Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Here's My Summer Project!

Have you seen the Earth Box? You know, those big plastic tubs with the water reservoir in the bottom that you can use to grow vast quantities of tomatoes on your back porch? I've looked at those an wondered if they might be a good solution to growing things on my deck, where the sun and heat tend to bake potted plants to a crackly crunch, but I've always balked at the price.

Well, now I see I can have my "Earthbox" and spare my wallet, too. Here are the plans for a Homemade "Earthbox" that can be constructed from a couple of Rubbermaid tubs, a small plastic basket, some PVC pipe, and some black plastic. It's not as pretty, but it's entirely as functional.

So I could spend money on the real Earthbox, or I could spend time on the homemade version. I don't have an abundance of either money or time, but I may have time enough to make a couple of these boxes and try them out. It may be just the place for the melons.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Pea Sprouts and Peach Blossoms

This week, I'm seeing green: little, crinkled pea sprouts from the peas I planted a month ago. Hooray! They're finally up, and in droves! I planted them a bit thickly, so there will be some thinning to do, but I'm glad to see them finally popping up.

They're lined up along the edge of the asparagus bed. Soon I should be seeing asparagus spears poking up through the mulch.

And by the same bed is my dwarf peach tree, now in its third year and -- wonder of wonders -- bearing lovely pink blossoms! I absolutely must get out and spritz it again with copper. Curl-resistant though it is supposed to be, it did get hit with peach leaf curl last summer.

Ah, so much good food to look forward to this spring and summer!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

But will Tinkerbell Keep the Lawn Mowed?

Article: News - O.C. woman pioneered miniature gardening

If you've been tempted by garden books featuring lavish spreads with multiple "garden rooms" surrounding the ancient family manor somewhere out in West Blueblood, Stuffyshire, yet you're stuck with a postage-stamp-sized yard in Suburbia, U.S.A., all is not lost yet. You can have your beautiful garden, if you scale it down -- waaaay down.

Miniature gardens are suddenly all the rage. Beverly Turner (see article link, above) started one as landscaping for the dollhouse she'd wanted ever since she was a child. A born gardener, Turner soon created a miniature artificial garden that was larger than the house.

Then the thought struck her: why not make a garden like this out of real plants?

She did just that as a display for the nursery where she works as head designer. In a raised bed she created a toy-sized perfect little gardening world, with paths, houses, waterfeatures, the works. Now, nearly a quarter of the nursery's sales are miniature gardens. And several of those have gone home with Turner herself.

Hmm... ya know, I think I've got a big old bowl somewhere... and some figurines... and a tiny water pump...

Monday, March 20, 2006

If it quacks like a Quack, it's a Quack.

Takoma Gardener: Jerry Baker, "America's Master Gardener" or Master Quack?

The Takoma Gardener blog has taken off against Jerry Baker and his magical household formulas for the garden. I remember looking at one of Baker's first books and wondering about some of the stuff he puts in his potions. I don't recall what all was in them. I do remember Epsom salts, which are good for roses in the early spring, and at some point he added asprin, which is chemically similar to the chemical signals plants send out when stressed, which puts other plants on the defense.

But my goodness, now he's pumping the whole yard and the soil, too, full of mouthwash, antiseptic, dish soap, and tobacco water. Mr. Baker, what's up with that? Are you worried that our gardens might be dirty? Well, here's news: the bacteria and dirt are supposed to be there.

Now tobacco water -- that brings back memories of my grandmother soaking my father's old cigarette butts in a bucket of water and spraying the resulting juice on her garden. Ah, what a bug killer that was. Toxic nicotine, one of the deadliest poisons on the planet. Eventually my dad got the message and quit. Smoking bug poison isn't a good idea.

As for Mr. Baker, well, it seems his PR people are proclaiming: "Get the latest scoop straight from the bloggers!" Well, here 'tis: Jerry Baker is a Quack with a capital Q.

Read Takoma Gardener's post, and pass it on.

Spring Has Sprung!

According to the calendar, it's the first day of spring. Someone tell the weather gnomes -- they still sent frosts last night. Good thing I didn't remove the remay cover from my overwintered lettuce as I thought I might in the relative balmy sunshine of yesterday.

