Monday, August 27, 2012

Toad Houses

Variations on the toad house theme.
       Several months ago someone on facebook shared some pictures of toad houses. I thought them both lovely and intriguing and decided to make something similar. As so often happens with artsy projects, my houses turned out looking not at all like the ones shared way back when. These are mine; that is, they are my own "vision" as opposed to copies of what someone else did.
Stacked log house with log and mortar roof.
      I wanted to use mortar, stone and wood as my building materials, keeping the houses simple and utilitarian as well as sturdy and attractive. My first efforts were too cumbersome and crude. The mortar tended to sag as I added stones so I made a cardboard form covered with duct tape to make it sort of waterproof. This worked fairly well with the stone houses, but not with the stacked log ones. There wasn't enough mortar to hold the logs together. Since the log houses are the ones I like best, I plan on making hardware clothe forms instead of cardboard. I'm hoping the thick wire will support the house and, with the mortar oozing through the wire, with give better adhesion and support so the thing doesn't fall apart when handled.
       I've considered all sorts of variations on these houses using these materials. The lighthouse was one of the first I tried, and naturally, the most difficult. I used a plastic cup as a form, building one side at a time and turning the cup only after each side dried, then adding the top portions.
       Roofs remain a challenge. If I don't complete the entire house at one time, before the mortar sets, it lacks strength and falls apart. For a log roof, I've found that gluing on a plywood roof support in two pieces works better than attaching the roof directly to the body of the house. I use Liquid Nails. Gorilla Glue might work too, but I haven't tried it. For one house I opted for half a roof. I put in a floor to hold dirt or a potted plant for a green roof effect. The "floor" leaks, so the plant won't get waterlogged. Another roof option is a solid mortar roof constructed over hardware clothe. 
       For the wood in these domiciles, I'm using seasoned oak. The logs in the walls are all of three quarters of a inch long. My spouse had fun making tiny roofing shingles, which I've yet to use. Love the miniaturization!
       I've been so busy with yard work and food preservation that I've had no time for weeks to work on this project! I have thought about it a whole bunch, though. I'm looking forward to making some with chimneys, some on the roof, others along the side. I may wind up with a whole village of these things! If so, I hope they'll be inhabited.
       I keep expecting the grandchildren to inquire about making their own toad house. Hasn't happened yet. Most of the children may be too young. How young is too young for a project like this?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Three Sisters - It's a Jungle Out There!

Pumpkin vines crowd space between cornstalks.
      Thinking about planting the Three Sisters yourself? I'm here to offer some, ah, food for thought.
       Way back when, before Europeans discovered the New World, the native American Indians raised corn, beans and pumpkins/squash together as mutually beneficial plants, but what they raised is not what most of us today want to serve at our dinner table.  The corn was dry field corn, what we feed now to livestock, not succulent sweet corn to be picked at just the right moment in its development.  The beans would have been dry beans that could be stored and used during the winter months. Most of us who grow beans in our backyard gardens don't have room for rows of dry beans. When we think "bean," we think "green beans." Beans are a part of this guild to fix nitrogen and twine up cornstalks to help stabilize this tall, shallow-rooted plant, so bush beans don't fully qualify here. Consider what it means to have a vine growing around a cornstalk. That vine can (oh, yes, this happens!) wrap around an ear of corn and snug it to the stalk. To harvest the corn, you have to disturb (cut, untangle, whatever) the vine, which will affect your bean harvest. Meanwhile, the pumpkins and/or squash are spreading through the corn, making walking among them difficult without damaging--something.
Sweet corn grown in hills among the Three Sisters.
       So, no, I don't recommend that the average gardener grow the Three Sisters in her backyard garden. If you want decorative corn or corn to grind for cornmeal, and dry beans like pinto or navy, the Three Sisters is a great idea. I do, however, think that growing sweet corn in hills rather than rows is also a great idea. You may recall from my prior post that hills are spaced three feet apart and planted with three or four seeds each. I planted 110 hills, each with a small spadeful of partially composted manure. From what I heard from other gardeners this year, many gardens failed, due to the strange weather, particularly the water shortage. We harvested nearly 300 beautiful ears (okay, so the coons got a few of those). We left many more to dry on the stalks as the rows became too overgrown to work in.
       If I harvest any beans from my Three Sisters they will be for use as seeds as I cannot reach them to harvest for fresh use. I don't have any idea how the pumpkins and squash in the center of the patch are doing as I don't want to force my way in there to look. I did have borers on one of the pumpkin plants near the edge of the patch. I cut the vine and, I hope, killed the worms, then covered the damaged vine with damp dirt. It hasn't greened up very well, but neither has it died. Not being able to check and treat for borers is a definite handicap!
       So, what do you think: will you try planting the Three Sisters?


