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Blogging on gardening

[In the blogosphere, I’ve noticed a special kind of post, and I realized after writing it that this is one too:  it’s a “Why-I-haven’t-been-blogging-much-lately” post…]

When I started blogging about my “yard farm” back in February, I knew that I would not have quite as much time to write about my garden once the weather warmed up and I’d be outside, actually working in my garden with my plants instead of writing about them.

And the boys — well, they’d want to be outside if it were 33 degrees and pouring rain — but they want to be out in the yard and garden as much as I do when it’s been as pretty as it has been lately.

In addition to the call of the nice weather and growing “to-do” list in the garden, a few weeks ago I accepted an offer to work part-time for an organization I’ve been volunteer teaching with (Teach the World Online).  All of the work I do for TWOL is online, so that’s a couple hours of time in front of the computer each day (all quite interesting, though!), so as soon as I get done I’m rounding up the boys from their naps and heading out the door.

Needless to say, my blog has fallen a bit by the wayside in the past couple weeks due to the new job, glorious weather, and the start of the growing season here in the Southern Appalachians.  But we’re still here, hands in the dirt and feeling summer coming on strong!  Stay tuned!

 

Another 28801 front-yard farmer

Right up the street from Alsace and Candice’s garden you’ll find another cool front-yard, raised-bed garden.

While driving and walking down this street, I’ve watched this garden grow the past few years. I was first intrigued by the design of the bamboo fence:

When you’ve got your garden right up in the front yard, right next to the sidewalk, it is nice to have a little bit of a fence (e.g., keeps dogs – and clueless people – from wandering over into your plants).

I was walking home from picking up the boys from preschool last week and saw the person I thought belonged to this garden, and he (Andy) — like Candice and Alsace — was kind enough to take a few minutes and answer my questions and let me snap a few photos.

Here’s Andy in his garden.  He has managed to turn a rather small space into lots of growing room.  He’s put his composter in the corner of the space, you can see it behind him.

Over the winter, he put down pavers in the paths between the raised beds. That’s an improvement I’ve put on my wish list for next year’s garden.  It keeps the weeds and mud at bay, and it looks pretty cool too.

Here’s a couple more perspectives showing how Andy has turned a very small space, right on the sidewalk into a great garden (I love the city “No Parking Any Time” sign)…..

 

Shocking slugs!

I am sure I’ve mentioned my disdain for slugs.  In all my gardens prior to having raised beds, I’ve been plagued by them.  They can be so destructive, and no matter how diligently I picked them off young plants (or set up beer traps to drown them, or sprinkle slug pellets, or whatever cure du jour I’d most recently discovered online) they always managed to be one of the peskiest pests.

Last year I read about putting up barriers (of varying kinds) to keep them out of my raised beds.  The most ingenious one I read about was copper tape.  It supposedly works by giving the slugs a mild electrical shock when they touch it, so they won’t cross it.

And I must say, it has been very effective as I’ve yet to find one on even the tiniest of my seedlings.  My peppers, tomatoes and lettuce seedlings have been growing along untouched by these spineless, shell-less destructors.

This is what the copper tape looks like when unrolled.  It’s got adhesive on the back so you can just stick it directly onto the wood of your raised bed.

Notice that I got smart this year and wore gloves while putting the tape on the beds.  Last year I must have been in a hurry (or lazy) and I didn’t wear gloves, and I got some of the most wicked, tiny cuts from it.  It’s a fairly thin strip of copper so it was kind of like a paper cut, but with thin metal — ow!

This is what it looked like right after I put the copper strips around my two new raised beds.  Those beds are now planted with my tomato and pepper starts, which are safe and sound thanks to the copper.

The copper strips I put around the 4 raised beds last spring are still holding on tight.  They have a slight green patina to them, but they haven’t peeled off a bit, despite a harsh winter and torrential spring rains.

One thing I did read about in a gardening forum is that you must keep weeds and other plants from growing up over the copper strips, because the slugs will use it as a “bridge”  to avoid getting shocked and get to your plants.  Which reminds me, I need to go out and weed right now…..

 

Bees! We got bees!

Easter afternoon we were driving over to a cookout at James’s cousin’s house.  Right around the corner from our house, I saw a person in a beekeeping suit in our neighbor’s yard. Well, I figured there must be a swarm so we pulled over to check it out.

