Monday, May 31, 2010

Uh-oh



We have been having very wet and soggy weather for weeks. I can't remember the last time I saw the sun. Everything is droopy and waterlogged and growing mould and green scum. The vegetables in the garden are weeks behind where they were last year and I'm getting really, really impatient.

But now I'm afraid. My tomatoes are under attack by some kind of fungal disease - I think early blight, but it could be Septoria leaf spot. Ick.

I discovered the problem yesterday - several of the potted Roma tomato plants were showing signs of a problem, so I immediately moved them out of the greenhouse so whatever it was wouldn't be passed on to the vine tomatoes planted in the greenhouse beds. Then I went Internet searching to find a solution.

The first step is to remove and dispose of all suspicious-looking leaves. Then I should spray with some kind of fungicide. It looks like my organic choices are a copper spray of some kind, or a homemade preparation - either a cornmeal "tea" made with cornmeal and water that sits for a couple of days, or a mixture of water, baking soda, vegetable oil and dish soap. I think I might try all three. I've also moved a fan into the greenhouse to improve air circulation, which can't hurt.

This growing season is turning out to be fraught with problems, and I'm feeling a bit bummed about it. I guess I could be glad, instead, that last year, my first year of vegetable gardening, was such a bountiful and productive one.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Progress


Kim and I have been hard at work transforming a barren weed-filled wasteland at the front of the house into something that better resembles a garden. This has involved a trip to the quarry for rocks and the delivery of a mountainous pile of dirt, plus lots and lots of shoveling, pick-axing, digging, wheelbarrowing, aching and grumbling. We're not done yet, but we've made enough progress I thought it was time for a report. The picture above is the "before" and here is the "after".



We've pretty much finished the area directly in front of the house, plus some of the area across the path. There's still quite a bit to do, but we're really happy with how it looks so far. The difference between our feeling ambivalent about the whole project and feeling like we were on the right track was realizing we needed ferns, lots and lots of ferns, to make these new beds make sense in the bigger forest context. We had already spent as much as we wanted to on new plants, so we went digging for ferns in the forest around the house - there are so many there that a few relocated ones wouldn't be missed. While we were at it, we dug up some Oregon grape, too. We're not sure how well the plants will adjust to being moved, but we thought it was worth a shot.

Kim's stone walls worked out beautifully. The blue coloured stone is the rock we got from the quarry. She also built some stacked stone walls using flat rocks from around the property, and the two types of walls look quite lovely together.

Today we went looking for some red-twigged dogwood, to supplement the two plants we already have. We went to four nurseries and couldn't find any, so we'll save those spots and look again in the fall. We did find three pots of Japanese painted fern, which neither of us had ever seen before. They are quite small now, but will get 2 feet tall, and their name is well deserved. The light wasn't the best for taking a photo - if it was better you would see how much like a watercolour these ferns are. Beautiful.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rain



Rain, rain, rain.

Sigh.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

New boots, old boots, chewed boots, rubber ball



On our very first visit to the local farm store after we took possession of our new rural property, Kim and I bought real, proper Muck Boots. They cost a lot but they're perfect working boots: comfortable, water proof, and warm in cool, wet weather. We felt like real farmers when we came home with those boots.

I loved those boots. They were practical and sturdy and functional, if not beautiful. I wore them whenever it was the least bit mucky. Those boots and I had a strong, committed relationship - we were tight. And then there was the incident with the B-A-L-L.

You already know how beserk Frankie gets when any remotely round object comes his way, and how hard he is on those objects - if we tried to keep him in B-A-L-L-S we would go bankrupt. So when we found one that seemed indestructible, we were thrilled. He was thrilled. He was beyond thrilled. He played with that thing obsessively, especially his favourite game which involves grabbing it in his virtually toothless mouth, squirting it out with a pop so it bounces away wildly, then chasing it like a mad fiend until he catches it and can start the game all over again. Only this time he was playing on the verandah, and when he squirted out the ball it landed right in my boot.

Frankie is nothing if not determined, especially when it comes to B-A-L-L-S. He tried and tried to get that ball out of the boot. From inside we could hear that something interesting was happening out on the verandah, but by the time we got up to investigate, it was too late. My boot was chewed.

