The State of the Garden: “Spring” 2014

It’s been the longest, nastiest winter in my memory. It finally seems to be lifting, but even now, after four days of above-zero temperatures, the yards are covered with a thick cobbler of ice and mushy snow.  Once this ice and snow melts, it will leave brick and mortar scree all over our front lawn and garden, residue from our February window replacement.  Needless to say, nothing is growing.  At least, not outside.

The only blessing of this wintry hell (and yes, it’s really gotten me down.  I used to like winter.  Not anymore) is the intensification of my pleasure at 1. watching things grow indoors and 2. anticipating the day they can go outside.  For example, here are my collard greens.

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I started them in February, and they’re happily humming along in the sunny mudroom.  I’m hoping they’ll have time to get outside and grow big and strong before it gets hot around here.

Also in the mudroom, some alyssum and rapini…

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…and the arugula, which I feared was lost when the overnight temperatures dropped to -15 (the mudroom isn’t much warmer than the outdoors).  But no!

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Our new windows have nice wide sills.  The cats and the plants appreciate this.  Here, Cat A stands guard over some thyme, dill, calendula and lovage.

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I managed to coddle some herbs through the winter.  I’m especially proud of the basil, which was quite spindly when it came inside in October.  Look at it now! The marjoram is also hanging in there.

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In the basement, I’ve set up a new grow-light system, and the results have been fabulous. I still have the old purple-bulb-lamps-and-shelf setup for emergency transfers when the main system gets too crowded, but the difference a real adjustable starter light makes is remarkable.  I’ve also bought a couple of heat mats so that the peppers and later the tomatoes can stay toasty.

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We’re expecting more rain today, so I’m hoping that the peas can go in their raised bed tomorrow or Monday, and then I’ll keep my fingers crossed that they can produce before summer descends on us.  I’m very interested to see what this season has in store, as Nature seems to be hellbent on proving that we’re not the boss of her.  (Note to humankind: Could you please stop trying to prove that you’re the boss of Nature, and maybe appease her with some nice new rainforests or virgin sacrifices or something?)

 

 

 

 

 

July 26, 2013: The State of the Garden

I have built an elaborate, possibly futile anti-squirrel fortress for the tomatoes.

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So far, it seems to have been effective.  Before I built it, I found several green tomatoes scattered around the pots, some with bites out of them.  Since I constructed this – a chicken-wire fence, a spiderweb of twine and rubber bands on bamboo stakes, topped with a generous blanket of netting anchored at the bottom with bricks – the plants seem to have been undisturbed.  The trickiest part will be getting at them; three cool days have meant that they haven’t needed to be watered yet, but tomorrow I’ll need to get in there, and it may be quite a process.

In the meantime, the cabbage worms ate my kale.

chewedkale

I’ve put in some collards and lettuce for the fall; I’ll plant some more lettuce after the worst of the summer heat has passed.

collardslettuce

The balcony herbs are doing pretty well.

balconyherbs

balconybasil

However, the Moroccan mint has been developing brown spots on its leaves.  I’ve moved it into more direct sunlight to see if that helps.

mint

The squirrels have not been entirely deterred by the netting on the strawberries, but it seems to have prevented total decimation.  That said, many of the berries have developed brown spots and, after a few delicious ones in the beginning, the rest have been bland and bitter.  I haven’t determined what’s causing this; maybe you have some ideas?

strawberryjuly

I’m looking forward to some more dill.

dill

The cress is not happy, but the chocolate mint is doing fine.

cresschocmint

The zucchini has gone through a couple of traumas, including falling over and battery by thunderstorms.  It looks fairly happy now, but it hasn’t fruited much for the last couple of weeks.  I’m hoping it’ll pull itself together, especially if we get some hot weather again soon.

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The cucumber is doing GREAT right now, and the nasturtiums are making everything cheerful.

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I’m looking forward to a second crop of beans.

