June 2010

This is high season in my garden, it’s hard to know what to write about.  For all my loyal readers, I have to let you know that I’ve been having computer problems for the past couple of weeks, plus DH has been home in the evenings a lot for the past 3 weeks, which is unusual.  Thus my posts have fallen off a bit.  But I haven’t given up, we have an appointment at the Genius Bar this weekend, plus DH is back to his usual schedule.   I thought you’d all like an update on Robin’s Nest 2.  The above photo is of one of the current clutch who fell out of his nest this morning.  I heard flapping from the hops early in the morning, but didn’t get a chance to investigate until around 3 pm.  And there he was, although he was gone by the time my almost 10-year got a chance to check it out at 7:30.  He wondered where the baby Robin could have gone, and we can only hope that he finally got his wings and is in a tree somewhere.  He might have found a better hiding spot low down, or heaven forfend, a cat got him.  It was really hard to just leave him there, but that is what the experts recommend.

Today was also the first day that raspberries were ripe.  I probably could have left them for another day, they were a little tart.  That raspberry patch is probably the best thing I have done in the garden.  Every year around this year I get the most amazing raspberries, and there is nothing like the flavor of sun-ripened raspberries eaten off the brambles.  Because of how I have them planted, along a fence, most of the birds have a hard time getting them, so I have little competition.  The catbird is most expert at eating raspberries, and it really is a specialized skill.  We had one catbird who was here for years, enlivening our yard every summer with his charming song.  He was quite fearless of us, swooping in over our heads to gobble up raspberries.  I think he’s passed on, though he’s left behind some progeny.  We have a beautiful, young catbird now in residence, but I don’t think he’s quite mastered the art of eating raspberries.  Last summer I recall a baby catbird who tried really hard to eat the raspberries, but wasn’t too successful, and I think it may be the same bird.  Raspberry brambles are a lot of work to manage, plus they are very prickly.  For 2 weeks of summer bliss, I think it’s worth it, but be forewarned.

At the end of last summer I had moss growing in my main veggie bed and was concerned that I may have had a pH problem.  In February I got a pH and nutrient (NPK) test kit, and tested all of my veggie beds.  It was a huge project, but I discovered that the acidity was in the right range (6.5 to 7.5).  However the tests showed that the nitrogen was nonexistent and through further research I discovered that low nitrogen can cause moss.  So I went on a campaign of fertilizing my main be, adding all of our kitchen compost, plus Steve Solomon’s Complete Organic Fertilizer.  It wasn’t until later that I read that you can’t test soil for nitrogen too early in the season, because before the microorganisms kick into action with the warmer weather, little nitrogen is released.  Well, the fertilization seems to have done the trick.  That bed is simply out of control, everything growing in it is supersized.  I just noticed today that I already have beans forming, and each bean plant has about 40 blossoms.  And the squash, holy cow!  For those of you interested in the great sqash borer campaign, I will tell you that I have been spraying them religiously, after every rain.  It’s getting to be really hard, though, as the squash plants get huge.  I found myself hugging them today, those prickly devils, wondering if there isn’t a better way.  Maybe getting all my squash needs met at the farmer’s market?


Shortly after the first clutch of baby robins flew to the Mulberry Tree, I noticed Hector and Heloise “sneaking” nesting material into the hops vine on the opposite side of our yard from their 1st nest.  I know how territorial birds are, and also remembered reading that if the habitat is particularly good, birds will have multiple nests per season, so I wasn’t surprised.  This site, Project Nestwatch, says that Robins usually have 2 clutches per year, the second right after the first set fledges.  Which is just about what our Robins did, although I find it totally irritating that they chose the site that they did, because you cannot see the nest, it is so deeply buried in the hops.  I guess we annoyed them when we were incessantly watching and photographing them from the window for the last batch.  This current site does not to seem to me to be such a great spot, either.  It is right next to our driveway, and although we don’t drive down it, the kids ride their bikes and play right there, as well as I have potted tomato plants, and we kind of go in  and out and hang out right near the nest.  We were driving them absolutely nuts today, while I was trying to photograph them.  Too bad.  If they are going to nest in such a busy place, they are just going to have to get used to us.

