Monday, April 26, 2010

Wool Dusters vs. Swiffer Nation, and other old timey cleaning suggestions

It's Monday and I have the strange sense that going back to work is actually going to be like taking time off. This weekend I embarked on the great journey that is Spring Cleaning.

For the uninitiated, spring cleaning is different than your regular ho hum sweep-and-mop cleaning. It is moving everything (yes, including the couch and the dresser), getting the dust out of the corners and high-up places, throwing stuff out, reorganizing closets and pantries, and really getting the settled winter grime OUT! Two days and two absolutely exhausted evening foot baths later, my living room is still upside-down, books are sprawled everywhere, the fridge is pretty much empty, and the cat is utterly confused about the new state of things. however, the floors are spotless, the pantry is finally sensible, all of the winter's mouse holes in the walls are stopped up with steel wool, and I finally have enough drawer space for my clothing upstairs (read - my clothing's default home is no longer on the floor).

Over the weekend I have, unfortunately, discovered that the world no longer believes in proper wool dusters. Apparently, everyone uses Swiffers now. To be honest, I only know what Swiffers are thanks to a year spent living in college dorms, but I know them well enough to know that they are tacky and disposable, so I am opposed to them on principal. Nothing, in my experience, has ever worked so well as a proper wool duster (on an extendable pole for high-up windows or under the bed). The duster just needs a good shake outside to clean it, and it's good for a generation or so with no need to replace anything. The Swiffer, on the other hand, is just a ploy to get us to buy baby-wipes for the bottom of a fake mop that "dusts" while releasing noxious "Hawaiian Breeze" scent into an otherwise decent-smelling living room. My grumpy old lady tendencies aside, suffice it to say that I truly regret the sacrifice of useful and long-lasting cleaning tools to the god of profitability in the form of disposable parts. If I can't find a nice wool duster at my local barn sale, I'm going to buy myself one at Lehman's, a lovely Mennonite catalogue, and I'll still be using it in 20 years, thankyouverymuch.

For those of you who are about to embark on that gratifying and hilarious task of spring cleaning, I have a few suggestions:

Cleaning Sinks
The best way to clean a sinks while keeping drains open is with that great marvel of second great science experiments - baking soda and vinegar. Scrub down the sink with a good helping of baking soda. Add some extra soda to the drain for good measure, then upend a quarter to a half gallon of cheap, white vinegar over the soda, rinsing it off of the sides of the sink and down the drain for a good ten minutes. In the mean time, boil a full kettle of water. After the bubbling has stopped, dump the boiling water into the drain. I clean out my sinks this way every other week, rinsing with very hot tap water instead of boiling water. I reserve a double course of boiling water for thorough cleanings once a season or when my drains start backing up.

It was to my utter surprise that I discovered that proper broom corn brooms are quaint and old fashioned (a good friend let me know by laughing at my broom as if my life were a quaint caricature of old timey living). For those of you who use plastic brooms instead of proper grass ones, let me tell you, you are missing out! Nothing sweeps like a good, wide broom corn broom (it's called broom corn for a reason!). They last longer and are much more effective than their plastic alternatives when paired with a standard dustpan and small dust broom (or a whisk broom if you are so inclined - though even I use a plastic broom for my dustpan). Store your broom by hanging it off a hook or nail or standing it upside-down. if you stand any broom on its sweeping end, it will bend and become useless very soon. If you vacuum rather than sweeping, I highly suggest trying out sweeping. It's quiet, calm, and just as fast and effective. Vacuuming is an assault on ears and the senses. It was invented by that horror that is wall-to-wall carpeting which should really be ashamed of itself for all of the horror and tackiness it has brought into this world. Go and get out some tension by hanging your rugs on a line or over a sturdy tree branch and beating the hell out of them with the broom handle. It really is the best part of spring cleaning, especially if there's someone you'd rather beat the hell out of for not helping out enough.

