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?

Note: A friend suggested this site:

Three Sisters - Beans and Borers

Beans in the Three Sisters
       After a lifetime of planting corn and beans in separate rows and pumpkin and squash in isolated hills, I’m enmeshed in my own preconceptions. Lame as it is, this is my excuse for not noting before that beans that are ready to harvest in 60 days will not be accessible in a Three Sisters planting. This is so obvious that I’m embarrassed to admit I fell into the trap, but this morning the light went on in my head when I read the planting directions on green beans. For the Three Sisters, dry beans are the sane choice.
       Have you tried to find dried beans where you buy your other garden seeds? My search turned up zilch. I do have dried kidney, navy and pinto beans in the house, but will they sprout? More to the point, are they bush or climbing? I’m guessing bush. So I went ahead and planted the green beans, figuring this is an experiment anyway. I’ll get seeds from the Three Sisters beans and I already have rows of green beans that I planted in case I ran into a snag with the Three Sisters project.
Note: Try Seed Savers for a selection of vining beans!  

Controlling Squash Vine Borers
       On a related subject, I’ve done more research into controlling squash vine borers. For the past two years I’ve lost most of my squash and pumpkins to these pests. One recommendation for saving the plants from the borers is to cover the vines with dirt at two feet intervals. Again, getting into the Three Sisters to do this will be awkward, and, I’ve found in the past, not particularly effective. A better solution, it seems to me, might come from learning about the life cycle of this menace.
       Naturally, I found a great Internet page with information about this, but when I went back later to link it to my page, I could not find it. It was a Minnesota extension site. I’ll recall as much as I can to share here.
       The squash vine borer is a wasp (or wasp-like) insect that is dark-colored except for its abdomen, which is red with black spots lined up on the top. It emerges from the soil (in Minnesota and probably here in Michigan too) in late June to early July, at the time squash and pumpkins start to vine. Look for it while you are in the garden. Since it flies during the day, you may spot it. It helps that it buzzes loudly during flight. Alternately, place some water-filled yellow containers around your garden. The yellow attracts borers; the water drowns them. If this happens, then you know you have a potential problem. I believe the article said that the wasps lay a single egg at the base of their favorite plants about a week after they themselves come out of the ground. Two weeks later, the egg will hatch and the little beast will enter the plant and start feeding. More than one may enter the same plant.
       Your first indication of trouble may be wilting leaves on a hot day. Look for entry holes into the plant near its base and for a sawdust-like substance. You could simply pull up and destroy any plants that react like this, assuming that not all your plants are wilting. To try to save the plant, slit it open the along the ribs and kill the interloper/s. Cover the cut area with damp dirt and keep it well watered while it recovers.
       You may be able to avoid all this hassle if you use floating row covers starting in late June and leaving them on until mid-July. Leaving them on permanently will mean the bees won't have access to the blossoms and you won't get a crop. The covers must be securely anchored to keep the wasps out.
       Another source suggested discing in the fall and tilling in the spring to disturb the new crop of wasps. Discing apparently exposes them to birds. Mmm! Lunch!
       The borers aren’t fond of Butternut squash, or melons, watermelon or cucumbers so if you are planting only these, you may not have a problem even if the borers are in residence.
       All this assumes you want to avoid using chemicals, which are, of course, available if you are so minded.
Note: I haven't tried this, but I've heard that wrapping the stem at the base with aluminum foil can, ah, foil the worm when it comes out of the ground looking for a home.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Drawing - Original Screen Print Cards - Closed

Purple Iris.  Three 4-1/4x5-1/2 inch screen prints.
       In celebration of reaching 600 likes and as a reward to my wonderful readers, I've come up, finally, with an idea for a contest. Inspiration came to me when I was watering the irises. They'd make a lovely subject for a painting, I thought. Then the light went on in my head. Years ago I made screen-printed greeting cards, including some with irises. I still have some and I'd like to offer them as prizes in a drawing.
       I'll offer the single winner of the drawing a choice of one set of cards out of three sets. Each 4-1/4 x 5-1/2 inch card is a numbered and signed print. I'll include envelopes, but you may want to frame them rather than mailing them.
Day Lily. Set of 3 prints
       To enter drawing, comment here or on any website post, NOT on my facebook status page. Drawing will be June 15. Winner will be selected by random drawing and will be announced here, not on facebook. Winner will have 24 hours to respond to tell me their choice and provide mailing information. My email is
Rose. Set of 3 prints.
       I haven't had a lot of success in selecting contest prizes that meet with reader approval. I'll be crushed if this idea doesn't get a positive response! So comment! Please! If there is interest, more cards will be offered in subsequent drawings. And, by the way, read and like my status and website. Good luck, and thanks for your support, even if you choose not to enter the drawing.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Went Out to Plant a Few Seeds....

