Monster Spinach and Copenhagen Cabbage (aka caterpillar magnet)

For the first time in my gardening years (all two to be exact), I finally got around to planting cool season crops during the cool season! In the past, I always waited until April before planting any seeds outside. But one day last week, March 11th to be specific, I was outside under the gorgeous blue sky, plopping little itsy-bitsy seeds into the soil. 

March 11th would be roughly four weeks before the last frost date for my region (April 7th with 10% chance of another frost occurring after that) which I found on this handy website that each gardener should consult for detailed climate info for his/her city. Some cool season crops can even be planted 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost date. Most of the seeds I planted, however, were recommended for the timeframe 2 to 4 weeks.

Into the ground went seeds for monster spinach, lettuce, parsley, beet, cabbage, carrot, leek, and swiss chard. I noticed that the beet and swiss chard seeds looked very similar, and that the cabbage seeds looked like mustard seeds. Leek seeds are so cool because they look like little slivers of coal.

I love cabbage but have been hesitant to grow it because it is well known to attract moths that lay eggs on it which then become tiny little caterpillars that eat the cabbage leaves and become giant caterpillars that will then cause me to scream and run away while hopping up and down. Cabbage: the caterpillar magnet. But I figured if I can deal with a behemoth tomato hornworm that very nearly made me pass out, then I can certainly deal with cabbage caterpillars…..right? I am sensing some doubt here…

WARNING: Scary photo of 4-inch long tomato hornworm below. WAAAAHHHH!

After planting those seeds, I worried about them because I was going away for the weekend and wouldn’t be able to water them. However, it turned out that they only went one day without any water and it’s been raining every day since then. Now I worry that they are getting too much water. If it rains too much, would the seeds be pushed deeper into the soil or brought up to the surface? Either one would not be ideal because it might affect how well the seeds germinate. Not having experience with cool season planting before, I don’t know what will happen. I guess I just have to wait and see!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011   ()

Strawberry Go Nuts!

In 2009, I bought two strawberry seedlings and planted them. They produced a handful of small strawberries that year and created a third strawberry plant via a runner. My grandmother had told me that strawberry plants can be overwintered in California, so I left them in the ground, not expecting much from them due to their lackluster performance.

Those plants decided to prove me wrong. In 2010, I ate strawberries from my garden almost every week from June through mid-September!  

I collected strawberries in metal bowls, glass bowls, plastic bags, or just my hands.

Some of them had bite-holes from pill bugs (or Armadillidiidae…. Real name. I’m serious!) and birds, so I cut off the holey sections. The berries ranged from the size of a kumquat to the behemoth that was as long as my palm (see far right photo below).

I never did taste the behemoth strawberry because I gave that to my mom. But, I’m sure it was divine. 

The strawberry plants I have are the everbearing variety (Seascape everbearing), which produce two to three harvests throughout spring, summer, and fall. Everbearing varieties apparently do not send out many runners (or “stolons”). A strawberry runner is a horizontal stem which grows a distance away from the plant of origin (the mother plant) to produce daughter plants. One runner can establish many nodes from which the daughter plants form. 

The production of runners requires energy which means that a strawberry plant producing runners has less energy to produce fruit. I had some runners and little fruit in 2009 whereas in 2010, I had plenty of fruit but no runners. I’m still trying to figure out how to encourage runners to form so that my strawberry plants can clone themselves. I believe that because I run a pretty packed planter’s box, the strawberry runners had nowhere to go and not much exposed soil to take root in.

Drip irrigation could also be a culprit because anywhere there isn’t a drip node is bone dry in the summer and fall, and I’m not sure if the daughter plants will take root if it’s too dry. I had switched over to drip irrigation because the sprays weren’t working very well for me. For the type of soil in my backyard (hard clay), spray irrigation just caused pools of water to develop over the surface of the soil and algae to grow in those puddles.

I did notice that the older strawberry plants were preferred by aphids whereas the daughter plant stayed bug-free except for Armadillidiidae and slugs that went after the fruit. Since there was only a small number of aphids, I let them be. Overall, the strawberry plants required almost no work. I kept them watered with my automatic drip system and fed them with an organic 10-10-10 fertilizer once in early spring and that was it!

