Dec 29, 2009

An End to Pogonip?

I know, I know, it doesn't look all that exciting. Just a cloudy sky above some vaguely snowy trees. But trust me: this is an exciting sight for us today. We've been experiencing the dreaded winter weather phenomenon known formally as a 'stagnant air inversion layer', more colloquially as 'freezing fog' or, as I have just learned, 'pogonip' -- a Shoshone word meaning, well, freezing fog.

Since the fog rolled in Christmas morning, we have seen neither the sun nor the sky. The fog has been so thick, and so settled-in, that it has actually been falling out of the sky and accumulating on the ground like snow, as well as the usual hoarfrost attached to tree branches, etc.

I actually had to shovel it on Sunday. Who ever heard of shoveling fog?!

Quite lovely for about a day, then we Central Oregon sunshine freaks start whining and feeling depressed. Conveniently, the fog ends less than 1000 feet above town, so skiers heading up for nordic or alpine skiing at Meissner Snow Park or Mt Bachelor hit sunshine within 5 minutes of leaving town, and come home with sunburns.

Dec 10, 2009

Winter for non-gardeners?

What does the non-gardener in the family do during the winter?  He switches from mountain biking to cyclocross (known to some as pscych(l)o-path) racing, and shovels snow as needed.  This late fall, following a back injury, the sweetheart's CX training suffered a severe setback.  Through hard work, a lot of physical therapy and acupuncture, and his own personal self-healing abilities, he is ready to participate in his age group race at Cyclocross Nationals this afternoon.  I suppose if nats were being held in say, Kansas City (3 years ago) or Providence, RI (last 2 years) he wouldn't have made such an effort.  But having these races right here in Bend has been a powerful incentive to heal and get back on his bike.  He is my hero.  (Insane, but my hero;  what else is a guy with Bicycle Disease supposed to do?)

In this photo you see him, shoveling the front deck a few days ago, during Sunday's big snow dump.  When I took this shot, he had just come out of the garage where he did some intervals (thus the garb), and was 'cooling off' while doing manly householder deeds.  Note the wooden sign to his right.

A few years ago, when he started racing 'cross seriously, a friend cut this board from a hunk of lumber as a training aid for Don.  This is the exact height of a regulation CX barricade (16 inches), which racers must get over by either dismounting and jumping over them while carrying bikes on shoulders, OR 'bunnyhopping' over them while still in the saddle.  I'm not sure what you call a 55+ year old man learning to bunny hop:  perpetual kid or nutcase.  But he did it, and this sign sits on our front deck as a reminder to keep learning new things, to never give up, and to stay young at heart.  (The other side says:  'Lift Off')

Dec 8, 2009

Greenhouse panic!

Can you tell by looking at this photo that the temperature outside is 0 degrees F? When I woke up yesterday morning, as per usual I quickly checked the indoor (in the greenhouse)/outdoor (in the carport outside it) thermometer and was shocked to see a reading of 30 degree INSIDE the greenhouse. Uh oh. And this was at 4:30 am, so the temps were still going down.

Although technically an 'unheated' greenhouse ie I don't keep it warm enough to grow orchids, I do keep a small space heater in it in the winter, hooked to a thermostat which is set at around 38 degrees. Since the greenhouse is attached to the MIL apartment's south-facing wall, it normally stays well above freezing most of the winter, even without auxiliary heat. I overwinter my geraniums and a few other tender perennials in containers, on a tiered stand right next to the wall. Other plants that will take light frost -- cymbidium orchids, a California ceanothus, potted maple and larch 'bonsai' -- are out farther from the building, next to the outside walls.

But every 2-3 years it gets really cold here, and then that heater is Life to the plants inside. Years ago I discovered that leaving a small fan on, 24/7, keeps cold (in winter) and hot (in summer) pockets from forming, and works amazingly well to keep things from freezing, even when the outside temperature is in the 'teens. But below 10 or so, that wee heater is necessary to keep things alive.

So I rushed out to see what was happening, and could see that, although Herbie (the 20 (30?) year-old oil-filled radiant heater) was working valiantly, he just couldn't put out enough BTUs. I grabbed the spare space heater -- one of those cheap, stand-up, oscillating ones and tried to plug it in. And promptly blew the fuse powering the fan and light. S---! Now it was 30/0 degrees and dark, and I was still fumbling to plug in the second heater. The electricians who put in this electrical plug carefully covered it with a 'waterproof' metal sheath, which alas, makes it nearly impossible to get actual electrical cords plugged in. I'm still in my nightgown at this point, not feeling the cold in my worry about my darlings, but I ran inside to enlist my manly guy for advice and assistance. He, still in his bathrobe peacefully reading by the fire, protested at first. But nobly (and this is why we are still married and madly in love after 40 years) he got up, put some proper clothes on, and came out to help.

Each of us was hampered by a different problem. After watching years of sci fi movies and shows, he claims to have become quite expert on advanced technology of all kinds. Unfortunately, since we are not on Battlestar Galactica, the Enterprise, or moving through the Stargate universe, most of what he has learned is useless. A Level Three Diagnostic did not help. The forward naselles could not be located. The inertial dampeners were offline. He was left with only a flashlight and a simple electrical cord to save the day.