It still could have been used - a little duct tape would have gone a long way. I was resigned to that. And then on the last visit to the local farm store I began a whole new relationship with a different pair of Muck Boots. Oh, what lovely boots.


Same comfort, same serious muck-proof functionality, all wrapped up in a pretty purple package. Kim wouldn't be seen dead in them. I love them.

(When it came time for the photo shoot for this post, Frankie got the last word, as usual...)


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Herbs



You may remember that one of my gardening resolutions for 2010 was to be more diligent in harvesting and drying herbs. Never one to procrastinate, I launched the first harvest yesterday.

It was prompted when I offered our visiting neighbour Nick a choice of teas, and he expressed a preference for something we had grown. Fortunately I had the one measly baggie of dried mint that was the sum total of all the herbs I harvested last year - and very nice tea it was, too. And it got me thinking that I better get going, or I'd be forced to serve Nick tea from a box the next time he was over.

So out to the garden I went. I had my eye on a beautiful, rounded mound of lemon balm, and an incredibly vigorous patch of oregano, both growing in the herb bed in the vegetable garden. These two herbs are everywhere at Mucky Boots - I think one of the two previous gardeners of the property divided them repeatedly and used them to fill in empty spots in the perennial beds. There are probably half a dozen mounds of lemon balm and about four times that many patches of oregano here and there. There's even a bunch of oregano growing out of the rock wall near the workshop.

Three minutes was the scissors was all it took to cut enough to fill a really big colander to overflowing. The stripping of the stems and tying of the bundles took longer, but it was a nicely meditative thing to do while sitting on the verandah. I ended up with a dozen bundles which I washed and then tucked into paper bags to protect them from dust and bugs. Kim is going to fasten an old garden trellis horizontally to the ceiling of the verandah so I can hang the bundles for drying.

Mint is already making itself seen in the perennial beds, so some bunches of that will soon join the happy herbal hangout. Once it's dry, I'm thinking lemon balm and mint might make a nice combination for tea, maybe with a few of the lavender flowers I saved from last summer thrown in. The Mucky Boots Blend is born.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Snowballs in May



Snowball viburnum, of course.

The last couple of days of gentle, drizzly rain has made everything fresh and green and dewy. Come the dry, blasting heat of August the memory of these snowballs is going to make me go "Ah...."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The persistence of potatoes



By now you know that Kim has a thing for potatoes, and that we have done a fair amount of raised-bed construction just to satisfy her craving for lots and lots of potatoes. This year we have two 12 x 4 beds devoted to potatoes, as well as a dozen big plastic tubs. Next year we might not bother. Why? Because the compost pile seems to grow potatoes better all by itself than we do.

Potatoes ended up in the compost early this spring when they started growing spontaneously in the beds where they'd been last year. We thought we'd dug them all up. Then when they started sprouting we dug up all the ones we didn't get the first time. Those are the ones now growing in the compost. (Why not just leave them in the vegetable beds, you might be asking? Because it's really, really bad to grow potatoes in the same soil in consecutive years - you're just asking for problems with disease. And we didn't plant them somewhere else because we thought they'd got too chewed up in the digging to be viable. Were we wrong.)

If that weren't bad enough, potatoes are still sprouting in last year's beds. I'm getting pretty tired of digging through mounds of dirt looking for tiny renegade spuds. But they're sprouting in beds where I've now planted carrots, and I think all that potato activity under the soil won't be good. So I keep decapitating the sprouts, hoping the potato will get the idea and stop trying. So far, no luck.

Contrast all that drama with the ease we anticipate in growing potatoes in plastic buckets. The idea is that you start them in a few inches of compost and soil, and then as they sprout and start to grow you keep adding more and more soil or compost or even just straw, causing more and more offspring potatoes to be formed. In the fall you tip over the bucket on a tarp, sift sanely through the soil for the fruit of your labour, and then use the soil (screened, to make sure no tiny baby potatoes make it through to cause havoc the next year) somewhere else. To me that all seems way less work than pitchforking through a big bed for the umpteenth time looking for elusive morsels of potato.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cleaning up


Yesterday marked the end of an era - for this year, anyway. Yesterday was the day I packed up all the seeding supplies. Pots, seedling flats, trays, heating mats - everything got emptied out, brushed out, stacked up and put away. The only things left in the greenhouse are the plants that will stay there (tomatoes, peppers, basil) and all the echinacea I haven't found a home for yet.