Actually, I did have to protect the fruit from the terrestrial crustaceans and gastropods which seem to love my garden so much. I noticed that 98% of the fruit that touched the soil had holes in them from those a-gnawing bugs. The ones that hung in the air, supported by a mesh of leaves and stems were untouched… until I come by and pluck them for myself, that is. So, to protect the strawberries as they were forming, I tucked a few into the lower halves of cut-off water bottles. This method defended against the birds and squirrels too. Just don’t squeeze too many strawberries in the bottle because they will get bigger as they grow and could end up squishing one another.

Suffice it to say that I was really impressed by my three lovely strawberry plants. A tip for beginner gardeners: plant strawberry seedlings, water and fertilize, harvest fruit, impress family and friends. It worked for me! 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011 — 1 note   ()

Try not. Plant, or plant not. There is no try.

As I looked back on my 2010 garden, there were many projects that were abandoned, one of which was my gardening blog! I left off with a story of the slug and earwig night-hunts and by now, there has been a bunch of new adventures, one of which includes a GIANT tomato hornworm! *UGH….I just shivered and got goosebumps.*

This year, one of my resolutions (yes, you can have multiple New Year’s resolutions) is to write often and not worry about the structure, chronology, or season of my prose. Perfectionism is a dangerous thing because, for some people (like me), it prevents them from even starting on a particular project because they want so badly for it to be perfect from the start. As a wise Jedi-master once said, “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.”

So I will write more often, plant more often, and therefore learn often from my successes/mistakes. If you’ve been thinking about starting a garden, rearing chickens in your backyard, growing mushrooms, beekeeping, canning your own produce, and so on, DO!

Be on the lookout for more gardening stories from me! 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011 — 2 notes   ()

The Great Earwig and Slug Massacre

It all started on a dark, cold night.

She was anxious to discover what perverse critter had been chomping on the cherry tree’s leaves to the midribs. Oh how she trembled with anger as she flung on her coat and pulled on her moon boots. 

"Those buggers will pay," she muttered under her steam-filled breath, stepping into the wilderness with gloved hands and her trusted weapon: the Hand Trowel.

Soon after, a high-pitched squeal was emitted followed by the words “gross” and “I’m scared”. On the way to the cherry tree, her path was blocked by vicious slugs of all lengths and colors. With trembling hands and a weak stomach, she slashed them to death with the Hand Trowel. No slug was spared. Not even the babies.

"I’m not done with you," she said, walking past the other slugs that were weeping and hiding in fear. She decided to leave the rest of the slugs for the night. It was time to track down her original prey.

Armed with a flashlight and a bottle of insecticidal soap, she approached the cherry tree and gritted her teeth in fury and horror. Earwigs! There in the circular beam of her flashlight was a colony of earwigs gnawing hungrily at the leaves of the poor cherry tree. As quick as lightning, she started spraying them with the soap and they slipped off the leaves, hitting the grass with the sound of raindrops. She dashed to the pear tree and there they were too, drinking the nectar of the flowers and then ungraciously ripping off the petals. It was all too much for her. Feeling overwhelmed and defeated, she retreated.


It continued the next night, which was dark, cold, and rainy.

"All the tools you need to kill bugs is right there in your own home."

With a slightly crazed look on her face, she poured dishwashing liquid, salt, and hot water into a small bucket.

"The salt is specially for you, slugs,” she thought deliriously. Swishing the deathly potion slightly, she then ventured outdoors. Her first target was the earwigs. With a flashlight and the bucket in one hand and the Hand Trowel in the other, she gently coaxed the little buggers to jump into the pool of death. One by one the earwigs fell: they never emerged from the foamy depths.

For the next hour, she stood patiently by the cherry and pear trees, searching and destroying, and feeling very sure that some of the earwigs that had missed the bucket were now crawling up her legs. When most of the earwigs were gone and her arms were sore from holding the bucket, she ventured to the slug hideouts and started killing them too. This time, all she had to do was pick them up (using the Hand Trowel) and drop them into the lethal potion.

With her mind singularly focused to kill every pest in sight, time flew by like a jet-propelled car. 

Eventually, she saw no more pests. With a weary sigh, she kept her weapons and left the bucket. She knew not how many she had killed. Some say on that night alone, she single-handedly reduced the earwig and slug population by half.

Others say that she killed a hundred earwigs and a hundred slugs. The only thing known is this: that night came to be known in history as The Great Earwig and Slug Massacre.

