Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My Favorite Garden Tools

Okay. There is really one that stands out way above the rest. My garden knife. It is the best thing I ever bought. It is from Fiskars, the company know for making scissors. This thing is AWESOME!

You can see by how dirty it is that I use it a lot. It has a plain blade on one side, a serrated edge on the other. Not terribly sharp or I would have lost a finger by now. The point is perfect for digging weeds and the width makes it more efficient in the task. The shape means I can use it as a trowel. The edges help cutting through turf or other roots. Just the best thing ever.

Other items that I couldn't do without are the flat-pronged pitchfork for turning compost, really good clippers in two sizes for large and small tree shoots and branches, a hand cultivator for breaking up soil, and a broom and a hand brush for sweeping up the patio and sidewalk.

Buckets are always a great thing to have around. I eventually plan to kick one, but not for a few decades. They can be great for storing things -- like the cat.

Yeah, I've used this photo before, but I love it so much that I have to put it out there again. Naomi is also a great garden tool since she is a hunter and will chase birds, mice and insects that might damage my fruit and veggies. Not so much with the squirrels since she has made friends with them, but they are still cautious. She is a predator, after all.

The most heavily used tools in the garden, by far, are my brain, my hands and my back. And, of course, my butt. I would be nowhere without the back of my front.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Musings on a Week in the Garden

This was a busy week in the garden, trying to get the spring work done. I spent up to six hours a day out working away. There is soooo much to do at this time of year. A character on an old British sitcom, Good Neighbors, said it best -- she's angry at "that Mother Nature person. She sleeps all winter and then wakes up and goes stark raving mad!"

I spent a great deal of time out in what I call "the north forty." This is the three raised beds at the north end of my lot. I was turning soil, amending it, and removing weeds and wood chips. This is where the majority of my Egyptian Walking Onions are planted, and my sage, oregano and leeks are growing. I had a lovely chat with the bees in the purple sage flowers. I also ended up in a rather strange conversation with a couple of homeless men who were walking by and came over to talk with me. This was rather alarming since most people just talk with me from the sidewalk. One of them was asking me to hire him to work in the garden -- a trailer park is not the greatest place to look for someone who has the money to pay for odd jobs. The other was telling me about the garden he had worked in while he was in jail. I couldn't help but wonder about these two. I certainly hoped that they were just passing through and not looking to create a problem. Apparently they were okay. They finally ambled on after a third man who had no interest in cornering me in the garden,

At the top of this photo you can see the north 40. The nearer garden bed is a "pond." I wanted to put a pond into my garden, but couldn't see trying to keep pouring water into a real pond in such a dry climate. So I made a representative pond. You will see more of the pond as the spring progresses and I get more of it cleaned up. There are frogs and swans in there, and Huck Finn goes fishing there.

A neighbor stopped by one evening to ask gardening advice and what to plant that the deer won't touch. This is a very limited list, but she was happy with what I had told her -- onions, sage, oregano, and irises. For some reason the deer haven't been around lately. I miss them, but I am grateful that I haven't needed to use the stinky spray to keep them away from the roses and clematis.

Naomi was as entertaining as usual. Especially when I found her curled up on a bunch of mulch and a bit of trash in a bucket:

This is the same cat who has her own chair on the patio just a few feet away. Go figure!

It was also time to mow the lawn this week. This is the only thing I don't do myself. I really hate mowing, so I find it better to let someone else do it.

My fantastic photography skills are clearly apparent in this one. I have a cheap little digital camera that doesn't have a screen to review the photos I take. I will be better once I get used to it.

Thursday night I stayed out late working in the north 40. This meant that I was out there when the Cruiser Ride came by. They come by most Thursday nights and there are hundreds of them. There is a bike path at the end of my street so it is a natural route for them. Here is a video of the Cruisers made by my friend Jonathan Machen. He's the one singing. The one swinging is his son, Orion. Jonathan is an amazing artist.

They generally shout "Happy Thursday!" to all and sundry along their route, although some abandon that to yell "Love your garden" at me.