I suffer from a different handicap. Despite being 60 years old, and having lived my entire life (bar a great deal camping, backpacking, and living in various cabins, Forest Service guard stations and the infamous 2 years in the pink trailer) using electricity, I still don't really ... get it. It seems unnatural and probably highly dangerous to me. In fact, I am the spiritual descendant of James Thurber's grandmother, who ....

"lived the latter years of her life in the horrible suspicion that electricity was dripping invisibly all over the house. it leaked, she contended, out of empty sockets if the wall switch had been left on. She would go around screwing in bulbs, and if they lighted up she would hastily and fearfully turn off the wall switch and go back to her (magazine), happy in the satisfaction that she had stopped not only a costly but a dangerous leakage. Nothing could clear this up for her."

This explains why I still have the uneasy feeling, whenever I plug something in, that I will be electrocuted. And fishing around in the (cold) dark bowels of the greenhouse, where there could also be huge, hideous spiders, trying to jam the 2nd heater into the plug, gives me the willies. Although I suppose the spiders have probably packed their wee spidey suitcases long since and headed south for the winter.

Anyway, the plug went in, and thankfully, that circuit did not blow. The extra heater did the trick, and the oscillating motion fills the need to circulate air. Nothing froze and this morning, despite the temperature having fallen to (so far) -7 outside, it's a balmy 38 in there. My darlings are safe.

Dec 5, 2009

Dark Days Challenge 2009-10 Week #3

Since I only found out about the challenge and joined on Tuesday, this is my first week, but since everyone else is in week 3, that's my title too. I will try to do a couple of extra meals in the next week to catch up.

I made this meal on the same afternoon I signed up. I was excited, so I decided to just go for it. I had no time to do anything fancy because I was working (at home) all day and didn't have time to go to the store for any ingredients. I already had a pot of chicken stock cooking up from the carcass from our Thanksgiving chicken, so I did a very simple dinner using that, some vegetables from my garden and a couple of seasoning bits. I guess I could just call it


From my garden: (distance traveled, about 50 steps -- damn! that's LOCAL!)
Kale -- a volunteer, probably Red Russian
Potatoes -- Colorado Rose and All Blue
Onion -- volunteer, probably a multiplier onion

Chicken bones for stock -- Pine Mountain Ranch, Bend (less than 10 miles)
Additional chicken broth -- Pacific Natural Foods, Tualatin, OR (approx 150 miles)
Salt -- oops. Here's where the 'local' fell apart. I got out all my salt and realized that, although I am no foodie, I seemed to have 4 kinds, most of it not even remotely local. I had salt from New Zealand, France, Spain and Utah. I selected the 'Mormon Salt' as being the closest to local. How far is it to Redmond, Utah? 800 miles? Good thing we get to have exceptions.

To top it off I added a spoonful of Eberhard Dairy (local, natural but not OG) -- Redmond OR (18 miles) sour cream I happened to have lying around the frig. Oh yum.

Dec 4, 2009

Dark Days Challenge: Second Thoughts

Within 15 minutes of my signing up for the 3rd annual Dark Days of Winter Eat Local Food Challenge (or DDOWELFC for sort of short), it began to snow. Next my sweetheart walked in and when I told him of my fun new project (already looking less fun with the snowfall), he exclaimed: "Whoah, that's going to be tough!" ...... and all of a sudden I panicked. I quickly realized that one of the reasons for my panic was that, always the purist, I had automatically started thinking: local should be 40-50 miles, no more. And preferably, grown by me, personally. Great.

I mean, there just isn't much commercial agriculture around here. Short growing season, dry air, cool nights even in summer, sandy soil, and less than 10" of precipitation annually, most of it falling as snow. What local farmers there are grow things like garlic, peppermint, alfalfa for hay, grass seed, and a few sugar beets. We do have some good local beef and other meat animals, and some dairies. Other than that, it's sagebrush tips, juniper berries and maybe some bambi. Smudge sticks, gin and venison -- not too satisfying.

Most of what we think of as 'local' produce, especially this time of year, comes from the verdant Willamette Valley on the west side of the Cascades, which is out of our more reasonable 100 mile 'local' limit. Heck, that won't even get us to the nearest large city, Eugene, 120 miles away.

Discouraged but curious, I got out our trusty road atlas and turned to the map of Oregon. Then I located a protractor and drew in some circles, for 50, 100 and 150 miles. Aha! I realized that Eugene and its nearby agricultural bounty, was 120 miles away by ROAD, but in pure geographical map (crow) miles, it is less than 100. YES. So we get Eugene, Coburg, Corvallis, Lebanon....

And when I reread Laura of DDOWELFC's instructions, I saw that she suggests using 150 miles as 'local' for wintertime. Oh so excellent. That means we get Hood River and Medford (pears, apples), Dufur and the plains of north central Oregon (wheat and other grains), a good chunk of the Willamette Valley (hazelnuts, berries, wine, and a lot more) and a large portion of the central coast (oysters! salt water fishies! salmon! ). We get Klamath Falls, so I can keep eating my blue green algae. And can I count Dagoba chocolate, which is undoubtedly grown in some far distant, tropical clime, but is packaged in our very own Ashland? Oho, this is looking good.

