Chilly Summer

Actually, it hasn’t been a particularly cold summer, in truth. June was spot on, but July has been slightly cooler than usual. It’s been very hot on some days, leaving me to drip sweat in the heat, but that is largely from the humidity. The rainfall we have been getting in unusual, however. Last month we had eight-and-a-half inches… Our average is somewhere closer to 3.5. And July has been no different. We’re half-way through the month and our rainfall has been four times what our average rainfall is. I can only imagine that the exceptional amount of rain is what has been keeping us cooler.

Because of the cool weather some plants that should be burning to a crisp right now are doing surprisingly well. The peas and lettuce should be shriveling up in 85-90 degree days, but instead they’re growing and producing surprisingly well. The tomatoes feel almost a bit stunted from the cool, though they’ve begun to produce as well. Soon they will need to be staked up.

Cleaning out the garage to remove the rats continues, albeit slowly. Other things sometimes take priority, such as standing up fallen plants and removing flowers from plants not yet established enough to bloom. Animals must be fed and watered before other tasks are completed. The bees have to be kept in sugar water. Preparations for fall already have to be started. It’s a busy time.

My father went on a trip to Maui recently. That’s one of the smaller Hawaiian islands and is where one of my sisters lives. He brought me back a rather unflattering t-shirt in a vibrant blue color. “Look!” he proclaimed proudly, “It has a chicken on it!”. It does, indeed, have a rather stunning graphic of a rooster on the back of it. But the cut is so unflattering and the shirt so large that I wouldn’t feel very comfortable wearing it out. But what can you expect from a 73 year old guy? I thanked him and told him I’d wear it while working and doing livestock presentations. It seems appropriate enough for that and he looked happy. I can always use more work clothes and it looks like it’ll be a very good shirt for that.

I have too many tomato plants right now. I have experienced another epic saga of tomatoes this year. Tomatoes always seem to be a source of drama in my garden. There are two kinds of tomato plants; determinate and indeterminate. Determinate varieties grow in bushes a few feet tall then they stop and they set their fruits all at once. Indeterminate varieties just keep growing until they can’t any more, and they set their tomatoes in random batches.

Last year I grew indeterminates (san marzino) and the tomatoes became such a jungle that I could hardly walk through my garden paths that run between the beds. I quickly lost control of the plants, they become overgrown and collapsed. The tomatoes set seemingly at random, growing a few here and a few there, never enough to can. Tomatoes lay rotting on the ground everywhere. Blossom end rot became overwhelming and blight started consuming the lower branches leaving foot-high tunnels under the collapsed plants. The groundhog who regularly raided my lawn for the tomatoes ran rampant in that clear undergrowth into which I could not reach. There were so many tomatoes that not even my dogs could overcome the groundhogs temptations. Ultimately, while I grew a lot of tomatoes I didn’t harvest many tomatoes. I ended up with just a few jars of tomato sauce for my efforts. It was just too much.

This year I decided no more to indeterminate tomatoes. I ordered Bellstar tomatoes and planted 61 seeds with the hope of getting 40 plants. While around 50 or so germinated, they began to develop problems of their own. Leaves started yellowing, drooping and falling off. Whole swathes of plants began to die. I learned, eventually, that this was likely wilt, a fungus that is almost impossible to treat and control. I ended up with about 8 or 9 plants, all infected with this disease so I could not put them in my gardens. I was heartbroken.

Then one day I was out in early summer, weeding the garden to put in some late seeds when I went to pull a plant that looked awfully familiar. While I’m used to getting the occasional volunteer squash plant, I’m not used to other volunteers. The first few I ripped out without a thought until I realized that this strange plant was everywhere across my beds. Dozens. Maybe even hundreds?

They were tomato plants. Dozens of tomato plants all over the place from the rotten, consumed, dead tomatoes that fell unharvested from our plants last year. They were in every inch of the garden bed… Which actually makes sense because I spread and till the top of my soil each year. There were more than I could imagine when I finally started to notice them.

I now have dozens (50 or so?) planted in my tomato patch for the year and dozens more that I’ve found homes for in gardens of friends and family. Still more have simply been pulled and removed as weeds, and I have others that need to be removed even though they are huge and beautiful. I just have nowhere for them to go and they are in the middle of places like my watermelon patch. That’s unacceptable and they must go.