       This morning's project was to plant a few rows of Early Contender, our favorite green bean. We ordered these bush bean seeds before I committed to planting the Three Sisters. But I'm not sure how that experiment will go and I'd like to ensure that we have beans we like. So, I went out at nine to start planting and came in at twelve-thirty after planting a grand total of (about) 150 beans.
       Where did the time go, you may ask. Go ahead, ask!
 Beans and cukes will be in upper left corner.
       Do you ever entertain fantasies about starting a project, finishing it without distractions and going on to the next project? I do this all the time, entertain the fantasy, that is. This morning, for example, there were the cucumbers. Cucumbers and beans are companion plants. I've never had a satisfactory cucumber crop, so I thought it would be a good idea to try them with the beans. Even better, I should build trellises for the cukes. But before I did that, I planted some on the hugelkultur's west side because, upon checking my Master Gardener's basic book, I learned that they like some shade, and the west side of the hugel is shaded all morning and maybe some of the afternoon, and the trailing vines, I'm thinking, will cover the very steep slope and provide living mulch. Then right on the other side of the fence, there's the path (alongside the barn) that I finished clearing a few days ago. It too needs mulch. Cucumbers are a deterrent to raccoons so I'm all for planting them here and there to see if that will help. Recall that I saw coon tracks in the garden a few days ago.
       Then I had to search up and collect posts I'd cut and not used for the tomato trellises. That process was interrupted by the happy news that one of the dogs had caught and killed a mole! This mole (I hope it's the one!) has been tearing up my yard for years. Not just the lawn, which, as you might guess, I don't care much about, the the gardens too. The darn thing was twice the size I thought moles are, about five inches long. Well, of course, I had to bury the darn thing--in one of the trenches for the water pipeline my dh is putting in. Naturally, while I was at it, I had to throw in more than the few shovelfuls it took to cover the body. Every few helps, you know.
       So back to the cucumber trellises. And the beans. I haven't actually planted any cukes with the beans yet, but the trellises are up, some more rocks are ready to move out of the garden, and more weeding is done. Come to think of it, radishes are supposed to "help" cukes so I should plant some of those too. Will the trellises support the cukes? Darned if I know. I've never built trellises before, except for the ones I finished a few days ago for the tomatoes. No pictures yet. Sorry, dh transfers photos for me as my computer doesn't have the software. What I constructed are a combination of ideas from photos I've seen, involving black locust posts and sisal (that's binder twine, for you non-farmers).
       If this post seems a bit disorganized, it's no wonder; my mind feels about as organized as my morning. I hope to get the rest of the Early Contenders and the cukes (and the radishes) in this afternoon, but the temp is supposed to reach 80 and that's really too hot for me. I may have to resort to working in the shade (sigh) pulling weeds.
       This business of counting seeds, I don't usually do this, but I counted the sweet corn seeds that went into the Three Sisters hills. That was 650. A lot, yes, but we've never harvested enough in the past because of the raccoons and deer. Even if we keep those critters out and the entire crop comes in, that wouldn't be too much. What doesn't go into the freezer for corn-on-the-cob flavor later, will be dried and used for cornmeal. But I digress. Knowing how many seeds I plant and what I harvest from that planting is useful knowledge, and sort of entertaining as well, so I'm going to try to keep track.
       Okay, enough said. Back to work.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Thanksgiving Challenge - NOW!

Acrylic Painting by yours truly.
       If you follow this blog, you already know about this, but for newcomers who believe November is the month for thinking about Thanksgiving, this may be news.
       The Challenge is to grow as much as you can of what you will put on your Thanksgiving menu. Now is the time to plant, at least here in Mid-Michigan, but wherever you are, and even if you don't accept the challenge, you may find these old posts interesting, even informative, especially if you are on the road to self-sufficiency.
       Thanksgiving - In the Beginning (1/19/12)  What was the first Thanksgiving like? What did the Pilgrims eat?
       Thanksgiving - Maize (or Hominy) (1/22/12)  Picturing an ear of yellow sweet corn? Not in 1621!
       Thanksgiving - Before the First (1/24/12)  Who were the Pilgrims? Where did they come from? What did Europeans eat before the discovery of the New World?
       Thanksgiving - Bread - The Staff of Life ( 1/30/12)  Did the Pilgrims have bread during their first year in the New World? Was bread even something most families would have baked in their own homes?
       Thanksgiving - Pumpkin (2/8/12)  Surely the Pilgrims ate pumpkin for the first Thanksgiving. How do you suppose they cooked it? Is there an easy way to prepare pumpkin pie filling?
       Thanksgiving - Sourdough (2/9/12)  Could you start your own starter without any commercial additives, using only flour and water? What about using sourdough to convert your favorite recipes? Can you do that?
       Thanksgiving - "As American as Apple Pie?" (2/19/12) Wait a minute! When the Pilgrims arrived, they would have found no apples but crab apples.
       Thanksgiving - Baked Beans (3/11/12)  I give a simple baked bean recipe. How many of the ingredients could you grow or make from scratch?
Related posts 
       Planting the Three Sisters (4/1/12)
       Sweet Potatoes - the Edible Ground Cover (7/24/11)
       Growing Your Own Wheat for Baking (8/24/11)
       Victorio Grain Mill - Product Trial (12/17/11)
       Sugar Beets to Molasses - Homestead Style (1/10/12)
       Sugar Beets to Molasses - Continued (1/28/12)
What will you grow for the Thanksgiving day feast?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Garden Expansion - Spring Project Completion

       It took a month, but the Spring Project is finished! At least, the 25x90 feet of new garden space is cleared of trees, roots, weeds, and junk..     

Spring Project as it looked fall of 2011.

 Another view of the project from the other end of the "garden" in 2011
This is now! Compare with the photo above! That dark line in the center is logs laid
to hold soil. I call it a terrace, but that sounds sort of presumptuous.
The dark shadow in the upper left is the hugelkultur, planted with potatoes, peas and greens.
Those rows of uneven dirt mark the trenches where more potatoes are planted.
That stump is one of several that will simply have to rot away on its own.
In the foreground are weeds that have since been pulled in preparation for more planting.
Beets, carrots, onions, and lettuce are all up already.
       Phew! I'm so relieved this is done! While working on it, filling wheel barrow after wheel barrow with my diggings, I looked back often to see that, yes, progress was being made. Sectioning the work and focusing on getting that particular area cleaned up helped make the task manageable. Now to keep the weeds from taking over again! That will be a fight since I could remove what was green, but all the seeds from years of "laying fallow" are still there.  

