Friday, May 29, 2009

Dude, Where're My Beans?

I'm full of bad habits: procrastination, believing the worst, and picking scabs, to name a few. One of my latest bad habits is to dig up seeds in the garden to see if they're germinating. Two factors have contributed to the formation of this habit: 1) having more time on my hands than... ever, and 2) using old seeds.  Turns out that my old seeds seem to be germinating just fine. The cucurbits have a lower germination rate than fresh seeds, and perhaps the peppers as well, but all of the other seeds (peas, carrots, beets, lettuce, zinnias, sunflowers, and spinach) germinated like champs. 

The beans are a completely different story. I dug up some 5 year old heirloom beans from the back of the fridge. They were big, beautifully mottled red and white seeds. I germinated them in wet paper towels just to see if they were still viable and every single one germinated. So, I planted them. I also planted my favorite little green beans from Fedco: Maxibel Haricot Vert Green Beans. They're these long, thin bean pods that rarely get stringy or fibrous. I also planted Black Valentines, which I bought simply because the name sounded good. They're good beans. You just have to pick them early and often. I planted all of these 7 days ago, half of which were already germinated. I went out to the garden and started poking around this morning.

The poking turned into outright digging after finding no sign of bean or sprout in three different rows. I plunged my hands down into the soil and noticed something troubling each time. Right where the row of beans should be, there were little rodent-shaped tunnels. I expected to find germinated seeds, but I found nothing. My best guess is that moles or mice found the nutritious beans and had a delirious feast. 

At last I found one lone bean sprout emerging from the soil, now soaking in my salty tears. I have never had this problem before. I prefer direct seeding when possible because I don't have a greenhouse and it just seems to take too much work for plants that don't grow as vigorously. I never thought about starting beans inside. Boo. I was really excited about my diverse bean collection.

Anyway, I have a pile of Black Valentine seeds left. No heirlooms or Maxibel Haricot Verts, though. I actually considered replanting. So, this reminds me of one other bad habit I have: learning everything the hard way. I think I'll start my Black Valentines inside this time. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Potato Creature

My potatoes are growing potatoes! (Before growing plants.) Something tells me this is not good. I've never had this happen, but I've also never dug up my potatoes to check on them. I accidently uncovered them while weeding today and I noticed the bright pink color of the new potato (vs. the old potato). So, I dug up two more areas with no potato sprouts coming up... same thing. 

Shortly after this picture was taken, the potato started speaking to me in the voice of Freddie Mercury, which was a relief because Freddie had been trying to contact me from Beyond through Queen's song, "Somebody to Love" played over and over on the radio. I planted the potato back in the ground, mystery solved. For now.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

David Kessler has been working the talk show circuit to promote his new book and I've heard him interviewed by Bill Mahr, Diane Rehm, and Terry Gross. He is the former head of the FDA. I have not read this book, but I have enjoyed hearing his interviews.  

The gist of his book is that a lack of will power is not responsible for our overeating. The problem is our addiction to and conditioning by high levels of sugar, fat and salt. We get preoccupied by food because our minds and bodies are programmed to tell us to eat as much of these things as possible when they are available. And they are always available (here, to most of us). He talks a little bit about re-conditioning the brain to not be preoccupied by food, but I'm sure that the billion-dollar question is "Just exactly how does one program the mind not to be preoccupied by sugared-up, salted-down, fat-soaked food?"

He asked Diane Rehm which of the two food items on the cover she would prefer. She replied, "Well, the carrot cake, of course!"  I thought about this question myself and found my answer much more complicated. First, I am a BIG fan of carrot cake.  I chose it as my wedding cake. If I was stranded on a dessert island... I wouldn't mind if the only dessert was carrot cake. (Spelling intentional.)

But it got me thinking. What would I choose? What if I could have all the carrot cake I wanted OR all of the organic, homegrown carrots from my own garden? One or the other. I would absolutely choose the homegrown carrots, and that right there is the reason I garden. [This is important: I would choose my homegrown vegetables over carrot cake, people!!] I know that much dieting advice is given about eating lots and lots of vegetables. However, what I see passing for vegetables sometimes makes me want to fill up on grilled cheese and Dove chocolates and skip the limp, overcooked, mush-pile of green beans. Even most "baby carrots" that you buy at the store are flavorless and rubbery. (Compare to the carrots that make me want to do cartwheels.)

So, maybe one of the answers to the question,"Just exactly how does one program the mind not to be preoccupied by sugared-up, salted-down, fat-soaked food?" is grow your own veggies!  Of course, you'll likely still be preoccupied with food, but it will be healthy food.

