Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Merry Christmas

Each year I look forward to decorating for Christmas for months and months.  This year was no exception, but when it got right down to it I felt really lazy about it.  Mostly because I hadn't come up with any new ideas so everything was just a repeat of examples of previous years.  It's kind of like gardening.  The fun part is try new varieties or new methods.  It takes creativity to get moving.
So I put up two trees to compensate for my lack of ambition. 

Don't get me wrong.  Every room got a touch of Christmas spirit.

Even the bathroom

Some of my repeat arrangements are my very favorite.
Grater luminaries and cow horns for stuffing Korv sausage, a favorite Christmas dish, are high on the list. They are in the kitchen where I can enjoy them all evening.

The single new idea I had was this crate full of old seltzer bottles.

The only new decorations I bought were handmade push pin ornaments.
They went on my larger all red tree.

These Victorian inspired crafts were popular from the 50s thru the 70s.

You could purchase kits at craft stores, 
or assemble your own from costume jewelry and fancy pins.

A family friend used to make them and we had a few on our tree.

You can still find vintage examples on eBay or Etsy.
But few of them are as nice as these from Orna Mentz in Virginia.  
They come on two sizes (2.5" and 3") and many color pallets.
Link to the website here:  Orna Mentz

I can't believe that the seed catalogs are already coming in the mail.  They used to be held at the post office until January 2nd.  This year I got my first one the day after Thanksgiving and I have at least half a dozen waiting to be studied.  I'm sure they realize that people overspend on seeds in the winter when we are cooped up indoors and longing to be outside in the soil.  All in good time.  Last year was a long year, beginning in March and ending in November.  
This year I am enjoying my winter downtime.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  
Seed season will be here before you know it.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

How BIG a Problem Are Our Oak Leaves?

I don't know... you tell me.

This might have been the last weekend for dealing with leaves.  They are no longer knee deep in the neighbor's lawn, just little deposits of them in corners.  All of the drains are clear and we are ready for winter.  Of course we will have to blow and chop at least once more in the spring, and hand pick them out from under shrubs and rocks.  But I think we are at last ready for winter.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Autumn leaves

October is a long, slow wind-down into winter.  Even after the garden is done, there is a lot to do.  Dealing with leaves is one of them.  We have two gas powered blowers, and the neighbor has one, and we combine efforts to blow his oak leaves out of our landscaping and back to the edge of his woods.  Leaf season takes a long time.  We start the first weekend in October with the soft and easy apple, ash and poplar, and continue cleaning every weekend through the brilliant maples, and lindens until the snow flies on the tough, leathery oak leaves.  In fact, last year we had snow in November, and were back to blowing oak leaves in December during a thaw.

We are surrounded on all sides by woodlands, and the leaves lay thick on the lawns besides gathering in the corners of landscape beds.  Since we mulch most of them into the lawn, or shred them in the general direction of the east woods the lawn mower stays busy until we decide there will be no more nice days in which to scrape and wash it to store for the winter. In the spring we will have to blow one more time and then hand pick the crevices.  I've chopped, bagged and set aside a couple of large bags to use as mulch on the raised beds next spring.

In years past I have mulched heavily with chopped leaves
Besides keeping the walks and beds cleared of leaves, I've gradually removed all of the annuals as they decline.  I hate to remove fresh flowers out from under the bees, but by this time we've had four frosts, the last one being a killing frost, and there was nothing left undamaged.

I try to time things so I pull them the weekend before they are damaged by frost.
The impatiens in the front landscape came out while they were still beautiful,
but a few days later they would have looked like this
I've collected seeds from the nasturtiums, milkweed and Indian blanket flowers.

 You can scrape most of the seeds out of a milkweed pod without disturbing the fluff.  Any remaining fluff with seeds can be placed in a paper bag with some coins and shaken until the seeds detach and fall to the bottom. Then just let the fluff loose into the wind and pour out the seeds.

I've dug and stored the dahlias and geraniums.  I still have to mulch some more tender perennials to blanket them from the cold, plant some daffodils, and spread the milkyspore.