More to the point, what I am discovering as I look at this map, is that, except for a few basic and obvious things, I have no idea what all even grows in Oregon. I know there are a ton of small farmers over there, in the Valley and in the Coast Range, because they bring truckloads of beautiful food over to our farmer's market during the growing season. But where they are, and what else might be out there, I don't really know. So this will be an interesting project.

Dec 1, 2009

Dark Days Challenge

I've accepted the Dark Days Challenge for the first time. Started by Laura at the (not so) urban Hennery website, the goal is to cook one meal each week between mid-November and the end of March (The 'Dark Days of Winter') , of SOLE food (Sustainable - Organic - Local - Ethical), then post about it on one's blog, with photos. I'm afraid I'm going to have to go further than our back garden, since all that's left standing is some frosty kale and chard, and that won't last much longer. But we have sources for good local produce (definition: 100 miles) and I have my closely-guarded wee stash of tomato sauce, potatoes, etc. Here's more info and the web address if anyone of you are interested in signing up. Too bad we already ate these:

3rd Annual Dark Days of Winter Eat Local Challenge. Whew! That’s a mouthful. We just call it Dark Days for short around here.
Hope you’ll join me! Hope you’ll invite all of your friends to join us! Can’t wait to see what we all cook…

Nov 15, 2009 – Mar 31, 2010

What’s the Challenge?
Cook one meal each week focused on SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, ethical) ingredients and write about it on your blog. It’s really that simple, but at the same time, it can really be that hard.

To keep things interesting we’ll have theme weeks throughout the winter, with polls to choose as we go.

What does local mean?
Traditionally, local food challenges call for a 100 mile radius. Winter time is more difficult in many climates, especially if you’re new to eating locally, so my default definition is 150 miles. You can choose to make your radius smaller or slightly larger as you need. Typical exceptions are oils, coffee, chocolate and spices. If you’re making fewer or more exceptions, please note that on your first post.

What if I can’t find every ingredient locally?
That’s why this is called a challenge! If you can’t find every ingredient, or heck even most ingredients, please still post your meal each week. This is just as much about what we learn, the obstacles we find and the decisions we make as it is about cooking with SOLE ingredients.

Nov 30, 2009

Garden Amnesia or Blogging Slackness

Since the craziness of 'Christmas in October', fall weather and gardening activities have proceeded fairly normally. Our patented glorious 'Indian (non-pc but what else to call it?) Summer' weather set in and there has been a gradual winding down of temperatures and daylength, as per usual, though perhaps a bit drier than some years. I'm thinking this El Nino year is going to mean a low-snow year (and if that jinxes things and produces record snowfall, well, it's all good for the ski business side of the family).

My teaching schedule is double what it was last year, so a lot of my gardening thoughts tend to be just that: a thought, a mental note, a quick reminder to myself about something that needs doing, or idea for next year. I do have a lovely big garden journal that I have kept faithfully since I started gardening 35+ years ago, but when I don't have time to write long, detailed entries with lots of diagrams and pictures (my favorite), I tend to not write anything down and thus I forget a lot of details that would have been useful to have in later years. This summer I finally bought myself a wee red notebook that I keep in my shirt pocket as I wander around outside, and keep on my desk overlooking the garden the rest of the time. This way I have at least a little something jotted down, and when/if that 'more time later' does roll around, perhaps my memory will be sufficiently jogged to fill in the details.

What I'm noticing this year is a stronger-than usual version of the annual fall conflict of emotions about my garden. On the one hand, I am still totally in love with this year's garden and how it's looking, how it turned out, the triumphs both accidental and planned, and a lot of the big changes I made this year. Not ready to throw in the towel. It helps that I am still eating fresh tomatoes, pears and potatoes from my cool storage in the garage, and picking kale, chard and miscellaneous asian greens from the actual garden. Noooooooo, I cry inwardly, I'm not ready for it to end!!!!!

On the other hand, I am thoroughly sick of dealing with it and ready to settle inside for a cozy winter of hot drinks by the fire, the aforementioned gardening journal and a big stack of seed catalogs. I always wonder what it's like for people in places that have no 'off season'. Although my first few years of gardening were in a mild climate (the redwood jungle of California's north coast), I have wholeheartedly embraced having distinct seasons and thinking in terms of sharp changes of weather and temperature. I happily alternate two separate wardrobes, ie cotton t-shirts vs wool t-shirts with various flannel shirts, wool sweaters and jackets to bridge the gaps.

Blogging has been a 'do it later' activity, as I have continued to alternate between no-time for gardening and gotta get those last pots put away. Lots of photos saved up, reports to make. I'll try to do better, oh thou legions of fans, from here on out. I think I'm semi-caught up outside. Onward, Arabella........

Oct 24, 2009

True Confessio, er 2009 Harvest Report: Sweet Potatoes

Let's just review the situation. We had seed greed. We ordered crazy things. We planted them in all trust, innocence and -- even in the face of Climatic Reality -- optimism. A clear case of Zonal Denial, but hey -- we gardeners are a bold and audacious lot. We love a challenge.