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However, a couple of bean plants have developed these spots on their lowest leaves.  I’m not sure whether this is something to be concerned about.

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One poblano fell from the plant during a rainstorm, so I chopped it up to fry in a peppers-and-onions dish and it added a lovely spice.  I can’t wait for this one to fully ripen.

bigpoblano

I’m hopeful that August will bring a big pepper crop.  The bell peppers have been struggling but are starting to flower more profusely now, and the poblanos in the shadier part of the garden are showing signs of maturity too.  I’m thinking chiles rellenos.

bellpepperflower

And finally, after a struggle that began in January and has seen the death of many seedlings, it seems I’m able to grow a catnip plant.

catnip

Next year, I may try to scale back a bit.  (Do I really need four tomato plants?  My husband can’t eat tomatoes.  Two zucchini plants in one pot is overkill.  Seven poblano plants – what on earth?)  However, I suspect that in January, when browsing seed catalogues will be my only way to feel like a gardener, plans may change.

Even if everything keels over tomorrow, my garden has been a godsend this year.  In the moments (many of them) when I feel that owning a house is too much for me to handle, I look out at the back yard and remind myself that none of this would have been possible in our cozy second-floor Outremont apartment.  Wandering through the pots every morning, coffee in hand, cats hiding under the foliage, has turned every day into an adventure.

Maybe next year I’ll start caring about the flowers in the front a little more.  I expect the neighbours will appreciate that.

I’m trying to see this whole process as an education.

Warm-weather Crochet

The annual heat wave has arrived.  It went up to 43 degrees (109 Farenheit) yesterday.  I haven’t left my air-conditioned living room in two days.

I thought I’d be spending this week plowing through the stack of novels I gathered at the library, but I got sidetracked.

crochet

Yes, when it’s hot enough outside to melt iron, my perverse instinct is to play with yarn.

I’ve knit for many years.  (Poorly.  Obsessively.)  The first time I dabbled in crochet, however, I thought: This is really a more sensible way to make things.  It’s a thousand times quicker and puts much less strain on my poor, worn-out right arm.

Something in me resisted.  I read a lot of knitting books and blogs, and they are often dismissive of crochet.  The speediness of crochet inspires snideness  in some knitters.  But when I dutifully tackled my Learn-to-knit Afghan again this winter, I found myself bogged down and resentful.  I’d bought all this beautiful yarn, but it was taking so long!  I’d never finish this damn thing!

So a few days ago, when I found myself itching for a hands-on crafty project (probably because it was far too hot to spend any time in the garden), I remembered an online impulse buy from several years ago: a few bags of worsted-weight cotton yarn buried somewhere in my stash.

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If you want to crochet something but barely know how, and are armed with only Crocheting for Dummies and a lot of pretty yarn, granny squares are your best bet.

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I strongly recommend picking up Crocheting for Dummies if you’re an absolute beginniner (or Knitting for Dummies if that’s more your scene), but if you have some knowledge of basic crochet stitches, here’s a good granny square tutorial.

Bonus benefits of this project:

1. Knitting 100% cotton yarn is terrible, because cotton yarn sticks to needles and doesn’t stretch.  Crocheting it is a breeze; the little loops hold their shape and the technique itself is stretchy enough to free up your movements.

2. My husband is allergic to wool.  Acrylic blankets are nasty.  Cotton blankets are awesome.

3. A small granny square takes about 45 minutes.  I can switch yarns after every square.  Satisfaction + stimulation = less chance of abandonment.

4. I can just keep making squares until my yarn is all gone.  If I don’t have enough squares for a blanket of the size I want, I can go get a bunch of cotton yarn in a compatible colour and weight and make more.  Then I can get another yarn to stitch it all together.  Buying yarn is super fun.

5. Small cotton squares are totally appropriate for hot weather.  No one wants to be touching swaths of wool when the world outside is boiling in its own juices.