The swarm

Sure enough, our neighbors had a swarm in their backyard.  We told Andy, the beekeeper, that we had an empty bee box in our yard and were on a wait-list for getting bees this spring.  He told us he’d captured 3 swarms in the past week, so he was all set on hives, and he offered to give us these bees.  Woohoo!

He got them all corralled into his bee box, stapled some screen over the entrance, put them in the back of his pickup and followed us back around the corner to our house.  He told us what we needed to do to get them transferred over to our bee boxes — I was listening intently, but not understanding much, with the notion in my brain that I’d call my brother ASAP to get him to come over and show me what to do with them later.

Andy getting the swarm into the box

Well, later came around, Craig got over here and we donned bee suits and transferred the racks from Andy’s box to ours.  I was a little nervous as that was the first time I’d worked with bees since my one or two feeble teenaged attempts when my dad started tending a few hives in our backyard (I’m sure I was more scared of other teens seeing me in a bee suit than I was of the bees).

Craig and me, ready to go

Anyway, it was amazing.  They were pretty calm but their collective buzz was steady and loud.  I felt safe in the bee suit even though they were flying all around us.  We got them all transferred, added a sugar water feeder to the front of the box to help feed them till they get established (in bee-speak, I think that means they’ve got to build their wax honeycomb cells up enough to be ready for them to put honey into…I think).

Bees in Andy's box on right, prior to transfer to our box on left

Of course, the boys were totally taken with the entire process — especially the bee suits.  How cool to be able to look like a spaceman/alien and it doesn’t even have to be Halloween!  They didn’t get too close to the hive but were watching what we were doing.  They’re only 4 and 2.  I wonder if it was instinct helping them keep a safe distance, or if they were following James’s lead (who didn’t have a suit but was also trying to watch from a couple yards away).

Amanda reloading the smoker

The next day, my brother and I had to go to Greenville for family business(not exciting stuff). We went to my Dad’s house while we were there to check on his four hives.  When we got there, our friend Amanda was already there, suited up and checking the first hive.

Now, I am a complete beginner.  So this might not all be exactly right.  But, I learned that “checking on a hive” means that you’re making sure the hive is healthy:  you go into the boxes, pull out the racks and see what’s going on.  You look for brood cells, pollen cells, and of course cells filled with honey. (You also check for ick things like wax moths and some kind of parasitic beetle that can harm a hive.)

Opened bee box, checking racks

Amanda at work

You also look for the queen — my favorite part of the entire activity.  I’d always envisioned the queen as just kind of sitting still in one place, immobile, while the drones and worker bees helped move her around so she could lay eggs in the cells.  Nope, the queen of the hive I first looked in was just as mobile and busy as all the other bees, moving around fairly nimbly for having a much longer abdomen than the others.  We saw the queens in the other hives too and they have been working hard, making healthy bees and hives.

Learning by doing, baptism by fire — whatever this crash course in beekeeping was, it sure was fun.  I did get stung once through my glove but it wasn’t too bad.  I guess I was distracted by all the activity.

Here I am trying to figure out how to get the smoker to work, loading it up with sticks I’d carefully picked up from among a ridiculous amount of poison ivy in my dad’s yard.  It is a true miracle I didn’t end up with a major PI problem. Thank goodness for the full coverage of the bee suit!

Amanda explained to me that the smoke confuses the bees by masking the pheromones they emit when they get mad (i.e., when people get in their hive), so they stay calmer.

Back in Asheville the past couple of days,  I’ve been intrigued by these new residents in our backyard. I can see the hive from our porch.  There’s a lot of activity right outside the entrance, but Craig assures me they’re not getting ready to swarm and leave.  He says they’ve got to get their bearings, and he’s confident they like their new home.

This afternoon I told my 4 year old that we needed to go to the store.  He asked, “Are we going there to get my bee suit?”  I looked online and sure enough there’s a place that sells bee suits for kids.  I think it’s great, but I know it will start World War III if my 2 year old doesn’t get one too (they don’t make them small enough for him)…he’ll just have to wait a little longer….and enjoy the honey in the meantime!

They're all in! (Sugar water feeder on the front helps them get established)

 

Getting plants from TV land

This was on my doorstep a few days ago:

What in the world has my mama sent me now?  I love my mom.  My mom loves me. My mom also loves to shop — at thrift stores mostly, but being a night owl she also gets into shopping on TV.

Every once in a while she’ll find something on one of those cable shopping networks that she’ll order and have shipped to us.  Usually it’s something like a space heater or air purifier, but in the past few weeks, one of these shopping channels has started offering all kinds of gardening stuff — including plants.  And Mom is way into it.  Not for herself as she doesn’t have much space for gardening, but for us.