Laundry separation
As I'm sure you already know, there are 5 (not 2, 3, or 7) baskets for laundry needing attention in the bedroom (listed from largest to smallest basket) - colors, whites, hand wash, fix (for clothing that needs sewing or patching), and dry clean. It helps to also have a kitchen laundry area for tablecloths, towels, and napkins and a utility room laundry basket for rags (in my case, the "utility room" is under the sink). Despite this careful separation, I tend to wash my whites and colors together in cold water, reserving a "whites only" hot and bleached wash (though I use hydrogen perozide instead of bleach) once a year when things get noticeably dingy (the exception being new colored clothing - which tends to leach color and is always washed separately its first time). I also hand wash my dry-clean only clothes but this has more to do with the fact that there are no decent dry cleaning places around here than anything else.

Washing floors
I don't know who told anyone otherwise, but there is only one way to wash floors - mop, bucket, and soap (usually floor soup). anything else, including Swiffers or floor sprays are gimmicks and they'll probably kill your cat they're so toxic. The reason is quite simple - if your floor isn't wet, forcing you to sit still and not walk, it can't possibly be clean and you can't possibly take a break. Just make sure to sweep before moping (this should go unsaid, but with folks "mopping" with Swiffers I just can't trust what people know and don't know anymore) and carefully plan your route around the house so you don't mop yourself into a corner. I like to hang the rugs on the line, sweep everything, and then mop myself out of the house, thus forcing myself to beat the hell out of my rugs and then either hang the laundry or take a nice long break while waiting for the floors to dry with iced tea in hand. I've also been known to mop myself onto my couch during winter days, where i am forced to lounge while the floor dries. See? Swiffers really were made up by the devil - and they have such a tacky name!

Take a break
At around 6 o'clock, when you've gone through 3 handkerchiefs (translation = half a box of tissues) thanks to all that dust, but before you get terribly hungry, put on something simple to simmer for dinner (rice and green lentils with lots of onion and garlic is my favorite cleaning day dish) and get yourself outside! The fresh air and sunlight helps like nothing else. Just sitting on a bench outside with a cold beer or a pre-dinner bowl of ice cream does wonders to rejuvenate a dustier, more splattered version of myself than I am used to. Taking a break really gives me that kick of energy to follow-through on the dinner dishes and a little evening cleaning before I collapse into a foot bath with a post-dinner bowl of ice cream, tea, and a good book.

I would say this spring cleaning weekend has been a huge (if as yet unfinished) success. it has been utterly lovely, full of gratifying moments (cleaning out under the sink was momentous), and with only one break down moment where I questioned what the hell I was doing with my life, sobbing to a friend that I'm 23 and how can I possibly live such a dull and drab life that housecleaning is one of the most gratifying things I do? I could be traveling, or throwing money to the wind not caring about saving, or doing some other fun and youthful thing that other people my age do who don't even know how to properly mop a floor! I blame this breakdown on exhaustion and spending my whole weekend without company and without a single night later than 11:00 PM. After all, I am only 23 and would love to go out dancing or spend a late night with friends at least once a week. That being said, I have since pulled myself together and reminded myself that it's okay to genuinely enjoy spring cleaning and sedentary life.

In garden news, my ground cherries have started to sprout, tomatoes and peppers all have several leaves, and that's about it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

beautiful, beautiful spring!

For those of you up here in the Hudson Valley you, like I, are probably luxuriating in the most unbelievably beautiful spring these parts have seen in years and years. Thanks to record temperatures everything is blooming all at once, some things months early - like lilacs. What I've always termed "mud season" has turned into the most wonderful season I could have imagined. Those of us who are blessed with the most magical autumn aren't usually blessed with so magical a spring.

I like to think that it's the world's way of apologizing for last summer (and for the most snowless winter I have ever lived through around here). But I'm also painfully aware of how much danger those beautiful blossoms are in. We're still almost a month from the average last frost and a hard frost could kill off our apples, our apricots, our cherries - all of it! But given the choice between worrying and luxuriating in the beauty, I easily choose the latter option. It's not hard. it is so incredibly beautiful outside.