Some of them will be filling my sister’s garden bed (the one who lives a few blocks away), and some I just don’t know where they will go. And to think… I thought I had too many last year! This year I will find a way to manage them better. They will get posts put in the ground near every single one and they will be tied to them with twine to manage their growth. Anything less and they will overwhelm my garden again!

But it seems that fate has determined that I am to grow THESE tomatoes specifically, and not any others. They’ve gotten a late start but are just starting to set fruit. Hopefully, through careful management, they will not be quite so overwhelming this year. Fingers crossed. Our tomato saga will continue.

A proper update

I’ve been stuck indoors for the past few days with a second degree sunburn plaguing my shoulders. It started as just a normal sunburn. We went to observe some potential lands for the ecovillage, and the cloudy day when it was supposed to rain turned out to be sunny. So my pale skin turned into red skin. Then, the day after that I helped my sister with some minor home repairs and property cleanup. That day I wore sunblock… To no avail. The next day I woke up with shoulders covered in blisters so hot and angry that I could not dress. The pain is still there as the skin started peeling off before the skin underneath was ready, and now it’s like my whole shoulders are covered in a thin scab from being rug burned. It hurts.

This really set me off as we had a village meeting that evening. It really highlighted my frustration with a certain point of sexism in our society, the free the nipple movement. It’s not that I’m immodest and wanna shake my titties in front of guys, it’s a matter of comfort. If it’s extremely hot out or I have something like a second degree burn across my shoulders I shouldn’t have to strap something across my boobs (and sub sequentially, my shoulders lest it fall down) just to make a bunch of guys feel better about their lack of self control. Heat is hot. Burns hurt. These are practical, physical realities for men and women. But women are required to toss some fabric on under these conditions anyhow, and that bugs me in a big way. And while the group I was part of probably wouldn’t have cared much if I went topless, I felt uncomfortable about it anyhow. I ended up just tying some fabric around my chest in a band so it didn’t touch my shoulders… But the whole thing felt dumb.
(Fun fact, men weren’t allowed to show their nips either until the 1930’s. Prior to that, men were required to wear swimsuits that covered their chest for modesty reasons. In fact, in the 1910’s men were required to wear swimsuits that didn’t cling too tightly and may have even been required to wear skirts over their boxers so they weren’t so indecent!)

Because of the burn, I was forbidden the outdoors until I could wear a shirt without flinching again, which was about 3 days. When I came out, I found my garden beds were starting to grow with a gusto…. And so were the weeds. The birds had gotten big seemingly overnight and so had the rabbits. Turns out that being absent from your farm for half a week has big impacts!

So I finally got to go weed my garden and take some photos (my camera is still broken so I borrowed a smart phone) this week. There are some exciting updates on the farmstead itself!

Remember the sad, sad tomatoes?

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Surprisingly, they all made it! Some of them are still a little on the smaller side, and some are still recovering. But there’s a huge patch of tomatoes getting bigger by the day growing in my back yard! I have started pinching suckers and blossoms from them. I’m looking to get a crop that I can harvest for canning instead of having them to eat fresh, so I’d like the plants to get extra big before they start fruiting. (I did leave a few blossoms on one plant so we could have a few to eat.)

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I have some onions that got planted very late, but are starting to grow energetically. The patch looks bare from about 10′ away, but if you get close you can see literally dozens of onion sprouts peeking through! I’ve had to remind my helpers that these are onions, not weeds.

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Somehow the corn made it. But with only two stalks, I’m not sure that they’ll actually pollinate and produce. They were pretty weedy. This whole bed has since been weeded.

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The beans and peas are on the northmost wall of my garden bed, but because my lawn isn’t on a true North South line, they are shaded for a few hours in the morning. They’re still growing robustly despite that and are very thick. They’re starting to shade out weeds growing near by.

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And speaking of shading out weeds…. The kale! The kale is growing so thickly and is producing some strong, healthy leaves! We’ve started to eat the occasional leaf on a sandwich. The weeds are struggling to grow under these crowns!

We have a few other plants not shown. The watermelons are starting to recover and spring back with lots of new growth and the strawberries are flowering again. The zucchini is flowering as well, which means delicious vegetables are right around the corner! We’ve had some very serious issues with blossom end rot in previous years… This year we planted the zucchini with a handful of crushed egg shells in the hole. Hopefully we won’t see those problems again this year. And the more wild plants like the shiso leaf, the mint, the lemon balm, the plantago and the dandelions are doing well… But they are struggling against the other, less beneficial weeds in the lawn like the cats foot. I hate that stuff.