While I've been working on this project, I've also, among other things, been pulling garlic mustard. But that's another post.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Seed give away-CLOSED


I received four trial seed packets this year. I won't use them but maybe you can.
They are:
Tomato, experimental hybrid variety, medium red, determinate, 70 days. 25 seeds.
Broccoli, experimental variety, 56 days. 30 seeds.
Beans, experimental variety, green and yellow blend, 54-56 days. One ounce.
Sweet corn. experimental variety, bivcolor, 66-67 days. One ounce.
If you would like to receive these seeds, like my page and tell me why you want them.
I'll choose a winner May 1st and get them in the mail.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Garden Expansion - Hugelkultur II

Hugelkultur starts here with
digging a ditch at the base of
a three-foot drop.
      I planted the hugelkultur yesterday! I'm excited about that, but concerned that the steep sides will collapse before the potatoes, peas and greens establish roots. I'll mulch it with straw and tonight I'll cover it with a floating row cover because we are expecting rain Friday and Saturday and I don't want the soil to wash away. Getting that soil in place was a challenge. I viewed a video of people slapping mud on a hugelkultur a handful at a time. I worked mostly by myself and thought this would take much to much time. So I balanced a board against the hillside while I filled in behind it, compacted the wet-not-soggy soil enough to hold it in place, then repeated the operation on a higher level. When I reached shoulder height for the entire hugel, I asked my spouse for assistance. He held the board while I shoveled more dirt. I was told I needed ten inches of soil over the sod because I'm growing potatoes. I doubt I got even coverage at that depth, but I used more dirt than I expected. When I commented to my hubby that I'd moved a ton of dirt, he said that I had, but only figuratively. Literally, he said, I'd moved more.
After digging a ditch, begin filling it with wood, preferably rotting wood. Fit the wood as tightly as possible
to eliminate empty pockets. Fill pockets with smaller compostable material.

Keep adding wood. (Viewed from north end)

High enough! I topped mine with last year's corn stalks and then turf, turned green side down. If you build a hugel,
 I recommend that you don't skip this step! It provides a great base for holding the dirt,
and pushes everything underneath together like a girdle. (Viewed from east)

I don't yet have photos of the finished hugelkultur. Finished? Well, is it really finished before stuff is growing on it? I'm so eager to see this happen!

Meanwhile, today I dug out the last green in the area I want to plant more peas, beets, carrots, lettuce and onions. This afternoon, I'll be setting logs to act as steps and erosion control northward of the end of the hugelkultur. Hopefully, the seeds and transplants will go in this afternoon as well.

There's a new word here at my house, "hugel" as a verb. I'm not even sure it's a noun yet in the English language, but I believe it will be.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Trellis as Window Awning

Looks boring! I expect
the new planting to add
interest as well as shade.
       Because we removed the trees that shaded the back kitchen window, the sun now creates an intolerable glare that forces us to close the drapes in the afternoon. My solution is to build a trellis to host a variety of climbing plants and provide shade, beauty, diversity, and maybe even a nibble of food.
       Consistent with my goal to use what is available here on our property, my first challenge was to identify suitably straight black locust posts growing in our back yard. I cut two fourteen feet posts (back), two eleven feet (front), two five feet  (side supports, front to back), and five ten feet.(to lay across the side supports). The ten feet posts are to support the plants that I hope will grow tall enough and provide the shade I want. I used a draw knife to remove the bark before planting the vertical posts two feet deep. My husband used four inch screws to attach the side supports and cross pieces.    
       The soil along the foundation was gravely, sandy stuff spread there after the addition in 1991 of what is now the kitchen. Not much has ever been planted in this spot; it has remained an eyesore made worse by the fact that the dogs like to dig holes along the foundation to lie in during the summer. There's also a low spot in the gutter and water has always fallen from there to wash the soil underneath. I sifted and amended the soil. I moved a big rock to below the low spot to reduce erosion and placed black locust logs nearby to direct runoff away from the house onto the gravel path. Since there is little space for plants between the foundation and the path, I dug out and amended the soil on the other side of the path as well. I left the hydrangea that is growing nearby (to the right in the photo) and a lone catnip plant. I moved two bleeding heart plants to the other side of the path. For interest and to keep the dogs out of the planting, I placed an old tree root to the left. This leaves the dogs' favorite resting hole available to them. I also pounded in stakes and strung string between them to keep the dogs out of the areas to be planted. Surprisingly, so far this has worked.
       What will I plant? My first thought was morning glories, but this window faces west, so that may not be the best choice. I'll plant some anyway, but I also will try moonflowers, a couple of climbing beans, maybe cucumbers, and some ground cover plants too, with borage and other fillers. Suggestions here are welcome as always.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Drawing Bulletin - Drawing Closed

Now six choices, two winners on
Used Books Plus Comfrey drawing.

Due to low interest in the books, I'm adding another choice for the May 1 drawing. Comfrey roots, freshly dug and mailed if this option is taken by a winner (or, sigh, even both winners). If you haven't already read it, see original post on the book drawing for more information.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Book Give Away - Drawing May 1 (CLOSED)

Two winners, five books to choose from.