Trellis as Window Awning (Revisited)

       Greenery now shades the western facing kitchen windows! In fact, the green growth is fast obscuring the view. But there is a bright side to this development. I'll get to that in a moment.
       I planted morning glories, two types of vining beans, and moonflowers. To provide growing lines for these, I threaded binder twine through U-shaped staples hammered into a large black locust log laid parallel to the building. My spouse showed me (later, on another project) how to string lines. Instead of threading it through the staple, put a loop through the staple, stick a stick through the loop and pull the string tight. Faster, easier.
       Neither the morning glories nor the moonflowers thrived. The beans are doing fine, though, especially the variety with red flowers. And it is these flowers that attract the hummingbirds that entertain us daily now, only two or three feet away beyond the glass! It's rare that we have a meal without a visit from at least one bird. Yesterday, two showed up at the same time. They were not pleased! They glared at each other with no more than six inches between pointed beaks, then flew off to perhaps settle the matter, away from the dinner table (theirs as well as ours). I thought that rather good manners on their part, as I've heard that hummingbirds are particularly hostile to others intruding on their territory.
       The beans look fine, but are annuals. I prefer perennials. With this in mind, I asked my spouse what he thought of growing hops. Of course, he mentioned the possibility of making our own beer. Hm. He checked a seed catalog, and read the description to me, which declared the plant perfect for use as a screen and easy to train on a trellis. I bought two hops plants at a local farmers market. I'm somewhat concerned that they will provide too much of a screen. They require sturdier support than beans, but I think the trellis will manage as is.
       I planted morning glories beside a small arbor next to the milkhouse and they're growing well, but have not bloomed yet. I hope that will happen before cooler weather kills them. Right now the temperature out there exceeds 90 degrees, which is why I'm sitting here typing instead of out there working.
       I could use some feedback on the experience of others with vining plants on trellises--beans, hops, or whatever!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Garden Tools: The Walk-Behind Planter

       I purchased this walk-behind planter several years ago at an estate sale for $15. It came with a full set of planting templates and instructions.  Seed planting depth is adjustable, and a chain drags behind the hopper to cover the seeds, followed by the back wheel, which compresses the soil for better seed/soil contact. Templates range from the tiniest seeds to large beans.  Was it a bargain? I'm still debating this issue.
       For years I've successfully planted sweet corn with this, though I've often filled in skipped spots with hand-planted seeds. (You don't know it's skipped until nothing comes up there, of course.) This year I've planted the Three Sisters for the fist time so I didn't use the planter for corn. I've used it for peas several times, but, again, it skips. Since I plant wide rows for peas, with three or four rows spaced four or so inches apart within each of these rows, some skipping isn't a huge issue, especially when I plant a dozen or more of these wide rows like I did last year. That was more than a quarter of a mile of rows! No, I don't usually plant this many peas; this was part of my soil-improvement project for the traditional garden space. I would never have attempted this without the planter.
       I usually broadcast carrots in wide rows, but these have always needed much thinning and weeding, so I tried the planter this spring. I don't think using it was an improvement. I still had to weed and thin, and, in addition, felt frustrated that it didn't work better and wasted a lot of seeds. The same was true with beets. I wound up with clumps of beets followed by two-foot bare spots. I attempted some transplanting, which worked, but was tedious in the extreme. I thinned them and am still harvesting reasonable crops.
       If the soil isn't well-prepared (ie, tilled or hoed), the furrow blade doesn't work worth a hoot. Seeds wind up either uncovered or barely covered. Care must be taken at ends of rows, as the planter usually dumps far too many seeds when you start and stop. I'd say it's a useful tool for a large garden, but not worth even the $15 for something small. Have you tried using one of these? What are your experiences?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Stop and Smell the Roses, For the Gardeningaholic