Footnote: the heroine in this story eventually started to use Tanglefoot to prevent the earwigs from climbing up the cherry and pear trees. She still had to kill slugs every now and then, but the use of Tanglefoot has freed up some of her time so she can watch Hulu at night instead of hunting in the cold and rain.

Disclaimer: All characters appearing in this work are real. Any resemblance to fictitious characters in works of literature, film, comics, and manga is purely coincidental.   

Friday, April 2, 2010   ()

My 2010 Garden: Plants and Plans.

In February, when the weather’s nasty and wearing on me, I begin to dream about the things I will plant in Spring. Colorful vegetables, luscious fruit, and a grand display of flowers. Of all the things I want to plant, I probably only pick a third of it because:

1) I am a busy woman and I don’t want my social life to be consumed by my gardening life. **Cue derisive laughter.**

2) I can’t eat that many fruit and veggies so it doesn’t make sense to plant, say, 4 tomato plants. **That’s why I’ve ordered only 3 tomato seedlings this year. But since I got a free packet of tomato seeds with my seeds order, I should try to plant that too, so…. that adds up to 4.**

3) you reap what you sow. Therefore, if I sow way too many plants, I’m going to be doing a lot of reaping in the fall. 

That said, let’s get to the list of plants I want to grow this year!

PLANTS (type, name)

1) Melon, Charentais
2) Corn, Bodacious
3) Carrot, Carnival Blend
4) Coriander, Slow Bolting
5) Green Onion, White Lisbon Bunching
6) Leek, American Flag
7) Okra, Clemson Spineless
8) Beans, Asian Winged
9) Pepper, Golden Marconi
10) Pepper, Purple Beauty
11) Beet, Golden
12) Beet, Cylindra/Formanova
13) Watermelon, Orangeglo
14) Lettuce, Rocky Top Mix
15) Melon, Tigger
16) Beans, Purple Podded Pole
17) Potato, All Blue
18) Potato, Purple Viking
19) Potato, La Ratte
20) Tomato, Azoychka
21) Tomato, Black Sara
22) Tomato, Sun Gold
27) Sage, Purple
28) Rosemary, Tuscan Blue

Note: numbers 23-26 were used for plants that are already existing in my garden.
23) Strawberry
24) Thyme, German
25) Carrot, Carnival Blend
26) Flowers

Items 1 through 7, 27, and 28 were bought from local nurseries. Items 8 through 16 I bought this year from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Items 17 through 19 were ordered from Ronniger Potato Farm. And items 20 through 22 from Laurel’s Heirloom Tomatoes

PLANS

Here’s my tentative garden plan. The numbers correspond to the list of plants above. The rectangle on the right side of the diagram depicts my 4’x6’ planter box. As you can see, the planter box is not filled up yet. This is still a work in progress.  

I’m trying to remember to do successive plantings so that I’ll have batches of vegetables that mature at different times. Right now, the carrots, beets, lettuce, spring onions, leek, and coriander seeds have been planted. When they get to about 2” tall, I’ll plant a second batch.

Now that Spring has arrived, it’s time to stop dreaming and start planting! Go get yourself gardening!

Thursday, April 1, 2010 — 1 note   ()

Don’t be jealous…

or rather, do be jealous. :-)

Come closer…

Even closer.

My, my, what a temptress you are! 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010   ()

Spring is (almost) here!

There’s no more exciting time in a garden than spring, when trees and plants come out of dormancy and begin to bloom. In the winter, I look at the bare branches and wonder if the plant is even alive. I secretly hope it is, but nothing anchors that hope except faith. When the weather gets warmer and the buds and flowers burst open, I sigh in relief, almost as if I’d been holding my breath for the whole winter.

Hello, baby. 


Welcome to the world.


Boy am I happy to see you.


 

You’re looking beautiful today…


gorgeous…


stunning!

(The buds/flowers featured in the photos above come from these plants, in the order of appearance: comice pear, multi-graft cherry, table grape, purple pony, plum, and candle delphinium.) 

The garden is an amazing place. So vibrant and full of life (bugs and w**** included — let’s be realistic here). So frustrating (slugs, aphids) and yet so rewarding (fruit, veggies, flowers). When you set aside every Sunday in February, March, and April for “yardwork”, gardening is no longer a hobby. Call it a job, an obsession, crack… whatever you want to. I just know that I love it!

Thursday, March 18, 2010   ()

How goes it, Miss Wanna-be-Organic?

