Jun 30, 2009

Peculiar Potatoes

Actually it's not the potatoes that are peculiar, it's where they're growing. This year, in another experiment, I am growing my potatoes in containers. Digging potatoes in the fall garden is very satisfying fun, but I always miss some (which sprout the next year and have to be moved or alas, pulled out when growing in some wildly inappropriate place), and I always manage to nick quite a few with my spade, which is wasteful and means they have to be eaten right away.

So this year I am growing potatoes in all kinds of crazy ways. I have them planted in large plastic pots, fabric 'grow bags' from Gardeners' Supply, a cardboard box (an idea I saw online), and 3 sections from my trusty Biostack composter. Check 'em out in the photos above. In front of the pots/bags/box bed, my bean tepees stand, waiting for bean sprouts. In front of the composter sections, bush bean support similarly await seed germination. And since I had a few leftover seed potatoes, I put them in a regular in-soil bed, off to one side. Quite scientific, isn't it.

Jun 28, 2009

In Search of the Vertical

A vegetable garden, particularly early in the season, is largely a horizontal affair. And after a long winter, even an inch of anything green is a thrill. But in the spring the life force yearns upward in a powerful way. Still, most of the vegetables I grow top out by the end of summer at only a few feet tall. That would be asparagus, tomatoes, peppers and peas. I don't usually grow corn here in Central Oregon, most years it's a bust.

Years ago, when I first started gardening, I added bean poles and various other stake-type items without much plan other than to hold up vines. But through the years, I have watched such upright objects act as much more than mere vegetal support. For the human eye, they mostly provide a welcome break from the flat planes of the beds. For birds, though, they are landing platforms, baby-feeding zones and all-purpose resting places for beak-stropping, feather rearranging, danger assessment, and general surveillance, sunbathing and who knows what else.

A few years ago I decided to try building my own bamboo supports from long poles and waxed twine, and mostly they have been successful. I'm no engineer, that's for sure, so I have had my dismal failures. But eventually even the successful ones do rot out at the base, and this spring I needed to replace one long, ungainly pea/bean/sweet pea support that had toppled over in a fall windstorm. It was never very strong, but I had managed to hold it together with more and more wire and twine until it finally crumbled, beyond resurrection.

I ordered a huge bundle of even bigger, fatter, longer bamboo poles (8 footers) than I used before, a new cone of waxed twine, and enlisted my noble mate to help me. I found photos and plans for elegant, pyramidal tomato towers, which I thought would work made out of bamboo, as well as a long, elegant bean structure to replace the fallen one.

The manly one did his best. But alas, the imagined long, lean bean structure was crooked and wouldn't stand up no matter how we tweaked it. In the end it turned into a sort of long bean trellis with flying buttresses. I think it will hold up the beans, but it's no gothic cathedral. And the artistic pyramidal towers morphed into your basic quick-and-dirty 'grab 6 poles, tie them together at one end, splay them out in a circle, stick them into the ground and call them a bean tepee' supports. Sigh.

But already the birds are using them.

Jun 26, 2009

Sad Bees, Happy Bees

It's bigtime Bee World out there in the garden right now. I've pretty much been an organic gardening purist since I first set foot to spade in 1971. Oh, I've had the occasional fall from grace (emergency semi-killer death stuff for a yellowjacket nest under the front deck last summer) and the occasional minor evilness (wee liquid borax traps for house-eating ants) over the years, but in the main I operate from the principle of live and let live when it comes to critters.

So maybe I have lots of bees, hornets, wasps, and miscellaneous bee-like companions in my garden because I don't spray a bunch of horrible chemicals on everything. But I think it's also because I really like them, and tell them so at every opportunity. By that I mean outright talking, yes, but also I make a conscious effort to keep my mind and heart open and calm when I'm out in the garden, surrounded by these sometimes short-tempered insects. I find that if I move slowly and keep my emotions quiet, they ignore me completely, to the point where I can move among them without any problem and get quite close to observe them.

Honeybees are of course much calmer than their touchier relatives, various wasps and hornets. Honeybees are magical, and I love the sound of a flowerbed full of happy, pollen-covered bees.

In the lower photo you see -- or don't see, because they blend in with the flowers -- a whole lot of happy, happy honeybees, industriously working a bed of blooming thyme plants by my back door. I don't know why they love thyme so much, because the flowers are so small, but every year this bed, which has 3 or 4 different types of thyme growing together, all blooming at slightly different times, is covered with buzzing bees, from dawn to dusk, for over a month straight. The adjacent dianthus, which I love for the fragrance, they scarcely look at. Something for everyone, that's my garden motto.