Looking for a good way to celebrate spring? How about joining the people of Iran in a rowdy Nowruz ("New Day") celebration? In spite of all efforts by stuffy ayatolahs to put an end to the ancient tradition people still light firecrackers and bonfires on the evening before and do a lot of hooting and hollering, then pack up picnics the next morning for a day communing with nature. Reminds me of Calvinists trying to do away with Christmas several centuries ago, or modern-day fundamentalists wringing their hands over Halloween. People just wanna have fun. Any excuse for a party, right? Read all about it in the New York Times online (registration required): Ayatollahs Aside, Iranians Jump for Joy at Spring.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

From Cow Stuff and Guinea Pig Poo... Ambrosia!

"Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did." William Butler (1535-1618)

Maybe God never did, but the strawberry breeders just might have.

Don't those just look marvelous? Those are Seascape, a new everbearing strawberry variety I'm trying this year. Last year my faithful Tristar bushes petered out, and the newcomers didn't live up to their promises. One, in fact, produced mealy berries that tasted little better than wax. Fine to look at, but who wants to just look at a strawberry?

When it comes to strawberries, frankly I'm completely spoiled by home-grown lusciousness. My Tristars produced several years worth of berries so rich and sweet that the store-bought ones were flavorless ghosts by comparison. I don't bother to buy berries from the grocery store, even early in the season when they look so tempting in their sparkling red perfection, nestled in their hygenic plastic boxes. The taste always disappoints. Never the richness, never the deep red juiciness of the real thing, the homegrown berry, plucked from its mother plant and eaten while still warm from the sun.

Thus I can't do without my strawberry bed. A couple of weeks ago I dug up the bed, removing the old plants and the tenacious weeds. On Friday I stopped at Nichols to see if their strawberries were in yet. They were. They'd just come in, and hadn't even been set out for customers, but the nice ladies fished some out for me. I bought a bundle of Seascape berries, as I wanted to try a new variety, and these I was promised would bear as well as Tristar and taste even better. Today I dug in some steer manure and layered more over top like a mulch, and shored up the edge of the bed with a long board that the neighbors discarded (why they think our yard is a great place to toss occasional bits of unwanted stuff is beyond me, but at least this discard was useful). Then I planted my berry plants, watered them in, and covered the bed with used litter from the guinea pig cage.

Now to wait for June or so for the beginning of ambrosia season.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

T&M Teasers and Poppin' Petunias

See 'em? Look... there... no, there. Those teeny, weeny green thingies in the dirt. Those are petunias, those are!

For size comparison, you can see the divider of the six-pack in the middle. Did I have to use a magnifying glass to find the little critters? Just about.

These babies started off as seeds that I bought from Thompson and Morgan, those marvelous folks who will sell you seeds for just about anything that will grow from seeds, and even some that don't (packet of fern spores, anyone?). Some are what you might call "challenging" -- that is, "Don't try this at home, kids! Leave it to the professionals." But there's plenty in the catalog that will grow, even for the rank beginner. And this year they tempted me beyond any semblance of self-control with a whole slew of freebies: "Buy anything from these two pages and get a packet of such-and-such for free!" I spent several happy hours paging through the catalog looking for all the free seed offers, and snapping up the ones that were appealing. At the very end of it all, after I filled out the order form online (I learned after two tries NOT to add the letter listed at the end of the product number in the catalog for the freebies -- the online system will spot them automatically), I got another offer for two free packets of their choosing. Well, of course I clicked on it! When the order came, one of the packets was a lovely lime basil. All told, of the nineteen packets I ordered (besides petunias, I ordered some special picotee cosmos, double cosmos, dianthus, asters, clarkia, sweet peas, and hollyhocks), nine were free. Not bad!

Among the seeds that I ordered were packets of petunias. I wanted some for the container gardens I've planned, and thought maybe I'd try growing some instead of buying six-packs. Man, those seeds are as tiny as dust! Not at all easy to handle, and static cling holds them firmly to the inside of the packet. I managed to sow some across several six-packs, and now the first of them have sprouted after two weeks on the heat mat.