We also have a few new faces on the farm!

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Two leghorns and two australorps came to us from another farm recently. It’s been about a month and they have finished their quarantine period.  We waved goodbye to the old leghorn (who wasn’t laying), our newest chick and our chick from last year to make room for these new birds. They’re all pullets still, under 24 weeks, but the leghorns are already laying strong and their eggs are starting to normalize in size. Soon they will be in the pen with all the other birds.

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We also have seven little chicks from some eggs we stuck under our broody. We set a dozen eggs, but like every hatch, there were some problem chicks that didn’t make it. We may even loose one of the ones we have now. It appears to have some unabsorbed yolk, or a small hernia. We brought it indoors to try to recover. Only time will tell. But six chicks is a nice number to have. And our broody hen, a blue Ameraucana, could not be prouder!

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We had our NPIP certificate renewed last month. NPIP is the National Poultry Improvement Plan. If you read my post about vaccines, you’d know that flock health is a pretty important topic to me. NPIP is a simple test provided at a low cost to check for avian influenza and pullorum typhoid. These are both very serious conditions that threaten flocks nation wide. NPIP certification is easy… A tester comes out to test your flock. You get the pullorum result immediately with a simple blood prick test, and a throat swab goes to a lab to check for bird flu. The tester does all the work, you just hand him your chickens. In a flock of a dozen birds they may test 4 or 5 birds. Then you get a certificate.

If a test comes back positive your flock may get destroyed or permanently quarantined to keep these serious diseases from spreading.

Aside from having an official lab test and government agency reassuring buyers that you have a healthy flock (and are willing to risk the entire flock on that fact), NPIP certification is required to ship birds or hatching eggs to most states. The regulations vary a little, but if you don’t have NPIP it’s illegal to take your bird across state lines or to most poultry shows.

Our tests came back clean which means we’ll be able to offer hatching eggs for sale again! Hooray!

So, a lot of exciting and positive things are happening on the homestead this week, despite my arms screaming in pain whenever I lift them above chest level.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go strap some fabric that will assuredly catch on the dry, painful, cracking skin all across these burns to appease the masses while I travel to get some chick feed.

The Tomato Saga

Today I shall tell you a tale of tomatoes. An epic saga of the last month as it unfolded.

This year I had some solid gardening plans that included growing a large number of tomatoes. I wanted to learn to grow something well and I chose tomatoes.

Greg asked me “But why? We almost never eat tomatoes!” My other partner, Dan, said “Blech, I won’t even eat them. They are gross.” And it’s true. When you think of how many fresh lumpy chunks of tomatoes we eat in a year, the number is quite small. Perhaps 5-6 tomatoes a YEAR grace my table.

Then I asked a simple question; “When was the last time we ate something with tomatoes?” Of course they struggled to recall, so I suggested the previous Monday evening. It finally hit them. We had pizza. Tomatoes are in pizza. And BBQ sauce, and ketchup and salsa and pasta and curry… Tomatoes are EVERYWHERE in our diet! And I wanted to stick those squishy, awful vegetables into a blender and put them in jars and eat them throughout the year, served up with sausages and grains and potatoes and garam masala.

So they understood, I wanted a LOT of tomatoes. And I wound up with around 30 seedlings. Seedlings that grew well under some lamps in my living room. The weather got warm. It was well above freezing. We were getting lots of alternating rain in the 50’s and blazing sun in the mid 60’s. It was perfect growing weather for most plants. I took my strong started seeds and started hardening them off by setting them outside the windows for the sunny hours of the day.

Finally our last average frost date hit, and I set them outside in the garden bed to stay there overnight. the weather was still perfect and had gotten just a bit warmer on average. We were hitting the occasional day in the upper 60’s. We started having cookouts. I woke up to discover nothing but stems the next day. Greg had not properly checked the chicken pen door, and my tomatoes had been demolished and the peas and beans I’d planted a week before were dug up. I had pots upon pots filled with 30 stems of former tomato plants.

I rushed the plants back indoors, under my lamps and where they could be well nourished and amazingly most of them survived! They grew new leaves and were flourishing. We had even purchased a few small back up Roma tomato plants from the hardware store, and they were gaining real ground on these completely uneaten plants.

