Friday, September 23, 2016

Cutting Back

Recently I've read several gardening blogs where the gardener is just gardened out.  It happens to all of us.  It usually happens to me in August but I don't start to complain about it until September.  I always look forward to autumn.  Spring is my favorite season because everything is fresh and growing but by Labor Day I am always wondering - "What was I thinking?"  Then I begin to count the days we have left until I can pull it all out or cut it back.

This year I took the easy route.  I cut back.  My husband doesn't see that I've cut back but I feel it.  In fact I sort of feel lazy not growing all of my stored food when I know that I can.  To make me feel better let's make a list of everything I can grow that I chose not to grow this year.  What I felt most was the spring gardening - peas, carrots, onions etc because skipping them meant my gardening started in May not March.

Garlic - When you grow garlic you start your garden a whole winter before.  That's really dragging it out.  I admit I love to see the green shoots come up first thing in March.  Then there's nothing to do but watch them.  They're very low maintenance.  And when you're done you get to make a neat braid.

Onions - I've grown a lot of onions of all colors over the years but I just don't use that many.  So I end up having to make the effort to store them properly and then end up composting half of them.  I like to buy the Long Day Sampler from Dixondale Farms.  The plants come in little bundles when your planting season arrives and you get to spend an hour on a sunny spring day poking holes in the soil with a pencil which is just the right size for the little guys.

Peas (like onions) get you out early in the spring.  They are also labor intensive with all the picking and shelling.  At first I really enjoy some leisurely pea shelling.  They are one of the best garden snacks to munch on when you're out working.  But then about the middle of your late planting harvest you walk by the pea patch and realize "crap there are more peas that need picking".  I consciously enjoyed not having to do that this year.  Luckily I froze enough to last two years.  Maybe I should buy a pea sheller?  I'll have to put that on my wish list.  Heaven knows I love my apple peeler.  Sometimes gadgets actually work.  I wonder if anyone is working on a garden sized pea picker.

Carrots -  I love pulling baby carrots.  I hate pulling, scrubbing, storing and using big ole ugly carrots that have to be pried out of the ground with a fork and I tire of baby carrots before they all get away from me and turn into big ole ugly carrots.  My favorite carrots are the finger sized new carrots with their stems trimmed to show just a splash of bright green on your plate, steamed and sprinkled with some brown sugar.  My least favorite carrots are the ones hanging out in the hydrator demanding to be chopped up and put into soup.  I hate demanding vegetables.

Radishes - I like them because they remind me of Easter Eggs. I love to grow a selection of colors. But I never ate them.  The only purpose they served was giving me early, colorful, gardening satisfaction.  Plus you can mix them in with your carrot seeds and when you are pulling radishes you are also thinning carrots.  Therefore I suppose that radishes add structure discipline to a spring garden.

Black Beans - Talk about labor intensive.  Plant them, pick them, shell them, dry them, soak them, cook them.  Sure, it's fun to cook up a batch of black bean soup with all your own beans, onions, garlic and peppers, but how often do I actually do that? Twice a year?  I wonder if the pea sheller would work on them too.

Sweet Potatoes on the left Norland Red potatoes on the right.
Sweet Potatoes - I've grown these for awhile with moderate results.  By far the best year I had was when I grew them in containers.  But most of them were quite small and a hassle to cut up. Turns out you can buy better frozen sweet potato fries than I can ever make from scratch anyway.

Silver Queen sweet corn 2007
Sweet Corn - The guy down at the farm stand does an excellent job and I get to choose which days I eat corn instead of the corn choosing for me.  I do miss not having dried corn stalks to decorate with in the fall.  And I miss the super sweet Gotta Have It variety.   I promise you there is no sweeter sweet corn. It can be fussy to grow because it needs really warm soil to germinate so you may or may not get the corn harvest of your dreams.  

Pumpkins -Now pumpkins are fun.  But they take up too much space.  And no matter how much space you have allotted them they will jump the fence.  They cannot be contained.  That must be why they were called Connecticut Field Pumpkins.  And I don't have a field.  I remember the day Tim came in and asked "why have you diapered the pumpkins?" That's not a diaper folks, that's a hammock.  Lazy pumpkins.

Acorn Squash - a pain to store. Butternut Squash - ditto

Artichokes - a lot of work for something I'd rather look at than eat

Broccoli - Worms.  Need I say more?

Cabbage - I don't actually remember growing cabbage.
But there it is.  I wonder what I did with it?

Okra - I would grow Okra just for its ornamental value.  However, it only blooms while I'm at work so this year I finally gave up.  Okra is a hot weather, long season crop, but I've had excellent results with Baby Bubba.  This variety is compact enough to grow in containers so you could start it early.