Now I wish I could have afforded a bigger grow-light set-up. Well... there's next year.

Here's the same six-pack with the petunia babies in context of my little light set-up -- it's the six-pack on the left at the bottom of the picture. Yeah, those seedlings are microscopic!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Of Tulips, Madness, and the Lord High Executioner

Review of: Tulipomania by Mike Dash, Three Rivers Press, 2001.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of Victorian moralists espoused gardening as a wholesome activity, good for both body and soul. Gardening should, they said, teach patience, perseverence, a love of work, an aesthetic sense, and a hundred other virtues. "Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I can walk undisturbed," said Walt Whitman. Kipling extended the garden metaphor to the building of nations when he said, "Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made / By singing: -"Oh, how beautiful!" and sitting in the shade."

Yet the story of the humble, chaste-looking tulip is a story filled with blood and greed, hardly Victiorian ideals. Mike Dash's tale begins in the harsh, mountainous regions of the Middle East, where small wild tulips dot the high slopes, splashes of late-winter brilliance in an otherwise unforgivably harsh world. Nomadic people of the region loved the flower, particularly the red varieties, as a symbol of hope, spring fertility, and a soldier's courage, as the star-shaped wild tulip was clothed in the scarlet of a warrior's jacket.

The tulip spread westward with these people as they conquered new lands. The tulip took on new meaning as a symbol of service to God, for the taller varieties hung their flowers in a most humble posture. As the Ottoman empire rose, and at a time when the Islamic custom of refraining from realistic portrayal of objects of nature was lifted, tulips were a favorite motif in deocoration, appearing on embroidered garments, tiles, in paintings, and more. Topkapi, the famous palace in Contstantinople, featured pleasure gardens for the eyes of the sultan alone if he so chose, and one of the most beloved flowers in the garden was the tulip. At that time, the favored form had an almond-shaped blossom and long, needle-like points at the tips of the petals that were as long as the blossom or more.

But all was not peace and tranquility in the sultan's gardens of pleasure. When a few cucumbers went missing from one of his vines, suspecting that one of the gardeners had eaten them, the sultan had the accused gardeners disembowled one at a time in his presence and their innards searched for tell-tale cucumber seeds. The head gardener himself, in a weird twist on later Victorian views of gardening virtue, doubled as the chief executioner. A man might escape the sentence of death if he could beat the gardener in a race to the city gates. But more often than not, the gardener was there waiting for him, sword in hand. Life was cheap in the Ottoman empire.

Some time in the 16th century -- records vary on just when -- Europeans viewed tulips in Constantinople, and brought some home. This is where the Dutch enter the story. Few people beyond a handful of explorers had ever seen a tulip, and the first Flemish merchant who received a gift of a few dozen bulbs with a shipment of carpets from the East mistook them for a variety of Turkish onions and ate them. He reported them delicious, though mildly bitter, and planted a few of the remaining bulbs in his garden. Only then did he discover that the bulbs produced beautiful flowers.

The flowers were popularized by botanist Carolus Clusius, who freely gave away bulbs of various wild tulips and cultivars that appeared in his gardens. He might have grown rich himself in the later craze, but preferred giving bulbs only to friends that he knew would appreciate the flowers for their beauty, not only for their monetary value. He had offers, of course, from his neighbors, grown wealthy following the new independence of the Netherlands. Many of his would-be customers, frustrated at Clusius' refusal to sell, took matters into their own hands and stole plants from his garden, and so the tulip spread across Holland and the rest of the Netherlands.

As tulips were cultivated in pocket-sized Dutch gardens, bringing species closer together than they were found in nature, hybrids and cultivars appeared in abundance. Among them were the famous "broken" tulips, those with white or yellow petals streaked with red, purple, or bronze. Those with the most delicate "breaking" grew to be the most highly valued, and gardeners, working in the days before even the rudiments of polliation were known, tried all sorts of nostrums to make their tulips "break." Only much later in the 20th century would it be shown that "broken" tulips were infected with a virus, hence the total unpredictability of the color patterns.