Two weeks after our last average frost date. The majority of the plants move outside and go into the ground. A few stay indoors to continue to recover. It’s been a bit cooler, but not significantly so. The weather looks cooler, but safe still for the week with lots of rain, and is predicted to get hotter the next week. So into the ground they went!

The cold seemed to cling a bit, but it was raining steadily. And then I woke up to an absolutely frigid morning.

I rubbed my eyes. I peered out my window and wondered when my neighbors re-did their roof in such light colored roofing tiles. It had been a while since I slept in that room (as I have two bedrooms). Then I wondered when the neighbors painted their AC unit white on top. And if they had power-washed their driveway so it was so white…

Snow. Two and a half weeks after our last average frost date.

I jumped up and collected Dan, and we went outside with jugs of steaming water. At this point I realized it wasn’t snow at all, it was 1-2 inches of small hail. It was warm enough to slowly melt the hail, but not nearly fast enough. We poured the water around and on the plants to melt the hail and heat the ground and thaw the plant’s frozen leaves. The mulch was dark and would absorb some sun. As we finished watering down the plants, the ground around them was steaming between the hail and the hot water that was soaked in the ground. It took something like an hour to melt the hail and create a warmer microclimate for the tomatoes with hot water… All the while my back yard was flooded something awful and our shoes and sock became soaked with ice-melt from the hail.

It worked… Mostly. Nearly every plant has survived the debacle and is starting to really come back! It’s impressive. And I have the few plants that were struggling to recover that have no gained massive growth on their outdoor counterparts to plant in the spots where the other plants have failed.

And so the tomato saga continues. They are finally starting to set green, undamaged leaves on their crowns. The weather has been feeling like it’s blazingly hot, but I know it’s just warm, being in the low 80’s on some days. It’s really the perfect weather for the tomatoes to grow and they are doing so energetically despite their setbacks.

The peas and beans we planted after the chicken debacle are now sprouting and growing fast. A sole, lonely cucumber is attempting to sprout and grow. My two corn plants continue to truck along as well. The spicy peppers are outdoors as well; they, too, suffered from the frost.  The bell peppers are still indoors under lamps. The leftover tomatoes are starting to move outdoors. One zucchini died, the other one lives, and the watermelon plants appear to be starting to recover as well. The kale is growing very strong and we’re looking forward to salads and leafy greens! We filled the space that would have been zucchini with onion sets. The strawberries are well established now, but just aren’t doing much. Their bed is new, and still very rough and struggling to become healthy soil.

My camera continues to be out of commission. I shall try to get some photos tomorrow for my next update. Perhaps I shall simply have photo days on the blog.

Garden Madness

Working on a garden can be very strenuous, but I have been finding it to be extremely rewarding this year. I shifted gears with my garden this year and instead of just sticking plants into the ground and hoping they would work I’ve been trying to focus on growing just a handful of things well. But the resulting time spent researching, frantically working, and tenderly caring for plants has been pushing my limits. So much has been going on that this will be a big post… Hopefully to go with my big garden this year!

In previous years I had some success with Red Russian Kale (which is perfectly suited to our cold climate and will even over-winter our heavy snows) and various squash plants. The squash plants like my lack-luster care so much they grow whether or not I bother to plant them and I often have volunteer acorn squashes popping out of my garden. The biggest problems I have had is powdery mildew and blossom end rot. A bit of research says that if I mulch my plants and give them extra calcium that they will grow into happier, healthier plants and rot less. So kale and squash; plant with some ground egg shells and top off with some wood chips. Check. We’re all good. Beyond that I can practically toss them in the ground and ignore them. I have two leggy zucchini seedlings starting to sprawl in their seedling pots and about a dozen direct-sown kale seedlings starting to pop out of some weedy ground outside. I am feeling pretty confident about caring for these buggers.

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Next to these lovely zucchini is a watermelon and some corn. I think my corn seed has been rendered sad by age as only two of the dozen seeds I plants germinated. So that will likely be a “stick it in the ground and hope it grows” scenario. I have to pick my battles and learning how to grow corn for two sad plants is not a priority. The watermelon seems to be doing well… But I only planted it because I wanted to see if I could get some fruit and, really, I have lots of garden space available. I did a bit of learning but thus far none of it has stuck. We’ll just have to see on that plant.

Somewhere down the line I had pretty much given up on m pepper plants. But right when I did, two tiny, waxy leaved seedlings popped out of the same cup. They are heirloom bell peppers and in theory maybe I can save a new crop of seeds from these two. The Adam and Eve of my own little local pepper landrace. They have been living under the heat lamp ever since, but haven’t grown much. Fingers crossed I get anything out of them.