Garden Report

1.  Peas, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, basil, and cilantro are all up.

2.  We had two nights of frost. I mulched everything because I couldn't find my floating row covers. Only the potatoes were damaged by the frost.

3.  After two nights of frost, I finally located my floating row covers under a mouse's nest, in a box, in the tool shed.

4.  The rooster is now my friend. I fed him 15 worms as I dug up the soon-to-be-bean bed. He begged like a puppy. I love him.

5.  While digging in the garden on a particularly sunny day, I forgot about the pepper sprouts in the improvised plastic mini-green house (located in the sun room) and came back to cooked Peacework Pepper sprouts. Uhgh.

6.  A groundhog mama broke into the garden. I chased her down with a shovel. She exited through the main gate. I'm crossing my fingers that she got the message and the rest of our interactions will be peaceful.

7.  I planted sunflower seeds, zinnias, and a bonus butterfly garden seed mix in the corner of the garden in which I found pressure-treated wood. No eats coming from this section.

8.  I'm impatiently awaiting the germination of some very old squash seeds. Costata Romanesca is THE BEST summer squash I've ever met. I really hope I get at least one plant.

9.  Chris says the grass growing out there is "quack grass." I have unofficially dubbed this phase of the blog The Quack Grass Garden Project."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Finding My Marbles

Basil sprouts



mini-greenhouses with thermometer inside

Green Zebra tomato sprouts

Black Seeded Simpson lettuce sprouts

Excellent junk found in the garden

Waiting for seeds to sprout brings out the OCD in me. There was added anxiety this time because I'm using all leftover seeds from one, two, even three years ago. So far there doesn't seem to be any noticeable difference in germination rates. I've kept them in plastic bags so they don't desiccate, and I've kept them in the fridge since I got them from Fedco. 

I thought twice about even trying to start tomatoes and peppers because it really was late when I'd officially scored the gardening space. However, I decided that I'd start some and then buy some plants to supplement. As far as tomatoes go, I've got Yellow Fargo Pear, Orange Banana Paste, and Green Zebra. I didn't get tomatoes from these seeds last year because I was unable to start them inside. I direct seeded them, but it was late, and it turned out to be a really bad year for tomatoes at my house. I think I'll be able to baby these this year with a mini-greenhouse to keep the temperatures and humidity high and the wind at bay. So, even thought they're late, I think I can do it!

I started Peacework Peppers too. These are supposed to be quick-growing, early ripening sweet peppers. They were created by folks in upstate NY (Ithaca, I think) and are supposed to be suited to a cooler climate.  I've never grown them, so I'm excited to see what happens. They'll go under the mini-greenhouse, too. 

I made a trip to a local greenhouse to see what plants they had for me to buy. I found some heirloom tomatoes: Red Cherry and Jubilee. The most exciting thing was finding lots of happy little habanero plants. We have lots of dried cayenne peppers left over from last year, so I skipped those and went for the Serrano peppers. I spent $9.45 on 31 baby plants. It actually works out to $.30 a plant, so that's not really a bad deal considering that some of those plants will produce pounds and pounds of tomatoes and eggplants and peppers. 

The Black Seeded Simpson lettuce grows really quickly. If I knew where my garden notebook was, I could share just how quickly we were able to harvest it last year. I remember it was prolific and fast, even after getting mowed down by a groundhog. The other lettuces will take a little longer. I planted a patch of mesclun, which is basically a mix of greens that I had left over: spinach, arugula, and a bunch of other lettuces. I won't let them get too tall before cutting them. Finally, I have a lettuce that I think will be a huge bonus here in the hot, humid summers. Anuenue (ah-nwee-nwee) is heat resistant and slow to bolt. Last year it amazed me during July and August because it wasn't bolting and it was not bitter at all. I had given up on having lettuce in August until I tried this last year.

We've had two frosty nights this week. The thick covering of mulch protected all of the new sprouts. I'm really anxious to get more plants in the ground, but I'm trying to make myself wait until next week to avoid frost. 