Holland and the rest of the Netherlands went mad for tulips, and the madness continued from 1637-1639. The very first true futures market opened with the sale of tulip bulbs, some of them changing hands for six times a carpenter's wages -- an astonishing sum for those of us who are miffed if we have to pay more than a dollar a bulb for tulips. Though tulipomania began among the wealthy, it soon spread to ordinary folks who staked their entire estates on a single bulb. A group of destitute orphans grew rich when they sold their fathers' tulip collections, while wealthy merchants lost everything in the topsy-turvy turbulence of tulipomania. Dash's Tulipomania tells the full tale of human folly and herd instinct when the markets are rising, a lesson one might think we'd have learned by now -- but as the recent dot-com internet bubble shows, is still a part of human nature.

Bouncing Baby Broccoli!

Amazing, aren't they? Pity the grow-light washes out their color a bit in the picture. Should have turned it off and used the flash so you could see their luscious greenness.

New broccoli and cauliflower seedlings may not be much of a miracle for some, but for me, this is truly exciting, because it's the first year they haven't been struck down on emergence with damping off. Oh, I've tried to do everything right in the past: using sterile potting mix, washing out the pots and starter six-packs with bleach, putting flourescent light tubes over them, yet my poor babies were still struck down in droves, turning brown and thin at the soil line and keeling over with piteous expressions on their tiny little cotyledons. "Oh, help us, help us, we're too young to die!"

This year I invested in a good tabletop grow-light and a seed-starter heat mat to encourage rapid germination. I dispensed with covering the seedlings as the seed starting manuals suggest, allowing air circulation to the youngsters. I even sprinkled the soil with a light dusting of cinnamon, having read on a gardening board that cinnamon acts as a mild fungicide (I'd tried chamomile spritzes, to no avail). Heck, I'll try anything short of voodoo to prevent damping off, and if I can finally grow the Minaret broccoli I've been coveting, I'm not too particular about the voodoo, either.

But why all this fuss about broccoli and cauliflower when you can buy broccoli for four bits a pound at the grocery store? Because this isn't just any old dull green broccoli and palid cauliflower. What's popping up under those brilliant lights are some cultivars that I can't find in local markets anywhere for any price. Maybe some lucky folks can find these at farmer's markets. Enjoy your blessings. For me, the only way to get Romanesco broccoli such as Minaret, lime-green Panther cauliflower, and the nutritious and brilliant orange Cheddar cauliflower is to grow them myself.

The dangers of damping-off aren't past yet, and my babies still have the rigors of cutworms and cabbage moths to endure. But they're off to a stronger start than I've gotten from cole crop seedlings before. Cross all fingers, toes, and cotyledons. I may have my beautiful coles yet!

Minaret broccoli:

Panther cauliflower:

Cheddar cauliflower:

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Boy Scouts in the Mist

Nearly as wild as Gorillas in the Mist, but closer to home.

This weekend was Merit Badge Blitz for my son's Scout troop, where the boys spend a weekend working on merit badges (or rank advancement for new boys). By popular demand, I was back again this year to do Environmental Science. I already teach biology and have been an environmental educator, so it's a no-brainer that I should be the counselor for the badge. It's also one of the badges required for Eagle rank (hence the snazzy silver border), so it's one of the popular badges for boys who are moving up the ranks.

Though the troop spent Friday and Saturday night up at old Camp Kilowan (a Campfire camp near Falls City, OR, but we've done service project there, including an Eagle project, so the troop gets some camping privileges), I drove up with a couple of other parents on Saturday to spend the day. I had too much to do at home to go up for the whole weekend, but I didn't want to miss the whole thing. There'd been snowfall a few days ago, and reports were that there was at least four inches of the white stuff on the ground, but by the time I got up there on Saturday morning, there were only patches left (though there was more on the Weyerhauser land just above, which we who were driving up together found out when were trying to figure out which road out of Falls City was the right one, and ended up doing a bit of "touring"). Though there was a bit of mist in the air, the weather held for us, and we even had some sun breaks.