Sigh.

Seeding time is always a hopeful time. Hopeful as in "This year my tomato plants are going to be strong and healthy, and my onions seeds are all going to sprout." In the early spring anything seems possible. But in my short career as a vegetable grower, I have already come to realize that by the time all the seedling supplies are packed away I am already being forced to recognize that the squash plants got put out too early and aren't doing well, the leaves of the pepper seedlings have sun scald, and something keeps nibbling at the pea shoots. In other words, real life has intruded.

Is it too early to be thinking of next year?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Antlers


No, we are not hunters. We inherited these antlers, along with a collection of antique rusted saws and farming tools, when we bought the property - they were mounted on various exterior walls, in a decorative kind of way. We took them all down.

We weren't sure what to do with these antlers. Neither of us are really comfortable with them - they seem kind of gruesome. But it feels disrespectful to the animal who used to sport them to just throw them away.

At one point Frankie briefly got his hands - er, paws - on them. After all, bones are something he's familiar with. Here he is trying to figure out the best way to approach such an interestingly-shaped specimen. (And yes, he is in one of the veggie beds - unplanted, thankfully - which is a really big no-no. Bad boy.)


So they have been hanging out in limbo - we move them here, and then when they're in the way we move them there. Recently they have been hanging on the fence around the veggie garden, and today they seemed the perfect place to hang a hat.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

More tulips and bloomin' things


A few posts back I started the Tulip Library, photos of some of the different kinds of tulips that flower here at Mucky Boots from April to June. The sheer variety continues to bemuse me: how can such different shapes and colours, from simple red and yellow to the tropical-looking peach confection shown here all come from such inauspicious brown bulbs planted deep in the dirt?

However it happens, it's wonderful.

This one is as soft and pink as a baby's bum - I know, because I kissed it. How could I not, when it looks like this?


These ones make me think of a whipped lemon custard with raspberry sauce...


...and maybe I have desserts on my mind, but can you look at this one and not think of raspberry ripple ice cream?


And even a simple, Plain Jane red tulip can be gorgeous.


What's missing are what I called the Peppermint Patty tulips. Here's the photo from last year. No sign of them this year - maybe a hungry squirrel got the bulbs?


Tulips aren't the only thing flowering right now. The wisteria is just coming into full bloom...


... and the first oriental poppy has blossomed.


A whole row of allium is flowering by the house...


...columbines are busting out all over...


...and the first of about a million perennial cornflowers are blooming.


I'm grateful to have so much beauty to drink in, because Kim and I have been hard at work at the front of the house turning the wasteland into perennial beds and man, is it hard work. I hope to be able to show you the fruits of our labour soon, but right now we're still sweating with shovels and pick-axes.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Water



We don't have an irrigation system. This is a problem where we are, because even though our winters are famously wet, our summers are hot and very, very dry. Water restrictions for people on municipal water are the norm on Vancouver Island, and things get so crispy dry in the woods that the fire hazard is extreme for most of the summer. So we get caught between needing to water to keep our gardens going (we're happy to let the lawn go brown, but the trees and veggies and perennials need to be watered) and not wanting to use any more water than we need to.

We have been watering mostly by hand, which is a problem in two ways: it's very time consuming (although on a warm evening after supper, with the right frame of mind, it can turn into a Zen sort of experience) and it is not the most efficient way to get water to plants. Misters or drip systems are much better at delivering water to where a plant most needs it, in the most miserly way possible.

But irrigation systems are not cheap. On a couple of occasions we priced out all the hoses and connectors and misters we would need, and even assuming we would do all the labour ourselves it added up to a total that made us gulp.

Kim to the rescue. She found some soaker hoses on sale last year and, in typical Kim fashion, bought them in bulk. I think she came home with a dozen hoses. Throw in a few manifolds, some fancy connectors, and voila - a homemade irrigation system.