Each time I go out in the garden I find another marble. I keep feeding them to the dinosaur I found in the potato bed and that now lives next to the mulch pile. It's good because I had definitely lost my own marbles somewhere along the way.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


My history with roosters has been, well... violent. First there was "Chip," King of the Coop when we moved into our first house. He had attitude, and the looks to back it up. He had shiny gold, deep blue-green, and red feathers. He had spurs 3 inches long. "Chip" was named by the original owner. When I first met him, she picked him up and cuddled him while she wandered around the yard talking to me. Just 6 months later, Chip would be dead: shot in the head. Several weeks after we took over the chicken coop, Chip had started to get aggressive. When he lunged at our friend Bruce, we dismissed it because Bruce was teasing him. (Bruce teases everybody.) He came at me one day in the coop while I was filling waterers and food bins. I had no idea what he was doing chasing after me like that. Later, Chris told me he was probably trying to spur me. Sure enough, shortly after that he nailed Chris in the leg. After several weeks of sneaking in and out of the coop, we were tired of living in fear. And those spurs were long! He may have been beautiful, but he was dangerous.

The next season, I planned on starting over with new birds and then maintaining my own flock. That meant we needed another rooster. So we tried raising a happy rooster. It was fine for the first 10 months. Eventually, we had the same results. Shot to the head. And you are likely cringing and asking, "Why all the bloodshed? Can't we all just get along?!" 

Listen, have you ever been stalked and attacked by a chicken!? It scars you, people! That's why when I started sharing this yard here with a new rooster, I was leery. Wary. Calculating my every move. If the rooster was out front, I would take the back route. If I was carrying a shovel, I would put it between myself and the rooster. As soon as I was in view, this rooster would perk up and start moving in my direction. If I turned and walked in the opposite direction, it started trotting after me! All during my first day out in the garden, the rooster marched up and down the fence, making little demanding chicken noises. The entire time, I was anticipating him jumping over the fence and charging me. That evening I was inside making dinner, when I happened to notice the neighbor kid walking out to the coop with the rooster galloping behind him. I missed what happened behind the tree, but the next thing I saw was this 11 year-old kid picking up the monster rooster and hurling him 15 feet away. I stopped in my tracks and blinked. 

I spent a couple more days with the shovel between myself and the rooster, until I finally realized that this rooster follows people for food. Eleven year-olds pick him up and throw him, two-and-a-half inch spurs and all. I decided that I could probably survive an encounter.

Some of my other perceptions have been wrong too. Yesterday, Chris and I went outside when we saw the landlord pull up to the garden with a roto-tiller on the back of the truck. As we walked out to meet him I offered to help him get the tiller off the truck. He said, "I turned and saw you coming and thought, 'Wha...A gift from God." We had a chance to finally talk to the guy. He was hilarious! We laughed for a good 15 to 20 minutes before the black flies forced us back in. When I first moved in here I didn't get the feeling that the landlords knew much about the natural world. Oh, how I was wrong. Most of our talk was about all of the crazy things that animals do. After our conversation, Chris said to me, "I think he's read Guns, Germs, and Steel" because of the things he was saying about diseases evolving and passing between humans and animals. Not everybody has read that book. (I have not finished it.) It was uplifting, in this suburban labyrinth of lawns and pavement, to meet someone who is entertained and fascinated by the natural world.

Monday, May 11, 2009


It's a cruel irony that the most back-breaking work in the garden has to be done at the beginning of the growing season, after you've been sitting around the house all winter reading novels and sipping hot cocoa.

I've been working on breaking up the sod and removing the tangles of rhizomes from the soil. Each one of those little white roots could become a new colony of this very stubborn grass if I leave them. Each clod needs to be shaken out so that there's some soil left for growing vegetables. 

So I've taken it one step at a time. I tell myself, "Just this one area, right here." And I hack away until I have to catch my breath. Pebbles and grass and dirt clods fly through the air, raining down on my head. I finish one area and set a new goal. Every half-hour a new blister blooms on my hands. On the third day of digging, when Chris called to be picked up I hopped in the car, forgetful that I was a living dustball but grateful that I had a reason to quit. After three days of chopping and flinging, I hobbled like I was a hundred years old every time I stood up. Hot dish water felt like an acid bath with all the blisters on my hands. I think it took two full days to fully rehydrate. I kept thinking of the movie "Fight Club." As I walked around in pain in a classroom, I'd think about my broken body and the glory I'd attained in the garden the day before. Rawwwrrrrr!

I can't wait until it's time to relax and just WEED!

Monday, May 4, 2009

May Day

The potatoes are in! I read that May 15th is the average "last frost" in this area, so with this date still in the future, I feel comfortable making potatoes and peas my first priority, rather than other more frost-sensitive things. The potatoes won't be up for a few days, and the peas will survive any freezing temps.