Geraniums can be stored bare-root in a cool, dark place.
We are going to get the earlier cauliflowers before winter.  There are several heads forming, about the size of a fist now.

The two largest cauliflower heads

The Dirt Locker is almost full.
That's a lot of used soil that could have been wasted
The yard waste compost pile has been turned once and is beginning to break down.
 As autumn leaves and winter settles in, there are plenty of outdoor chores to be done.  Of course, if we were to get a foot of snow that didn't melt until spring, the garden would be ready.  But I like going out and puttering around on nice weekends.  I just came back in from doing a blustery day check.  I had to pin down the lettuce cover, replace clothes pins on the cauliflower cover and fasten down the lid on the dirt locker.

The leaves may have all been tidy and mulched yesterday, but there are plenty more today

Friday, October 18, 2019

Hits and Misses

Now that the gardening season is good and over (except for cauliflowers and carrots) it would be a good time for a season re-cap.  As with all years, there were highs and lows.  April was typical, but the first two or three weeks in May were dismal.  Not wet, but overcast and cool day in day out.  Then the second half of May was sunnier but we had several downpours that washed delicate seedlings away completely.

So the start of the season was delayed.  The soil didn't warm up.  There was no sun for the things that we did get started in April.  The peas and cauliflower started on time, but were late to harvest.  The cucumbers and other cucurbits took a long, long time to germinate.  But then the rest of the summer was warm and fairly sunny with an average amount of rain although the ground stayed very wet for a long time.

So here is a list of my notable hits and misses.

Hit: Penelope Peas - A great variety.  Grew just the right height for my expandable pea trellis on sturdy vines.  Produced long, full pods. This is the second year for this variety and it will now be my standard replacing Maestro.

Penelope Peas
Miss: Easy Peasy - A self supporting variety.  This means that they are more compact plants that have more tendrils that they use to mass themselves.  But what you get is one long floppy windrow.  The peas were OK.  The plants were a pain.

Two separate rows of Easy Peasy Peas
Miss: Not putting the Garden Sweet peas on a tall trellis.  This variety was supposed to grow 28" to 32" but instead outgrew the standard 37" pea trellis by at least two feet.  Then one day they just flopped over.  I wasted a lot of peas that I just couldn't get to. This variety is supposed to be extra sweet.  They did extremely well for me.  Next year I am going to try them on the double stacked trellis to see if they are really as good as I think they are.

Garden Sweet Peas
Hit:  Lettuce - it was a good year for lettuce.  I was very diligent about my succession planting.  My hope was to extend the season into July.  But even though I had fresh young plants, they went bitter in the heat the first week of July.

July Lettuce
Hit: Vitaverde and Flame Star Cauliflower - I've grown a few cauliflower and broccoli plants in the past but this was the first year I started them from seed and planted a large enough quantity to freeze some.  I used Johnny's Seeds because their website breaks down the best climates and growing conditions for each variety.  I chose Bishop, Snow Crown, Flame Star (Orange) and Vitaverde (Green).  I also grew four Diplomat broccoli.  All of the varieties did well despite being weeks late to maturity.  Our favorite was the Flame Star.  I started the seeds the first of March, so it was a long haul.  I seeded the fall crop July 15th and just set them out the past two weeks.  I'm looking forward to trying them again next year.

Cauliflower is what I call a long term commitment crop if you start from seeds the first of March but you would think you would get the best results carefully choosing your variety and being able to plant in April, a full month before the nurseries in my area put out vegetable plants.   A friend of ours delivered a TEN POUND cauliflower head to our door.  When I asked him what variety it was he shrugged.  "I don't know.  I got the plants from Troyer's and the tag just said 'Cauliflower."

Some people have all the luck.

Flame Star Cauliflower
Miss: Not starting Cucumbers in the cold frame earlier - Highly stressful.  I direct seeded towards the end of May and over-seeded twice more and thought I would never get a plant.  Three weeks later I started some in the cold frame and I was in business.  It's not usual to have to use the cold frame in JUNE.  But you gotta do what you gotta do.  The big problem was the rain we got in May.  Every time I planted, we would get a heavy rain that would bury the seeds too deeply.  And then our clay soil would harden over and the seeds were trapped.  Each time I tried to fluff them back out to the proper depth, and I did get some plants from the May seeding.