       I'm so focused on getting gardens planted and keeping up with the weeds that I often fail to take the time to enjoy what I've done, and the bounty growing around me. This year I noted almost in passing when the heirloom roses put on a spectacular show. The other roses soon followed suit. I looked, but very literally, did not smell. Now that the roses are fading, I'm regretting not having paid them closer attention, and I've come up with what may be a way of rectifying this in the future.
       Yesterday, I started to collect flowers and herbs for potpourri. If I get enough to make it worthwhile, I may offer this at a farmers market. In the meantime, I have an incentive to get up close and personal with some of the beautiful and aromatic plants in my yard.
       So far I've collected only a few rose petals and buds, but the experience could become addictive. Imagine separating the delicate petals, each so lovely, so delightful to smell, so velvety to the touch. I look forward to gathering other treasures; violets, calendula, lemon balm, lavender, wild strawberry leaves, and many more as the season progresses.
       There's more to making potpourri that throwing a few nice smelling dried leaves into a bowl. Usually, a potpourri has a theme like woodland, which might include wild strawberry leaves, pine needles, cedar chips, rosewood and sweet violet root as a fixative. A citrus blend could include lemon balm, basil, thymes, mints and bergamot leaves. I expect there's an art to mixing, but experimenting should be fun. I was surprised to learn that after combining everything, the mixture is sealed in a container to "cure" for six weeks in a dark place. Six weeks? A little patience will be called for here, in gathering as well as waiting to smell and enjoy the final product. Of course, I could just enjoy the aromas of individual favorites like lemon balm and basil while I savor the wait.
       Are you tempted to try this too? It could open you eyes to some of Nature's wonders while helping you to stop and smell...a lot more than the roses!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Pecan Guild "Finished"!

The pecan guild early this spring, before the weeds took
over. That black thing is a black locust stump wrapped in
pool liner to kill it. Pecan tree is in cage at top of photo to
stump's left.
       Picture fireworks lighting the night sky! The Pecan Guild is weeded and planted! The accompanying photo shows the "before." It'll be awhile before I have an "after"! The area involved is about fifty feet square, with several black locust stumps and hardly anything desirable growing in the guild-to-be except a pecan tree that measures no more than two feet tall. The task took about five days of work, not consecutive days, and not exclusive projecting on those days, but pretty near.
        The pecan tree remains in its chicken wire cage from last winter, and is in the center of the garden. I put in a wattling fence on the west side in an attempt to keep the dogs from overrunning the newly cleared area. Stinging nettles, motherwort, and lamb's quarter were among the plants that I pulled. Yes, I know they are herbs or edible, and I'll have them elsewhere. About the only volunteer plant I left was mullein. There are thyme and violets I planted last year, and narcissus that have been growing out there for a hundred years (at least). I added chamomile, canna, calendula, more thyme, comfrey, blue stavia, lavender, nasturtiums and some other flowers. I'm expecting blues, yellows, orange and red flowers, for what I hope will be an impressive view of colors from the kitchen window. I've never planted much in the way of flowers so I'm quite excited about this, as well as having completed a major task on my to-do list.
       I also strung climbing strings today for the trellis outside the kitchen window and planted morning glories, moonflowers and a couple of climbing beans. The colors for this happen to be red, white and blue.
       To top off the day, I pulled weeds in the Evergreen Garden and transplanted cinquefoil and wild strawberries. The wild strawberry plants are as big as my June bearers, although the berries themselves are small. Things are shaping up! Tomorrow, I hope to finish planting the vegetable garden. The Three Sisters are looking good!.All I need out there is sugar beets and more cucumbers for ground cover and (so I've read) raccoon repellent.
       As for now, my spouse informs me that the pizza dough is threatening to escape from the bowl and take over the kitchen, so I need to take care of that. Then a Saturday night movie with my dh, a lovely end to a productive day!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Garlic Mustard Invasion