I was happy to find that under all of that scary fescue, the soil is pretty good: sandy loam, loose, with very few rocks (big change for me!) I weed-whipped a path and clearing first. Then I started digging with the pulaski. There was a ton of plastic and marbles. Yes: marbles. The landlord mentioned that someone else had gardened in that area and had done all sorts of things with rocks and sand. She mentioned she wasn't a fan of that kind of gardening. I agree it seems entirely pointless, but I kind of had fun finding marbles everywhere and sticking them in my pocket. I bagged up two piles of garbage, with much more to go. I also found 6 bags of "cypress mulch" buried UNDER the sod. I couldn't help but thinking, "So that's where the Ivory-billed woodpecker habitat ended up... in these plastic bags."  I did find the "sand garden." It's framed with timber and grown over with, guess what. Yeah, fescue. I think I'll make that a little compost area. 

After busting through the sod, I spent a little bit of time pulling out the clumps of grass. The soil was still full of tons of strong, white runners from the fescue. I know I could have spent days sifting through the soil to get them out, and that probably would have made a huge difference in the weed battle later, but I just wasn't feeling patient or diligent enough. I have a feeling that no matter what I do, the grass is going to be a major weed factor. We'll see how it goes.

I hauled over 4 buckets-full of llama manure from the front yard and scattered it in the new bed. Then I turned it in. I'm calling the pile in the front yard the Magical Pile of Poo!

The seed potatoes are from my last year's harvest of Wood Prairie Farm's All Blue and All Red varieties.  They had long sprouts and roots already. Some had green leaves popping. I cut them up so each piece of tuber had a sprout or an eye and let the tubers dry in the wind for a bit. I planted them pretty close to one another, about six inches apart. I always do this, and then mulch the heck out of the plants.

I found some Sugar Ann snap peas from last year and planted those in the third row. I've kept my leftover seeds in plastic bags in the fridge for the past year, so I'll also be watching to see how the old seeds do compared with new ones.

I can see the garden from the kitchen, living room, and bedroom. I'm always checking on it. I have no idea why. I just can't stop. 

I couldn't help but notice how different I felt after I spent the day outside planning and making the garden. The wind pushed me and the windmill around. Both of us groaned. Yellow warblers sang, "Sweet, sweet, little more sweet!" all day long. It was the most welcome I've felt here in Michigan so far. I didn't expect it, so the sense of purpose that hung with me as I came inside and cleaned up caught me by surprise. The anxiety I've felt about not having a teaching job was dulled just a bit by the fact that I had a place to garden. 

Friday, May 1, 2009

Garden Characters

One thing about this new garden is that it's loaded with fowl. Fowl and llamas. This guy in the picture is always busy jumping up on things, displaying, and making peacock noises. Have you ever heard a peacock? Let me explain: there's a low "honk!" followed by an immediate "Yeeoooooooww!" that rises and falls (the sound makes me think of a parabola). Every once in a while he does this 3 times in a row. He's a night owl, not so much a morning bird, so we hear him until around 10:00 p.m. 

The Big Weekend

I just found some old pictures from last year's garden buried on an old camera. I have posted one here. The 1st picture is from the garden in Pulaski. The other picture is one that I just took of the garden that is actually within commuting distance of where I live now (my backyard). Where did I put those red-sequined shoes? "There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's..."  On a positive note, the landlords here have graciously given me permission to invade their garden space and put in some veggies. I'm giddy. I kicked Chris out for the weekend. (Actually, he'll be at the annual Red Tail Conservancy Bird-a-thon, which I would love to do, too, but this is serious. He and his friend Kevin are crazy competitive and get up before 4 a.m. I'm out.) He took the car. I made plans to tackle the space and clear it for seeds. In the birding world there's this thing called "The Big Year" when birders spend all of their time, energy, and finances traveling the world to see every bird they can. I'm calling this upcoming 2 days "The Big Weekend." I sighed when I came across the picture from last year. It makes it look so easy. The garden behind the house right now is knee-high with fescue. When I slipped on my mud boots and went outside to scope it out, I had a minor panic attack. Oh well. I'm just going to try not to break myself tomorrow. 

On the to do list:
Clear as much area as possible. (It sounds so simple. I mean by hand. Sore, blistered hands, probably.)
Haul llama poop to garden beds. (I'm so excited!)
Erect a mini greenhouse for carrots. Maybe.
Plant potatoes, peas, lettuce, and anything else I've got in my seed bags.

I'm stoked like a surfer before a big swell.