So there they were, tender green slips inserted in a big black tub in the greenhouse. We tended them. We nurtured them. We talked to them. And now that the um, harvest is mostly gathered in, and thoughts of Over the River and Through The Woods to Grandmother's House We Go (with visions of sweet potato pie dancing in our heads) are lurking on the subconscious horizon, it's time to display our magnificent sweet potato harvest to the world. Ready? Stand back, now.

By the way, I had to use the macro-lens setting on my camera to get that shot. And just in case it's not totally apparent how truly tiny these tubers are, here's another photo, with my not-very-large hand in it to show scale. Ready? Here goes Take Two:

I'm going to blame these pathetic results on my own sweet self. The slips I planted were surely hardy enough. Remember? The literature that came with them promised me that Sweet Potatoes would produce my 'greatest gardening thrill ever'. It said that my harvest would consist of of big 'jumbo' size (2-3 lbs) potatoes. As I read on, I only wished I had ordered 2 dozen.

Lest you have forgotten their initial, rather desperate appearance, here is what they looked like on arrival from Territorial Seed Co in May:

They looked fine in the early stages of growth. But then the crucial 6 weeks of early summer vanished in a puff of smoke and a whole lot of musical events which precluded the planned ongoing addition of soil, to gradually raise the level of the growing tops and create a big rooting area for massive tuber production. In short, the plants sat down in the bottom of the big, deep, black plastic tub and I suspect, had a hard time getting enough sun to really get going. Kind of like trying to grow in the bottom of a deep well. Hallllloooooooooooooo, little sweet patooties -- you down there?

They did their best for me. But I failed them. And to be perfectly honest here, I got bored with the whole thing quite early on. I realized I don't really like sweet potatoes all that much. I didn't really want to bother with the whole soil addition thing. I won't say I exactly had Buyer's Remorse, but I will admit that I came to regret my spring seed greed, at least in the case of sweet potatoes.

So I will eat my tuberous bounty (in about 3 mouthfuls), thanking the sweet potato deva for the good effort, and put sweet potatoes on the list of vegetables I won't lose sleep over not being able to grow in future years.

Or at least until I forget and get a wild hankering to grow sweet potatoes, in 5 or 6 years. If that happens, please show me these photos?

Oct 19, 2009


In the spirit of honest journalism and responsible blog reportage, I must hereby confess that the Arabella's Garden Great Tomato Scientific Research Project of 2009 went sadly awry. In actual point of fact -- and let it be acknowledged in all to fairness to moi that it happened as a byproduct of my own Noble Service to the Larger Musical Community of Bend -- the whole tomato situation got completely out of control this year. In short: the tomatoes ran totally amok. There was a veritable jungle of tomato vines spurting here and shooting there and sprawling everywhere, in various locations around the garden.

One bed in particular, built by me in early June, and composed of what Bendites euphemistically call 'soil' but which is really just good old native volcanic sand, became so clogged with Sungold cherry tomato vines, intertwined with raspberry canes, that I couldn't get through it all summer long. It started out like this (June). Don't we all look perky, in our new gardening hat?

A few days later, I managed to get the small, innocent-looking tomato plants installed. In a further spurt of optimism, I planted 3 varieties of bush beans (marked in this photo with poker chips) in and around and in front of the (so small, so proper, so ..... tidy) tomato plants, envisioning a bonus crop in the high heat days of summer ....... visions of my favorite salad danced in my head: fresh beans, tomatoes and basil from the garden, with a dash of lemon juice and a slurp of Spanish olive oil .....

And then, before I knew it, 6 weeks had passed, one piano monster concert, a piano festival, 2 chamber music classes and a state piano teachers' conference had transpired, and the beans had grown up and become overwhelmed by a tomato jungle, of which I apparently only took this single picture -- which sadly, doesn't begin to do the green monster justice, but it will have to do:

The tomato jungle is part of the general green chaos behind the trellis in this photo. The culprit raspberry vines loom on the left side of this photo.

Then of course we had the Christmas in October surprise, giving the still-ripening tomatoes and peppers something to think about:

That brings us right up to our return to normal fall weather: warm, sunny days, cool nights, and plenty of good gardening exploits to be accomplished. Dutifully (and uncharacteristically for me) I have been pulling up blackened tomato vines and doing other fall activities in an unusually timely manner. Every couple of days I find a new stash of still-good green and ripening tomatoes, sheltering among the dead stems and leaves. And, a couple of days ago I girded up my loins, grabbed my weeder, scissors and trash bucket, and approached the perilous raspberry/tomato vine impasse corner. I whacked, I snipped, I gathered. Many things were revealed under the tomato vines, including pitiful remains of long-smothered bean plants, a few large weeds, and ................. this!

I haven't grown turnips in, oh, probably at least 10 years. So how did this seed survive all these years? Gardening is so full of surprises!

Oct 15, 2009

Adventures in Woodcutting

Back in the early days of our life together, the Manly Man and I cut our own firewood in the national forest west of town. It was part of every summer's round of activities -- a few extra days in the forest among many others: firefighting, backpacking, even a spot of fishing now and then. Our sole motor vehicle was a 1969 Toyota Land Cruiser that we bought partly with wedding present money in 1971, and it was handy for getting us into the innermost parts of the forest on dirt logging roads. At first we packed the firewood (not much, obviously) into the back of the car. We later went through a series of small utility trailers, starting with the one made from the bed of an old pickup truck -- yikes, talk about unsafe. We paid maybe $35 for this piece of junk, and it was far too expensive at that price.