Life in Boulder is rarely boring. There are too many of us oddballs and weirdos here. I am pleased to be one of them -- and a native of the city. I actually live on the same street I was born on. Few people in this country can say that.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Gardening by the Seat of My Pants

There is a reason that professional photographer Tom Sundro Lewis took my picture sitting on the ground in my garden. It is because that is how I do all my gardening. As my Buddha appearance suggests, I am on the hefty side. Heftily on the hefty side (thought thankfully, not at my highest weight). The weight puts a lot of pressure on my back, creating pain, so I sit. Weeding, planting, tilling, mulching, even watering -- I do it all sitting down. Sitting though I may be, it is a great source of exercise for me.

Some of my neighbors say that I am my own garden gnome. They know that spring has truly sprung when they find me sitting there.

The cat, Naomi, is the gardening supervisor. She also likes to sit, but not always in the best spots for the garden.

She has favorite spots to try to lounge in the patio pots. Here she is in a bowl of young greens moments before we had a loud argument over her choice of venue.

She does actually stop by once in awhile to check on my progress. She is particularly fond of checking up on my rate of weeding and clean up.

Here she is checking on the bag of weeds. old leaves and twigs. She not terribly happy that there is not enough room for her to go in and check the contents more thoroughly.

One of the problems with gardening by the seat of my pants is that it can be a slow way to do it. But there is something extra Zen about having to do it more slowly. I find it relaxing and thought provoking. It is working in the garden where I am inspired for my writing, work out writer's block, and come up with new ideas.

I'm not alone. I have heard tell of a woman who loved gardening so much, that as her body was losing its functionality, she would tend her garden lying down. When it comes to gardening, it doesn't matter how you do it -- just do it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Egyptian Walking Onions

These are one of the darlings of my garden. I adore onions and use them in just about everything recipe. Spring onions, or scallions, are quite expensive, so having a bed of them in the garden is a money-saving project for me. This is made even easier by having Egyptian Walking Onions well-established in one of the raised beds. They "walk" by reseeding themselves at the end of the season. As they mature through the summer they create a bulb cluster at the top of one of the shoots. These will drop off and start new onions.

The unusual bulb cluster does give these onions a rather alien look. Instead of letting the bulbs drop on their own, I harvest them once they mature and plant them where I want them. Some of my neighbors have found them wandering all over the place.

They are the first thing up and ready to eat in the spring. I have already been using them this year. Until they begin to develop the bulb cluster they look like any other scallions, though they can grow surprisingly large. They never become a bulb onion. I have discovered that if you do not pick them, they will also divide over the winter. This left me with an amazing yield for this spring.

If you can add this wonderful vegetable to your garden, I highly recommend it. If you know anyone with these plants they are likely willing to share to get your garden started. If not you can order them at

Monday, May 7, 2012

What to Plant?

When you start vegetable gardening it is tempting to plant absolutely everything. I know I wanted to. There are so many plants that you feel you somehow "ought" to plant. Even my neighbor, who has been growing veg for many years, will plant beans even though she really doesn't care much for them. Which has been a bit of a boon for me since she will give me some of the extras. I keep feeling like I should be growing eggplant, but I hate them.

I do grow a few extra things for my elderly mother, such as beets and parsley. This is due, in part, to the fact that you have to buy these things in bunches. Mum is so small that much of this goes to waste before she can use them up. By having them in the garden I can pick them as she needs them. This is also true of my beloved cilantro. When I buy it at the store I end up throwing quite a bit away. So planting it is great for having a steady fresh supply.

I have switched from planting lettuce to planting blends of greens called mesclun. This helps me create a fun and diverse salad easily and I don't have to plant each type separately. This also helps make the garden colorful and beautiful in the absence of all of the flowers in which I used to indulge. My favorite lettuce, iceberg, now so politically incorrect, has been harder to grow than I had anticipated, but I still try.

I always grow spinach. I am not a big spinach fan overall, but if I am going to eat it, it must be fresh. I was raised on canned spinach, which made me gag. With a couple of bowls of fresh spinach growing on the patio it is easy to throw a bit into omelets, soups, or pasta sauces. I am retraining my palate away from the memories of the food my mother prepared.

This year I am putting a push behind the brassica family of vegetables -- broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. I have Grave's Disease, or hyper-thyroid. Most people have hypo-thyroid. Raw brassica vegetables (which includes radishes) have something called "goitrogens" in them that helps to lower thyroid function. Okay, I'm not going to eat the sprouts raw, but I do like them once in awhile cooked and cheese melted over them. Still fairly healthy.

