Still sheltering in place and with no real idea of how long this will last, many gardeners are looking ahead to what they can grow, how they can care for what they have, and where they might find new places to grow edible plants. This gardener is no exception.
In past years, spring was always a lighthearted look at what I might like to try my hand at in the coming summer months. This year, planning has taken on new meaning. I’m not a Prepper or a Doomsayer, but we’re not through this pandemic yet and some groceries might become harder to come by. I am finding myself wondering where I might add new edibles, which harvests can be canned or dried, and which Regulars are not worth the real estate. For me, tomatoes, beans, salad greens, cabbages, potatoes, squashes, melons, teas and herbs, and my fruit and nut trees will be getting the most attention and space. And protecting my crops has become more important, as well.
Even though I knew it was too early/cold/wet to start beans last week, I did it anyway. Most of the seeds have rotted in the ground or been tossed around by foraging birds. The few that germinated have been gnawed to nubs by sowbugs, with only a couple of exceptions. This week, I will be starting bean seeds again, but in small containers that I can protect and keep warmer. As they grow and temperatures rise, I will place them where I want them.
In the meantime, I should probably make sowbug and earwig traps. The traps are super easy to make. You just take rolled up wet newspaper, held together with rubber bands, and place them in areas where sowbugs and earwigs have been a problem. Those pests will use the newspaper rolls as shelter. In the morning, just throw them in the trash. It won’t get them all, but it puts a dent in the pest population.
The compost was finally ready, so I spread it in most of my raised beds and around my fruit and nut trees. I know the compost improves conditions for the sowbugs that seem to be causing so many problems already, so I followed the compost with a light sprinkling of slug bait.
For the third time, I am going to try growing corn. The first year I did it, not a single seed survived the birds and squirrels. The second time I tried, I actually got a few measly, scrawny looking ears. Unfortunately, it was a traditional Indian blue corn variety that was probably great for grinding into cornmeal, but it was practically inedible. This year, I am planting two sweet corn varieties in the same raised bed and I have fenced the bed in, to protect against the normal marauders. If everything goes as planned, I should have a decent harvest for this year’s 4th of July picnic. [Fingers crossed]
The rhubarb is coming in, as well, but you can see damage from sowbugs and slugs already. These reliable perennials have been coming in for 7 or 8 years now.
My giant container of purple sweet potatoes has also begun showing signs of life. I love the deep purple color of the new growth, pushing its way through its winter bed of straw. By mid summer, this planter will be a lush, draping plant with attractive green leaves. All you have to do is burrow your hand into the soil and fish around for a couple of purple sweet potatoes for supper. I think I have been growing this vine for 5 or 6 years now.
Like legumes, sweet potatoes can fix atmospheric nitrogen, but they still need to be fed other nutrients, so it is time for me to top dress my sweet potato container with some of that aged compost. I might need to add a little bit of acidifier. I’ll have to check the pH first. It needs adjusting every once in a while, even in containers, because our water supply is very alkaline and sweet potatoes prefer acidic soil.
At a time when I have no desire to go to a store (or anywhere else), I am so glad to have a garden at home! Our salads are abundant and diverse, with red leaf lettuce, radicchio, baby beet greens, butter leaf lettuce, kale, arugula, chicory, spinach, and curly endive free for the picking. They are all coming up nicely in raised beds and containers. Having let the endive and lettuces go to seed in previous years, I am also finding these plants growing on their own, wherever it happens to suit them. I should probably plant more this week.
Speaking of planting more, I spent yesterday afternoon filling flats with potting soil and seeds, enjoying the sunshine and the promise of future harvests. I ended up planting peas, sugarloaf chicory, more beets, arugula, Swiss chard, and some sunflowers. I also transplanted several cabbages and some early cucumbers. I think I'll start some tomatoes and eggplants this weekend. And those beans.
I gave the Barbary doves a reason to ignore me and my dogs by tying a nesting basket in the corner of the pergola where they have been hanging out. They still fly away when I walk by, but I keep seeing their lovely gray heads peeking out over the rim of the basket. I love the way they sound!
All this new growth and bird courtship reminds me that everything will continue. Life goes on. Hopefully, we will get through this quarantine with a greater respect for getting by with less stuff, staying home more with family and friends, and recognizing that we are all in this together. Globally.
Wow. What a surreal time it is.
Today is the first full day of spring, but I just learned that day and night are not actually equal on the equinox, that the sun we see each sunset has already dropped below the horizon. The more I learn, the less I know…
The rain has come and we are grateful, but the streets are often empty. The sky is cleaner than it has been in decades. Neighbors I have never seen in the 8 years I've lived here are out walking and chatting (from a distance). No stores. No errands. A friend texts and asks if I have any eggs available. I am happy I can tell her I do.
Suddenly, my hens and my garden have taken on greater meaning. Being older and immunocompromised, going to a store is too risky. My husband is willing, but we both know he might just as easily bring COVID-19 in with the groceries.
Luckily, I was very poor when I was young. I learned the importance of shopping wisely, buying storable things on sale, and always making sure you had beans, rice, lentils, flour, sugar, and canned vegetables on hand. We are, for the time being, self-sufficient in San Jose.
None of us know how long this will last. A month, two months, a year, forever. We simply do not know. My guess is that we will have this under control before summer. In case I am wrong, I am shifting my garden design to be more in line with a survival garden than just a fun thing to do.