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The plants I have decided to focus on learning to grow extremely well are tomatoes. And so far so good. I had 30 seedlings as of this morning, meaning not only did my 27 seedling survive transplant shock from tiny seed cups into large pots filled with compost and soil… But actually the soil being looser allowed for three MORE tomato seedlings to come up in those same pots.

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These tomatoes are perhaps a few inches above the soil and growing fast. You can see (in the big pot on the lower right, nest to the lowest plant) two of the tiny seedlings that decided to emerge after transplanting. Now that the seedlings are in larger pots, there’s a daily scramble to keep them in the sun. As I mentioned previously, our house has two south facing windows, which are partially shaded. So every morning it’s a small scramble to move them to my east-facing windows to catch the morning sun, to crowd them in my singular south facing window (as seen above) for mid-day, then shift them to the west-facing bay windows with added artificial light for the evening and over night. To utilize my extremely small space, I have been placing plants both inside and outside of the window. This also hardens them off simultaneously. Despite being hardened off and transplanted at the same time, they’ve been surprisingly resilient and I haven’t lost a single one.

I feel like I can learn to care for more than just one plant at a time, so I am also going to be attempting potatoes in feed bags and strawberries this year. For the potatoes I shall be using some very-sprouted Yukon Gold organic potatoes I have in my cupboard right now and some seed potatoes from a friend. But while I was learning how to tackle this project, I discovered a big problem in my gardening.

My compost sucks.

I have a dozen breeder rabbits, a dozen kits and a dozen chickens at any given time. My grass clippings and leaf litter tend to be allowed to rest and decompose right on my lawn to add mulch and biomass to our sad, clay-heavy soil. You would think that all of this messy bedding would make AMAZING compost. But it doesn’t. It comes out yellow-ish, smelly, wet, clumpy and gross. In the videos of potatoes their compost was crumbly and beautiful. And while the earthworms SWARM in my compost, it’s just not broken down like theirs is.

And I think I know why. Compost relies on a carbon/nitrogen ratio to break down. Too much of either can drastically hinder the process. Most compost piles have a lack of nitrogen, and so trouble shooting for compost piles says to add nitrogen in the form of urine, manure, or greens. But these are compost piles that people make to toss vegetable scraps in from their kitchen or weeds, to put on flower beds. Not compost piles made from various forms of animal waste to feed a massive vegetable garden.

So I ran a quick mental calculation. The bulk of my compost is rabbit bedding. My rabbits bed in hay (including some alfalfa) which has a 20:1 C:N ratio. Which is OK for breaking down into compost, but is a bit nitrogen heavy. No problem on it’s own. Another big chunk of my compost is chicken manure plus shredded newspaper which SHOULD be about a 70:1 ratio… But the newspaper often clumps and doesn’t break down. So I often add leaves, straw, or hay as bedding to break it up and help keep my coop clean. Resulting in a ratio of about 60:1. I have some table scraps, which go in and probably have a ratio of about 20:1, based on what ends up in my compost. Plus there is the occasional dead animal, feathers, dog poop, etc. which probably has a C:N of around 8:1. It comes out to about 40:1 and that makes up about 1/4th of my compost pile. Combined with 3/4ths hay, it should be a perfect ratio of around 25:1.
But the other 3/4ths aren’t JUST hay. Perhaps 1/3rd of that bedding is actually rabbit poop which has a C:N ratio of 15:1. And then there’s the urine. An adult rabbit may drink a single 32oz bottle in a day. A mom with kits may drink as much as 100oz a day. All of that comes out as urine, which is nearly pure nitrogen (0.6:1). There’s probably about 3.5 gallons of urine a day hitting that hay, or about 1 cubic foot every other day. Now some of that runs out of the cages into the drain in my garage. But at the end of the day, the urine completely saturates a good chunk of the bedding as well as the manure, and I’d be willing to bet that the C:N ratio of my discarded rabbit bedding averages somewhere around 10:1, and it makes up 3/4ths of my compost. Meaning that I probably have a C:N ratio of about 17:1, which is nowhere near the 25-30:1 ratio for ideal composting.
Additionally, we get a lot of rain and snow, and my compost pile is in the shade. I don’t have a lot of straw going on so air pockets are hard to create in my compost. It compacts together and breaks down very slowly because it becomes urine-soaked poo mush with bits of half-decomposed hay strewn through it. The earthworms RELISH it. There may literally be a hundred worms per square foot in my compost pile. But it’s not breaking down.