Unfortunately, my cold frame is buried in the barn and i have not been able to get it out. I also discovered that the hinges broke off of the frame, so I'll have to reattach the windows to the frame, whenever I can lift off the residue of winter and take the cold frame out of its winter hiding.

This weekend marks 3 weeks before the last frost, so I will be planting a ton of things Indoors and outdoors. I'll let you know what's on the list for planting soon! For now, enjoy the spring!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Spring! Usually, it's called mud season around here. But this year it's just beautiful! Everything is blooming all at once thanks to an incredibly warm spring. Even the lilacs are blooming! Lilacs! those usually wait for late May, at least. And, someone has already found morels in the Hudson Valley.

I am going to go morel hunting today and then pray that a hard frost doesn't come through and freeze all of the early fruit blossoms that seem to think it's late May.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Building a Cold Frame!

One of the luxuries of the early spring for the hobby gardener is that this isn't a particularly stressful time. with 2-3 hours of investment, at most, per week, it's relatively easy to be right on path. I keep the light on over my seedlings, water about every other day, plant the seeds I need, and generally keep things going. Perhaps the hardest thing is keeping the temperature in my house consistently warm enough for new seeds to germinate. The ground cherries I just planted, which are a nightshade - a relative of the tomatillo - require fairly warm temperatures to germinate. With frosts still rolling through the region every few nights and with wamr sunny days, my indoor temperature is in a constant state of flux which averages around 55*, not the ideal 70, but still workable. Heat mats, unfortunately, make for a more expensive tomato than I am willing to dish out for. Maybe next year I'll finally dish out the cash for a few.

I decided that i will bring out the cold frame for my calendula this weekend. The process of moving seedlings from an indoor seed-starting set up to a cold frame is called "hardening off." I typically do it 2-3 weeks before transplanting. It's a step between the total ease and comfort of indoor living and the harsh reality of life in the garden that helps to acclimate your seedlings before the shock of transplanting. Plop your seedlings into the cold frame and -prop it open during the day for ventilation (otherwise you risk burning your plants). Close the cold frame at sunset to lock in the heat. This will keep temperatures moderated and protect plants from hard rains while exposing them to being outdoors. If there's a hard frost coming your way, throw a blanket on top of the closed cold frame to keep the heat in.

If you don't have a cold frame, you could bring your plants outside on nice days and take them in every night. However, building one is fairly easy, and I would recommend it. I built mine with friends, a hand saw, a power drill (though I could have used a hammer), and some old windows I picked up from the side of the road, and a couple of old hinges and drawer pulls. We used old 2"X10" planks. The procedure is absurdly easy.

Build a cold frame
Cold frames are a really great home building project, especially given how much people will charge for a pre-fab one. I would definitely recommend building your own. Start out by studying what you're building so that you understand the concept. If you've built anything before, the basics of this project will be fairly obvious. If you haven't, you might want to consult instructions in this book Country Wisdom & Know-How or on the web. The type of cold frame I outline below is like this one, but made with only one row of panels in the front and two in back. While building, keep in mind that cold frames are sloped, facing south, so as to maximize the amount of sole exposure and minimize shading. Also keep in mind that any part of your coldframe that isn't flush or properly fitted will let out precious heat on cold nights.

- Salvaged window, glass door, shower door, or frame with plastic. Storm windows are best, but not necessary.
- Salvaged 2x8 - 2x14 boards (just make sure they're not pressure-treated)
- Scrap wood (preferably 2" square) for bracing, 2 cut to the width of a single board (8-14"), 3 cut a hair shorter than double that length, and 2 cut to a middle length (doesn't have to be exact)
- Screws and drill or hammer and nails
- 2-3 hinges and screws
- A Drawer-pull
- Hand saw, chop saw, circular saw, whatever.
- a chisel
- Shims, Weather stripping, and/or caulk (if you need it)

The procedure
- The first part of any building project is the math. First measure (twice!) the length and width of your window and write this down. Your longer front and back panels will be the exact size of the length of your windows. Mark this length for 3 boards, keeping in mind that the saw will turn a few millimeters of solid wood into dust. That 1 board for the front and 2 for the back.