Chard - I ended up just looking at this too

Parsnips - Now that's not a very pretty picture of Parsnips, but that's what I think of when I think Parsnips. Cold - Mud.   By the time these are ready to eat, I'm totally over the whole garden thing.  Ditto Brussels Sprouts

These Scarlet Runner Beans looked like a living Christmas Tree complete with decorations
Pole beans - too tough and stringy - although easier to pick than the bush kind.  One year I planted both purple and yellow pole beans thinking they would be the ultimate in easy picking - shoulder height and visible against the green.  And they were, but they were nowhere near as good eatin' as my favorite bush varieties.  I usually grow the Purple Queen "bush variety" which climbs about 3-4 feet.  Maybe I'll try them on poles.  Short ones.

Of course, this year I still grew too many tomatoes because - well.... that's just what I do.  What I did not do with tomatoes this year:  canning, tomato sauce, Bloody Mary Mix.  Yep, I've been lazy.  Do I feel guilty about buying my black beans in a can?  A little.  How about the fake baby carrots or the worm free broccoli?  Not a bit.  Pumpkins?  I miss growing pumpkins particularly when I'm at the farm stand trying to choose one or two.  It's worse than choosing a Christmas tree.  When you grow your own you love each of them despite their faults.

One thing I kept noticing as I went back through the years of pictures is Bell Peppers.  Peppers everywhere.  Green ones, red ones, golden ones on beautiful compact plants.  What the hell happened?  Where did I go wrong?  This pepper thing is bothering me.  I want nice peppers.

A perfect, pristine garden path in the days before the raised beds.
Another thing that struck me as I was paging through years of garden photos:  I've had some really nice gardens.  I thought 2015 was the perfect spring and that my garden had never looked better, but 2007 and 2010 were looking pretty good too.  I wonder how many pounds of weeds I've pulled over the years?

I'm down to two tomatoes in the house and half a dozen on the vine.  My Pike County yellow tomato plant recently put out a whole second crop of new tomatoes which are just now ripening.  Just for that it has earned itself a place in next year's list.  Everyone else is done.  Even the Sungold.   There are only half a dozen cherry tomatoes each day not quarts.  But that's a relief because for the past month I've been struggling under an avalanche of tomatoes.  And somewhere in the middle of that I realized that I'd honestly be just as happy with a bacon only sandwich for the most part.  See, this is the sort of crazy talk you get when you eat too many tomatoes.

After this little stroll down memory lane I feel a bit more like a productive gardener.  Just think of the pounds of produce I've dealt with over the years,   It was interesting seeing how I had laid things out and remembering varieties I don't grow anymore.  I had sort of forgotten that there were years when odd things like Collards and Fennel kept me busy experimenting.  I am glad I didn't feel I had to can anything (I did 2 quarts of refrigerator pickles).  I have just enough potatoes to get us through the winter.  I don't have storage issues in the cellar or the freezer.  Life is simple.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Just Do It

Whenever I'm hemming and hawing over something I can't decide on I take a page out of the Nike playbook and tell myself "Just Do It".  It has to be done, so let's get it over with.  And with that, the gorgeous mega-zucchini which produced dozens of squash came out to make way for the winter lettuce.

There is a wheel barrow under there somewhere
Last year, thanks to a mild winter, we were eating our own lettuce on Dec 21st. It never froze, it just stopped growing and we ate it down to the nub.

So winter lettuce is an important part of my gardening year.  Important enough to make me pull a mega-zucchini.  But not to worry, I still have zucchini plants of lesser merit still producing so it is not the end of the zucchini.

The winter lettuce bed is right next to the garden shed, almost within reach of the patio light.  This is a strategic spot because in Nov/Dec I will be picking lettuce in the dark, in the rain, in wind that will blow the lettuce leaves right out of my bowl, while holding a flash light.

The little hoop house gets a 26* frost cover.  Things I've learned about growing winter lettuce under a frost cover

  1. Don't bother planting where you can't reach.  I did put some extra plants out of the pots and an earlier planting in the back where it will be hard to reach.  Those are for days when I really want lettuce and it's not dark and raining and blowing.
  2. Put your favorite variety in the center because the ones on the edge will be the first to go

Probably some of you are asking why I don't use my cold frame for winter lettuce.  Well, the cold frame sits on patio blocks not soil so I would have to plant into planters.  The lid is a big PITA to manage in the wind and usually the cold frame is full of over wintering plants like vinca, potted mints and stray perennials.

2015 the lettuce babies tucked into their little greenhouse
 The weather is cooperating this week and after babying them through yesterday watering every few hours, today was overcast and rainy and I came out this morning to 18 perky transplants

Sept 20 2014
The Strawberry bed takes a break for lettuce
Odds are we will be eating fresh lettuce through November if not December.  This will be the 6th year in a row we have had winter lettuce.