Bulletin: Due to the low interest in these books, I'm adding comfrey roots as a sixth choice. Same rules apply.
       I made the "mistake" of going to a used book sale.  Books still covered all the tables in the cafeteria-sized room on the sale's last day. Unsold books were destined for destruction if no one claimed them. Destroy perfectly good books? Noooo! Surely there are folks somewhere in this country who are searching for just these treasures! I'm making it my mission to help some of these books get together with those folks.
       I've chosen five books for a May first drawing. Five books, two winners. To enter, "like" my page if you haven't already, and leave a comment on any website post at One entry per post, but you can enter multiple times by commenting on multiple posts. Only one prize per person, though. Shipping to USA addresses only. The winner of the first drawing will have twenty-four hours to email her choice of the books and mailing address, then I can name the second winner, who can select from the remaining four. She will likewise have twenty-four hours to contact me with her choice and mailing information. Email address is


Reader's Digest Fix-It-Yourself Manual, How to repair, clean, and maintain anything and everything in and around your home. 1977.  Well, maybe not computrers, but most everything. I have a more recent edition of a similar volume. Hardcover.
Do-It-Yourself Garden Construction Know How from Ortho Books. Tips on building decks, walls, fences and gates. Techniques for working with wood and masonry. Ideas for sheds, shade structures, and garden furniture. 1978. Paperback.
Snips & Snails & Walnut Whales, Nature Crafts for Children, by Phyllis Fiarott. 1975. My daughter may kill me for letting this one go! Paperback
The Chocolate Book by Valerie Barrett. 1985. This book is a library discard but looks new and so tempting! I need to get this one out of my sight as I'm allergic to chocolate. Hardcover
Poultry, The Good Cook/Techniques & Recipes, Time/Life series. This books looks amazing! Hardcover.
Comfrey roots. Not a book, but an herb. I'll dig it fresh if anyone chooses this. I may even go along with two comfrey winners. But the books are well worth consideration!
All of these books are used, but in very good condition. If there is interest in these (that is, readers leave a bunch of comments!), I'll have more used book drawings, so comment yourself and spread the word!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Planting the Three Sisters

An heirloom corn, acrylic painting.  
       I had my garden planned with corn, beans and squash together in nice neat rows. Then I read a sidebar in Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden and discovered this wasn't the way it's done! I should have guessed this as last year I witnessed the results of growing the sisters in rows. It didn't work very well. For one thing, the beans were impossible to harvest. So back to the drawing board.
       According to Hemenway the Indians grew corn in hills, not rows. (I knew that!) The hills should be about three feet apart, twelve inches wide, and about two inches high. Plant three or four corn seeds per hill. I'll use my favorite sweet corn, but the Indians used a shorter, multi-stalked variety. Tall stalks may not support the beans. The Indians are said to have buried a fish in each hill. This option isn't open to most of us today, but I'm not going to suggest using a commercial fertilizer. I'll go with a double handful of compost instead .
       Hemenway says that as the corn starts to grow, mound soil up around the young stalks, leaving the growing tips clear. The warm soil speeds growth. You'll want two or three stalks per hill.
      Two weeks after planting the corn, plant pole beans. Avoid vigorous hybrid beans, which may overpower the slim corn stalks and bring them down. Hemenway suggests choosing heirloom varieties, and names Four Corners Gold and Hopi Light Yellow as examples. He also recommends using a legume inoculant on the beans. Plant two or three bean seeds near the edge of each hill.
       This is also the time to plant squash or pumpkins between the hills. Choose vining varieties that will sprawl, providing a living mulch. Don't plant zucchini. Its stems are too robust for the slender corn stalks.
       I've had problems in recent years with squash borers. Here are some of the options I've found for dealing with them. Cover the vines with dirt at two or three feet intervals so that an infestation won't kill the entire plant. "Trap" the borers by setting out sacrificial squash plants which you'll destroy after the borers hatch, then replace the plants with others you've started indoors. I don't know how setting out plants instead of seeds will affect the timing with regards to growth for the beans and corn.  A third solution is to watch for signs that the buggers have moved in (dropping!) and cut the plant open parallel to the ribbing and remove the creatures.
       Follow the specific planting instructions for each of your "sisters."
       Don't be too zealous about weeding. A lambs quarter or pigweed or other deep-rooted weed per hill will bring up nutrients to help your crops, but I suggest sniping off the tops before seed heads form.
       Hemenway says that Rocky Mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata) was used by the Anasazi as a fourth "sister" and is still used today in the Southwest. Amaranth is another plant that has been used as a fourth sister. (Pigweed is a member of the amaranth family.)
       Have you grown the Three Sisters? In rows or hills? With what results? Please share!
Note: See May 28, 2012, post, Three Sisters - Beans and Borers for additional information.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Stores Are Out of Toilet Paper!