- Next, measure the width of your windows (twice). Write this down and then measure the height of your boards, which should be just shy of 2 inches (and jot it down). The shorter panels for the sides of your cold frame will fit inside the long panels, and therefore need to be measured to the width of your window minus 2 times the height of the boards. Therefore, if your window is 28" wide and your boards are 1.75" high, your boards should be cut to 28-(2*1.75), or 24.5".
Again, mark out and measure 3 boards of this length. That's 1 for either side plus a third that will make the slope on both sides.

- Now that you've measured and marked everything twice, cut your panels - 3 long ones, 3 short ones.

- Now comes the Hard part. Draw a diagonal line that bisects one of your short, side boards and forms two long triangles. Take into account the width of the saw to make sure that, when cut, the triangles will be identical. These two triangles will form the slope of your cold frame. Take a deep breath and cut the board on the diagonal, so that you have two triangles.

- Phew! Now let's assemble. You're basically building a sloped box in two teirs. Use 4 of your pre-cut bracing wood on the interior 4 corners (the two short ones in front and 2 of the longest ones in back, making sure the long ones are flush with the bottom of the boards and stick up in the air). Attach the bottom four pieces by screwing/nailing the boards into the 4 corner braces - remember, the sides fit inside the front and back boards.

- Next, Add bracing wood to the middle interior of each side except the front so that everything on the bottom is flush. The 3rd long piece should be in the center of the back sticking up and the two middle-length ones should be halfway along the sides sticking up (make sure they're in a place where they won't stick up over the sloping side panels). Add the top boards on the sides and back of the cold frame by drilling or screwing them into the bracing wood. You can add toeholds into the bottom boards, but this isn't necessary. Make sure everything is tight and together. Lift the frame to make sure it's sturdy.

- Now that you have the frame done, set your window on top and make sure everything fits. Make sure the window sits flush and tight against the top of the box. Attach the window to the frame by attaching hinges to the top of the cold frame and the window - making sure to keep it it as flush as possible. It wouldn't hurt to chisel out a small depression in which to set the hinge to prevent the window from lifting off of the back by the width of the hinge. If you don't have a chisel handy, you'll probably end up having to add weather stripping to the back seam. If you've never attached a hinge before, make sure you have someone there who knows how to do it or else really spend some time with that hinge to figure out the right side, the wrong side, and how it wants to be attached. Hinges are trickier than they appear. Once attached, lift the door to make sure they're on properly.

- Finally, attach the drawer pull to the center front of the window so that you can lift it easily.

- Check for any holes and add weather stripping or caulk where needed. If you want, paint it with a light, nontoxic paint to help it weather better and to reflect light back onto the plants.

Congratulations! You have a cold frame!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Garden Journal, Sleep, etc.

Monday night I went over to my garden at the co-op (aka my former house, aka my friends' house), prepped another bed (by forking out all the weeds, aerating the soil with a garden fork, and raking the surface smooth) and planted another round of lettuce and kale plus a border of chives, and a clump of chamomile on the edge of the bed along the central, large path running down the center of the garden. i did this without a real plan - just leaving room for additional, staggered plantings of kale and lettuce. We're having a garden meeting and work day in the garden on Sunday, so I'll have a follow-up design that day. with 2 15-foot beds that are 4 feet across plus plenty of additional space, I anticipate that the design won't change much.

In other indicators that the summer is nigh, I have started waking up at 7, a full hour before my winter wake-up time of 8. This is partially because of the sun, which start streaming into my east-facing windows around 6 AM, partially due to my cat, who has taken to standing on my pillow and batting at my alarm clock (I assume to wake me up sooner), and partially due to more physical work going into a regular day (whether work in the garden or just more walking during my lunch break) which results in me falling asleep quickly and sleeping better. I really think lethargic days lead to bad sleep lead to oversleeping lead to feeling tired all the time.

