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.