A Lone Survivor
Hit / Miss: Sweet Corn - Yes I had a nice healthy crop.  Yes the ears were as tasty as I expected.  No, the yield was not very good.  Next year I am going to plant them differently and try a second variety simultaneously.

Gotta Have It Sweet Corn
Miss: Pumpkins - like everything else this year they are late.  It seemed to take forever for female flowers to even appear.  I have a few nice looking but smallish pumpkins for my efforts.  The Connecticut Field Pumpkins that I've had success with in the past never set a single fruit.

My entire pumpkin harvest
Miss: Cantaloupe - in New York just isn't easy to grow melons out in the open.  This year they were even later than usual.  I've gotten a few nice melons.  Fresh, sweet, guaranteed chemical free.  But the crop is a waste of space and effort.

Beautiful, healthy cantaloupe vines
Hits: Tomatoes in containers - I think next year I am only going to use containers for growing tomatoes.  I can start with fresh potting mix eliminating soil borne disease.  I can easily control the water.  I am going to try making better use of the fence to espalier the plants for support.

Lenny and Gracie's Yellow Kentucky Heirloom
Miss: Eggplants - they were slow to grow and then the flea beetles took over them.  Somewhere this year I read on the Old Farmer's Almanac that Nasturtiums attract flea beetles.  This had never occurred to me because the flea beetles don't actually eat the Nasturtiums - not at least when there is an Eggplant to be had.  This would have been good to know - a few YEARS ago.

the invisible Eggplant is in the frame surrounded by Nasturtiums
Hit/Miss: Carrots - My first couple of seedings were washed away.. or so I thought.  In the end I got plenty of good usable carrots, but the center of the containers where the washed-out seeds collected and eventually germinated were very crowded and impossible to thin properly.  I tried Scarlet Nantes for the first time and preferred them over the Burpee A1 Hybrid that I've been using for several years.

A mixture of A1 and Nantes
Hit: Zucchini - I've learned not to be in a big hurry for zucchini.  I direct seeded with old seeds almost as an after thought in early June and got two plants that produced very well, and stayed healthy until mid-September.

Dunja Zucchini 
Miss: Potatoes - these plants started out great but never flowered and produced poorly.  I used tubers from a local nursery, Norland and Kennebec.  I actually had better luck with a few deep red store bought potatoes that went all sprouty on me in the kitchen.  Next year I am going to choose my varieties a little differently and go back to container growing.

Hit: Bush Beans - This year I grew my old standby Blue Lake, but I also tried Jade for the first time and they were awesome!  The second planting of the Blue Lake I even used seeds saved from last year's amazing crop and they did well also.

Jade Bush Beans
So that's it in a nutshell.  When I talk to other local gardeners we all agree that 2019 was a challenging year.  The biggest part being the miserable May, but all in all I can't complain about the weather.  My housework suffered awfully because we had nice weather every weekend.  The only rainy Sunday I remember was over Labor Day weekend.  And of course I can't do housework on a Sunday!  We had a major landscaping project that isn't completely finished yet but filled a lot of weekends with heavy work.  My cooking also suffered.  When you are laboring outside all day its tough to form a plan for supper other than "do you want me to order pizza or Chinese take-out?"

Pests were manageable.  The Japanese Beetles were comparatively awful which reminds me that I need to spend some time this weekend spreading Milky Spore.  I saw ONE cucumber beetle, a few stink bugs but didn't have trouble from those.  The flea beetles were AWFUL.  I haven't figured out how to fight them yet.  Cabbage Loopers have been a problem with the fall crop. The early crop they left alone completely.  I'll have to begin locking them out early this year so I don't develop a successful breeding program.