Now I need to figure out what I'm going to do with the spare hour of awake time I have in the mornings. I think I might go back to making myself delicious lattes with honey and working on my book. Yay!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Garden Journal - 5 weeks Before Last Frost

I planted my ground cherries, finally. And I separated my seeds into separate envelopes, as is my habit, organized by planting times. That way I can reach for my packet that says "3 weeks before last frost - indoors" and plant all of those seeds in one go next week without consulting which seeds I need to plant or where I need to plant them, or searching through all my other seeds for them.

In other news, I thought my rosemary was a lost cause, but it germinated! yay!

Things seem to be doing well. Some damping off of daisies and calendula, but the repotting has helped with the mold, which seemingly cleared up. Most everything has a second pair of leaves on it.

Time to get out the cold frame and start hardening off some of my lovely little seedlings.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Soil Nutrition

We're on the cusp of 5 weeks before the last frost here in the Hudson Valley! Have you planted all that stuff you said you'd plant indoors (!)? Are your peas in the ground (yes!)? Garlic come up (yes!)? are you preparing your beds, repairing fencing (and garden tools and hats and hoses), adding nutrients, and finalizing plans (err...mostly)?

Preparing rich beds for Spring - soil nutrition and amendments
It's easy to see the larger picture when you look at your garden soil. Rich, black soil with lots of worms, easy-to-work texture, lots of air, and a soft, sweet, earthy smell are the obvious markers of good soil. What's hard to see is the details - who know how much Nitrogen or Potassium you have in there? Or what the pH is?

You want to make sure your plants are healthy and well fed this summer. If you haven't tested your soil for pH and basic nutrient levels, I would go ahead and send in a sample to Cornell co-operative extension (if you're in New York. In Jersey it's Rutgers, in Massachusetts it's UMass). You can also find diy soil pH tests at most nurseries, though I suggest building a relationship with your extension office - they're a huge help and a wonderful resource. To get a sample, dig up a good 6-inch deep cross-section of soil from your garden, put it in a mason jar or a plastic bag, and drop it off or mail it too the nearest extension office, asking for a basic soil test (they probably have a form on their website to fill out). It'll take 2-6 weeks to get the results back, during which time you can ask any gardening/farming neighbor what they add to their soil. Asking neighbors is a great way to find out what your soil will need, and just about everything else about gardening in your area.

The most common soil nutrient folks add to their soil here is lime to neutralize acidic soil. It's important to have a balanced soil pH because many dangerous soil chemicals dissolve in solution at an excessively low or high pH causing the plant to uptake them more easily, while good chemicals and elements, which a plant needs to survive, cannot be taken up by the plants in extremes of pH. pH stands for "parts Hydrogen," low pH is acidic while high pH values are alkaline or basic, a pH of 7 is neutral. Ideal soil pH is between 6.3-6.8. If you find that your soil is acidic (a pH lower than 6), add lime (follow instructions on the bag) or wood ash (I would just spread it liberally on the beds, which is what we do in my landlord's garden all winter). Since soil acidity is determined by the bedrock in your area, it will be a pervasive and consistent feature of your garden, and adding lime will be an annual endeavor (unless you build really effective raised beds).

After incorporating lime, you want to make sure that your plants have the nutrients they need for the coming year. The best soil amendment is finished compost (or fully composted manure). Not only does it add organic material and living nutrients, it also improves soil texture, pH, color (and therefore heat retention), beneficial bacteria, and is an all-around wonder drug for your garden soil. do NOT add raw compost or manure to spring garden beds (the one exception to this rule is rabbit manure, and if you have access to that, you've struck gold). Raw manure will burn delicate plant roots while raw compost will take hold up nutrients in its decomposition that you want to go to the plants. (In the fall, the rules are different, but we're not in the fall, are we?). If you don't have finished compost, go get yourself a bunch of manure, straw/mulch hay/leaves, and raw food scraps and promise yourself that next year at this time you will have at least some finished compost. In the mean time, if your soil is depleted (simple test - have you grown a heavy-feeder vegetable crop there last year? If so, your soil is depleted), you can use blood meal, bone meal, soy meal, etc etc etc to increase nutrient levels in the soil. Go to the nursery and get a well-balanced, organic soil additive and spread as per directions. Note that peas and beans are, in their own right, soil nutrients, and beds that will be planted with peas or beans can go without a heavy dose of additional nutrients, though I would add a little bit if you think your soil is very depleted (a 3-year rotation with beans is a classic rotation for soil nutrition).