One of my most cherished childhood memories is of finding wild blueberry bushes in the woods surrounding our campsite in New Jersey when I was about 8 years old.  I was already a lover of blueberries and to find them just a step away from our tent was a real thrill.  As an adult it has always been a dream of mine to have my own blueberry bushes.  My mother planted some (3, as recommended for cross-pollination) about 7 years ago, and they are 6 feet tall and provide all the blueberries she could want, with plenty left for the birds.  Birds love blueberries, especially bluebirds.  I know when my berries are almost ripe because they start hanging around.  If you don’t want to share your crop with the birds, you can easily net them since they do not get too tall.  However, I think their benefit to the wildlife is so important that I don’t mind sharing with the birds.  Right now my bushes are too small to produce much, so the birds are getting most of them.  But I can envision a future when there will be more than enough for us to get a share.

It took me a while to figure out where the best place to plant blueberries was in my yard, since they do get very big.  I discovered the variety, Northland, though, that only grows to 3 – 4 feet tall, which I am using in my foundation planting.  In addition to their culinary, wildlife value, blueberries also have fantastic fall foliage.  The different varieties have different colored foliage.  My favorite for fall color is is Jersey.  I’ve read that the flavor of the berries isn’t the best out there, but the color of its leaves are spectacular, rivaling burning bush.  In fact, it is recommended that one replaces their burning bushes with blueberries, since burning bush is actually a non-native and invasive.  Blueberries, on the other hand, are natives, and honestly, we can’t have too many!  Blueberry bushes are also easy to care for.  They do not have thorns and do not need much pruning.  Special care should be taken at planting to incorporate plenty of humus and amendments to the soil.  Blueberries thrive in acidic soil, so you may need to add sulfur to your soil to acidify it.  I did not do this, and I had some yellowing of the leaves until I added it.  You can also use peat moss when you plant your shrubs.

Ever since I started eating the fresh, local, in season blueberries from the Farmer’s Market I have not been able to eat supermarket blueberries.  Our Farmer’s Market is on Saturday, and yesterday I woke up with the need to go and get the blueberries.  I’m glad I did, it is high season and the farm I buy my berries from always has perfectly ripe, beautiful berries.  I bought 8 pints, and have frozen 6 of them to use offseason, especially in winter.  There’s nothing like them in blueberry muffins.  I like to think I make excellent blueberry muffins, and I know it’s because of these blueberries (oh, and a stick of butter).   I freeze the blueberries in a layer on a cookie sheet, and then transfer them to a ziploc freezer bag.  Last June I froze a lot more than I used this year, so I have a lot of left over now.  We’ve been talking about making smoothies with the extras, and I am contemplating jam.  I won’t just keep last year’s, though, because you have to figure the quality will suffer after a year.  I am looking forward to the day when I will have enough of my own blueberries to freeze for winter muffins.

Because there never is an end to it in the garden, I have more thoughts on weeding.  I discovered a great organic technique for effectively dealing with the weeds that grow between the bluestone pavers in my front path.  Cider vinegar. Basically, I took cider vinegar and put it in little squeezer bottles, like the kind you see for ketchup and mustard, only clear.  I then squeezed it liberally between the pavers, using almost a gallon over all.  The photos here are before and after, the after being the next day.  I did it on a day when I knew it was going to be sunny, so the acid in the vinegar could really fry the weeds.  Although I don’t have a shot of it, it’s been a month since I did this, and there are no weeds.  The first year I tried this it worked just as well, but last year I kept putting it off, and then it rained for the month of June.  The weeds pretty much devoured the path, and because their roots were wedged between the pavers, they were incredibly difficult to pull out.  This made me extra motivated to do it in a timely fashion this year, although the weeds were still bigger than I wanted, it still worked.  The weather stayed nice for several days after I treated the path, and I have to tell you, it smelled quite vinegary until we had some decent rain.  I wouldn’t use this technique in my garden beds, because the vinegar could damage plants near the weeds, but it works great on pavement.

My summer squash are starting to get big, and it’s making me nervous.  In my garden, squash get killed by squash vine borers almost every year.  It drives me crazy because summer squash overproduction is a cliché of the vegetable garden, yet I’m lucky if I get one or two a plant.  Two years ago I thought I had solved the problem when I discovered the trick of putting aluminum foil as a mulch around the base of the plants.  Supposedly the foil confuses the squash vine bugs from laying their eggs.  The borer is the larva and it burrows into your squash vines and kills them from within.  Apparently the larva then bury themselves in your soil, then pupate in the spring and plant more eggs on your plants.  So unless you actually defeat the life cycle of this bug on your own property it will keep coming back, and you will never get enough summer squash.  The three ways you can protect your summer squash is by preventing the bugs from laying their eggs, preventing any eggs that are laid from hatching, and killing any borers that do manage to infest your plants if any do hatch and bore into your plants before they go back into your soil.  This is serious pest prevention work.