2011 "Iceberg" lettuce
Lettuce can actually take quite cold temperatures.  It will continue to grow in  40*-50* temperatures and will even take a little snow.  We do have a few lettuce plants from August plantings to supplement our salads but we are looking forward to unlimited salads.

As for the zucchini, I have half a dozen here waiting to be cooked, and one stuffed with Italian sausage waiting to go in the oven for supper.  The mega-zucchini is on the compost pile and still not wilted.  Un-gardening has begun.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The [not so] Temporary Garden Storage Building

Doesn’t it always seem like you have more stuff than you have places to put it?  We run into this all the time.  We’re tidy people, but we’re thrifty and we hate to get rid of something we may need later.  So we have a lot of stuff.  We’re equipped.  When people need something, they call us.  Whatever it is, we've probably got it.  So despite two garages, a garden shed and a chicken coop we always have over-flow.  And we hate over-flow.

The old building loaded up and ready for delivery
For an overflow building we had a “temporary” tarp storage shelter with a 10 year warranty.  It has served us well and at times has been full to over flowing.  The 10 years are up so rather than push our luck and have the tarp tear in the middle of winter under a snow load we took it down and gave it away to more adventurous souls who want to take a chance on it or spend a few bucks renovating it.

The old building mid-tear down
We also have the thing we call “the Outhouse”.  This was a collapsible building designed to take out on the gas pipeline and cover a gas meter.  The sides and roof store flat and bolt together.  It was my original garden shed but it’s no bigger than a small closet.  You can stand at the doorway and pull things out.  In fact standing outside is recommended because going into the outhouse when it’s fully loaded is a dangerous proposition.  You are guaranteed to be buried in an avalanche of fencing and wash tubs.

The Out House
The obvious choice was to buy a new temporary building, relocate it to a more convenient spot, and outfit it for outdoor overflow.  It is so much more satisfying to store things neatly when you have enough space to do it in.  And storing things inside instead of leaving them out to be buried in snow not only extends their useful life but also makes them accessible if you perhaps need to use a wheelbarrow in March before the snow (ice drifts) melts.  

In years past I've brought everything in from the garden and stacked it in the garden shed.  That makes it impossible to get into the garden shed for six months.  The attached chicken coop holds the over flow.

Outside items that need to come inside for the winter:

  • 2 steel wheel barrows
  • 1 vintage wheelbarrow
  • 2 sets of wash tubs
  • Large stacks of large outdoor pots, tubs and planter
  • A potting bench
  • Various and sundry flats and small pots
  • A stack of pea fence
  • A stack of cucumber grids
  • Two stacks of tomato/pepper ladders
  • Lots of stacks of grow-thru grids
  • Wire Cloches
  • A Bird Bath
  • The garden gnomes and toad houses
Now temporary buildings are essentially designed as tents to shed water, snow and sunlight.  The real benefit is their cost effectiveness.  If you spend as much money as you have in the structure on site prep, and spread that cost out over the warrantied lifespan of 10 years, it will cost about $10 a month and you won’t need a permit and you won’t pay any taxes.  And when the ten years are up you can either put another one in the same spot, or remove it completely in under an hour.   The instructions state that two people can set it up in two hours.  Well sure, you can get through the assembly process in two hours but then all you have is a rudimentary water shed sitting in your lawn.  What you really want to do is over-engineer it and spend at least two days in site prep, two days in assembly and a few days tweaking and tinkering.  When you’re done you will have something that resembles an actual building instead of a tent and is really very functional.

Tim is renowned for over engineering things.  He drives himself crazy.  But I will say this for him:  the projects look nice, the stuff works and it lasts.  With the last building the provided cables that held it down did eventually rust through and last winder a high wind lifted one corner and bent the frame a bit.  So this time Tim designed his own hold down system which involved burying some heavy duty guy-wire under the stabilization mat and over a foot of compacted bank run.  Those cables aren’t going anywhere.  And as an added benefit, the building frame is grounded in case it ever gets struck by lightening.  That was reassuring the day he got stranded out there last week during a sudden thunderstorm.

Site Preparation in progress
Stabilization Mat saves so much gravel.
 It keeps the gravel from disappearing down into the mud
After the site was prepped we began assembling the building.  These go up pretty quickly especially considering that we’d just taken one down a week ago and were intimately familiar with all the nuts and bolts and cords.

Pieces and Parts
Once the frame is assembled – well wait, “frame” is a misnomer.  “Frame” suggests a rigid support system.  This thing is not a frame, this thing is an articulated skeleton.  When you move one rib it affects the position of every other piece.  Anyway, we took the "frame" and set it on two repurposed 2x6 treated planks.