So I decided to prep a tiny batch of compost for potatoes special. I took a big tub, and mixed shredded leaves and some sifted aged wood chips into the compost. I made a small pile in the shade and I will let it rest for a few days and then stir it daily for a week or so before I plant my potatoes in it. It’s my hope that this pile will break down swiftly into the black gold that I need.

So the potatoes will be going into bags with this specially-prepped compost. And the strawberries get their own bed that’s undergone a similar treatment. I spent some time this week double-digging the spot in my lawn upon which once sat my animal tractor. It first housed three different rabbits over winter and then two half-grown hens in the spring and was an awful, gross, smelly mess of poop and rotting feed. A bit of compost, some half-rotted straw and a bit of elbow grease turned it into a good place to plant strawberries.

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It’s mulched thick with straw over the top while the bed contents break down a bit. I shall probably be moving some of the straw and giving it a good fluff with the pitch fork today or tomorrow to help it along. It’s my hope to get the strawberries living in it, mulched with straw, in about a week.

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It is about 4×4 feet, in lots of sunlight and so should be a rather expansive home for these six everbearing strawberry plants I picked up a few days ago. It’s my hope that they will spread and run madly throughout the bed and grow into a thick cover. While each of these plants had grown blossoms and berries on them already, my partner picked them all off while I prepped the bed so that they would put more energy towards leaves and roots. I can’t wait to see some runners taking root!

When I go to amend this year’s garden bed with compost, I shall be doing something similar. I will rake all of our yard litter (the lawn clippings and aged leaves) into my garden bed. I may sift some wood chips and add those as well. I have some vermiculite and sand to help break up the clay that I will be adding. Then I will be mixing in lots of almost-finished compost filled with worms. It’s my hope that the ground will respond rapidly to this mixture and finish breaking down the compost fast. After letting it sit for a few days and occasionally fluffing it with a pitchfork I hope to have well-rotted compost and soil that I can feel confident planting seedlings into.

Which leaves me prepping my garden bed for this work in advance. I will be having several people over on Saturday evening to re-dig the bed and mix in amendments. So yesterday Greg and I went out and built a new border for the garden bed. We actually moved the edge of the bed in by about a foot so that I would be able to reach both sides of the bed. I have long arms, but the 4-5 feet that the bed is wide is too much. So with a few garden stakes and a bit of string we marked a new edge for the bed and built a border. We dug the over-flowing soil into the bed, and dug up the old markers. We flattened the dug spot and lay down a barrier of cardboard (to help keep the border out of the soil and suppress weeds), then placed logs and stones along the line, close to the dirt. We then shoveled a small amount of wood chips over the border to help secure the logs and stones and cover the cardboard, as well as to help the border blend in. Mission complete! Border built!

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After I took this photo I watered the border in and trampled it a bit to help compress everything into place. It’s my hope that it will stay put while we work the soil throughout the week and into the weekend when we amend it. I have a few friends already lined up to help me haul, dig and transport gross compost, wood chips and dirt. Hopefully this bed will look like black gold in a week’s time, just in time to get my plants in the ground. Wish me luck!

Seed Starting 2016; Tomatoes Edition

Whoa. I went to make this post and noticed that I have been doing this blog and this homesteading thing for 3 and a half years. I have butchered countless rabbits, kept a dozen different breeds of chicken, tried out more plants than I can count… And yet I STILL don’t really have this whole gardening thing down yet. I’m not really sure what I am doing wrong, but I am. This year I have a new strategy.

I am attempting to make ONE plant a major focus of my life. I have collected more mason jars in the past year than I know what to do with, see, and I want to fill them with at least one successful crop of something. Last year I picked up a lot of some 100 dirty and used mason jars, mostly wide-mouth quart size and mostly lacking rings for about $40. Then for Christmas this past year I got a box of six old-fashioned blue mason jars, two dozen pint jars (to go on top of my 2-3 dozen I already have), a ton of lids and rings and some dry-goods caps. So that brings my jar count up to some ridiculous number that I haven’t actually counter around 150. Maybe a dozen or so of those have food in them.

As such, I am seriously focusing on tomatoes this year. Very seriously. I want to fill those jars with tomato paste, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, whole tomatoes, and if I get lucky enough that my other veggies come up, some salsa as well.