I’ve been trying for several years to outwit them and this past winter I went on a serious search for a remedy.  The foil seemed to work well 2 years ago because only one plant got it.  But I must not have deal with the borer from that plant, because the borer got all of my plants last year.  Come to think of it, I don’t know that I killed those borers before it got back into the soil.  I didn’t really understand the life cycle of this pest until my intensive research on it this winter.  I’m on a mission, now, I am fed up!  I’m taking my squash growing game to a new level.  The technique I decided to try this year is insecticidal soap.  I’m going to spray the squash vine with insecticidal soap on a weekly basis, and hope to kill the eggs before they hatch.  I don’t know how well I’m going to stay on top off it.  With the rain so unpredictable these days, it’s hard to know when the best time to do it is.  The soap I’m using is approved for organic gardens, but this does bring up a point about pest management.  Sometimes a pest is so difficult to deal with via organic methods that you need to have some kind of pesticides.  In agriculture they call it “integrated pest management”.  Basically they try to defeat pest problems before they begin, and only when the pest problem because unmanageable do they resort to pesticides.  In the small home vegetable garden, it’s easier to manage pests organically.  There aren’t that many bugs per plant and you can pick them off, or just wait for the beneficial insects to move in.

If you haven’t planted squash yet, there’s still time.  The best squash harvest I ever got was when I planted them really late, in August for a September/ October harvest.  A lot of summer squash take about 50 days to reach maturity.  That’s just 8 weeks.  Our weather can stay quite mild here until October, so if you plant at the end of July or beginning of August, you till have time for a harvest.  Another plus is that the dreaded vine borer usually only has one life cycle per year in this region, so by planting late you could possibly avoid this pest altogether.  I’m also trying another squash trick this year that I read about on Vegetable Gardening.  Since squash need a lot of water, the author of this article buries empty gallon sized pots in her squash hills in order to be able to water them well and deeply.  Steve Solomon has a tip similar to this which he calls fertigation (p. 153 in his book Gardening When It Counts)  He takes a bucket, puts a little hole in the bottom, then fills it with manure or compost tea, and sets it next to a plant and lets it drain out.  I figure I could add compost tea, or Seaweed extract to the pots I have set next to my squash (and cukes).  I’ve also planted several kinds of summer squash this year, partly thinking that one might be more attractive to the borers than the others and could act as a pest magnet.  One thing is for sure, I am going to be ruthless this year, and if the borer gets into one of my plants I’m going to rip it out right away and squash the heck out of the borer.  Seems fair, doesn’t it?

After I wrote my last post about weeding, I realized that I created a somewhat menacing outlook.  That steamy morning of weeding must have really affected me, because I usually have a very laid back and relaxed attitude about weeds.  I had to laugh when I reread about liking to weed when they are at least an inch high.  Yeah, right.  Maybe in the veggie garden, where I am definitely more on top of weeding, but in my perennial and shrub beds?  Let’s just say the weeds achieve a somewhat more mature size, say 6” to a foot, before I feel really compelled to get to them.  I find it kind of satisfying to let a bed get out of hand before I tackle it.  It’s like the feeling you get from cleaning a really dirty bathroom.  It just looks so much better after the clean-up, it almost highlights the beauty of your garden more if you let it get overgrown and messy and then attack it.

I guess you could say that weeding has been on my mind lately.  The flurry of May planting is over, the summer veggies are in but have not started producing yet, most of the annual flowers are also in.  I have a few leftover plants that I need to find spots for, but of course, any open areas in my garden are covered in weeds right now.  So before I can plant anything, I have to clear the soil.  It’s a good practice to try to fill all available space with plants you want, as a way of controlling the weed problem.  My established perennial beds get very few weeds, because the perennials cover all the bare soil.  The weeds really do just colonize bare soil, which is why everyone tells you to mulch if you want a carefree, neat garden.  I’ll mulch some areas, but mulch does interfere with the self-sowers, and it’s a lot of work to lay down the mulch.  I mostly do the beds in front of my house, and hard to reach areas.