Once again I've gained experience, developed some new ideas and I'm already looking forward to next year.  But for now, I want to stay indoors, relax a little and just THINK about what I want to plant.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Compost and the Chipper Shredder

Up until now, our compost material has been chiefly horse-manure.  We compost our kitchen scraps and selection of plant trimmings throughout the year and when the compost tube is full we incorporate it into the manure pile.  But in the fall when we cut back all of the vegetation, we end up wasting a lot of compost opportunity.  We just pile it at the edge of the woods and let it return to nature.  With the effort involved with sourcing, moving and composting horse manure, it makes much more sense to make use of all this green yard waste instead.

Last year while Tim was watching me chop down and manage my buckwheat cover crop, he decided we needed some sort of shredder to deal with the long, woody stems that end up in a tangle.  This year when I gathered up my cornstalks, he decided it was a necessity.  How could we possibly waste all of those cornstalks?

We had researched on-line several different brands and sources for a chipper shredder.  Since we live in a retail dead-zone, there aren't too many ANY places you can just walk in and comparison shop for a chipper.  We could mail order one.  Or Tractor Supply could order one in. We wouldn't see what we were buying until we unpacked it.

It just so happened, that the weekend we were planning to go to the new farm supply store opening in town to see their single offering, a DR Chipper Shredder, we stumbled upon a (never) used vintage model sitting in a garage at an estate sale.  And when I say never used I mean there had never been gas in the tank.  The man had purchased it in 1994 and just stored it in his garage. And now we know why - because it is a fearsome beast not for the faint of heart.  But I digress.  It was now part of his estate, and no one knew anything about it other than that they had the receipt from 1994.    A deal was struck for a bargain price and the chipper came home with us.  What Luck!

It is a Troy-bilt Tomahawk with a 5 hp Tecumseh motor.  Just a starter model.  Troy-bilt also had 8 hp Briggs-Stratton motors and those Tomahawks are 2 inches wider.  Remember back in the 90s when we started to complain that they didn't make things like they used to?  It hadn't gotten that bad yet.  I am now complaining that they no longer make things like they did in the 90s.  It makes the $800 DR model at the farm supply store look like a child's toy from Dinkytown.

The comparable DR Model available locally for $799
This older Troy-bilt is big, beefy, weighs about three hundred pounds and is a fearsome beast.  The motor tried to start up on the second pull.  After sitting for twenty-five years.  Another couple of tries and it roared to life.  When we tried to engage the lever that runs the flails, the motor smoked the belt and stopped dead in its tracks.  The sticker says to "engage the lever slowly" and they mean SSSLLLOOWWWLLLYYY.  You have to put just enough friction on the belt to get the flails spinning, and gradually increase the speed until the motor and shredder RPMs are compatible, and then and only then can you lock the lever all the way.  I'll be that poor guy tried to engage the flails, scared the pants off himself with all the squealing and the smoking, and decided to never try again. And I don't blame him

Once it is running it will pulverize anything you let it get ahold of.  Its like a slightly unhinged horse or cow (or dog) that you don't really trust but treat with respect, and get along with just fine, until one day it turns on you, pins you up against the barn wall, and tries to kill you. The first time we stuck a cornstalk into the shredder hopper, it disappeared instantaneously.  Quicker than the eye.  There one instant and gone the next.  Holy Shit!

The screen it came with on the left, and the
 eBay grill, modified to fit this model, on the right.

But there is a problem with the cornstalks.  They are full of corn syrup and very sticky, even after being cut and dried for a couple of weeks.  The Tomahawk came with a discharge screen with  3/4" holes.  The cornstalks gummed up pret. ty. quick.  We found that we had to stop the chipper every five minutes and clean the screen.  Which isn't really difficult.  You just pull three pins and it slides right out.  After you practice a few dozen times, you could do it with your eyes closed.  You just have to stop the thing and then get it started again.

After our cornstalk episode we went indoors and Googled the owner's manual (the stickers give adequate instructions to start and run the machine) and the manual says for wet materials to just remove the screen.  Removing the screen allows the shredder to shoot vegetation right through without really chopping it that much.  The screen holds the material back so the flails can chop it finer.  You can get screens with larger holes, and a quick search of eBay found a bar grill instead of a screen.