I've recently learned a lot more about keeping bees happy, on this website: http://nature.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens/index.html

Meanwhile, the top photo is a somewhat fuzzy shot of an unhappy paper wasp, looking for her nest, which has suddenly and inexplicably vanished before her very eyes. The photo is fuzzy because I was a too nervous to get close enough and stand still long enough, to take a really good, clear picture of her. Live and let live is all very well when things are going smoothly, but I never argue with a mad wasp. She had no way of knowing that I was the one responsible for the disappearance of her nest, of course. I had just discovered a small, 'starter' next (only a few cells and less than 10 workers) inside a cardboard box that had been resting against the house for a couple of weeks, and had hurriedly carried it off to a distant corner of the garden to open up fully.

She and 3 or 4 other sad, mad, and otherwise generally confused wasps spent the rest of the day flying around the former nest site, trying to figure out what had happened to their home and babies (snif) and I suppose, looking for a new place to start over. By the next morning they were gone, and I will keep my eyes open for their next move. I wish them well.

Jun 19, 2009

The Joy of Bins

2008 was a banner year for me in my garden. Last summer our friendly garbage and recycling company announced the beginning of the long-awaited curbside pickup of yard debris. For a small monthly fee, they offered to deliver a handsome blue container and begin biweekly removal of organic garden waste. I can't tell you what a thrill this was for me.

For most of my 37 years of gardening, during which time I have spent countless hours, or probably years by now, of my life weeding, I have had nowhere to put the resulting mountains of debris. Alas, I'm not talking about the innocent early green sprouts of annual weeds and the odd patch of naughty volunteer grass that can go right into the compost pile to join the kitchen scraps and spent peavines later in the summer. I'm talking about Evil Weeds, ie weeds that have escaped my attentions long enough to set seeds and become a menace to the future of my garden. I am sorry to say this has happened a lot in my decades of gardening. And the wages of garden slacking is definitely a lot more weeds.

Due to my patented laissez (pronounced lazy) faire style of composting, ie 'stick everything in the composter and ignore it for a couple of years', my compost never gets hot enough to reliably break down weed seeds, so putting weeds with already-set seeds into the mix merely spreads a gazillion uncomposted weed seeds to every corner of the yard, thus creating more work for the foreseeable future, on into my twilight years.

To prevent this, up until last year I have resorted to simply piling the dangerous weed carcasses somewhere, anywhere, to sit and molder away, oftentimes over 3/4 of the growing season, until I could borrow a pickup truck from a friend and get it to the landfill, which operates a composting operation for people like myself. They grind up homeownerly pine needles, grass clippings, tree branches and the like (Ned's weeds) and produce several grades of compost which they sell back for civic soil enhancement. A fine gardening resource in a place with soil that could more accurately titled 'sand'.

Admittedly, this annual pilgrimage to the landfill had its enjoyable side, since it entailed recruiting my noble mate for a full day of middle-aged fun. In case there are younger readers here, let me describe for you a typical

Romantic Date for the Longtime Married Couple

1. Drive together to the home of the truck loaner. Leave our wee car there and drive back home.

2. Load truck. (Translation: pack the bed of the pickup with a huge stack of scratchy, smelly, stickery, thorny, disgusting, wet, dusty, recalcitrant, sproingy, crackly, etc woody Stuff, jumping up and down to get as much in as humanly possible; cover with whatever UBT(Ubiquitous Blue Tarp) we can find that isn't already in use covering a woodpile, tie it all down with a motley assortment of bungies & nylon cord.

3. Drive carefully to the landfill, keeping an eye on the rear view mirrors for escaping bits. In the early years, we often had to also drive while praying, since the trucks we borrowed tended to lack such luxuries as speedometers, one or more turn signals, brakes, gear shift knob, clutch, etc. And because our borrowed trucks usually belonged to bachelor guys, the cabs were always full of empty soda (or beer) cans, candy bar wrappers, magazines, string, tools, instruction manuals, work gloves, spare flannel shirts, parts for unidentifiable mechanical objects, rags, old newspapers, and an assortment of mystery items, all of this covered with a thick layer of ..... well, grunge.

4. Unload truck, keeping an envious eye on other landfill patrons, clearly depositing a mere one day's raking-worth of nice, lightweight pine needles, from the bed of a tidy little trailer, or spanking-new gargantuan behemoth pickup.

5. Return home and repeat, as many times as necessary to get rid of the whole pile.

6. On the way home from the last load, (here's where it gets really romantic) stop at the Pilot Butte Drive-Inn for giant burgers and a peanut-butter/chocolate milkshake. Yeah!

7. Return to friend's house, stopping on the way to put $10 worth of gas in the truck's gas tank, and arrive back home to the satisfying sight of a gone weed pile!