Wanting to grow stuff organically is a lot more difficult than it sounds. There are reasons why scientists, chemists, and businessmen designed synthetic fertilizers/pesticides/herbicides. Here are some instances:

1) But what big weeds you have! — I’m sure my neighbors are at this very moment plotting to buy a flame thrower for the purpose of eradicating the knee-high weeds in my front side yard. A bottle of weed-killer ($11) and 7 days would have solved that weed problem, but nooooo, I had to go all organic. So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work, but I didn’t get far. There was a bunch of ladybugs chillin’ out in that weed patch. Ladybugs are supposed to be good for gardens (I have green and black aphids on the menu) so if I tear our all those weeds (or cut them or spray them to death), I’m effectively killing the ladybugs’ habitat and food source. So I only cleared out a patch of the ugliest weeds and left the rest.

2) Damn aphids! — Like I said, I have green aphids attacking my roses, and black aphids attacking my lemon and cherry plants. I bought the ladybugs last year and they took care of the green aphids, but not the black ones. When I saw the aphids a few days ago, I ran to the weed-patch/ladybug habitat and carried a few beetles to the aphid-infested plants hoping they would munch on the aphids. However, they just meandered all over the plant. I’m beginning to think of those black-spotted red beetles as lazybugs. Over the next few days, I’m going to bring a few ladybugs to the infested plants daily. I hope that the ladybugs will mate, lay eggs on the plant, and their larvae will eat the aphids. Call me the ladybug matchmaker. If I wasn’t so organically-inclined, 2 or 3 days of spraying with aphid-insecticides and my problem would be solved.

3) Weeds or slugs? — We can never win. If you want to suppress weeds with ground cover like newspaper or leaves or wood chips, you’re creating a five-star resort for slugs. Otherwise, you’ll have weeds. Then you have to do weeding. If you don’t use herbicides, weeding would entail squatting down and pulling out weeds one by one. And when you have around 5000 sq feet of garden/yard to de-weed and you can almost hear over a hundred weed seeds sprouting every time you pull up one weed, then you know what it feels like to be outnumbered. That’s why gardeners are always out there in the garden. You snooze, you lose. Don’t even get me started on the slugs. My M.O. is every time I see one, I kill it.

4) Eww, worms! — Once in a while when I’m digging the soil or pulling up weeds, I see a cutworm or leatherjacket or some kind of evil worm (I know it’s evil because it’s not an earthworm). First I squeal, then I pick it up with my shovel, throw it onto the concrete sidewalk, and either chop it until it bursts or squish it until it pops. Blegh. Gross! Those are the times I have to summon up the most courage. Those are the times when I have to be brave. Nature is a wild thing, so it is my job as the gardener to tame it. I believe there are some pesticides you can use to kill evil worms but I’m going to try to encourage more of their natural predators first. Apparently, ground beetles eat cutworms and leatherjackets.

5) It takes HOW long to create compost? — I love the idea of returning to earth what we took from it. And “black gold” just sounds too cool. But I have to admit, if you’re a busy (read lazy) person like me, and you don’t want to go turn/water/add/activate your compost every two weeks, then you can expect your compost pile to take around 6 months to decompose. But here’s a tip: you don’t have to wait until it’s fully decomposed before adding it to the soil that you’re over-wintering (i.e. leaving it bare over winter). What I did last November was to dump the compost that had been rotting for the past 4 months onto the soil and roughly dig them in. Turns out earthworms dig it! Punny, huh? Let them work that compost into your soil. Come spring time, you’ll have rich soil teeming with earthworms. Or you could drive 5 minutes to the nearest OSH, buy a bag of compost and use that instead.

So it’s pretty clear to me why organically grown food costs more: there is just more labor involved. There are always quick fixes for pests and weeds, which means it all boils down to what is most important to you. If you want to build a diverse ecosystem in your garden, you have to spend time listening to your soil and understanding the creatures around you (yeah, I know, this sounds so Pocahontas). I have the luxury of time (since I can just buy from the farmer’s market when my garden isn’t producing), but many others don’t. I guess a good attitude to have is to be respectful of produce and try not to waste it, because it is the sweat and blood of those who planted it, organically or otherwise.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010 — 2 notes   ()

Digging on Adobe

Even before I moved in to my house, I’d decided where I wanted my vegetable garden to be: the side yard which serves as an RV parking spot, right next to the garage. It is the sunniest spot and gets the morning sun since it faces east. It also happened to be bursting with weeds. If weeds love it, the soil must be great, right?