I adore potatoes, so I started planting red potatoes last year. They didn't do really well, but I planted them late. So this year I am starting earlier. I chose red potatoes because I am also a diabetic. Red potatoes are lower in carbohydrates. While I can't eat them everyday, I can have them a couple of times a week. I have found that growing my own organic seems to have an even smaller effect on my blood sugar levels.

One of my goals has been to have perennial veg and herbs in the garden so that I will always have some food in the garden. So far this has taken the form of Egyptian walking onions, reseeding red spinach, chives, sage, oregano, and asparagus. Well, the asparagus will be new this year.  I also have raspberries and strawberries, both of which are excellent for diabetics. I have planted three blueberry bushes that came with the promise of bearing the first year. This is their third year and they have hardly grown at all. One of my missions this year is to see if I can fix the problem or if I need to just start over with them.

Some of the more difficult things that I try to grow are leeks. They can be rather expensive. The problem is that they have a very long growing season. I finally have leeks large enough to harvest this year. I planted them two years ago.

Some suggest growing only those things that you can't easily buy in the grocery store. However, I just love taking a colander in hand, wandering through the garden, and selecting what to trow together for dinner. The colander then goes into the sink for a quick rinse and I am ready to go. It satisfies something deeply primal in me.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Trouble in Paradise

Some of my patio pots have not been growing -- or at least growing properly. I have been wondering what could be happening in this lovely, strangely early spring. Then I noticed the cat. She was trying to eat a radish sprout. Then she tried to curl up on the lettuce. Uh-huh. I was beginning to get the picture.

The lettuce survived, but I have had to replant radishes and carrots. I need to replant spinach and possibly beets. Hmmm. We had two fights yesterday -- it included some rather colorful cat language as we hissed at each other. She didn't want to get out of the lettuce in the morning, and didn't want to get up off of the red cabbage plant in the afternoon.

I'm still getting used to how my new digital camera works or you be able to see that she is curled up next to a red cabbage plant. Moments later she tried to curl up right on top of it to take a nap. She was not happy when I tried to move her on. After sulking for about ten minutes she took a stroll through several other pots.

You can see by the look on her face, I was still not her favorite human right at that point. I am now wondering if she might be just a little jealous of all the time I am spending with the pots. She doesn't act like this when I am out in the raised beds.

After almost six hours at hard labor yesterday I stank, was covered with topsoil and sheep manure, and when I sneezed, mud came out. Do you supposed I took up gardening because it was a great outlet for my OCD? The cat thinks so. She kept staring at me like I was crazy when I was working in the rain this afternoon. I was racing the storm to get my cilantro plants in. I almost made it and only got mildly damp. She was certain I had lost my marbles when I went back out in the rain to pick onions to go with dinner.

On the other hand, now that it is really raining, she is the one sitting outside on the covered part of the patio. There the spoiled girl has her own towel-covered love seat to curl up on. If this does not suit, she heads for the neighbor's patio where there are three cozy cushioned chairs from which to choose.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Worms: A Gardner's Best Freind

Worms, the great gardening companion, have been very good to me. As I move out into the rest of the yard and the raised beds I am finding a great number of "presents" from the little critters. Worm tracings, or castings, or, well, poop to the lay person are a wonderfully rich deposit for the garden. I collect them and add them to my compost bin.

You can buy composted worm tracings. You can also buy "worm tea," which is taking the composted tracings, placing them in something like cheese cloth and soaking the resulting bag in water for several days. This brew can be diluted with additional water and sprayed on or used to water your garden plants. I prefer to compost my own.

I have a worm breeding ground on one end of my patio. Leaves gather thickly there over the winter months and when the spring rains begin to awaken the worm population they make a beeline for this food rich area and begin to propagate the species. By the time I come along to clean up the patio for the spring, there is a wealth of worms in various stages of development. I collect the worms and place them in the compost bin where they can do what comes naturally.

Unfortunately, this is also where centipedes gather and spawn their young. This is because they love to eat worms. So I am cautious as I work to steer clear of the unpleasant bugs. I also find the centipede babies and try to make sure that they go in the trash instead of into the compost where they would target my worms.

I am guessing that my large amount of worm poop is partly due to the warm dry winter. Whatever the reason, I am grateful for the generous donations.