Last week I received a box of 8 dwarf butterfly bushes she’d ordered from one of these channels. Mom is very thoughtful — she’d heard me mention that we’re thinking about getting bees, so she ordered the butterfly bushes knowing they attract insects (not sure if bees like them though, but it’s the thought that counts.)

I had no idea what was in today’s box, but I noticed a distinct smell as I was cutting through the tape — tomato plants, and “heirloom” varieties at that:It’s so weird to me that tomato plants can be sent through the mail.  They all arrived looking fairly healthy, though.  And they came with tags too.

I’m going to have to find some space in the raised beds to plant these — I hadn’t planned on having any more tomato plants than the ones I’m growing from seed.   However, I just can’t not plant them — feelings would be hurt.

And while I didn’t inherit my mom’s shopping gene, I do share her trait of having a hard time getting rid of things.  In my case, it’s plants.  My house plants have to be on death’s door before I can toss them.

Thinning seedlings causes me mild angst, but fortunately I’ve learned to toss them into salads so I don’t feel like I’m wasting them:

Above are some of the romaine starts James planted several weeks ago.  I’ve been picking the outer leaves and mixing them with the explosion of spinach leaves (at right):

And here’s a photo of part of the front bed with seedlings grown from Sow True Seed:

I’ve been thinning these lettuce plants out and putting them in salads.  The really tall plants in the back are Asian greens that are also great in salads — and I’ve used them in a couple stir-frys.

Anyway, I’m wondering how the mail-ordered-from-the-TV tomato plants will do compared to my grown-from-seed tomatoes from my local seed company.  July will tell!

 

Ramp time

Here in this shady little corner of my backyard there are a few random hostas and some ferns growing underneath a dogwood tree.

I had totally forgotten that I’d also planted some ramps back in there somewhere last spring.

Then, a few nights ago we met our friend Brook out for pizza.  He brought us some ramps he’d harvested with his dad at their home over in in Clay County.

We were eating these ramps along with our pizzas when the taste sparked a memory that I’d planted some last year, somewhere in the yard.  I just couldn’t remember exactly where.

I’d planted them because our same friend had given us some, and I just wanted to test and see if I could get some of them to grow — ramps are pretty particular about the kinds of conditions they like, so I was feeling the challenge to get them to grow here.

The more I ate, the more that pungent garlicky-onion taste made me remember that I’d planted them in the only really shady, damp and leafy spot we have in the yard.

With Proust, it was the madeleline that brought up images of the past.   Imagine how much – and what all – he could have recalled had he been chomping on some good ol’ southern Appalachian ramps (had he eaten them as a kid!)

Ramps are strong stuff — strong enough to pierce my sleep-deprivation fog (thanks to my 2-yr. old’s vampirish sleep habits) that’s wrecked my memories of where I’ve planted things in my yard, among many other things…

But strength aside, ramps are an absolute delicacy to me.  I’ve been ramp hunting with the Wood family over near their home in Clay County, and the process of finding them is just as fun as eating them.  There’s definitely ritual — look at all the ramp festivals each spring this year running up the spine of the Appalachians. Winter is really gone!!

Now, the ramp patch going in our backyard is tiny.  Hardly even big enough to call a patch.  I googled around about harvesting them and found out I need to wait another year till digging some up.   I’ll just have to admire them for now, make sure the English ivy doesn’t invade, and — most importantly — put a plant marker back there so I don’t forget where they are next spring.

Oh, and for the rest of the ramps leftover from our pizza outing — I’ve got them ready to go to scramble tomorrow morning with eggs from my friend Anne’s hens — thanks yall!

 
 

Front yard farmers in 28801

I’ve learned about gardening over the years from my dad, gardening books, and the internet.  I’ve also gotten lots of ideas by checking out other peoples’ gardens and small farms.  Right here in my own zip code there are some great gardens going on in front yards.  I love to see what other gardeners are doing.

It seems that most folks who keep their gardens in their front yards do so because their back yards are either too shady or there’s not enough space.  We moved our garden to the front yard because of the two giant spruce trees that line the southern side of our backyard, plus our front yard is flatter.

My college friend Jane emailed me last week to tell me she and her husband are moving their raised bed garden to their front yard too to take advantage of a sunnier situation (they live in Ohio and they’re ready for lots of warm sun after this past winter!)