It is a bit complicated - mostly because there is only so long a soaker hose can be and still have enough water pressure to soak. This means lots of different hoses for different parts of the garden. So there is a 4-way manifold at the pumphouse, with one outlet going to the perennial beds, one going to the 4-way manifold in the veggie garden, one going to the 4-way manifold in the orchard, and one left free as a tap. The manifold in the veggie garden has one outlet for the artichoke bed, one for the raspberry bed, one for a blueberry bed and one connected to a wand for hand watering the rest of the vegetables. The manifold in the orchard has an outlet for another blueberry bed, one for the rhubarb, one for the blackberry, blueberry and gooseberry bed, and one for the greenhouse.

Are you still with me?

So, for example, if I want to water the raspberries, first I turn on the tap at the pump house, and then the outlet on the manifold that goes to the manifold in the veggie garden. Then I go to the manifold in the veggie garden and turn on the hose second from the right. The rhubarb? Go back to the pumphouse, turn off the outlet to the veggie garden and turn on the one to the orchard, go to the manifold in the orchard, find the right hose and turn it on.

It sounds worse than it is. It's all quite logical. And the nice thing is that the plants get watered well (I am notorious for waving a watering wand in the general vicinity of a plant for 3o seconds and considering the job done), we can do other work while the watering is happening, and with the soaker hoses we don't lose as much water to evaporation. The bad thing is we have to remember to turn the water off. I already anticipate I won't be good at this, so I have bought a couple of mechanical timers (no electricity required) that can be attached to the head of a manifold so that the water will automatically go off after the set amount of time.

Kim put a smaller version of this system in place last year, and it seemed to work quite well. Our well water here has lots and lots of iron in it, and we were worried that it would accumulate in the hoses, plugging all the little holes the water is supposed to soak out of. (This is why the expensive little misters and drippers won't work well for us - according to our neighbour they plug up in no time, and once plugged they are unfixable.) One older hose is indeed toast, but all the new ones Kim bought last year were fine: the iron piled up at the end of each hose, so we just unscrewed the end cap, blasted out all the iron gunge, and we were in business.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tooter and tulips


You've met Frankie the dog and William the cat. It's time you met Petunia.

Petunia, Tunia, Tuna, Tooter, Toots, Tooter Muffin - the list of her names is endless, perfectly fitting a cat whose personality is much bigger than her little body. She needed to be big for her britches to stand up to William, who was a grumpy, grown cat when she joined the family as a 7 week-old kitten. No problem.

Have you ever heard the Garrison Keeler song about a cat wanting in, then out, then in again, then out....? It must have been written for Tooter. She has completely destroyed the weather-stripping around every exterior door (inside and out) in both our old house and now this one, scratching to let us know she really, really wants nothing more than to be on the other side of that door. We have yelled. We have squirted her with water. We have tried waiting her out. Now we just get up and open the door.


Petunia is a fair-weather cat. In the winter she grows plump eating both her food and William's, sleeping by the wood stove and occasionally looking out the window to see if it's springtime yet. But once the weather improves it's hard to get her to come inside. The last few days she has been reacquainting herself with all there is to see and chase and catch and eat outside, or running to overtake me on the path so she can fling herself prone in the dirt and entice me into rubbing her soft, leopard-spotted belly.



Tooter is the best snuggler of any cat I have had. She considers it an unalienable right to make herself at home on my lap wherever and whenever I sit down. She hops right up, tucks her nose into my armpit, drapes one paw over my shoulder and purrs herself to sleep. She is better than a blanket on a chilly winter morning.

That's my darlin' Tuna Head.

(Added later: some of you have asked why on earth we don't just get a cat door. Well, one of Petunia's other qualities is that she is a Hunter with a capital H. She can catch anything that moves: mice, rats, snakes, frogs, and until we put a bell on her collar, birds. And being the loving animal she is, she brings these home - dead or, more memorably, alive - to present to us. If you ever get Kim over a mug of beer, ask her about the time she found a live, wriggling salamander inside the pillowcase of the pillow she was sleeping on...)

On a completely different front, a post in May would not be a post if there weren't any photos of what's flowering. So here are the latest tulips to bloom - luminescent flamingo pink ones hanging out in a happy bunch...