The only problem is that I keep feeling that normal people leave the house and do things, even when it’s hot, and I have no desire to leave the house or do anything but make squares.  I’m telling myself that once things cool down I’ll take my squares to the park or maybe even leave them behind to walk to the grocery store or something.  But even if I don’t, what’s the harm?  There are cans of beans in the pantry that can be made into dinner, and at the end, I will have a thing that I made.

How do you entertain yourself when leaving the house seems like too much of a challenge?  Do you have reliable “it’s-too-darn-hot” activities?  Do you have feelings about knitting vs. crocheting?  Will all this air conditioning give me brain damage?

They Grow Up So Fast

Over the last few days, there have been all sorts of exciting garden developments.  Some have been good!  Some have not.

In the bad news:

1. Zucchini down!

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At first, I blamed the cats.  Then the squirrels.  In the end, though, I think the zucchini was too big for its britches.  Which is to say, its container.  Next year, I will rig up some support.  I was tempted to fiddle with it, but after much agonizing I decided to leave it alone, and it’s recovering:

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2. The savoury plant seems to be a perpetual victim.

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This is the second time it’s been knocked off its perch.  Not sure who to blame, but the cat looked guiltier than usual.

3. A couple of the tomato plants have bad cases of leaf roll.

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After doing some research, I think this is due to cool temperatures and high humidity, and nothing dire.  They are still producing like crazy and, although some leaves have a mild black speckle, there is no sign of spots.  Some of the lower leaves, however, are looking chewed, so I’m keeping an eye on them.

4. The beans and the kale are also getting munched.

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I’m not too worried about the beans – they are otherwise fine, and production doesn’t seem to be affected.  The kale makes me sad, though.  Some of the basil plants are getting it too.  I expect it’s slugs, but am investigating other possibilities.

5.  I don’t know if this guy is bad news or not.

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The best I can tell, he’s a diurnal firefly, and therefore a) benign and b) cute! and c) a firefly, albeit without the glowy stuff.  If he’s something else, that’s a different story.  I’ve solicited opinions.  Including yours, please.

In good news:

1. We harvested the first green beans!

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I steamed them and made them into a salad with some zucchini and blossom refrigerator pickles I’d made earlier in the day.

2. So far, the netting seems to be keeping the squirrels out of the strawberries.

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We ate one of these yesterday and it was INCREDIBLE.  However, I just surprised a squirrel sitting on top of the hanger, chattering at the top of his lungs (“I’M STEALING YOUR STRAWBERRIES I’M STEALING YOUR STRAWBERRIES!”) so we’ll see if the net does its job when I’m not there.  (He also knocked over the collards I’m sprouting, so I’m starting to think he’s responsible for the savoury fiascos.)

3. The calendula is blooming.

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4. The peas did well, and yesterday I harvested the last of them.  Today, I pulled them up and planted some more carrots in their place.

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Not sure if it’s a good idea to put carrots in after peas – too much nitrogen in the soil – but we’ll see what happens.

5. We now have two – count ‘em, two – poblano peppers.

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6. The basil and sage on the deck are looking great.

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7.  It’s a funny little garden, but it’s full of good things, and I grew it all myself.

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July 5, 2013: The State of the Garden

Summer has been both exciting and frustrating in the garden.  There was much too much cold rain for a while, and now it’s very hot.  There are aphids to combat, and the squirrels have become my mortal enemies.  Nevertheless, there are some fun things happening!

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The summer peas are doing wonderfully.  These are shelling peas, and it’s taken me all season to figure out how long to wait before picking them, so I’ve depleted my harvest by picking them too small.  That said, they are perfect right now, and are unbelievably delicious – I feel like I’ve never tasted a pea before.  I pluck them daily, shell them, and scatter them over my lunch salad.  I’m torn as to whether to grow these again next year or switch to a snap pea, as I do like to eat peas whole.