The fun part was over and the frustrations began.  We had to square and level the planks and then square level and plumb the articulated skeleton.  The previously flat gravel pad had settled a LOT in the back corner.  Nothing was level front to back or side to side.  We shimmed up the planks and added gravel under them until they were once again level and we measured on the diagonal to make sure they were square.  It took a crap-ton of gravel.  We couldn’t believe how low the one corner had sunk in a couple of weeks.  Darn that old stump hole – they’re unfillable.  But we had the material (we also have Premium Gold Star Member Status with our excavator for being such regular customers) and we wanted it done right. So we began to fill.

We had to shovel gravel under the planks and
pack it in on both sides to hold them in place
All our gravel projects get worked over by Bertha 
the 1.5 ton rock crusher [lawn roller - another case of Tim's over-engineering].
After the plank base was set and the gravel base was level again all we had to do was square up the ribs on top of the planks.  That took the rest of the day.  We loosened every nut and went through everything with a four foot level leveling and plumbing each rib and brace.  Twice.  Snugging nuts as we went.  Finally, we were satisfied that the frame was set.    

The end of day one assembly
Now all we had to do was get the cover up on the skeleton without disturbing things.  You start with the end panels and cinch them up.  It’s not difficult.   We put down plastic as a vapor barrier and layered washed gravel on top of that. There was a lot of raking. And shoveling.  And more raking.  The vapor barrier is essential.  These tarp buildings act like a green house and they will pull every drop of moisture out of the ground and let it condensate on your stuff.  That’s bad.  You don’t want that.  Plastic is an easy and inexpensive prevention of rust and rot.

The end panels on and the vapor barrier going in
More Gravel to finish the floor
Next you drag the main cover over the top.  Again, surprisingly easy.  And now the fun part of day two was over and the frustrations began.  The design assumes you will allow the flaps to flap in the wind and lay on the ground.  But we want the structure to be much more critter proof.  We went with Tim’s proven solution of tucking the flaps in under the edges.  He did this with the last two buildings and there was no problem.  You just have to cushion it enough so that the sharp ends of the ribs don’t cut through the tarp.

The main cover is on and ready for adjustment
We started with a sill plate foam sealer then tucked the flaps under.  The trick was getting the cover perfectly centered side to side and front to back.  It sounds like an impossible task but we accomplished it.  We added some scrap rubber squares to cushion the ends further.  The last building the cover came off undamaged after 10 years of the ribs sitting on it. 

Then we had to makes sure the skeleton was again square, level and plum before we began securing things.  The cover ratchets down on all four corners then you lace the sides like a shoe.  **Note:  this would be a good time to make sure the end panels still zipper down easily and have not been pulled too tight.  We’ll have to remember that next time.

After the cover was secured, the last thing to do was to finish the gravel floor.  We filled the edges with gravel (not compacted) which will help to hold the cover snug.  Remember – this thing isn’t going anywhere!

The kit comes with some bungee cords to hold the rolled up panels.  But of course that won't suffice.  Tim always rigs up pulleys to raise and lower the doors.  There are pockets sewn in at the bottom hem to slide a pipe through to give it weight and allow the panel to roll onto itself.

This is the same system used on canvas porch panels.  He mounted a cleat to the pipe to wrap the rope.  The next issue is getting racks and shelves inside to organize things.

This shelving unit was in the garden shed.  Everything on it is coming out here and that frees up another wall in there to hang tools on.  My garden shed already feels twice as large.

So here is the finished product.  Note the sand bags along the ground in front of the door panel. There is another row on the inside.  This keeps leaves from blowing in under and also stabilizes the panel so it is not moving back and forth against the gravel which would abrade the tarp.  I sewed them out of scrap pieces of landscape fabric that came with tree tubes which we discovered when we emptied the shelves!

Tim repainted and installed the vents from the other building which helps get some fresh air moving through.  I assure you the building is already full mainly because there was room to put our utility trailer. Tim often wants to use it in the winter and has to shovel it out of the snow and ice. We were just discussing this evening how we're going to get the rest of the large items in.  There will be stacking involved.  But at least we won't have to reach through the stacks to get a shovel off the wall this winter.  Time to fill it up.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Hindenburg Disaster of Vegetable Proportions

We've all done it... overlooked something.  Usually its a zucchini carefully camouflaged under the leaves.  You didn't know it was there and then Gadzukes!

It happened to me tonight.  I was walking across the lawn outside the garden when something caught my eye.  Holy Cow!  Is that a zucchini hiding in the marigold?

It sure looked like a zucchini at first glance but upon further inspection I realized it was a cucumber aspiring to be a zucchini.

I was so impressed I had to go get the camera and try to put it in perspective.

Here it is net to your average sized zucchini.  That's an average size cucumber laying in the basket.  It's really not all that rain-bloated, it's just huge.   About the size of the Hindenburg. It would probably been a bit more edible a few days ago because this is not going to be a cucumber that you just peel and eat or toss casually into your garden salad.  Whomever decides to eat this cucumber is going to have to be real serious about it.