April Fools

picking-my-battles-all-under-control-web

“The day before spring break is always a perfect day for a snow storm,” or at least that’s what I imagine Murphy was thinking to himself as he thought of all the conditions that might prove his law to be true.

It it actually is a perfect day to dump a bunch of precipitation on our town. The snow had mostly melted. The trees are mostly bare, making potential matchsticks out of the mountains.

So everything that could go wrong did, but it isn’t really a bad thing.

Garden Surprise

One of things I love about having two kids who are getting older (one is almost 20 the other is almost 14) is that, as their different strengths emerge, I am ending up with two very different and wonderful partners in crime.

Thing1 one is my builder. I contract more and more construction projects out to him these days.

Thing2 is my idea man, my co-dreamer. When I have an idea for a backyard project that might make Thing1 or the Big Guy gasp in horror, Thing2 is ready to hop on that flight of ideas with me which that’s how I ended up with today’s menu specialty, Garden Surprise.

Last summer the two of us were shopping and stopped at the food court for mango smoothies. We both decided they were so good we had to have seconds, and just before total brain freeze started to take hold we uttered, at the same time, “we should get a blender so we can make our own.”

Now I know what you’re thinking. There should’ve been a responsible adult there to put the kibosh on this idea, but five minutes later we were headed over to the kitchen store to pick out a blender. We bought a bunch of frozen fruit at the grocery store and did a little experimenting. Almost as soon as we stocked the freezer and perfected a few blends, however, cold weather set in, and the blender didn’t see much action for the next nine months.

We’ve had a few barnburners recently, and the frozen fruit and blender have re-emerged but with a twist this year. The last few days, as the garden really starts to produce, I’ve developed a new recipe, Garden Surprise, which consists of water, protein powder, a little bit of frozen fruit or banana, and anything that happens to be ready to pick. It’s yielding wildly different drinks from day to day–today included kale and cilantro and peas, but, just as i’ve learned from my two very different boys, sometimes the things that take you most by surprise also offer the most joy.

Salad Days

The last few months have been sketchy for me as the demands of mitigating the pandemic and navigating pneumonia with resulting lung issues forced me into a new job search. I am determined to continue teaching in the fall, but, along with millions of other Americans, I know that full time employment is anything but certain. Daily, I fight the paralysis of angst as I try to reconfigure my safety net in an unstable economy, so it sometimes seems counterintuitive that my primary source of serenity would come from the ever-evolving vegetable garden.

I am no longer, as the bard would say, green in judgment, but these are still my Salad Days — chaotic and nerve-racking.

Last evening I wandered through the garden, noticing new buds and gathering treasures. A short while later, a black bear wandering through the garden cut short a visit to the composter and the driveway. It knocked over a barrel but left the chickens alone. I immediately knew who was responsible for knocking down trellises and eating cucumbers as soon as they form, but I wasn’t mad.

I was amazed, and the giddy amazement that comes with remembering that bears surround us in Vermont (there are over 4500 of them) got me rethinking the things I can’t control. Weather and wildlife may exercise as much control over my harvest as my work, but the chaos isn’t always destructive.

Sometimes chaos is a wakeup call. It’s the change that lets me see the new lettuce flourishing and the wild black raspberries volunteering their surprises. It’s the chance to marvel that wild things still exist in this part of the country. It’s the force that refocuses my attention on the people who need help and the planet that needs people to live deliberately. It may upend parts of my life, but, as with the weather and wildlife, I am working harder not to fear change, but, at an age when many people seek calm, embrace it as a chance for new experience.

Not Weed

This time last year, I would have regarded this fluffy clump as a sign that summer was officially here. This year, I’m thanking it for the hard work it’s done helping our bee population.

I think we have the dandelions to thank for it.

We’ve had apple trees since we moved here. Our plum and pear trees are old enough to flower each year, and the flowering bushes are not new. What is new this year is the profuse flowers that have appeared on every plant, attracting symphonies of laboring bees.

The dandelions seemed to arrive first in all of this miracle. I’m not sure if they brought the bees who brought the flowers or if the late snows brought the flowers who brought the bees, but the dandelions were there first.

The green in our yard can hardly be called a lawn. It gets cut once a week, but we let Mother Nature do the watering and fertilizing, so, to thank these puffs for their contribution, I decided to let them be until they’re ready to fly around the yard, setting us up for another year of miracles.

Garden Journal – Straw Bale Update

When we moved to Vermont, our ZIP Code sat in a solid zone four. Now it is comfortably into zone five, and we set out seedlings a week earlier on Memorial Day weekend. Our day and nighttime temps can still be a bit bipolar, so when it looks like the nighttime lows will be below 40, I cover the tender annuals. Yesterday morning, however, I learned that, with straw bale gardening, less protection can be more.