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Here’s our first poblano pepper.  The bell peppers are doing poorly – the plants are yellowish and spindly and the leaves are like eyelet – but the poblanos look to be thriving.  The joints are a bit blackened but the internet assures me this is normal.

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The cucumbers are coming!  They’re about half the size of my little finger at the moment, but considering I wasn’t expecting them to make it through the premature sortie and cold spring, I’m VERY proud of them and their efforts.

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And today, the first nasturtium.  The calendula look about ready to pop, too.

In sadder news, the strawberry plant has been troubled.  For one thing, the squirrels discovered it.

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(How insulting is it that they take a single bite and leave the rest behind?  And that they pull the green ones off too, when they can’t possibly want them?  And they leave the evidence in a pot of marigolds that they dug up the night before?  I know we should respect the ways of nature, but this all feels like spite to me.)

My attempt at defense is to stick lots of bamboo skewers out of the soil to discourage digging, and drape the whole basket with an elaborate web of netting.

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I know squirrels can chew through plastic, so we’ll see how this goes.  What’s more, some of the berries have been developing brown spots as they ripen, which may be a fungus – damn all the rain! – so I’ve been picking open the netting to prune and it’s all a big pain in the butt.  I have yet to taste a delicious ripe strawberry from this plant.  Next year I may just pass in favour of more herbs.

Also: the rapini grew just a few inches and then flowered.  Pretty, but no longer edible, I don’t think.

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Other catastrophes?  I placed a friend’s chair too close to the lettuce box and the box went over the deck railing.  (It wasn’t growing well anyhow, even though it was still cool outside.)  None of the spinach I planted three weeks ago has germinated; now I’ll need to wait until fall.  The arborist won’t return our calls – we’ve been waiting since May for him to come take care of our sick birch and our bolting maple.  And the marjoram and savoury plants we ordered from our CSA arrived mouldy, although the savoury seems to be recovering.

But the cherry tomatoes are growing like mad!

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And the green beans!  Holy cannoli!

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And how about those zucchini!

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In an effort to keep on top of the zukes and their delicious blossoms, I’ve been experimenting with refrigerator pickles – also a good way to make use of CSA basket leftovers at the end of the week.  Amanda Cohen’s great cookbook/graphic novel Dirt Candy has been very helpful with this.

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I’m learning many things.  Among them:

1. A single pan-fried zucchini blossom makes it worth it to grow your own veg.

2. Growing most herbs from seed is too much trouble.

3. You have no idea what a real salad is until you’ve plucked most of it out of your own garden.

4. It’s very difficult to grow enough peas.  I feel like I need a whole garden just for peas.

5. Finally, early morning garden inspection makes the cats very happy.

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More Firsts for June

June is almost at an end.  It’s been cold and rainy – today it’s once again 15 degrees Celsius and pouring – but the garden is soldiering on.  Here are a few highlights.

First cucumber flower (June 23):

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First poblano pepper flower (June 23) (I know, it’s blurry.  Even this imperfect shot took FOREVER to get):

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First chocolate mint harvest (June 24)…

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…which went into the iced coffee you see here, part of a satisfyingly gardeny lunch.  The salad contains all sorts of garden clippings, as well as a saute of fresh-picked zucchini and zuke blossoms.  The coffee was THE BEST ICED COFFEE EVER.

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First strawberry (June 25) (I ate it a couple of days later, when it was much redder but still not quite ripe enough):

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First green beans (June 25):

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First carrot (June 27) (!!!!).  Don’t be fooled; this carrot is TINY, but it is a harbinger of big things to come, I’m sure:

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Firsts

First zucchini flower (June 10):

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First pea (June 14):

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First chard harvest (June 14):

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First zucchini (June 17):

firstzucchini

Ingredients for first real garden dinner (June 18) (Husband, after tasting a bit of raw zucchini: “Oh my f%&*ing god, this zucchini is amazing”):

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First tomato (June 19):

firsttomato

First bean flower (June 20):

firstbeanflower