Kind of pretty, you think! There are hundreds of square
feet of this stuff here. Where it grows, nothing else does.
       Both the leaves and root of this plant are edible, yet I spend hours, even days, every year trying to get rid of it. Why? Because garlic mustard is so vigorously invasive that it will crowd out every other growing thing if it isn't controlled. One plant sprouting in new territory will produce hundreds of seeds. Within a few years, the garlic mustard will have multiplied to carpet the earth, springing from the ground in March, before the native plants appear.
       This is a biennial. Actually, it's a attractive plant during its first year; the new leaves look something like violet leaves, but lighter green. The second year, though, the leaves darken and it bolts up to two feet high and looses the prettiness when its small white flowers go to seed. The seed pods look like needles ready to spike the existing flora. They are certain killers of biodiversity.
On the lower plant you can see how the root changes
       Pulling this stuff is an art. The root is long and stubborn, and if you don't pull just right, the stem will snap at the base. New growth will form there and produce flowers and seeds, but these may be so low to the ground (often six inches or less) that you'll miss them on future inspections. To get the entire root, I often loosen the soil with a shovel. Then I grasp the plant with one hand and follow the stem to its base with the other. At the base of the plant, the stem usually takes a right angle turn before going underground. This is where the "snap" occurs. I grip the root where it enters the ground and pull firmly straight upward. If it breaks, I go dirt diving with fingers or shovel. Because this menace is so out of control here, I do this for hours at a time. Then there;s next year's crop to deal with, that carpet from last year's plants that I didn't find the time to deal with last year.
Nearly all the green here is garlic
mustard. If I don't get rid of it, next
year it will look like the first photo above.
       Mowing does not eliminate the problem, because the plant may still flower. I've used (shudder) Roundup in a desperate effort to control the weed, but seeds are viable in the soil for five years, I've read, and the plant keeps reappearing. I don't want to use this poison on an annual basis! I tried vinegar as an herbicide for the first time this year with mixed success. I believe my main problem there was that I didn't saturate the leaves as well as required. Also I've read since that experiment that vinegar works better if you add one ounce of dishwashing soap per gallon of vinegar. I'll try a second spray. I would not recommend vinegar on second-year growth, unless it's applied soon after the plant pops up in March. From my limited experience, I'd say it would take so much spray that you'd be further ahead just pulling each plant. Also, to be effective,  vinegar needs to be applied on a warm, sunny day. In March? In Michigan? This could present a problem. Much of the new growth is in wooded areas, so there may not be enough sunlight. When I can find the time, I'll go after more of the first year plants with my trusty action hoe.
         Pulling, spraying and burning are the only ways to get rid of this stuff. Burning isn't recommended for the average homeowner, and spraying must be done repeatedly to be effective. Even that much vinegar isn't good for the environment! Besides, if the plant has already started to go to seed, you have to remove the seed heads or you've wasted your time, money and energy. Once pulled, what do you do with it? Bag it, label it "invasive weed" and put it in a landfill? This is conventional wisdom. I have a problem with putting biodegradables in landfills. Burying, I'm told, doesn't work. Nor does composting. Seems like composting should work if it's a hot compost. Burn after it dries? With its garlic taste, would you want to feed it to livestock, assuming they would eat it? Can you think of other options? Has garlic mustard invaded your neck of the woods? Are there any groups sponsoring cleanup parties? Are you participating in the fight against this invasion?

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