Bar mops, really cheap wash clothes,
 100% cotton fabric handkerchiefs.
       Would you panic if you were unable to purchase paper essentials like toilet paper? I have always maintained that TP is the one item I would really, REALLY miss if our world were suddenly plunged into the dark ages. Now with the government printing paper money with thoughtless abandon, I wonder if the American dollar will soon have all the purchasing power of Monopoly money. Suppose TP were to cost $1000 a roll? It could go higher than that if super inflation hits the nation. With weird weather striking all over the country, you can be sure that consumer goods prices will jump even without inflation. Or, if you are a prepper, you may already be wondering what to do if TP is no longer available.
       So think about how you would handle the situation. I recall a cartoon from many, many years ago showing an old timer sitting in the outhouse poring over a Sears catalog, then tearing a page from the book for sanitary purposes before leaving the facilities. I have heard that corn cobs were also popular for this purpose. Or a handful of leaves.
       With a little preparation, you wouldn't have to resort to any of these solutions, but toilet "paper" would not longer be a disposable item. Reusable toilet paper? Don't freak! Think cloth diapers; these serve a similar purpose, are washed repeatedly and reused until they wind up in the rag bin. Replacing TP is as easy as cutting an old flannel sheet into pieces about, oh, 4x10 inches, or purchasing some really, really cheap wash clothes. I found some of these priced at 25 cents each, cut them in half and sewed around the edges with a zig zag stitch. My pinking shearers are in the shop for sharpening. I'll use them to cut the flannel so it will not need hemming.
       Paper towels, napkins and facial tissues can all be replaced with fabric options. Finding that I used more paper towels than I thought reasonable, I was delighted to find 24-count packages of bar mops for about $20. The last time I bought a kitchen towel, I think I paid $7.00. The mops are smaller, but not by much. Since I bought two bar mop packages, I have no problem now with grabbing a clean towel to dry dishes or hands, cover rising dough, or wipe up a mess. There is a roll of paper towel in the dispenser, but it will be longer before it needs a replacement.
       For napkins and facial tissues (let's call them handkerchiefs), buy 100% cotton fabric, cut it into 18 inch squares (or smaller, if you prefer) and hem the edges. Don't sew? This would be an excellent first project. I suggest turning the fabric once all the way around, then going back and turning it again for a finished edge. Press with a hot iron as you go, then sew by hand or machine. Select linen for the napkins, or use the same soft fabric for both napkins and handkerchiefs, or even visit a thrift store for used sheets.
       All of these paper product substitutes have other uses regardless of whether or not the products we know and love are available, and they are cheap. In fact, if you are on a tight budget, you may want to consider using them to save money now. In any case, give some thought as how you would store the used items and how you would wash them. I am thinking primarily of the reusable TP. As with diapers, you may want a pail to keep them in until wash day. Putting them in your washing machine is fine unless the SHTF and you have no power. Consider getting one of those hand washers that look like a plunger. This sounds so much more appealing than using a wash board and I hear they work very well. Lehman's catalog lists them for about $19.00.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Versatile Blogger Award Nominations

       I started this blog thinking I would share with a few other folks my ideas about transforming some of my extensive lawn into specialty gardens. My outlook has morphed since then in the direction of sustainable gardening and independent living. Along the way I found that I had inadvertently become a part of what I consider a national treasure: a blogging community that shares information on gardening, cooking, survivalism...and so many other subject that I hold dear. This community is incredibly knowledgeable and supportive, and I am honored to have been nominated for The Versatile Blogger Award by one of my favorites bloggers, Hillbilly Mom.
       Apparently, as a nominee, I have three responsibilities. I must share seven random bits of information about myself. I must nominate 15 other bloggers. I must inform my nominees by leaving a message on their blogs.

Seven random bits of information about me.

1. I was 21 years old before I had my first slice of pizza.
2. I remember going to a McDonald's when the company was brand new, walking from the car to the order window, and getting my meal handed out to me. It cost less than a buck. There was no place to eat it either inside or out. I must not have been too impressed; I remember doing this only once.
3. I married my college sweetheart. We hadn't seen each other for six months prior to the wedding. That was almost 39 years ago.
4. I know where the starter is on a shovel.
5. I'm a Master Gardener.
6. I've been baking bread for my family for more than thirty-five years.
7. My favorite quote is "The damned fool didn't know it couldn't be done and went ahead a did it." I saw a demonstration on one of my fb friend's blogs about making noodles by "dropping" and twisting the dough. The commentator said not to try this at home. I will as soon as I can find or devise a suitable dough recipe of "flour, water and a little salt"!

My nominations for The Versatile Blogger Award:

1.  Hillbilly Mom
2 . Rural Spin
3.  Real Country Life
4.  The Root Cellar's Garden
5.  Save Our Skills
6.  Throwback Road
7.  Homemakers and Homesteaders
8.  Frugal Sally
9.  Attainable Sustainable
10. The Lazy Homesteader
11  Survival Mom Blog
12. Lori's Latest - And other tales from the homestead
13. Willamette Valley Homesteader
14. Urban Dirt
15. Survival Mom Blog

       I love all these sites and believe each one is deserving of special recognition. Unfortunately, I was unable to link the last three. I hope this won't keep anyone from checking them out!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Bread Without Power