phew! Got all that? Now that you know what spring is like, there's a lot of good reasons to put your garden to rest properly in the fall (namely that it saves you a lot of trouble come spring). Start asking around at local farms now to see if you can take one or a few pick-up truck loads of manure (1 pick-up load per 1-2 people being fed out of the garden is an easy estimate) so that you have it on hand when you put your beds to rest this fall. The longer it sits composting, the better.

As a side-note: P-K-N ratios seen on fertilizers, often just listed as 20-10-20 or something like that, stands for the amount of Potassium-Phosphorous (usually in the form of Potash)-Nitrogen in a fertilizer.

Also, I'll get around to kombucha one of these days, I promise.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Don't Let the Cool Farm Kids Get You Down

When you spend a lot of time talking vegetables in the Hudson Valley, you're bound to meet a bunch of 20-somethings who are just too cool for you. At least, that's how I've felt for years. I've been known to find kids decked out in anarchist-y, rural fashionista-type clothing absolutely terrifying. I have a name for the fashion style that is the domain of hip, carhart-and-suspender-wearing farmers I so often find myself sharing venison chili with - liederhosen chic (these types can also be found all over Brooklyn, on rafts on the Mississippi, and pretty much anywhere else where activists can find suspenders, carharts, muck boots, and clothes you might otherwise see a cabaret-announcer wearing). For years I was downright terrified of all the cool on the local farm scene.

Let's get a few things straight. I've experimented with patches and holes in my clothing (though never suspenders). However, I am thoroughly uncreative and mainstream by Hudson Valley farm kids fashion and music standards. I absolutely dread the idea of clothes mended with embroidery floss or dental floss, and always feel vaguely guilty about my shoes being dirty and scuffed. I do not listen to punk. I rarely get around to actually mending my clothing, but you won't catch me wearing clothes with holes unless it's my favorite sweater and I just haven't gotten around to that little hole in the armpit. And you will never, ever catch me in air pilot goggles.

My journey of getting over not being the cool-kid food activist-type was a long and winding one. It took me a year of trying on being anarchist-cool (right down to tight black jeans and back patches), followed by realizing I wasn't at all interested in that kind of fashion statement, followed by two solid years of shivering in a corner terrified of anyone who looked at all cooler than me, then another year of just standing around awkwardly. Finally, someone had the mercy to clue me into the fact that most folks are socially awkward, not cold. Just like me! Even with this clarity it took me another whole year of repeating that line to myself like a mantra (and coming to understand that I might be coming off as cold too) to finally, finally let go of my terror of folks who seemed so much cooler than me and just talk. Say hello, hold up conversations, and just relax. Now, I'm proud to say that I can talk to even the coolest farming kids without feeling absolutely wretched.

Sometimes I do run into a genuinely cold person who actually thinks they're too cool to be caught dead talking to someone who is so unashamedly bourgeois as to wear regular clothes (unlike them, who have the decency to try and hide the money they come from). These people were born rich and have a guilt complex. They should be pitied or ignored. if neither will do and you find yourself being looked down upon by one, slip in that you can't afford to have a whole spare wardrobe aside from your work clothes. this will point out that you work for a living and that they live off of a trust fund. Given how cool poverty is with this bizarre subset of farm kids, they should instantly shut up and sulk away or else try to befriend you.

Everyone else, surprisingly enough, will understand that you, like they, grew up nowhere near a farm and won't blame you for not knowing that all the cool city-cum-farmer kids are really fucking radical and wear it on their sleeves. At worst, they might assume you've never been to Brooklyn, don't know how to contra dance, or don't know what consensus means. No fear! Just explain to them that tight jeans make you feel bloated and that you weren't allowed to buy Human-i-tees t-shirts in high school and they'll understand. Bonus points for being from Vermont, having lived communally before, or having a badass prison story.