We had many fine adventures cutting and hauling wood on Our Public Lands. There was the time a good-sized lodgepole pine tree fell within mere inches of the car. Oops. There was the time we got busted for cutting in the wrong place -- an honest mistake, but still embarrassing, considering the MM was working for the Forest Service at the time. There was the time we loaned the aforementioned trailer to a friend who, after a long day of woodcutting, showed up at our door pale and shaking, and sans trailer, having abandoned it and his load of wood beside the road when the tires started smoking on the downhill run back into town.

Apparently the guy who had had the bright idea of creating a trailer from the bed of an old pickup truck had used the FRONT axle of the truck for this project, which was just slightly shorter than the rear axle. This seemed like an unimportant detail to him at the time, and we weren't aware of it at all until the weight of our friend's giant load caused the tires to begin rubbing against the inside of the wheel wells, creating a cloud of smoke, and scaring the hell out of him. He found someone else to help him unload his wood from the trailer, and when we went back up to retrieve it, it was sitting empty and innocent, with only a faint scent of burned rubber marring the pristine mountain air.

Back at home, the manly man 'fixed' it, by putting in some washers as spacers. Well, it seemed to work for a while. But then one day we used it to take a load of household trash to the landfill (this was in the early days of city living, before it occurred to us to pay for weekly curbside garbage pickup), where, in a moment of cosmic synchronicity unequaled before or since, the axle broke, for good and all, just as we pulled up at the dumpsite. It was too good to pass up. We quietly unhitched the trailer, got back into the car, and drove off without it, grinning as we saw the amazed (outraged?) dump employee waving his arms at us in the rear view mirror as we made our escape. bwaaha haaaaa...... This is the closest I ever want to come to having to make an actual getaway from a crime scene.

The ritual of woodcutting began out of desperate necessity, the first year we were married. We were your classic impoverished college students, attending Humboldt State University on the north coast of California. Land of fog, redwood trees and banana slugs. This was the year of family legend, when we spent our first 8 months of proud home ownership shivering through the coldest winter on record with no electricity and no heat other than a tiny wood-burning stove in the living room. After purchasing 17 acres of cut-over redwood forest late in the summer, we could afford only the cheapest temporary dwelling, with plans to build a house the following year. Our new home was a ten-year-old, 50' by 10' pink (yes, pink), all-electric 'mobile home' (1970's euphemism for 'house trailer'), a great bargain -- we thought. The 'all-electric' part, which was at the time advertised as quite a spiffy feature, was as it turned out, not the best choice for that particular year.

By the time we got a dirt road carved out of the logging slash and temperate rainforest regrowth that covered our land, halfway up the hill to the only flat spot on the place, rainy season was approaching. Under cloudy skies, and in haste, we hauled the trailer up the hill with the same small rented bulldozer we had used to blade out the road, and set it up on cinder blocks. And then, before we could get the road graveled, the rains began. Rain in that part of the world means business, and simply put, that was the end of driving up that road for the next 8 months. Our newly graded 'road' became a soupy, slippery gumbo of Humboldt County clay that was impossible to ascend in anything heavier than a pair of agile human feet shoved into knee-high rubber boots.

And without a graveled road, not only could we not drive up to our house, even in our 4WD vehicle, but neither could the power company, the water department, or any other public utility vehicle. So there we were, perched a quarter of a mile above the nearest paved road, in an all-electric home -- with not a ghost of a chance of getting actual electricity until spring. No lights, no cookstove, no oven, no hot water (or cold either) ..... and the only way to and from our front door from the road a quarter mile below was on foot.

Being young, poor and without alternative housing options, we fairly cheerfully just settled in for a winter of indoor camping. We outfitted our first home with a 2-burner propane Coleman camping stove, which sat on top of our otherwise useless electric built-in stove. We bought a couple of a propane cylinder-fueled camping lanterns, and read and studied by their light during the dark winter nights. We also tracked down a small 'kitchen trashburner'-type wood cookstove and installed it in the living room for much-needed heat.

Good thing we did, too, since that winter turned out to be the coldest winter on record for the north coast. Normally winters there are wet but mild, ie nearly frostless. But that year we had actual snow (on the beach!), and the ground froze solid for a week. This was good in that, during that week we could drive up our miraculously solid mud road, transporting our groceries, water, laundry, etc. up the hill in the car instead of on our backs. This was bad in that, during that week we froze our butts off in our house. With no fan, the heat from the little woodburner rose up to the low ceiling of the living room and stayed there. A couple of times we measured temperatures well over 90 degrees F -- but it stayed there. Down at floor level the air was so frigid our breath made clouds. Our wood, cut hurriedly when it became clear we needed a heat source, consisted of green alder from our land. It burned badly but it was all we had.

In retrospect, we were probably lucky we didn't burn the place down. And the weather soon warmed up to its more normal lows of 40's and 50's. By May we had --- ta da: electricity! telephone! running water! And a year later we had moved north to Bend, and began the annual summer woodcutting expeditions in the dry, piney woods. These lasted until we sold our big car and removed the woodburning stove from the living room.

