels up over the cold frame level.  I would literally be digging down to the lid.  I left it for another day.

That lump you might think is the cold frame is not the cold frame.  It is a Rubbermaid deck box full of chair cushions.  The cold frame is that slope in front of the lump.  The snow is deeper than and completely covers our garden bench.

Last year I started my Egg Plant seeds on March 22.  When I planted them on Memorial Day, the most vigorous were still only about 4" to 6".  I think this year I will start them on the Ides of March.  Peppers on April Fools Day.  Tomatoes a couple of weeks later.  I have sorted through my seeds, old and new and made a list of varieties I am going to plant this year.  A pictorial version can be found on Pinterest.