Repotting, fighting fungus

I repotted all of my nightshades yesterday into plastic pots, composting the newspaper ones into my weeds-only compost. The mold was clearly growing in the newspaper itself, and only then spreading to the soil. Hopefully, the move will help with the fungus problem. I haven't found my book on organic disease-curing in the garden (probably lost in the move, alas!)

Please feel free to ask questions - I'm always happy to answer. Leave a comment and I'll let you know all about it if I can!

More later (about kombucha). For now, endless amounts of data entry.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Most years spring creeps up on me in an exciting, but not altogether novel way. The crocuses are beautiful but unsurprising. Ditto with the warmth. The feeling of "it's spring again, already!" is usually at the fore of my thoughts. This year, something is different. Spring feels new somehow, as if the heat is a shock, the warm rain and the smell of asphalt a rare blessing; The yellow-green willow over the lake the height of beauty, supple and breathtaking in her earliest of robes. Even the forsythias, which I usually find mediocre at best strike me as breathtaking, with a deep and lovely color. I do not feel like spring has come again already. Rather, it seems as though I cannot remember another spring, that this thing called spring is so distant and from such a different life that it may as well have never happened. The red winged blackbirds reappear for the first time, and everything is new, it seems, except the rainbow.

The rainbow which spanned the sky yesterday beckoned to me. I heard the rain start down with the sun still gleaming and I knew that there must be a rainbow. I stood in the warm, sun-filled rain in my apron, looking up at the wonderful and awe-inspiring rainbow remembering. that first time I saw a rainbow at the county fair with friends and managed to hold it for years, a precious omen in my thoughts. The full double, then triple rainbow that arched in the dark, mountainous skies over Lake Issyk-Kul, the most beautiful of landscapes suddenly linked by the bright and glowing arch to the incredible darkness of the gleaming summer skies. I think it is impossible to see a rainbow and not remember. Whether it is God promising no more killing floods or an omen of good luck, it is an incredibly magical experience - and no matter how we think of light breaking through the prisms of tiny droplets, the wonder and beauty of a rainbow in the half-dark spring sky cannot be quantified or explained without appealing to omens.

Garden Journal
In other news, it turns out there was no need to give up hope - my peppers have just germinated after all this time! However, the mold has crept up onto my seedlings. I blame the newspaper pots - all of the other seedlings are just fine, but the ones in newspaper have this mold on them! I will be repotting into plastic soon, and whenever I find my favorite book on dealing with garden pests, I will be concocting a tea to spray on the leaves of the seedlings to ward off the mold and keep them strong. I'll keep you posted

Monday, April 5, 2010

Perfect Soil

I went to help friends at my old house in my old garden - the one I built out of youthful ambition, naivete, sweat, and the odd garden tool three springs ago - and had the unparalleled experience of pure bliss. I would not call myself an accomplished gardener. I am simply too erratic to make a garden beautiful, or to let all of my plants grow. For example, I did not plant ground cherries in their little pots this weekend. My cold frame is still in the ice shed. But when I walked into the garden and slipped (yes - slipped!) a garden fork into the first bed - the one that had tomatoes in it 2 years ago and lettuce last year - and turned the soil, I did what i do every year, and bent to check the soil. My arm slipped into perfect, dark, moist, and crumbly soil right up to the elbow.

After 3 years of gardening in clay and gravel, 2 of them in this very garden, I wanted to cry with joy. There was no way I was abandoning this perfect soil - so dark in color and light in weight - to spend another year in dirt and mud. Maybe I'll plant my onions and leaks and some lettuce at my house - just to have something there. the beds, after all, are tilled. I could add some good compost and call it a day. Which means, of course, that my garden plans were for nothing (though now that I remember it, my beds at the co-op are also 4' by 20'. and there are 3 of them. But I don't think I'll be able to just take up 3 beds even though there are 10+ beds roughly that size), but it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter one bit because this success - having created such beautiful, dark, rich, and deep garden soil in 2 years - is a huge achievement. Far better than growing more garlic than I could possibly need for one winter, or making beautiful garden plans.