About 10 years ago, we decided we wanted some back-up heat for winter. It's a good feeling in a place with reliably cold winters, to have a source of heat independent of the municipal power grid. But with only our single small city car, the woodcutting expeditions of the past are no more. Our friend Andy, a local arborist, now brings us wood each summer, and it looks something like this........

Oct 5, 2009

er, Christmas in October?

The scene: the street outside our front yard. 4" of new snow, with more still dumping down. Trees bowed down with the increasing weight of wet, heavy, fast-falling snow, adhering to leaves still on the branches. 'Crack!' sounding in the still morning air, as branches broke and fell in both evergreen and deciduous trees around the neighborhood. People getting out their skis and tooling around the streets. Snowmen a-building. Power outages all over town as fallen branches snapped wires.

Anxious gardeners, trying to gently shake off the accumulating snow before it took out cherished trees and shrubs.

Sad gardeners, lamenting the flattened mums and asters lying on the path.

Regretful gardeners, wishing they had taken down the coolaroo shades before it snowed.

And wistful gardeners, saying sayonara to their pepper plants, so obviously done for the year!

Just last week I was irritated to note that Macy's already had Christmas displays up around the store. Isn't this a bit much?! I thought. Now I'm wondering if they just had insider information......

Oct 4, 2009

Technically snowing

Harbinger of Doom? (ie we're having an early/hard winter?) or just our typical goofy weather? The forecast is for another day of this lot, then temps in the 60's F, rising to 67 on Friday. Go figure.

Not so bad, really. I got the tomatoes harvested and now I can get an early start on pulling up blackened vines and starting the next batch of compost. Most years I stall and stall until it's time to plant new ones in June. But this year, boy, will I be on top of things.

Yesterday was cold and er, rainy (except for the technically-not-snow that fell throughout the day) and I spent most of it cowering, I mean, sitting cozily by the fire, doing gainful indoor tasks. Around 4:00 pm I awoke to the fact that things were going to continue going south (not only the geese, but the temperatures) and if I wanted any of my geraniums and other tender container plants to survive, I'd better hop to it ASAP.

I'd like to be able to say that every year I do this pleasant task in a relaxed, slow-paced and responsible gardenerly manner. That is, I stroll around the deck and bring in a few pots at a time over a period of a week or so, as the temperatures tastefully lower in a gradual, civilized manner. But no. I think that's only happened once in my many decades of gardening. Normally it's a haphazard and desperate afternoon, sometimes on a crisp but sunny day, sometimes freezing-ass windy and raining, with me bundled up in wool hat and vest, the plants shivering and nervous in case I get impatient and start practicing triage sooner rather than later.

In many ways having a greenhouse is a disadvantage, since before I had the space, I had to fit everything into my tiny added-onto-the-carport sunporch. This pretty much limited overwintering to about 15 geraniums and a potted tomato or two. Now, although my greenhouse is small, 8' x 10', I am able to be somewhat greedy, and every fall I manage to squeeze a few more favorite guys in.

There are still some bigger plants that need to come in before it gets really cold. I left them outside yesterday because they are semi-hardy and can take some light frost and because I don't have any more room at the moment. Now comes the question of what to do about the melons and sweet potatoes, which are hognoiding the south wall of my greenhouse. The melon vines, though copious, have only a couple of small, presumably unripe melons hanging from them. I say presumably because they are somewhat smaller than I had imagined they would be, though how would I know? I've never grown these varieties before. The infamous sweet potatoes are also happily growing along, and I suppose will continue to grow until the next millennium, since the greenhouse will not freeze (I use a small space heater to keep the lows at around 38). Shall I cast these fellows out into the snow now or later? See how long the sweet potatoes grow but call it quits on the melons? The spirit of research is wavering...

Oct 3, 2009

Not technically snowing

Gardener Hubris

After all my talk this year about 'global warming this' and 'longer growing season that' I have been struck down in mid-soapbox oration by an unusually (for Bend in recent years) early first frost. According to the local OSU Extension Service, Bend has a frost-free(ish) growing season of 90 days or less, depending on your exact location in town. In many parts of town it's more like 70 days. That's a pathetically short time to mature warmth-lovers like tomatoes, corn, peppers, melons, and -- ahem -- sweet potatoes. It requires choosing varieties with extra fast maturity. When reading descriptions in seed catalogues, one must think 'sub-arctic' and 'tolerates cold soil'.

But last week, Sept 29, it happened. Not the total deep freeze of all night in the 20's, but cold enough that the tops of the tomatoes and beans were nipped black. I was reluctantly forced into my annual 'Dusk-to-Darkness Tomato Pick-a-thon' a couple of weeks earlier than usual. Since for some unknown reason which I may get into at some future date (when I figure it out) I had the bumper crop of all bumper tomato crops in my entire gardening life this summer, I actually have 'too many tomatoes'. Go ahead and laugh, people in balmy climes. I know this is nothing. But trust me, this NEVER happens here.