But gardening is fun and that’s where a goodness equal to the food I harvest comes in. Gardening in these uncertain times provides me with a grounding, a centering, a wider perspective. Summer and autumn will come. The trees will produce sweet juicy nectarines, crisp apples, and delicious almonds. I will plant seeds, pull weeds, and repair a patch of netting. I will clean and sharpen my garden tools, toss my compost pile around, craft the shape of ornamental and edible trees and shrubs, and collect eggs.
I will, as I always do, can tomatoes and green beans, and make marmalade, fig jam, and nectarine preserves, regardless of whether or not it’s safe to go or be anywhere else. The plants don’t know or care about COVID-19. Either do the bees and other pollinators.
It is spring and the cycle of life is continuing as it always has out in the garden. The artichokes have started to come in. My almond tree is covered with baby almonds. The lettuces, chicories, kale, and chard are gearing up for heavy production. The compost pile is cooking itself into an excellent top dressing for my raised beds. A pair of Barbary doves are considering building a nest under my pergola. Everything is going to be alright.
Stay home. Be well.
If you have even the tiniest space that gets a few hours of sunlight, plant a seed. Watch it grow. Care for it. You’ll both be better off.
Daylight saving time messes me up. I don’t like it and I’m not even on a clock. Each time it changes, it feels as though the world is off kilter for a couple of weeks. The plants and chickens don’t seem to notice, so I should probably just follow their lead, and leading they are!
Despite the concerns of several visitors, bees and other pollinators seem to have no problem getting through the tree cage netting. Of course, that also means codling moths can get through, as well. But the birds can’t and the rats and squirrels haven’t yet tried. I guess we have to pick our battles, eh?
My apple and fig trees are just about at budbreak and there are even some tiny figs starting to form! Did you know that the only way a fig can form is if a little wasp gets trapped inside? The fruit of a fig is actually a cluster of flowers that form on the inside. How weird is that?
Anyway, the almond tree is in full leaf and our daily salads have been full of delicious variety with sugarloaf chicory, radicchio, Swiss chard, beet and kale leaves, and red leaf lettuce, along with baby purple broccoli shoots. We have even gotten our first taste of this year’s purple asparagus. [Can you tell we like purple food around here? Wait until it’s time to harvest the purple sweet potatoes!]
The compost pile is coming along nicely. Following the USDA’s guidelines for safely using manure in compost, I am checking the temperature every day and flipping the pile most days. If you look closely at the image below, you can see that the center line of the pile, which has had its top removed, is nearly white, while the rest is yellowish-brown. That white is made up of fungal filaments that are decomposing the bigger bits into smaller molecules that can be used by plants as food. The steam that comes out in the morning when I flip the pile is a pretty impressive sign that chemistry is actively taking place in my simple pile of chicken bedding and yard waste!
A couple of weeks ago, I posted concerns I had for my California poppies. I have been diligently removing stems that show signs of fungal disease and have been brutally thinning plants to provide better airflow and it seems to be helping.
My biggest pest this week seems to be sowbugs. I decided to give this little Gerbera daisy a manicure because it was looking chewed upon and congested. What I discovered was that it was thoroughly infested with sowbugs! Check out this little bugger, tucked comfortably into a new leaf, munching away to its hearts’ content.
Needless to say, I cut out most of the damaged leaves, pulled the mulch away from the whole thing and thinned out the center a fair bit. Let’s see if I can get more blossoms and less bugs.
I hope you are all able to spend some time in your garden this weekend. What’s keeping you busiest or bringing a smile to your face out there?
Marching Towards Spring
Spring is getting closer by the day and my fruit trees are in full bloom.
Raising chickens creates a lot of really good compost, but it only works if you have enough green material to mix in with all that dirty straw. This week, I collected all the straw from my chicken run and used it to create a new compost pile. Then, I took all the bedding from the coop, moved it to the chicken run (for my next batch of compost), and gave them fresh straw in the coop. They don’t seem to care, but it makes me happy!
Then I took lawn mowings, fava bean trimmings, and some other green materials to mix into the pile. I mixed it all together, watering each layer as I went, to give those helpful microbes everything they needed to get the job done. It must be working because the compost pile heated up to 154°F yesterday morning and there had even been patches of frost on the lawn! Yay microbes!
The netted panels I put on my raised bed have worked wonders at keeping birds away from seeds and seedlings.
There have been many battles over the birdhouses that I mounted on my tree cages, however. The original holes were the right size for indigenous bluebirds, finches, and wrens, but a Nuttall’s woodpecker kept making the openings larger, so English sparrows claimed all four boxes.
It’s feeding time!
Since my soil tests indicate I already have too much of everything besides iron, all my compost will be used to top dress the raised beds, once it has been properly aged, making the manure safe. This will add nutrients, shade the soil, and increase soil organic matter. The actual soil on my property got nothing but nitrogen and iron, since that’s all it needs. I gave my roses and fruit and nut trees their spring feedings of urea, an excellent source of nitrogen.
I’ve given up on removing lawn grasses with a spreading habit. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to be that picky. I’ll just have to keep it mowed as short as possible during the cooler months and remove only the most obnoxious specimens.
Hairy bittercress has begun to appear, so I am diligently removing them every time I see them. You know what they say, “One year of seeds, seven years of weeds.” Last year was my hairy bittercress weed year and I was not as diligent as I should have been. Bermuda buttercup is trying to invade, as well. I actually like the flowers, but I know how invasive these plants can become, so I hoe them down every time they come under the fence.
What weeds cause you the most grief in your garden? How do you deal with them?
Let us know in the Comments!
Kate Russell, writer, gardener, and so much more.