My hope is that by growing a LOT of one plant, and by learning intensely about that ONE plant, I will finally get something to grow with serious success. And so I have this massive number of tomato seedlings just starting to come up.

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So the first thing I learned from my previous failures; I am terrible at keeping plants watered, and preventing them from drying out. This little pre-made cheesecake lid keeps all the seedlings watered from below. I just fill this up with an inch of water and walk away for a couple of days. The fact that the seed cups are all so tightly bunched together also helps retain moisture. The natural materials of the seed cups wicks the moisture up to the seeds (like a paper towel with the corner dipped lightly in a pool of water sucks it up into the whole towel), while gravity keeps them from being over watered. I do not water the surfaces, I just pour some water down one of the sides between the seed cups. So far this has been a success. I am using old seeds and don’t expect all of them to sprout.

In previous years I tried multiple different methods for growing seedlings that ended in various forms of disaster. Lamps in the basement where I forgot about them, plastic covered boxes in windowsills that grow mold relentlessly, spaced out containers that dried out, containers that were too big or too small… I have bought potting mix, seed starting mix, sterilized my own compost…. Bleh. So much work that amounted to a fat lot of nothing. I want plants that will live with easy to use methods that work for me. There’s a concept in rabbit raising; get rabbits that are already living and reproducing in the conditions that you want to raise them in. So I want to try to grow plants and start saving seeds that will handle my growing methods. But I also need to understand that just like rabbits can’t eat a diet of nothing but bananas, I have to cater to my plants. And the plants need light, heat, water and air. They need care that they just won’t get in my basement or in a grow box. I need something that’s easy and idiot proof and plants that will grow under those conditions.

This year I decided to hell with if my neighbors think I am growing something sketchy in my windows and set up the plants in my living room, right in my front bay window, with nice bright, hot, lights on them. Since I don’t have enough lights, when I get a lot of sun I just shift them into a window that has light coming into it. The windows in my house are really awkward. My street is approximately north/south, which means the front of my house faces the west (sunset) and the back faces east (sunrise). And my south facing windows face my neighbor’s house right across their driveway (maybe a dozen feet away), which blocks a huge amount of the light. I have a grand total of TWO south facing windows in my whole house, and they are both pretty useless. So in the morning the plants go in my kitchen/dining room windows if there’s a good deal of sun shining… And in the evening they stay in the bay windows. During mid-day, if the stars are aligned just so, I get light in my singular first-floor south-facing widow and they go there (as they are in the first picture).

Unfortunately I did manage to screw up even that. After the seedlings sprouted I put them under a bigger, brighter lamp than my little desk lamp I was putting precariously close to them before. But the lamp put out TOO much heat and managed to crisp 2/3 of the seedlings in a cup to death. I didn’t notice it until I went to take the pictures… Which made it a great time to take photos of my failure in action. Yay? The third seedling in that cup, despite the heat stress, is now bouncing back. Mostly.

lamp

Too close!

lamp2

Just right!

The other downside to this method has been fungi. I used last year’s failed empty pot soil mixed with some organic potting soil that has been sitting outside for a while and I didn’t sterilize any of it. I don’t want to have to bake my dirt in and over at 200*F for 20 minutes or some other nonsense in order to grow plants in it. So I didn’t. And while I’m getting some mushrooms, it’s NOTHING compared to when I was trying the whole plastic grow box method that retained moisture on every surface. So far I have just pinched off the various fungi and removed them. They’ve been sparse at best.

I also have a tray that you can see in the background with some other veggies. Even I know better than to put all my eggs in one basket as it were so I’m still giving the other plants a shot. But I’m not really as invested.

otherseeds

Peppers (hot and bell), zucchini, watermelon, cucumbers and corn are all making an attempt to grace my garden this year… And I tried direct-seeding some “purple” broccoli in my front lawn where I am attempting to grow some flowers in a newly made bed. I have a tiny bit of one zucchini peeping out from one of these pots (third from the left, top row) if you look closely.

I chose watermelon because I really, REALLY would like to get some fruit this year! I will also me attempting to build a small(ish) strawberry bed again this year… Once it’s officially not snowing anymore that is. That could be another couple of weeks since we had snow, oh, yesterdayish? The last bed of strawberries got trampled by dogs. Alas. This one will need better protection.

Fingers crossed I get some delicious produce this year!