Moving the garden to the front yard has made gardening a much more social experience for me. Neighbors tend to stop regularly on walks to check out what’s growing.  I can also find people to give vegetables to when everything seems to start coming in at the same time in late summer.

Just a few blocks from our house there’s a great garden that I pass on the way to preschool.

The entire front yard has been turned into a neat system of raised beds.  When I was on a run last week I noticed the owners were home and in their garden so I got a chance to meet them.  Candice was kind enough to let me interrupt her potato planting and tell me about what she and Alsace are growing in their front yard this year.

The bed to Candice’s right is the beginning of her potato bed.  She explained to me that she’ll keep adding boards and soil vertically as the potato plants grow.  We talked about the challenge of getting water to the lower layers as more soil gets layered on.  I told her about something I’d seen on the internet about putting a soaker hose near the bottom layer to keep the plants from getting too dry.

On the far right of the picture is their rain barrel that a friend made for them.  Up close to the house but a little hard to see is a cold frame that Candice made.

I asked them if it was OK if I follow their garden’s progress through the season on my blog and we got a chuckle out of the idea that they’ll have pressure to keep the garden going strong.  It’s the same kind of “pressure” I felt when James and I first started gardening in the front yard — I felt like we’d better keep the weeds out and everything looking good, while I hadn’t been so concerned about those things when the garden was behind the house.

Here’s another front yard system over in Montford (not far from our house):

 

These gardeners have managed to turn almost every square inch of dirt in their front yard into growing space, complete with cool signage letting everybody know what to expect to be coming up later in the season.

 

 

 

 

 

Another benefit of front yard gardening:  less grass to mow.  Or in the case of the two gardens above, no grass to mow!

 

 

Worm composting update

A little concerned that there were some “escapees” from the new worm composting box in the basement, I decided to look beyond the internet and my first worm supplier (the old bait shop in W. Asheville)  for some professional vermicomposting advice.

I called James Magee at Blue Ridge Redworms here in Asheville, and set up an appointment to meet with him yesterday and buy some more worms, as what I had didn’t seem like enough.  I also thought I was lacking some important worm-raising information.

Turns out James Magee not only has a successful worm farm, he also happens to be a helpful and friendly person who knows more about worms and composting than I’d imagined was possible.  While he doesn’t give tours of his site anymore (protecting business secrets) he did spend almost 45 minutes telling me and the boys all about redworms.

Much to the boys’ delight, the first thing James pointed out to us was tiny worm eggs in the box of worms we were buying.  He showed us the darker colored eggs and said they were about to hatch.   Several worms will hatch from each egg.

I brought the worm composting bins we already had going so he could give me some advice on our set-up.   He took one look at it and told me the worms I got at the bait store were, well, bait worms — a kind of the earthworm I’d read about that likes to dig deep in the dirt and isn’t the optimal subspecies of worm for vermicomposting.

 

Red worm on left, bait worm on right

James’s second suggestion was that the newspaper bedding wasn’t the best living medium for worms. He said that the bleach used in the paper-making process, along with the inks, could adversely affect the worms. The ideal environment for them is a nice mix of leaves, grass and compost (so my previous instincts were right — worms and dirt do go together, right?!)

James also said I should make the drainage holes in the bottom of the bins larger — instead of a quarter-inch, closer to a half-inch.

Looks like redworms like cornhusks

I told him about my escapees, and he suggested leaving a low-watt lightbulb on to keep them from emerging.  The light tricks them into thinking it’s daytime so they’re less likely to come out.

As far as feeding them, they need a half-inch to an inch layer of food (vegetable and fruit kitchen scraps) every 7 days or so.  They don’t like citrus or anything really acidic.  He told me I could experiment with different kinds of foods to see what they like:  put the food in a corner of the box and see if they crawl to it.  I asked him about banana peels, and he said “Oh they LOVE banana peels.”

Also, if the worms all move out around the perimeter of the box, or if the box smells at all, then there’s something in there that doesn’t suit their appetites.

Another thing I mentioned to him was the “worm tea” collecting in the bottom bin.  He told me that is “worm leachate”, not the same.  Here’s more details on worm tea vs. leachate.

According to James, the end product of the whole worm composting process — the worm castings — makes gardens grow strong and abundant.

I imagine with the small system I have that it will not handle all our food waste, nor will I have large amounts of worm castings (may have to buy some castings for my raised beds from farmer Magee — he sells that too).  But it is a fascinating process, and we’re curious to learn more.