When I start weeding the lawn, I will undoubtedly run across similar deposits from the deer. This also goes into the compost bin. Waste not want not. Or waste -- yes!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Making Amends Part 2: Making Minerals

Adding organic material to your garden is a great start. There is more that you can do to support the health of your soil and it doesn't have to cost very much. They are items that are commonly found around the house or picked up at the grocery store:

Epsom Salt: Yes, the stuff you keep on hand for soaking wounds. This is magnesium sulfate and will help your plants grow strong and green. You can mix it well into the soil in the spring to help get plants started, or dissolve with water in a hose-end sprayer and spray the plants every few weeks.

Ammonia:  This can be nasty stuff in large quantities, but a little goes a long way in the garden. Ammonia is nitrogen, one of the most important substances to having a healthy garden. Master gardener Jerry Baker calls ammonia "thunderstorm in a bottle." Mix two ounces with a gallon of water and apply to soil. For larger coverage, one cup in a hose-end sprayer to apply to the entire lawn and garden every few weeks. The caution here is to not overdo on fruits and vegetables or you may end up with great looking, leafy plants that are not bearing. It is a case of a little is good, but more is not better.

Coffee Grounds: Used coffee grounds make a great soil amendment for nitrogen. If you are a coffee drinker this is a great way to recycle all of those leftover coffee grounds. If, like me, you are not a coffee drinker many coffee houses are quite happy to save grounds for you. The Starbucks in my grocery store will save grounds for me. One of their employees lives in my neighborhood and has dropped grounds off for me. Any grounds I still have beyond soil amendment go into the compost bin. If you really don't like anything about coffee, be forewarned, your garden will smell like coffee for weeks.

Baking Powder: This is a great, simple way to add calcium to the soil. This is especially for plants prone to blossom end rot. For me and my neighbor this has been an ongoing issue with our tomatoes. So far the jury is out on how well this works, so I am placing this particular soil amendment into my "experimental" category for another year.

As I mentioned in my previous blog on soil, much of my garden is in patio pots. It may have been noticed by some that I did not mention using potting soil for this. One of the reasons that I do not use commercial potting soil is because I can mix my own to the specifications I select, and I can alter them from pot to pot based on what I will be planting.

The agricultural extension office for Colorado at Colorado State University has an excellent article on soil amendment.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why The Story Garden?

I am a writer, poet, essayist, journalist, and author. To me, stories are as essential as breathing. If you look at the picture on my blog you will see me sitting, Buddha-like, in my garden. To the left you will see a garden area with some statuary. This is my "pond." Being that I do not have a great place to have an actual water feature, I have created a representative one in the form of a garden bed. There you will see Huck Finn fishing and the Frog Prince just hanging out. In other areas of my garden you will find Aslan, the lion, and his lamppost, the tortoise and the hare, Peter Rabbit, and others. Thus, I have a "story garden."

My sister-in-law, Nancy, was thrilled at the sight of a sun dial in a bed of golden thyme. She is the only person I know, besides myself, who had read "The Thyme Garden" by Edward Eager. A lovely book about children who manage to travel through time by using the many types of thyme growing in a garden.

There is also a gazing ball to represent the book Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp. A second gazing ball is in the paws of a cat, to represent the cat books I have read. There is a tree with a face on it with several yellow bricks lined up beneath to represent that wonderful place called Oz. I have a mushroom statue that I would one day like to find just the right caterpillar to go with for Alice in Wonderland.

At the back of the garden on a bench is a statue of a little girl reading a book. To my mind, all of what is happening in my garden is what this girl is reading.

Turning a portion of my garden into my "urban farm" is an homage to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House books.This is my "Little House in the Valley."

One day someone stopped by to admire my garden and I explained the theme to him. Thinking he would catch me off guard, he asked, "What about Walt Whitman?" I grinned and pulled up a small handful of lawn, "Leaves of Grass!" I replied.

Just to be contrary, there is the statue of a crane. I have named him Frasier After all, I do like well-written television too.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Making Amends: The Dirt on Soil

Once again yesterday and today I spent hours amending the soil in my garden. The health of the soil is crucial to being able to grow strong and healthy plants. This sounds like a simple concept to us these days. However, less than a century ago people thought that soil was an infinite resource that could never be depleted. It was upon this foundation that the United States agriculture policies were based. It led to the greatest ecological disaster in our history. The rich top soil that it had taken Mother Nature thousands of years to perfect was plowed up and turned into farm land. Crops were planted, grown, and harvested year after year with the belief that they could do this in perpetuity. Then drought struck the nation in the early 1930s. Nothing could grown on these lands since irrigation was also largely unknown. Dry winds picked up the depleted soil and blew it across the country, creating what became known as Black Blizzards. They would often rage for days on end. Killing humans and livestock alike by clogging lungs with the dirt. People lived, ate, and slept with the dirt of the Dust Bowl, as the affected region became known. This occurred in conjunction with the financial collapse of the world economy.