Sliced loaf from the woodstove, next to one baked in
the standard oven.
       You consider yourself prepared for emergencies. You have a great stock of basic foods like wheat, sugar, baking powder, yeast, cooking oils, salt, dried and canned goods. You even have a hand-cranked machine to grind that wheat into flour, but are you prepared to use that flour to bake if the power is out? Not just overnight, but for weeks? Won't happen? If you watch the news, you'll see that it can: major snow storms, ice storms, tornadoes, earthquakes, political or social unrest. Any of these could leave you without electrical power for an extended period.
       So what would you do? Use one of those fancy green egg grills to bake regular loaves? I'm told this is doable, but most households don't have one of these. Eat pancakes cooked on a camp stove or on an outside grill? This is certainly an option. You may have a recipe somewhere for a steamed bread, or may choose this time to try a fry bread. Ever tried dough gods? This is bread dough balls about the size of a golf ball rolled flat and deep fried for a few minutes on each side until golden, then rolled in confectioner's sugar. Served hot, they are food for the gods. Then there's bannock, a pan bread. Or make flour tortillas. Or literally think outside of the box (i.e., the oven) and come up with a way to bake those wonderful homemade loaves.
       For instance, you might try baking in a dutch oven. Visit Mark's Black Pot - Dutch Oven Recipes & Cooking facebook page for inspiration, but do it sooner rather than later. If you wait until the power's out, this source won't be much help to you.
       When I first asked myself how I'd deal with a prolonged power outage, I had visions of digging a pit, cooking down some nice coals and figuring out how to protect a loaf buried in those coals while it cooked to perfection. I haven't tried this yet, because I came up with a much simpler idea: use my woodburning stove. We have two but one has an easy-open front door. I strongly suggest that if you try this, don't do so the first time with something that took you forever to make (fresh-ground grain) or is full of expensive ingredients. I put together a single loaf recipe for white bread. When it was ready, I set it in the hot oven on an salvaged piece of cast iron and cooked it for about 25 minutes. That loaf came out absolutely beautiful. I've never seen such a gorgeous black loaf. (Yes, I'm laughing.) Truly, it was beautiful. It was almost a shame to cut away the crust, but the inside was white and very tasty.
Front: cast iron. The bread burned on the bottom.
Back: fire bricks. I'll try this next time.
        For my next trial I made two loaves, one for the woodburner and one for the standard oven, so I could compare color, taste and texture. This time the woodstove wasn't quite hot enough and the front of the loaf looked very pale after twenty-five minutes. When I took it out to check for doneness, I saw that the backside was turning a nice golden color, so I turned the loaf around and returned it to the "oven" for a few more minutes. Next time I checked it, it looked finished so I removed it from the pan. The bottom was slightly burned, but the rest of the loaf looked great. Tasted great. Truthfully, I didn't notice much difference between it and the loaf from the standard oven, except the latter had better overall color.
    Lessons learned from this process were: let the coals burn down so there is no fire, only hot coals; use the vent to regulate the heat; heat reflects off the back of the stove, so the loaf needs to be turned part way through the process; the bottom of the loaf may burn if the pan sits directly on something really hot. Next time I do this, I'll set the loaf on two firebricks with space between them so that air can circulate freely all around the pan.
       Even if you can't accept the possibility of needing to cook bread in any of the ways suggested above, you could try some of these options as an adventure in cooking. If there are kids in your house, they'll think this is cool stuff. And it will give you an edge if you ever do need this know-how.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Vegetable Storage

This article is about options besides
canning or freezing, but these are
Tendersweets and went into my freezer.
       Why think about storage for vegetables now? Because one method of storing vegetables is to leave them in the ground until you need them! Now, before you plant your garden, is when you want to consider if you want to use this storage method. Planting your choices together will make harvesting much easier.
       First thing to consider is what vegetables this method works for.
       Cabbage and brussel sprouts will continue to produce until well after the first frosts. Twisting the entire plant to loosen the root is one method of keeping cabbage from maturing further while you leave it in the ground.
       Jerusalem artichokes keep best when left in the ground until you need them. Mulch with leaves or straw to make access easier.
       Harvest kale as you need it for Christmas and beyond, even in colder climates. No special care needed.
       For root crops, cover them with a thick layer of straw or leaves to protect them against alternate freezing and thawing and make digging easier. Place stakes at both ends of rows so you can locate the vegetables if there is snow. Cold is said to improve the flavor of vegetables stored this way.
      I've seen questions concerning storage of other crops and will answer those here too.
      Store apples separately at close to 32 degrees as possible. Apples pick up flavors from some vegetables and may make carrots taste bitter. Chose varieties that mature in late fall and are free of damage. Do not store windfalls. Store in crates that can be stacked rather than deep bins, where fruit at the bottom of the pile will be damaged.
      Carrots can be left in the ground until harvest, under a thick layer of straw, or in pits outside, or they can be stored in a box of wet sand or sawdust. Thicker varieties store best this way. Dig them, let them dry a bit in the sun, cut the tops, leaving two inches of green, then layer in boxes with sand or sawdust between layers. They can touch, but don't crowd. Store at 32-34 degrees. Should be good for four or five months.  This works for beets too, but the storage period is only one to three months.
      Onions like a cool, dry place, like an attic. Late maturing varieties with a strong taste are the best keepers. Store only onions with thin necks that are dry. Harvest after most of the necks have fallen over.  Cure them for several weeks in a warm, dry, well-ventilated area, either in sun or shade. Place in open-weave bags or open-slated crates. Bags saved from store-bought turkeys are perfect for this.
       Potatoes can stay in the ground for about six weeks after most of the tops have died down. Dig, rinse off most of the dirt, being careful not to bruise the potatoes, and dry for a few hours. Do not leave in the sun. Remove any that are immature, damaged, or showing signs of rot. Store in boxes that allow ventilation, at 40 to 50 degrees. If the storage area is cooler than this, move them to a warmer space for a week or two before you eat them. Potatoes can be stored outside in a mound. Describing this without a visual is beyond my descriptive talents.
       While it seems a bit early to think of storage, making plans now may allow you the time you need to consider what options will work best for you, and to get set up to store the coming bounty.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Garden Expansion - Hugelkultur I