8. Take showers and start accruing the next year's landfill fodder. Sigh.

But now!!!!!!!! no more borrowing of trucks! no more trips to the landfill! no more martyred sweethearts! and no more debris piles! I simply fill my lovely blue bin and every other week, the big white truck comes and empties it. This has been so inspiring, in fact, that a few weeks after the first bin was delivered, I went hog wild and ordered a SECOND yard debris container. The infrequent landfill expeditions really only took the top off of my weed removal needs for all those years, and I had been holding back on a lot of needed cleanup because of nowhere to store the output.

One year later, I still manage to easily fill my beloved garden waste companions, dubbed Bruce and Betty Bin, shown in all their proud glory in the formal studio portrait above. The lower photo shows one of my garden beds, which has been choked with grass and other weeds for the last 5 years, and which now, thanks to the faithful service of the Bin family, is clear, raked smooth and ready for planting. Oh, the joy of bin-ness!

Jun 16, 2009

The Art of Puttering

Well, I'm going to call it an art. It might just be laziness or lack of organization. I'd blame it on becoming middle-aged, but I've done it since I started gardening at age 21. Another term for it would be 'The Wanders'.

You know how it goes. You head outdoors first thing in the morning, perhaps with coffee or tea in hand, for a short stroll through the pleasantly cool, quiet, dewy garden (though 'dewy' is perhaps a bit of an overstatement for what passes as moisture in this dry climate). The next thing you know, it's 5 pm, you're covered in dirt from head to toe, and dragging yourself back inside for a restorative cup of something and a serious snack, followed by a nap.

That's if you're lucky to have a whole day to spend in the garden. If there are other non-gardening obligations scheduled for the day (pesky activities such as working, doing laundry or other housework, running errands, etc) the wandering is curtailed but still proceeds according to the same formula, which goes something like this:

Start one activity. Realize that in order to do it, you must first get the proper tools. Leave to get tools. On the way to getting the tools, realize something else needs doing first. Do that, but by then forget your original plan and get sucked into something completely different. And so on, until at some point you get back to the original activity -- and realize you still don't have that vital tool, and the whole cycle begins again.

This is why, despite trying for 3 straight days this past week to get beans planted, I only got them in yesterday. Why did I suddenly need to move half my asparagus plants from one part of the garden to another -- right in the middle of setting the bean seeds out in cups of water to soak? Why was it so unexpectedly urgent that I move the compost piles before lugging finished compost over to yet another section of the garden that I won't be planting for another week, if then?

Worst of all, why did I allow myself to suddenly decide to spend hours exploring the gardening blogosphere, instead of even posting on my own blog?

But! I did get the beans in -- 5 varieties (what was I thinking?) -- and I wish 'em luck. All bush beans, most tried and true varieties for me.

Royal Burgundy (purple)
Roc d' Or (wax)
Triumphe de Farcy (filet)
Provider (green)
Fresh Pick (green)

And there are still all the pole beans I ordered seed for, except I need the Manly One to help me create and erect Bean Structures for support before I set their seed to soaking. I suddenly woke up yesterday and realized it is JUNE 15!!!!! our window of opportunity for planting is extremely short here, and if I don't get my act together ASAP it will be too late for my even the fastest-maturing pole beans. Oops.

At least the rains seemed to have stopped. Part of the puttering/delayed action has been the need to run inside every couple of hours to get out of the rain. Very un-desert-like but welcome. Of course, this means I must really, really, truly get a watering system sorted out.

The photo shows my newly-created rock border, with tomato starts planted and poker chips marking bean seeding spots. Especially when I am soaking large seed like beans or peas, this gives me an exact number to soak. Plus, when I leave them out overnight, the nature spirits get a chance to have a bit of a party.

Jun 11, 2009

Shakespearean Gardening?

See the proud gardener, displaying the new rock border while showing off her stylish new gardening hat. Bought as a broad-brimmed sun-warding-off hat, it served a dual purpose on this day, since within minutes after the last rock was laid, the heavens opened up and a deluge of hail and rain descended on the whole garden. Newly set-out tomato plants acquired sporty lacerations on their tender leaves, seedling melons in pots lost all their soil, and cats scattered in terror as thunder rumbled and water poured from the sky. This storm dropped the 2nd highest amount of single-day rainfall in June, since 1901. Donnerwetter!

On the other hand, the dusty substance in the new bed optimistically labeled 'soil' (aka sand) was nicely laid down down and settled in. Now for some compost.

The hat, frumpily English to my eye, was acquired during last week's vacation in wonderful Ashland Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This gem is set in the midst of beautiful Lithia Park, which has to be one of the most wonderful civic parks anywhere. The top photo shows the back of the 2 larger theaters, from a spot next to Lithia Creek, which fills the miniature lake seen here.

Rain and thunderstorms are forecast for the rest of the week. Excellent planting weather, from the plants' perspective.