The straw bale method involves conditioning the bales with plant food and water almost two weeks ahead of planting. This causes the straw to break down, and you are, essentially, planting your veggies in a compost heap. Like most compost heaps, the decomposing bales Start to “cook”. This means if you cover your tender annuals, like I did with the cukes pictured below, you need to make sure that they are uncovered as soon as the sun hits your garden. As you can see, I slept in a bit yesterday, and at least one of my little cukes got fried.

It’s still early enough in the season and hot enough outside that I can direct seed it to replenish, but I hate to sacrifice a soldier that was trying to serve me well.

By contrast, I did not cover the summer and winter squash or the tomatoes. Those plants were slightly bigger, and I had only so much material for protection. It was down in the low 40s on Saturday night and Sunday night, and I knew I was gambling.

When I walked out to the garden in the morning, however, this was the sunshine that greeted me:

I took a little trip to the back of the garden to check on the tomatoes, and every single one of them was getting ready to salute the sun:

The tomatoes do have weed block around them, but the real heat is coming from the bales.

Later in the day I went back to visit the garden –– I visit to talk to the plants and the bees in the nearby apple trees a few times a day – and while I highly recommend talking to plants and bees regularly for your mental well-being, my straw bales blessed me at the end of the day with a little botanical happy pill in the form of newly sprouted bush beans that I had direct seeded less than 48 hours earlier.

If I were to do the straw bale garden over again, I might set some of the seedlings out earlier and cover them for the first couple of weeks. The one caveat I have for other would-be straw bale gardeners is that, while the claim that you can’t overwater them appears to be true, the reverse is also seems to hold. You do need to check the moisture around your plants as you do with any gardening method.

So far, however, my plants seem to be loving the heat and the decomposing bales, and, as mentioned previous post, you can still sit to do your gardening.

Poem: Murder Most Foul

I’m thinning basil seedlings.
Eggplant, you’re next.
I’ve killed dozens of pepper shoots,
mourning the products of
seeds that worked so hard,
tossing them out the door.
Only the very best survive.
The cat runs by with a chipmunk who may escape her maul
but will more likely end up in the middle of the yard,
his entrails split over the new-cut grass while she,
without a trace of blood on her mouth
or guilt on her head,
returns to perch on her chair,
and watch me commit murder most foul.

Score One for Straw Bale

One of the quirks of Strawbale gardening is that, even though you don’t have to contend with perennial weeds that are real PIA to pull, conditioning bales of straw (made from cut grass) will generate weeds in your planting medium. You can smother it before it starts, but you will have to do some pulling as I did yesterday.

I’m trying to mulch as I pull so that it’s a one time deal, but since I’ve been sick most of the spring, bending at the waist to pull even a few blades of grass was mindbending I’m not in a good way. That’s how I discovered one of the other more beneficial quirks of this gardening method.

The basic steps of a straw bale garden our place, condition, and plant the bales. Some types of plants need soil on top of the bale before planting; others can go right into the conditioned straw. This year I had the kids do most of the placing – bales can be at least 35 or 40 pounds stone dry, but weeding is less glamorous. I made it even less so yesterday by having Thing1 bring a chair up to the garden after the weeding first bale literally benched me.

After stooping over gardens for the last two decades, sitting in a chair, weeding and mulching the second onion bed that was just the right size and height was not only not strenuous, it was downright enjoyable. Sitting, you get to talk with the cats and dog about what you’re doing (the cats still think you’re nuts), you get to take a look at what’s almost ready to be picked, and you even get to do a little meditating. Sure you get to meditate doing it the old-fashioned way, but being able to sit and do it it’s a big checkmark in the win column for Strawbale gardening this year.

P. S. I still highly recommend a nap when you’re done.

Snow Days

if you would asked me in February what Mother’s Day would look like, I would’ve told you we would be expecting to see Thing1, having finished his freshman year, coming home from school, And the four of us loading into the car for Mother’s Day brunch before I got started grading papers. I’ll probably write an IEP this afternoon before dinner, but that’s the only part of the plan still in place.

Thing1 is still upstairs sleeping off the tension from his last online exam. The Big Guy made me and Thing2 breakfast, and except for a brief trip to the garden, I’m spending the day writing in my study surrounded by my for babies. Will have dinner as a family later, and that, along with our daily walk through the melting snow will make it as perfect Mother’s Day is anyone could ask for, but my garden trip was a little gift too.

Traditional wisdom in Vermont put June 1 is the day to set up most siblings, but changing weather patterns have emboldened many of us. Mother Nature noticed, and sent us about 6 inches of wet snow Friday night, burying my recently planted greens.