Spring project. Last year's potato patch is in left foreground.
      When I took this photo last summer, I labelled it "Spring Project" and tucked it away in the deep dark recesses of the computer. Now I hear it calling to me "Is it spring yet?" Crocuses are blooming, daffodils are coming up, seedlings are hardening off on the porch. Yes, it's spring! Time to get to work!
       My garden plan has corn, beans and squash growing in the foreground, potatoes in the background. Black locust stumps, roots and saplings, brambles, stinging nettles, poke weed, crabgrass and a whole slew of other weeds have to go. Then there is this abrupt three-foot drop somewhere back there, running parallel to the old corn crib you can see on the right.
       I received notice a few days ago that the seed company has shipped the potatoes we ordered! I need to get this ground ready. (Think music from Mission Impossible!) The area needing clearing measures about 90 by 25 feet, and my operating tools are a shovel, wheel barrel, and loppers. It looks like a huge project, but any project becomes doable if you divide it into manageable tasks .
       My first task will be dealing with that three-foot drop. For decades this entire garden area served as a pen for my in-laws' black Angus bulls. What the bulls left behind mixed with stirred up dirt and flowed with rain water downhill to the fence, where it backed up and eventually formed the slope. The soil there is probably deeper and richer than anywhere else on the property. We have talked in the past about putting some sort of retaining wall there, but every idea for building one has been too costly and/or labor intensive. I have a plan to use that rich soil, eliminate erosion, conserve water, and make use of some unsightly old wood that's been rotting nearby for years.
       I will build a hugelkultur.
       This is a German word that translates to "hill culture." This is a permaculture technique which is  really simply a different kind of raised bed. I will be digging out a ditch at the base of the slope, cutting into the slope itself. I will fill the ditch with rotting logs, fresh-cut logs, branches, and twigs. On top of all this goes straw, garden and yard debris, last year's corn stalks, and sod (placed green side down), with a final topping of the soil I dug out earlier. I will make the hill higher than the upper level of the slope. I should level the ground on the upper side parallel to the hugelkultur so that runoff will stop and seep evenly into the ground, where the rotting wood will absorb much of the moisture, decreasing or eliminating the need for watering. That wood will warm the soil as it decomposes and will extend the growing season for whatever I plant there.  Vining plants are said to do very well on these beds, so I will probably plant some of these.
       With all the reading about hugelkulturs I've done recently, I've never seen one used quite this way, but I'm doing trials here, and putting it together this way seems so logical. If anyone sees a reason why this should not work, I'd like to hear it.
       This is, of course, not exactly a permanent feature. As the wood rots, the hill settles and becomes a much lower pile of soil. With a hugelkultur, you can create good soil where there was none before!
       I will use a shovel to dig out and remove the crabgrass and as many stumps and roots as possible. Why not till? It takes repeated tilling to kill crabgrass. I would still have to dig out the roots and stumps. Rocks, pieces of an abandoned 1959 Galaxy Fairlane 50, farm equipment fragments, and buried fencing would all make tilling a nightmare. Besides, tillers are noisy. There's a certain peace working with a shovel, something almost elemental.
       If you are thinking that building a hugelkultur is labor intensive, well, yes, sort of, unless you compare it to setting dozens of posts to hold the planks to hold the dirt, which will still have to be moved. I'm kind of excited about the whole idea of hugelkulturs. They can be anywhere from two to seven feet tall and are usually narrow with steep sides. Are you considering trying one? Consider all the advantages: water conservation, soil improvement, increased growing space, increased growing season, an ecologically friendly way to use otherwise unusable wood. Stay tuned to see how this and my other hugelkultur projects fare!
       For more about hugelkulturs, visit

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Preparing Your Plant Babies for Leaving the Nest

Hardening off is not just for vegetables!
It will benefit herbs, flowers, any young
plants not used to the real world.
This is sweet woodruff.
       Crocuses are blooming, the temperature has soared into the sixties, and you can't wait to get those plants you started from seed and babied for a month out into the real world. You grab a trowel and a flat of  seedlings from your warm, protected, well-watered nursery and head straight for the garden to set them immediately into their new home.
       Don't do it! This is very much like telling your teenager that she's on her own right this minute without having given her any training in money management, doing laundry, cooking, or finding and keeping a job. The abrupt change will stress your plants, slow their development, or even kill them. Help your plants make the transition; harden off your seedlings, whether started at home or purchased from a nursery.
       Perhaps the most critical reason for hardening off plants is the change they will experience in quality of light. Plant leaves adjust to deal with the light they are used to. If they go suddenly from artificial light to full sun, the leaves will scorch. They need several days of gradually increased exposure to adjust to the change. Temperature and watering changes and an introduction to wind are other factors that hardening off addresses.
       Ideally, the hardening off process will take seven to ten days. Start by moving your plants to a sheltered area for only two or three hours. Perhaps the space between the garage and house? I put mine on my front porch to catch morning light rather than the harsher afternoon sun. Gradually increase exposure time. Protect the plants from strong winds, heavy rains and cold. You may want to bring them inside after their exposure period, or cover them with a floating row cover or blanket for the night, or set them in a cold frame. Decrease their watering, but not to the point where they wilt. Although they may appear to recover quickly from wilting, in fact recover takes days.
       Cold hardiness varies with plants, and has to do with a plant's ability to withstand frost. Hardy plants can tolerate temperatures in the 40's and should survive a light freeze after being well hardened off. Hardy plants include asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, chives, garlic, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, mustard, onion, parsley, peas, radishes, rhubarb, spinach and turnips.
       Half-hardy plants like celery, lettuce, endive, cauliflower, chard, and potatoes can tolerate temps down to 45 degrees; squash, pumpkin and sweet corn down to 50 degrees; cucumbers and melons to 60; basil, tomatoes, and peppers to 65.
       The above guidelines are from a Washington State University Extension Office web page. Keep in mind that saying that plants can survive these lower temperatures is not the same as saying they will thrive in them. For instance, squash, pumpkins and cucumbers are all on the "very tender" hardiness list.
       After you've hardened off your babies, plant them during a cloudy day if possible, when rain is forecast. If you are blessed with clear skies, set them out during the late afternoon. Water them ahead of time so they will have time for a last drink before you disturb the roots. Set the plants at the same depth as they are in the pots, except for tomatoes. For tomatoes pinch off all but the topmost leaves and set it in the ground so that the stem is sideways, buried almost up to the leaves. If you are using peat pots, tear off the bottoms and any part of the pot that extends above the ground. If you leave it, it acts like a wick and draws water to the surface where it evaporates away. Water the seedlings in. Water the roots, not the leaves, and if you fertilize, use a weak solution. Mulching is always a good idea for weed and moisture control.
       If you absolutely cannot wait to plant, harden off for a minimum of three days. This is less than ideal, but will still benefit your seedlings.
        I'm still hardening off my Cold Set tomatoes, having barely resisted the urge to plant them as soon as the weather here went suddenly from winter to summer. But weather in Michigan is dicey. We can expect freezing and even a blizzard at this time of year, but this variety claims it will set fruit even at near freezing temperatures. I really, really want to find out if this is true. Imagine, fresh tomatoes in May! Well, I can dream. Good luck with starting your garden!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Thanksgiving - Baked Beans