So, out with the weeds and… uh… what’s all this crap? Gravel, blobs of dried cement, bottle caps, a toy sheriff badge, golf balls, cable connectors? Looks like someone’s been using the side yard as a dump site.

After the weeds were cut down and removed, it was time to dig some vegetable beds! My gardening book explained about how to create deep beds using the double-dig method. Deep beds are more space efficient because they allow vegetables to be grown closer due to the deeper root zone. For a small garden, a deep bed (the inverse of which is a raised bed or planter box) is perfect.

With bursting enthusiasm, I asked my friends to help me dig a 4’x6’ rectangular bed that’s 2 feet deep.

D: You seriously want us to dig 2 feet into the ground?

G: Yeah! It’s gonna be easy!

The first 2 inches came off easily: the soil was a gorgeous black. But that was it. I only had 2 INCHES of topsoil! What lay beneath was the subsoil: hard adobe, also known as clay.

After an hour and a half of chipping away like prisoners in chains breaking rock, we managed to dig a 2’x2’ square hole that was only 4 inches deep. I declared defeat. No human strength is going to dig 2 feet into this slab of clay in time for spring planting. Time to bring in the machine.

People ask me why I spent 3 hours choking on clay dust, wrestling a jack-hammering rototiller in to submission, and shoveling in 2 cubic yards of compost. Why didn’t I just use the planter box system and throw some good soil in it?

My answer to that is also the main thing I learned from Organic Gardening: feed the soil. The soil into which we painstakingly plop little seeds into isn’t just a “root holder”. It is the very thing that gives life to our plants. Therefore, a healthy soil means healthy plants.

Online forums also advise avoiding abrupt soil transitions whenever possible. If I used a planter box without tilling the soil, I would have a sharp transition from loose, fluffy soil to impervious, hard clay. The two won’t exchange nutrients or water, which makes it just a root holder. And what did I just say about using soil as a root holder?

Using the rototiller did the trick, but I only got 8” deep. To give my plants more soil depth, I made a 11” high planter box (total of 19”, just 5” short of my original goal) for the vegetables and 8” high mounds (total of 16”) for the tomatoes.

After pushing my body to the limit breaking and forming the soil, I fell sick and it took me 2 weeks to recover. Was it worth all the hard work, calluses, debts to friends and colleagues who helped me, encounters with slugs, money spent on tools and medicine…. was the ideal of a healthy soil that would produce healthy plants worth all of that?

:-) Just you wait and see!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010   ()

Yes, it’s true.

I am afraid of worms. And I’m also a gardener. Sometimes life brings you to places (i.e. the garden) you never imagined yourself to be in.

In May of 2009, I started a vegetable garden in the side yard of my house. It was my first attempt at gardening after being inspired by the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. There was something about growing my own food that made me excited. There was also something about working hard in the garden that promised to be satisfying. There were also the worms. Ugh!

My friends are always amused and intrigued when I confess that I am afraid of worms. Worms are harmless, etc, would be what they’d say to me. I’m not afraid of what the worms would do to me. I am disgusted, terrified, appalled, grossed out by its appearance (where is its friggin “face”?), its movements (how the heck does it move like that?), and, for some of them, its legs (why does it have so many grubby legs?).  Yes, it’s an irrational fear and I believe that everyone has their own irrational fears. The question for me was, is my scoleciphobia going to prevent me from gardening?

To answer that question, I’m happy to say that I’ve survived my first gardening season despite encountering (and killing) more than 20 tomato hornworms, 2 or more cutworms, and several slugs. Worms zero, me 22+! This season, I’ve enjoyed sweet rainbow chard, colorful carrots, tons of amazing heirloom tomatoes, a handful of bell peppers, loads of basil and thyme, strawberries, leek, and cilantro. It’s been a really fun experience, and guess what? I can’t wait to plant more stuff in Spring!

So stick around, and you’ll get to read about how I learn to take care of my garden, what vegetables and fruit I plan to plant, what kinds of stuff I compost, and how I battle it out with garden pests (including worms!). Who knows? Maybe gardening will help me get over my fear of worms, but I won’t hold my breath for that.

Monday, February 1, 2010   ()