I thought she might be trying to teach me a lesson that June 1 is planting day, but when I walked out to the garden I found another remind her in place. The spinach and kale practically smiled at the camera, and even the carrots couldn’t be prevented from peeking out through the snow. Frost and snow can slow growth, but it can’t stop it, not forever.

I Wonder What Would Happen

The great thing about having raised teenagers is that, when your perpetually adolescent cat puts his front paws up on your plant shelf and starts sniffing the various items that are ‘in his spot’, you know exactly what he’s thinking.

There’s a plum tree right outside my window, and the late spring has produced an explosion of blossoms (and hopefully plums) along with a squad of visiting chickadees. A chickadee chirp woke Jim up. He drew himself up into pounce position, turning his head this way and that as the chickadee hopped from branch to branch. Every few minutes he tried the cat equivalent of bunting — pretending to jump at his prey but not really doing anything.

Then the chickadee made a truly bold move, moving to a lower branch with a particularly lovely lunch of blossoms, and Jim had to make a move. I though he might forget that a window lay between them as he launched his front paws on to the plant shelf.

Instead he paused.

I let him sniff for a few minutes and could almost see the thought bubble above his head asking the classic question,

“I wonder what would happen if….”

In this case, ‘if’ was a temporarily forgotten chickadee as Jim tried simultaneously to move a hind leg onto the shelf so he could what would happen if he pushed the squash plant in front off the shelf. But, having watched Thing1 and Thing2 ask (and test) this question at various times about anything that could be climbed, blended, eaten, or flushed, I know when to let the experiment play out and when science is about to run amok.

I clapped my hands once . Jim’s hind foot returned to the poof and his gaze to the chickadee. The bird heard my clap, fluttered across the yard, and, for the greater good, scientific investigation was stymied.

Peas and Carrots

Peas and carrots are coming up in our straw bale garden. Carrots always seem to take a little while to germinate and don’t try my patience, but I confess, it never seems like spring until the first pea shoots appear.

This is the first year I’ve tried Strawbale Garden. Devised by a garden writer by the name of Joel Karsten, and it involves buying and arranging bales of, you guessed it, straw. You “condition” the bales by watering and feeding with organic fertilizer for a couple weeks before planting. then plant right in the bells, sometimes adding growing mix depending on the type of plant.

Health issues this year limited how much lifting and digging I had energy for, so ordering and arranging the straw bales was easy (especially with Thing1 doing most of the arranging). I’m always a little gun shy about ordering straw; you never know if you’ll get hay and weed seeds in there.

But this year, I’m game for an experiment.

I recycled weed barrier from the paths to cover the entire garden before bringing in bales. It’ll give it the summer to smother any weeds. We’ve gone scorched earth on the raspberry canes that were invading the area, and I’m planning to mulch the heck out of the space in the summer.

The appearance of peas and carrots in two of the bales gives me some hope. We’re putting in other greens today, the first truly warm day of spring. Peppers and tomatoes and other warm season vegetables are still under the lights in my office, And I feel like somebody just yelled, “Ladies, start your engines!“

Green Victorious

When I was a kid my parents and some friends rented a community garden plot in Baltimore. Our yard was mostly gravel and shade, and I remember the first summer my dad carrying on about the victory garden his parents had when he was a kid and the experience he wanted to replicate. We got a few salad and more zucchini then we could eat in 10 summers, and then we moved to a house with a big yard in the Midwest where, ironically, we grew only lawns and flowers. I’ve let my gardens lapse here and there, but this year, I have a hankering for victory.

I had my first back to the land epiphany when we moved to Vermont and wanted to make the most out of space. Every power outage and snowstorm that socked us in, every trip up our rutty road in mud season made me more determined to have my grocery store growing in my backyard, feeding my freezer through the summer.  Whenever I dig in, however, I get a lot more than just groceries out of the dirt and my sweat.

My ongoing pulmonary issues and Thing1’s compromised immune system prompted us to initiate a ‘stay home’ protocol well before the governor issued one for everyone in our state. My body has limited how much heavy work I can do right now, but as long as I have the strength to whisper the words “I have an idea” to my husband (and now kids) the resurrection of a big garden was inevitable.

This year I’m experimenting with Straw-bale gardening, laying ground work for no-dig sheet mulching in the fall. So far the weather has been too cold to allow more than a few pea shoots to establish themselves in the conditioned bales, and trays of seedlings and propagated cuttings add welcome green to my office window.  

The current experiment is much less work and may produce slightly fewer jars of tomato sauce. As long as there’s something green and hopeful flourishing, however, I’m calling this garden victorious.