      Baked beans are a simple, nutritious food, one that you might expect to prepare often for your family if you are on a tight budget or as an emergency situation food, or just because you love it. Because beans are one of the most important foods introduced to the Pilgrims after their arrival in the New World, it seems like the perfect addition to a Thanksgiving dinner, and a candidate for consideration in the Thanksgiving Challenge to grow as much as you can to serve as a part of this celebration.
      If you are a gardener you are probably aware that the American Indians grew corn, pumpkin, and beans (the Three Sisters) together and taught the Pilgrims their methods. All three foods most certainly appeared at the first Thanksgiving feast, but none would have been served as we would today. Consider the baked beans recipe below. This is a basic recipe, but very few of these ingredients would have been available to the Pilgrims. Would they have soaked their beans in water, added onions, honey or some herbs for flavoring? Sounds pretty bland.
       We, on the other hand, can pick all these up any time we visit our local grocery store. But suppose the roads are washed out or flooded following a major storm, or panic buying has emptied the shelves after a major disaster, or there's rioting in town and and it's not safe to go there, or you refuse to buy anything genetically modified, or (fill in the blank) and you can't buy what you need? Would you be able to prepare this simple dish? Suddenly, "simple" no longer applies. Consider what you would need to grow yourself to prepare a basic recipe like this.
       Navy beans, like green beans, are easy to grow. Shelling them is sort of fun. Put them in a cloth bag and beat the bag against a post. Open the bag and collect the beans.
       While I would like to grow my own pigs to guarantee my bacon comes from well-treated, healthy animals, my spouse tells me this isn't going to happen. Anyway, this blog is more about growing plants than animals. If I can't grow it myself, maybe I can find a neighbor who will trade bacon for something else I grow.
       Onions! There are so many varieties. My husband is the one who pores through seed catalogs, so I tell him to choose onions that keep well. I admit to not being an onion connoisseur. Mostly what I use is plain yellow varieties.
       Molasses and brown sugar, as I stated in an earlier blog, you can make yourself, and the taste is  superior to anything store-bought! If you go this route, look for heirloom seeds to avoid beets that have been genetically modified. It takes a lot of beets to make even a few cups of finished product. See my post Sugar Beets to Molasses - Homestead Style.
       Salt is one item I have no idea how to procure in an emergency, unless you live by the sea. Even then, as polluted as the sea might be, would you want to eat salt from there? Salt is one ingredient that I like to keep a good supply of on hand. Some folks use substitutes, but I haven't found anything that satisfies my taste buds as well.
       If you run out of pepper, ground, fully matured and dried nasturtium seeds might work for you as a substitute.
       I will try to grow mustard for the first time this year. I don't know of a substitute for it.
       I made catsup for the first time last year. No high fructose corn syrup! And the taste! It does take a lot of tomatoes and careful cooking down, but is very doable in a standard kitchen.
       If you cannot shop, you will not be able to make Worcestershire sauce. What makes Worcestershire sauce Worcestershire's sauce is the tamarind paste, not something you're likely to find in your backyard unless you live in the tropics. The recipe I used (see Worcestershire - to make a batch lists seventeen ingredients, among them curry powder, which I did not have so I mixed together as many of its dozen or so ingredients as I have on hand. I bought anchovies, fresh ginger, and cardamom pods along with the tamarind concentrate. You'll have to judge for yourself whether or not the effort here is work the results. I prefer the from-scratch option, but making this from homegrown produce is a stretch!
       So, I am presenting this "simple" Baked Bean recipe for your eating enjoyment whether you choose to use as much homemade as possible or buy everything. Whichever you do, think about how easy preparation is for us today compared with what the Pilgrims did. Be thankful for the difference!
                                                   Baked Beans
 Ingredients: 2 cups navy beans         1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
                    1/2 pound bacon            1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
                    1 onion, diced                1/2 cup catsup
                    3 Tbs molassses             1 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
                    2 teaspoons salt              1/4 cup brown sugar

       Soak the beans overnight in cold water. Use this water to simmer the beans in until tender. This can mean an hour or two, over all day, depending on how old your beans are. Drain and reserve the liquid.
       If you are actually baking the beans, put them in a two quart baking dish. In a frying pan, cook the bacon until lightly browned, add onion and stir until tender. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Pour over the beans. Add enough reserved water to just cover the beans. Cover and bake at 325 degrees until tender, about three to four hours. Remove the lid after a couple of hours.
       I prefer using a crock pot. Put the beans, cooked bacon and onion in the pot. Add the rest of the ingredients. Set on high until the mixture simmers, then reduce the heat and cook until the beans are tender. Again, if the beans are old, cooking time will be much longer.
      In the oven or in the crock pot, check the beans occasionally and add more liquid if necessary.
      Leftover beans freeze well.
      Baked beans have never been a Thanksgiving food at my house, but perhaps they should be. What do you think?