 

 

A good spinach dip recipe and a great book

Yesterday afternoon I needed a quick and easy recipe for an appetizer to take to my book club. With it being a rainy March afternoon, I really didn’t want to load up the boys and head to the store so I made do with what I had….loads of spinach from the garden. And we always have a random assortment of cheeses, so I googled “fresh spinach and cheese dip” and found quite a few, but one sounded particularly good:

This hot spinach dip recipe. It’s from an Australian website so everything is in metric weights, so I kinda guessed at the amounts. (I recently read somewhere that the US, Myanmar and Liberia are the only 3 countries in the world that don’t officially use the metric system. Great.  Along with most Americans, I’m metric illiterate.)

Instead of shallots, I used the same amount of chopped chives, another overwintered herb that is growing profusely right now in the garden. And I didn’t have enough mayonnaise — hard to believe in my house that I didn’t have a stashed jar of it somewhere as I love it — so I just upped the cream cheese a little.

While spinach and artichoke dip is one of my favorite appetizers, this one wins in the looks department because it uses fresh instead of frozen spinach.  It’s bright green instead of that green/brown and pale yellow color that most hot spinach dips have (although that has never deterred me from gorging on it every time it’s in my presence).

I’d have taken a photo of it but I was running late, then there was not much left after book club.  What remained after I got home, my husband finished off.

Oh, and the book we read this month was dogs, by Abigail DeWitt.  We were so fortunate to have the author come meet with us (she lives near Burnsville, about an hour from here).  It was a really good read, and being able to discuss it in person with the author was an added treat.  Thanks Abigail!

 

Vermiculture, wormery (box of worms in the basement)

Worm farmers, please take no offense as I’m a total newbie when it comes to raising worms —  I’m still laughing about finding the word “wormery” while googling for ideas about building a worm compost bin.   Nursery, brewery, apiary, pharmacy — but wormery?

Well, reading more into it, it’s quite an interesting concept, so I’m laughing less and getting more intrigued by these lowly worms (Lowly Worm, by the way, was my favorite Richard Scarry character as a child; now my boys love it when he turns up in stories too.  Such a friendly fella).

I’ve been wondering how to expedite the composting process of kitchen waste. Magic answer:  worms (according to my recent googling).  They can do alot of composting in not too much time.  There’s even commercial vermiculture/composting to handle restaurant food waste.

Now from what I’ve learned, you can’t just dig up regular ol’ earthworms out of the backyard and put them to work as composting worms. Sounds to me like earthworms are kind of wild, solitary creatures who like to do their own thing in the open dirt.

Red wigglers, however, have more colonial tendencies and can turn most vegetable and fruit scraps (and coffee grounds among other non-edibles) into some of the best dirt on earth:  worm castings.  They don’t seem to mind being boxed in as long as the conditions are right and the food is good.

I had a feeling this would be an easy project to get my kids involved in as they are absolutely obsessed with worm-hunting in our yard.  When they found out we were making a “worm house,” I had their undivided attention (there’s not much of it to be divided anyway, but they were quite curious about the process).

I followed these directions on how to construct a worm bin.  Yesterday I went to a hunting and fishing store in West Asheville with my 4-year old and bought out their last 4 containers of red wigglers.   Then I got 3 ten-gallon plastic storage tubs to stack one on top of the other.  We drilled holes in them according to the directions.  This lets the worms have some air, and also lets the castings fall down into middle bin for easier collection.

So it’s three bins stacked one on top of the other.  The top one is where the worms live and work on breaking down the food waste, the middle one collects the worm castings that fall through the holes, then the bottom one collects any excess moisture, AKA “worm tea”, which is another very nutrient-rich compost to put on the garden.

Soon after the drilling, our friends came over to play and help out with the wormery construction.  The next step was to tear up newspapers into strips and get it wet to make an environment for our worms. (Soggy newspaper doesn’t sound like it would be exactly the ideal home, but I’m trusting the websites I’ve read, and going against my instinct to house them in dirt.)

Well, we did get to put a least a little dirt in there, as the worms need some grist to help them digest their food (no teeth):  

 

 

 

 

Then the kids turned the worms out into their new home:

 

And then we stacked the bins together, put a piece of wet cardboard over the top (apparently worms love to eat cardboard too, but I also think this is to maintain an ideal moisture level in the bin):

Now we have to wait a couple of days to let them acclimate to their new place, then we can start adding small amounts of kitchen scraps and let them go to work.

 

 

 
 
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