I bet it's been 10 years since we've had a hard frost this early. I define a 'hard' frost as one that actually comes down on the ground and affects my deck and garden plants. This is usually several degrees colder than the official temperature listed by the city, since our south-facing hill and my south-facing garden areas create a banana belt zone in our yard that protects everything for usually an extra week or two every fall.

Hmmm. Wait a minute --------

I've just looked back at my garden records and see that I am lying. Uh oh, it's Old Timer's Syndrome, sneaking up on me ("why sonny, when I was your age, it snowed every year on the 4th of July. Many a year the fireworks froze in mid-air....."). THIS is why you write stuff down in a garden notebook, like the garden gurus always tell you to.

I guess instead feeling smug about my 'long' growing season and superior gardening prowess I'm only going to be able to be smug about keeping good records. This is why gardening in this climate makes people crazy. The only thing predictable about it is its unpredictability. Here's what I found when I went back:

Fall's first hard frost in my garden (Note: usually 7-10 days later than official city records):
2009 -- Sept 29
2008 -- Oct 7
2007 -- Sept 29 (huh?!)
2006 -- Oct 15
2005 -- Oct 27 (whoah -- too bad I didn't plant mangos)
2004 -- (gone)
2003 -- Oct 10
2002 -- Oct 1
2001 -- Oct 9

Going further back, I see that in 1985 we had our first snowfall on Oct 7, but it didn't actually freeze that night so I successfully harvested tomatoes 2 days later. I have records back to 1974 (neener, neener), but that's enough weather facts for one day.

No wonder newcomers and oldtimers alike scratch their heads when trying to figure out how to garden here.

Sep 19, 2009

What do you mean it's September already?

Where did a month go? Lost in the vortex of getting-ready-to-start-teaching, combined with the intersection of a new camera and a new computer, all of which led to blog paralysis. My brief appearance as Julia Child is but a distant memory. Ironically, several of the people who were at the Sunday Dinner I wrote about in my last blog post are in actual France right now, eating actual French food prepared by actual French chefs. After my own lunch of free hot dogs at the local nursery's 'customer appreciation day' this afternoon, I had to hear about wild mushroom mousse, Duck Magret, simple green salad, local goat cheese and chocolate fondant. To console myself I had to quickly go back outside in order to fondle my newly-purchased ornamental grasses, awaiting planting in my front yard native plant berm.

But that has to wait for cooler weather and the shift away from Harvest Insanity which is occurring at unprecedented levels this summer. I blame this partly on global warming. Nobody is going to convince me it's not a reality. With 35 years of gardening in this crazy climate under my belt, I can say unequivocally that it's warmer now than it used to be. I know, it's the classic old timer's rant ..... but it's true. I have evidence, in written temperature records from my earliest days in Bend. But the most undeniable evidence is from changes in my garden. Plants are not interested in arguments or what humans believe about climate and weather. They just get on with growing according to what IS.

In my garden, the plants know it's warmer because they aren't getting their little butts frozen off 2 or 3 times in the middle of summer. First fall frost is a good 2-3 weeks later, most years, than it was when I first moved to this house. In my early years here in Bend, I kept a supply of old sheets handy by the back door all summer long. Before heading off to bed each night, I would check the thermometer just outside, and if it was below 55 F I would go out and cover my tender babies; this occurred at least twice every year, sometimes 3 or 4 times.

Nowadays I rarely bother to check. Partly I'm more blase about the whole issue. Or call it philosophical. Or lazy. But in general, there just aren't that many close calls between, say, the end of June and the end of September. And most years I don't do the 10 pm final, desperate, pick-all-the-green-tomatoes blitz until early October. It's just plain warmer than it used to be, by day and by night.

It used to be that summer evenings (after sunset) were reliably cool, say high 50's down to low 40's, no matter the daytime temperatures. Our dry air just doesn't hold heat the way nice, humid air does, and our proximity to the Cascade mountains produces upslope winds by day and downslope winds by night, which creates dramatic diurnal temperature shifts. When we first came to Bend, nobody bothered with deck furniture because it was just too dang cold in the evenings to sit around outdoors. Oh, every couple of years or so we would have a week-long 'warm spell' sometime in July or August, when the days were 'hot' (90's) and the nights warm enough that you could wander around in shorts after dark. It always felt like a miracle, and on those few evenings you would see everyone out in the streets, strolling around with dazed looks on their faces.

Gradually this has changed, and people do buy deck furniture with some assurance of using it at least a few times in midsummer. But this summer in particular I have been noticing how much warmer our nights are. And so have my plants. Tomatoes are notably fussy about temperature, reportedly requiring nighttime minimums above 55 F in order to set fruit. Well, I'm here to tell you that my tomatoes are partying out there every night, because I have tomatoes like I've never had in my entire life. My frost protection sheets are still packed away in a closet somewhere. And for the first time in my entire gardening life, I have to figure out something to do with all the fruit. This is overtaxing my brain! I know people in 'normal' growing areas have a plan in place for this, but it's a whole new challenge for me. Oh yeah, food preservation.