Five boys and I spent a highly productive morning doing most of the active requirements and experiments for Environmental Science. We made terraria in jars, which always look very cool, very green and mossy when they're done, causing other boys to gather around and say, "I shoulda signed up for that!" We did some behavioral studies on isopods (sow bugs), saw the erosion that can happen when slopes are denuded of vegetation, cleaned up simulated oil spills (to the disappointment of my little pyromaniacs, attempts to burn off the oil didn't work), studied differences in species lists and diversity in study plots in three different areas, created an environmental impact statement for a proposed building project, and learned about recycling. The boys need to observe their terraria for a week and make observations, finish an air pollution experiment at home, and do some write-ups. In the afternoon, while I went to work with a group on the Personal Management badge, my busy boys finished a list of definitions of terms and a timeline of the history of environmental science.

One of my boys worked on both badges, as both are Eagle required, and he's one of our Life scouts (the next rank below Eagle) who is aiming to attain Eagle by this summer. If our Lifers work steadily, we'll have one grand ceremony for another flock of Eagles. My own son was in the last flock of eight, and there were six in the year before him. It's been three years, and we need another flock to inspire the younger boys. The Lifers are all excited, and I think they'll all make it!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

As much fun as a barrel full of veggies!

Review of Bountiful Container by Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Maggie Stuckey, Workman Publishing, 2002.

Rose Marie Nichols McGee, current owner of the renowned Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Oregon, teamed up with garden writer Maggie Stuckey to write Bountiful Container, a definitive manual of container gardening. We're not just talking Shasta daisies and marigolds in a pot on the porch, either. These ladies are into gardening for food, and explain in full detail how to grow a bounty of edible stuff -- vegetables, fruits, herbs, and edible flowers -- in containers.

Why grow stuff in pots when you can grow them in the ground? Because not everyone who catches the gardeing bug has access to a plot of ground. Some are apartment dwellers stuck on the upper floors with only a tiny balcony, or just a window box, or even just a window to work with. Some live in planned communities or retirement homes and do not have the freedom to tuck a tomato plant into the earth. Some have mobility problems, and find it difficult or even impossible to navigate across bumpy ground.

And then there are the impatient sorts, who don't want to deal with soil-borne diseases, underground pests, and other problems that plague in-ground gardeners.

McGee and Stuckey spend time reviewing types of pots, going well beyond the traditional clay pot or wooden half-barrel. Grow salad greens in an old salad bowl? Why not? A kid-size container garden featuring violas growing in the back of a discarded toy dump truck? Sure! A hanging basket fashioned from a thrift-shop colander? How thrifty! When you've finished the chapter on containers, you'll find yourself looking around garage sales or the Dollar Store thinking, "Hmm, could this be a good planter? Could this? Or this?"

The chapter on soil discusses planting mixes, which, in spite of the common term "potting soil," don't contain any actual soil. Rather, potting mixes must carry out the dual and seemingly mutally exclusive roles of retaining moisture while allowing drainage, a feat they accomplish by mixing spongy, absorbant peat moss with light perlite or vermiculite.

Finally the section on the plants themselves gives dozens of ideas of edible plants to choose from, with a list of varieties that are especially suited for containers. Interspersed are ideas for theme gardens: a child's garden, a salsa garden, an ethnic foods garden, and more.

The one drawback to container gardening is keeping them watered. Plants in the ground can send roots down deep to find water reserves if they need to, and even shallow-rooted vegetables have their roots embedded in soil that is protected from the sun, but in containers, those roots can't go any further than the bottom of the pot. In hot weather, containers may have to be watered twice a day to keep the plants healthy. Some folks who plan to travel in the summer assemble a drip system on a timer to keep their containers watered without depending on some hapless neighbor to come and run the hose for them.

Even if you have an in-ground garden, you may want to try containers for their decorative effect, or for hard-to-grow veggies. I've successfully grown peppers, melons, and other crops requiring a long, hot summer in our mild Pacific Northwest summers in spite of the shorter season by putting them in containers and placing the containers in a warm spot. The peppers flourished alongside a blacktop driveway, while the melons sprawled all over a sun-baked deck. Sound like fun? Then try the Bountiful Container for complete instructions.