A friend of mine does these amazingly detailed and beautiful pen and ink drawings, which she calls “knitting”.  Weeding is like knitting for me.  I’ve been doing it long enough that it doesn’t require a lot of my attention, so I can just sit and gather wool, and listen to the birds.  Recently my husband observed me “weeding”, sitting on my little stool gazing about, and suggested I read his meditation book.  I suppose that is what I am doing, but it is an outward directed meditation and not an inward directed one.  In those moments, the most pure in my gardening, I am just being in the garden.  Weeding is a great way for you to literally get, or be, in touch with your plants.  And, after all, isn’t that why you garden?  To have beautiful plants and flowers to look at whenever you want? To create a beautiful and comfortable place to spend time outdoors, in the nature?  Weeds never become a total disaster if you spend a lot of time in your garden, because you will catch anything before it gets truly out of hand.  And the definition of “out of hand” is your own.  No matter how messy it gets, it is still glorious to be outdoors.

One of the magical, yet mundane, tricks of a beautiful and productive garden is this commonly repeated gardening rule.  It’s very direct, yet somehow mystical.  Feed the soil?  But what does soil eat?  How does it eat?  The fact is, soil is kind of a multi-species organism, a kind of meta-organism.  It’s kind of funny, because soil, otherwise known as dirt, has the aura of being inert.  After all, it just sits there under our feet.  It’s not unreasonable to think of it as just the medium that holds plants in place.  But when you get right down into it, examine it and get to know it intimately, you start to bond with your dirt.  I once took a class at the New York Botanical Gardens called Soil Science I.  Yes, there was a Soil Science II.  As a matter of fact, I just looked it up and there are 63 colleges in the US that offer majors in soil science.  There is even a Soil Science Society of America.  You’ll take my word, then, that caring for your soil is serious business.  Okay, so how do you feed your soil?  It’s a simple practice that can become a somewhat arduous, occasionally all consuming, enterprise.  Once you start feeding your soil organically you begin to understand the appeal of Miracle Grow, electric kool-aid for plants.  For those of us who want to garden organically, but need an instant boost, we have Fish and Seaweed Extract.  If you’ve never used this, trust me, you are in for a treat.

Basically, the way you feed your soil is to add compost.  Every gardening book under the sun will tell you to do this, and how to do it, ad infinitum.  So just do it, you’ll be glad you did.  We were afraid of rats when we started gardening here, so we started just making leaf mold, basically taking all our fall leaves, putting them in a bin and waiting about a year and a half.  Well-rotted leaf mold is pretty sweet.  But a couple of years ago, we just couldn’t bear to throw away our kitchen scraps anymore.  We bought a couple of plastic compost bins from our town, got a good intro to town composting from our town’s environmental affairs officer, and away we went.  At first, the most satisfying part of starting to compost our kitchen waste was seeing how much we were reducing our contribution to the landfill.  When composted, veggie scraps just seem to melt away.  And then, after about 9 months, jackpot!  Nice brown food for our garden.  There are probably about as many ways to compost as there are gardeners, so you’ll have to create your own system.  There’s even a very informative book, dedicated to composting, called Let It Rot.

One of my organic gardening gurus, Steve Solomon, says in his book Gardening When It Counts:  Growing Food in Hard Times,  that simply using compost from your own garden and kitchen will not return enough nutrients to the soil to grow the most nutritious food.  Why?  Well, for one, if we eat out of our garden, we remove nutrients from the soil and don’t return them.  Crudely, we pee and poop the nutrients from our garden into the sewer system.  Steve says “I compost only to recycle garden and kitchen waste.” (p. 180)  In addition to his own compost, he adds well decomposed feedlot manure as well as small amounts of what he calls COF, complete organic fertilizer, an organic soil amendment that he formulated to increase the nutritional content of homegrown vegetables.  I won’t print the formula here, but it is on page 21 of his book, go check it out at the library, surreptitiously copy it at the bookstore, or even buy his book, which is awesome.  Steve Solomon is the slightly cantankerous garden gramps that many of us don’t have, but could sure use.  In addition to his gardening books, he started a cool website, called the Soil and Health Library.  I use Steve’s COF, my own leaf mold and compost, Fish and Seaweed Extract, and more recently, Vermont Compost Company’s Manure Compost , which Richfield Farms in Clifton carries. Since I don’t have access to manure, nor am I really interested in finding one, this is one way that I can add manure to my garden.  It’s not cheap, though, so when the Hard Times that Steve predicts come, I’ll have to find another system.  Maybe Humanure will become more appealing then.

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