We've decided that we need to process our compost in smaller batches so we can easily sort through the types of material we want to shred and set the machine up for that.  There are some things that shred beautifully.  Small leafy branches, for instance, contain the right ratio of dry wood to wet leafy greens.  It is wise to keep a few dry sticks around to clean the shredder.

It loves marigolds because of their woody stems.  It's really fun to give it a marigold plant and have it come out in a shower of green, yellow and orange confetti.  Bush bean plants are also a big hit.  Impatiens shred easily but have a high juice content and turn into mush that needs to be cleared from the shoot.  Long stemmy grasses and day lily leaves need to be held back so they don't just shoot through unscathed.  If you have these things in separate piles, you can give the machine the perfect combination to keep things running smoothly.  We kept a few three inch tree limbs for last to clean the flails.

The Before Pile
It takes several days (five) to cut down all of our perennials and annuals.  As I said before we have usually just piled the bulk of the waste at the edge of the woods and let it return to nature.  We ended up with a sprawling pile of vegetation to deal with.  There is everything from woody day lily stems to juicy impatients.  This would all compost down eventually, but if you run it through the chipper you not only reduce the volume by at least two thirds (advertised as 10:1, but maybe and maybe not), you also mix the wet with the dry.

The After Pile
Two and a half hours later we had reduced the pile to about a fifth of the volume.  It was a sizable job but gratifying and sort of fun.  Now I will have to turn the pile now and then so it composts down to something useful.  Next time we trim shrubs and tree limbs we won't have to pile them out back for a brush fire.  We can just wheel out the chipper and turn them into mulch.

Shredded cornstalks
Some of the material I used right away as mulch.  The cornstalks went straight back into the beds they came from.  I'll leave this until spring and then rake it into the soil.  Right now the consistency is much like grass clippings, forming a thick mat over the soil to block weeds until spring and feed the earth worms.

The buckwheat was both stems that were cut a month or more ago and left to dry mixed with green cut that day.   A total of four beds of growth went to the poorest bed which needs the most help. The combination of wet and dry made a nice mulch.

Now the remaining pile of horse manure residing on the Poop-deck will be re-located to somewhere that we can still get to it.  Having acres and acres comes in handy sometimes.  We will probably mix it into one of our older compost/topsoil piles created from sod edgings, green waste and other soil incidents. We use that material for repairing the lawn or starting new landscape beds.  Then we will develop a system for shredding and composting all of our green waste in a tidy and organized fashion.  The gardening system continues to evolve.

Sunday, October 6, 2019


I thought maybe an old dishpan would hold all of the apples I need to deal with today. Or not. 

First half a dozen pies for the freezer 
and then some applesauce 
and then...

A photo really doesn't do justice to the volume of apples.  The "normal" sized apples from the old Empire tree are in the back.  This is the bulk of the harvest from my two young Northern Spy trees.  

Three of them weighed in over a pound a piece.

The "south tree" produces a couple of dozen huge apples each year.  
The "north tree" has, over the past three or four years, set ONE apple each year that it dropped mid-season.  

This year it went all out and set and kept 12 big apples.  Well done little tree

Friday, October 4, 2019

Frost on the Pumpkin

The weather man is warning there may be 
a light frost tonight so I've prepared my garden.

I gathered up the pumpkins

I picked the last of the apples

Tim pulled the water pump but first filled all of my watering cans

I covered my lettuce with a frame and frost blanket.
I don't know if it will ever amount to anything,
but I don't want to give up just yet.

I pulled the last of the cucumber vines, and the worst looking beans
The colors of the Marigolds have been brilliant

The Nasturtiums are still gorgeous

I stopped to admire the Dahlias

Especially this color
There is still much gardening to be done.  Annuals to remove when they freeze.  Pots to empty.  Dahlia tubers to dig.  Seeds to collect.  Perennials to cut back.   Leaves to chop.  Weeds to pull.  Bulbs to plant.  Mulching to be done.    
I'm ready for cooler weather.  Apple pies.  Crock pots. Campfires...