It would take years of soil conservation, including things like crop rotation, fallow fields, and soil amendment to bring back the richness of the farm lands. So you little garden or urban farm may not seem to rate on the same scale, but your soil is just as vulnerable as if you were working the north forty.

Since I live in a mobile home park, much of my urban farming is done in pots, more than thirty-five of them. Growing depletes the soil, as does watering in being able to wash away the nutrients with the pot drainage. So amending my soil is crucial. I start each year by emptying all of the pots and remixing the soil. This is because some of the plants are heavy eaters, while others are fairly light eaters. There are some plants that are also known as caterers. These plants actually deposit nutrients into the soil. Most notably this comes from peas and beans. So by remixing the soil I am basically "rotating my crops" by planting different things in different  "fields." At the same time I generously mix in additional organic material in the form of manure and compost. I generally buy this locally. If you can get fertilizer direct from someone with cows, horses, or sheep, the manure needs to be aged for several months before it can be added to the soil. Raw manure it too "hot" to use right away.

I also tend to buy the cheaper amendments, which often come loaded with wood chips in them that have not been completely composted. I take the time to sift the material through a colander and save the wood chips to use as mulch on top of my pots and raised beds. There are supposed to be some more expensive brands that are less prone to wood chips, but I have yet to come up with them.

Of course, keeping your own compost heap is a great way to recycle yard waste and vegetable scraps into lovely organic material that your garden will love. Many people refer to it as "black gold." However, that is a subject for another time.

You can also purchase hay or straw to use as mulch to conserve moisture. In arid and semi-arid climates like Colorado, moisture conservation is also crucial. The organic matter added to the soil also helps maintain moisture around the plants roots. On some of the hotter, drier days of the year, I will need to water twice.

Once the soil is completely remixed and refreshed, it is time to start planting.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Welcome to My Garden

Welcome to my new blog. I will be sharing my garden adventures past and present with anyone who bothers to read. It not just about the growing. It is about the trial and error, the abundant wildlife, the neighbors, the weather, and the things that go on in my head while I garden.

It happened again today. That weird thing. A woman came riding by on her bicycle while I was out gardening I thought that she had just ridden on by, but a moment later there she was, off her bicycle and standing at the edge of the patio telling my how much she loves my house and garden. She said that the whole reason she chose this route through the city was so that she could come by here often. I am always a bit startled by how effusively people compliment my garden and that they will go out of their way to tell me. I thanked her as best I could. I am never quite certain how to respond, but I try to be open, friendly, and gracious. I do love that they find as much pleasure is seeing it as I do in creating it.

Spring is unnervingly early this year. It has already been over 80 degrees, everything is growing and in bloom weeks ahead of schedule. The Chinese Trees of Heaven are leafing out more than a month ahead of normal. The main concern behind this is that we could suddenly still have a huge snowstorm that would damage the plants. An early heavy snow last October already decimated the trees around here.

My butt is freezing right now from sitting on the front patio working on the pots that I will be planting in soon. I am amending the soil with sheep manure and mushroom compost. I have already planted beets, lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots, red cabbage and cilantro. Still so much to do. I have onion sets, garlic sets and seed potatoes for planting in the raised beds. I will also plant cauliflower in with the potatoes since they are supposed to make good companions.

I gave up and came inside when Naomi came and told me it was time to go inside for a nap. She loves the garden and spends as much time as possible there. She loves it even more when I am out there working. The only thing better than that is when one of the neighbors stops by to chat while I am working there. She will also will waylay strangers in the street just to say hi.

In my head today: Ideas for the novel I plan to write in November for the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) later this year. It feels like an awesome idea that has a lot to do with my garden. Not telling what the actual idea is, but it will be funny. And it will be unlike the novel I wrote last year, which I am still procrastinating about getting edited and rewritten. But now it is spring and Mother Nature beckons.