...and the first of the poppies to bloom - simple, fresh and exactly the colour of an Orange San Pellegrino drink.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Orchard Gate



Is that not a beautiful gate? Behold the manifestation of Kim's idea for a homespun twiggy gate to counteract the detention centre vibe of the new deer fence protecting the orchard. It's not quite finished - we're going to paint a sign that says "The Cloister" and hang it between the two overhead branches - but doesn't it look fine? Those twiggy bits are the branches we saved when we trimmed the ornamental cherry near the pond, and I think they were perfect for the job: straight enough to do the job but with enough individual quirks to make them interesting. We're thinking of the gate as a work in progress - for example, if we can get our hands on some more flexible, thinner branches, we might try weaving them into the spaces between the cherry branches.


Making the gate in two parts, saloon-swinging-door style, made it a bit tricky to mount - a task made more complicated by the fact the two fence posts are farther apart at the top than they are at the bottom. It was something of a challenge to make sure each gate was level in all three dimensions, plus level to its partner along the top. As a consequence we had to fiddle with the hinges a fair bit, but we kept our cool and it worked out pretty well.

Our neighbour liked the gate so much he hired Kim to build him one, too, which she whipped off quickly and hung yesterday. That's my sweetie!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Pile o' dirt



Somehow this pile of soil doesn't look as daunting in the photo as it does in real life, maybe because you can't see that it's really two piles. It's a whole lot of dirt - 6 cubic yards, to be precise. It was going to be 10, until lying in bed the night before it was delivered we reflected on how much work it would be to shovel and spread 10 cubic yards of dirt, which led to a hastily revised calculation and a decision that 6 would be plenty.

It's for the sloped, weed-covered wasteland at the front of the house. You may remember that we hauled a bunch of rocks from the quarry to build some retaining walls. Since then we've bought about a dozen shrubs to populate the garden - pieris, azaleas and viburnum - but we couldn't plant them until we added about 6 inches of topsoil on the flat parts and a whole lot more to fill in the areas behind the retaining walls. Hence the 6 cubic yards of dirt.

Kim did all the hard work placing the rock for the retaining walls (which is in part what aggravated her old elbow injury), and since she's now operating one-armed, it will be up to me to transfer all that soil to its new home. I'm up for it. I know the key thing is to do a modest amount every day, rather than trying to blitz it. I'm secretly quite proud about the muscles I now have in my arms, after a year of shoveling and digging and loading and hauling. And they're bound to be bigger by the time I have moved all this dirt...

Monday, May 3, 2010

Varmints epilogue


If you've been reading this blog for a while you'll know I have struggled this year with mice in the garden, especially when it comes to my peas. I planted a whole bed full of peas one day, only to find the next morning a whole bed full of little holes where the peas had briefly been.

Well, we have been finding those peas everywhere. I assume the mice must have eaten some of them, but they also dropped a number that have since sprouted in the potato bed, the blueberry bed, and the pot full of catmint. The best were the sprouts Kim found the other day, growing out of a knothole in one of the raised beds. It's almost endearing enough to make me reconsider my feelings about mice. Almost.

We have also had some issues with the local deer, which in the past have shown a preference for the tender young growth in the orchard. So we had a deer fence built along one side of the orchard, and then on the weekend we raised to deer-proof height the existing fence on the other three sides. That was easy enough to do: we screwed cedar boards into the fence posts and strung three strands of wire to a height of about 7 feet.

We were warned by experts that the wire alone could prove a hazard to deer - they might not see it, and could injure themselves trying to jump the fence and getting hung up on the wire. The remedy is to tie flagging tape to the wire at regular intervals, preferably white since it's most visible at night when deer are most active.

With all that white tape fluttering in the breeze it looks like a wedding in the orchard.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Apple blossom heaven



Our orchard is full of young sprigs of trees: Asian pear, cherry, pear, plum, peach, apricot. But anchoring the fruity family are three venerable apple trees. The crab apple and the Cox Orange Pippin are looking pretty fine these days - leafy and blossomy and bursting with spring. But the Pink Lady is in another category altogether - that tree is nothing short of magnificent. It's stately, and shapely, and absolutely loaded with creamy pink blossoms. Today Kim and I were finishing the deer fencing around the orchard (Kim working one-armed to save her sore elbow) and I had to keep putting my tools down to take yet another picture of that amazing tree. Here are just a few of the pictures I took today.



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