So I have to do something about this:

Aug 29, 2009

A Tasty Interlude

It started with a movie. Last week the manly sweetheart and I took the MIL to see 'Julie and Julia', based on the book of the same title. She has been a Julia Child fan since the days of the tv show, and has owned a copy of 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' since 1967 or so. I too once owned a copy, though it didn't last long. It was the 2-volume boxed set, but after a brief investigation of the contents I sent it off to the thrift store. Call me young and foolish -- I was not very interested in 'fancy' cooking. I laugh now at the fact that, though I did get rid of the cookbooks, I actually saved the box it came in, thinking it would make a good drum for my piano students.

All three of us enjoyed the movie, and left the theatre with a vague yet powerful yearning for food made with lots of butter. Heck, I said, if Julie Powell can make Boeuf Bourguignone, I can make Boeuf Bourguignone. Borrowing the MIL's copy, I read the (multi-page) recipe and found I had just the perfect (according to JC) cut of meat in the freezer -- a nice package of (locally grass-fed) beef rump roast. The challenge was on!

I invited a few faithful friends -- the usual Sunday Dinner crowd, so what if it was Thursday -- and started cooking around 3:30 pm an hour later than I had planned. By the time I was ready to serve, almost 5 hours had passed, though that included not just the cooking but also a quick trip to the grocery store for a few vital ingredients, a trip out to the garden to pick beans, whipping up a batch of coconut macaroons for dessert and a fair bit of dish washing as I went along (Julia said I should).

I remembered to don the pearls just as the guests arrived, and voila! everyone agreed that le boeuf was tres bon!

Aug 23, 2009

I am a

What Flower
Are You?

"Mischief is your middle name, but your first is friend. You are quite the prankster that loves to make other people laugh."

Progress Report/True Confessions Part 1

It's a long stretch of mind and memory, from the lushness of the garden here in late August, back to the cool, wintry days of March, when I was ordering seeds and well, getting a bit carried away in my annual attack of garden optimism/amnesia. But honesty compels me to come clean on both successes and failures. After all this is not one of those garden blogs with photos of a gloriously weed-free, tastefully landscaped Sunset magazine-worthy garden. And things being the way they are here in Arabella's Garden, it's probably best if I ease into this slowly, one Impossible thing at a time.

Today's report features Artichokes, No 1 on the Arabella's Garden Impossible Dream 2009 list. On the positive side, I can say that my artichoke babies did NOT succumb to the plague of evil-looking black aphids that attacked my first artichoke-growing attempts several years ago. There are a few aphids, true, and they are (ick) black, but only on one plant and there is an ant's nest quite close by so I have left it as a sacrifice to the insect kingdom. Also on the positive side, since I had excellent (for artichokes) germination, I have 3 other healthy plants. On the negative side, I think I planted too late and I doubt the plants will have time to bloom before they are cut down by frost untimely.

Impossible Dream No 2: Melons

Let me first say that I have incredible melon vines. In the greenhouse. In fact, they are so healthy and vigorous that they are threatening to smother the sweet potatoes. But despite blossoms to Texas I see not a single wee melon. Lack of germination due to bee absence? Could be, though I have gotten fruit on melons in the greenhouse before. The door is open day and night and there are 2 vents also open. Too much nitrogen? I don't know but I am kinda bummed, since the outdoor melons died aborning.

I started them off commendably well - perfectly timed one month before setting-out time, but had terrible germination. Then the babies were either drowned or washed out of their pots in an early June thunderstorm while they were on the deck hardening off. The pitiful survivors died within a week of being transplanted into the garden. I replaced them with seed, but of course that gave them a very late start. I am left with one melon and one cucumber, just now starting to vine. I may get fruit, I may not. I'm not holding my breath or researching recipes.

Impossible Dream No 3: Beans for Drying.

Alas, there is no photo because none of the seeds I planted came up. Since I planted 3 different varieties, all from different seed companies and from the current year's crops, I can only blame myself. I was away from home right after planting all of these, and I think the seedbed dried out at a crucial point. Maybe next year.

Impossible Dream No 4: Sweet Potatoes

It's ok to laugh. The sweet potato vines are nearly hidden amongst the melon vines, in the lower photo. They are pretty, though, so I'll have to give a final report in a month or so, after (if) I harvest anything.

This concludes the bummer part of the Impossible Dream Report. Tomorrow I may have better news.

Aug 18, 2009

Mystery plants

Anyone out there recognize these plants? The first one was a birthday present -- most likely it's a bromeliad, but what kind? My experience with bromeliads has been minimal so far, and fatal -- to the plants. I'd like to keep this one alive, it's quite festive and cool-looking. The bloom spikes have these cute little topknots that remind me of pineapple fruits. Any guesses?

The next one has mysteriously arisen in my front garden for the second year in a row. I vaguely remember planting .... something .... here....... I think.. If so, maybe this was it. I did buy some shade lovers of doubtful hardiness, 3 or 4 years ago at the Portland Yard and Garden Show, and have guilty memories of allowing them to languish for many months in their wee packets of sphagnum moss before finally getting them into the ground in late summer. Not surprisingly, some of them appeared completely dead, but, being an optimist, I planted them anyway. Is this one of those hapless victims, risen like lazarus to reward me for my faith?

I know I bought several epimediums, but this doesn't look much like an epimedium, and besides it's blooming in late summer, not spring. Anybody know this cutie?