Building that garden was back-breaking. it's a huge, no-till garden built on what was, at the time, a thoroughly compacted post-construction lightly sloping hill complete with a hard pan, standing water, and more clay than i wanted to deal with. It was built by broadforking every bed just to aerate the soil, digging out paths (and dumping that soil onto the beds), then layering manure, paper, and 6 inches of straw, and watering the whole thing. It was mostly built in spring, so that year, I watched the bed seep moisture out of my seedlings (direct-seeding was not an option) and copious amounts of slugs (attracted by the straw) do a number on everything but the onions and potatoes (after an evening salt-shaker attack on the slugs). The next year was a little better, though I didn't grow much food at all, only tomatoes and garlic - and we know what happened with tomatoes last year. Most of the garden has been fallow one of the two years. And now - it is perfect.

Given how much work it is to build garden soil, I hope you can understand why i wouldn't want to do it again at a rental where I might not even be gardening next summer.

In conclusion I planted peas, lettuce, and swiss chard. My friend planted some herbs as well. I realized I should have planted chives, though I let my friend's interest get ahead of my own. Oh well. There's plenty of time, and there should be plenty of space.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Spring Weekends are here!

It's spring. I will be planting peppers, ground cherries, and tomato seeds tomorrow in the glorious sun, putting them on my new heat pad, and praying (peppers will be small and late this year, but oh well). Then I'll be working my newly-tilled garden over with a broad fork, probably bringing some soil over and forking it into the beds, adding some wood ash (in lieu of lime) and maybe even going to pick up finished manure somewhere or leaf mold, if I can find it. Then planting peas and setting up pea trellising. Definitely going for a long walk at my old house and picking a ton of ramps.

Hopefully I'll be pickling beets and root veggies, and maybe even ramps as well.

And, when it all comes down to it, I need to to get all my veggies out of storage and have a Thanksgiving-in-May party to finish the root veggies - though i think I'll plant some parsnips and carrots just for the hell of it - they're biennials and will therefore flower this year. Umbel-shaped flowers are particularly good at attracting beneficial insects into the garden, though the juice from parsnip stalks is very caustic - so be careful not to get it on your skin! I'm sure the parsnips and carrots are both hybrids and therefore I won't be able to save seed (the carrots aren't worth saving seed from anyway - they've gotten horribly woody), but it'll still be a fun little science experiment.

Now it's just a matter of getting out my farming shirts (long-sleeve button-downs) and my big garden hat, and getting to work!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Ramps! Go and get them!

My dear readers, I hope you will forgive me for totally forgetting myself! The ramps are up! They're up in marshy woods now! Go! Go get them, if it's not so wet as to be impassable.

Ramps are a delicious wild leek that can be used and cooked like a scallion. I hope to pickle some this year. They grow in marshy woods (full shade) in clumps, so if you find one, you'll find a small field (or a large one, if you're lucky). Ramps are a vibrant true green. They have two leaves grwing out of a small, white bulb in the ground, which can either be pure white or with a purple skin. The leaves are smooth, with a single white or purplish vein down the center, and about 6 inches long and 2 inches wide. If you see a plant that fits this description - a bright, deep green (not a light green), single vein, smooth leaves, grows in clusters, about 6 inches tall, tear off the leaf and smell it. If it smells like an onion, you've just met a ramp.

It's good practice to pick no more than half of a cluster, so that you can make sure there will be ramps in that same place next year. take a trowel for stubborn roots (you want to get the whole ramp - bulb and all) and a plastic bag or basket to toss them in. Store in a plastic bag in the fridge or in water like a bouquet (in or out of the fridge).

If you want to transplant ramps, dig up a small cluster of roots with some of the soil they're growing in (which is bound to be muddy), put in a small bucket or a plastic bag, and transplant as soon as possible, making sure to keep roots covered and moist. Transplant to a full-shade location that gets plenty of moisture (outside your kitchen is ideal - ramps taste delicious in omlets!)

They'll be up for the next few weeks, so go and get them!