Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Where'd this one come from?


I have been something of a Squash Nerd this year. I've always tried to grow squash but haven't usually been very successful. I've had trouble with germinating, and transplanting, and flowering, and pollinating, and ripening. Basically I've had trouble with just about every stage of a squash's development from seed packet to dinner plate.

But I've learned a thing or two along the way. Like the fact that squash don't take to being transplanted, and that even if I'm really excited about things growing in the springtime, the squash plants aren't necessarily as excited and won't grow until they're good and ready. So now I seed them directly into the garden, a few weeks later than I used to.

And I learned about male flowers and female flowers and the whole process of pollination. I still haven't figured out why one day there will only be male flowers, and the next day only female, but I suppose Mother Nature has the right to a few mysteries.

So this year, armed with my hard-won experience, I dosed the squash beds with a generous amount of fish compost (a splurge, but so worth it), waited until the weather warmed up before seeding, and checked on the progress of the plants day by day.

They began to flower about two weeks ago, and since then, every morning I have made the trek back to the vegetable garden to search out male flowers which I would pluck, strip of petals, and then carry around from bed to bed looking for female flowers to pollinate. And of course looking for signs of success from the previous days' pollinating ventures.

So when my zucchini plant produced its first zucchini I was thrilled. I cut it off the bush, carried it proudly in the house, sliced it and marinated it in a lovely vinaigrette, ate the whole thing in one sitting, and then began waiting for the next one.

Apparently a watched zucchini plant is something like a tea kettle, because it has since produced nothing. Some flowers, which I have faithfully pollinated, but every morning as I have looked under the big leaves for any sign of an impending zucchini, there has been nothing but disappointment.

Which is why I was a little surprised to find this yesterday.


Did it grow that big in one day? I don't think so. So where, exactly, was it hiding?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

One day only


Today, for one day only, I have a perfect garden.

Today my week-long weeding and cleaning blitz came to a close. Today my big, strong, hockey-player student spread four cubic yards of bark mulch in the perennial garden while I followed along behind him tickling the mulch onto all the nooks and crannies.

Today there is not a weed to be seen. The edges are tidy and the paths are swept clean.

Today my student's mom, when she came to pick him up at the end of his shift, called my garden a Martha Stewart Garden.



Tomorrow there will be weeds. Tomorrow there will be more dried-up columbines ready to be cut back. Tomorrow I will wake up and find some disorder where today there is order. But today, for one day, everything is perfect.

And you know what? I'm looking forward to tomorrow.

To my surprise, I find the neatness and order of today's garden just a little unsatisfying. "Hallelujah!" Mother Nature and her angels are shouting, after five years of trying to cure me of my perfectionism. Well, I may be a slow learner, but I think I've finally got this lesson down. Finally I realize there's something to be said for the unpredictability of Mother Nature's version of a garden, for the unexpected odd bits that pop up to surprise you, for the asymmetry and wonkiness and messy bits. My orderly everything-matches-because-it's-just-been-mulched garden is a little . . . well, boring.

So this evening, for one evening only, I'll sit on the verandah and look out on perfection. And tomorrow I'll embrace a less tidy, more real garden, all the more beautiful for its imperfection.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Lilies


When I regained my sense of smell what I most looked forward to were lilacs. And sure enough, as soon as the lilacs bloomed, I spent days with my nose in the blossoms, sniffing up a dozen years worth of missed scent.



I think the only reason I didn't feel the same way about lilies is because they didn't form any part of the scented backdrop to my childhood. Who had lilies way back then? Nobody I knew. But I've got them now, and do they ever smell wonderful.

They smell wonderful when my nose is buried in them, but they also smell wonderful when I'm at the other end of the garden. Holy smokes, does that scent carry! Tonight while I was out watering some new transplants I kept sniffing my arm thinking it was my insect repellent I was smelling. But no, it was the lily gang hanging out in the shade of  the magnolia tree, throwing open their petals and saying "Come sniff!"

So I did.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Math equation of the day

1 uncovered straw bale 
14 chickens 
2 turned backs 
______________
= 1 big mess

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Oxalis


Last year I was looking for something to plant in the old washing machine tub parked by the pond. I had been filling it with annuals but decided to switch to a perennial because hey, who doesn't like less work? So I went hunting for something with the right scale for the tub, that could handle the part sun, part dappled shade, dry unless I remember to water it conditions. Usually, when I go to the garden store with a list of requirements in hand, I end up getting sucked in by the first pretty thing I see. In this case, it was a picture, because I bought bulbs.


Oxalis deppei is what I came home with. Then I did a Google search and found out how many people battle invasive oxalis in their lawns and garden beds and I thanked my lucky stars that I was planting in a container, not a bed, at a good distance from any of the perennial beds. And I reasoned that since it is hardy only to Zone 7 (which we are only in a good year) any problems would be solved with a good dose of winter.


It did well last year, filling the tub with its two-colour shamrock leaves and pink flowers, and so I was curious this spring whether it would return. It did, not quite as luxuriantly, but it slowly filled out and now it is blooming. Beautifully.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Chicken pickin'



I think it's past time for an update from the Mucky Boots chickie front. Not only do we have the sixteen Black Australorp chicks (now ten weeks old, I think - I can never keep track), we now have eighteen Buff Orpington and eighteen Welsummer chicks, all hatched right here. In case you're keeping track, that's 52 chicks. Wowza.

First the Australorps. They are now living in the coop, in a separate enclosure from Hector and the Hens but hanging out when them during the day. We continue to have trouble with our local racoons and eagles, so when one of us isn't around the teenagers are confined to the chicken yard, lounging on the roost...



... but when Kim makes an appearance they stop whatever they're doing and run to her.


It took only a couple of days to teach them how to come when called and how to put themselves to bed, in the right enclosure, at night. The other day an eagle flew low over the area where they free range and they all bolted immediately for the coop, unlike some of the grown ups who stayed outside to see what was going on. They are easily the sweetest, smartest and best behaved bunch of chicks we have ever had.

Which leads us to the babies Buffs, easily the worst bunch of troublemakers we have had. More about that later. 

Here are the Baby Bunch at a few days old. The Welsummers are another heritage breed, smaller than the Buffs and the Australorps. They lay a large, terra-cotta coloured egg, and are known for their appearance on the Kellogg's Corn Flakes box. Holy moley, are they cute, racing stripes and all.


Kim built a new brooder box for the Baby Bunch, since we've never had so many chicks at once before. It's huge, about four feet by six feet, and cleverly made of plywood panels zip-tied together so it's easy to break down and store once we're finished with it. (Yes, you really can construct anything with duct tape and zip ties...).


Kim has been experimenting with a new watering system - she's fed up with rambunctious chicks flicking litter into the regular waterers, so she bought some nipples from a local dealer and used some PVC pipe (note the zip-ties) and a big jug on an elevated stand to gravity feed the water. It works like a hamster waterer: the chicks jiggle the nipple with their beaks and a few drops of water come out. They took to it like a charm.



The Baby Bunch are now three weeks old, and are already spending the day in the chicken tractor eating bugs and grass. We love the Welsummers: they're curious and calm and beautiful to boot.

The Buffs - they're another story. About a week ago Kim noticed one of the Buffs had a bloody tail and realized there was some feather picking going on. With chicks this usually arises when the tail feathers start to come in - the quill part is blood-rich and looks darker than the surrounding skin or downy fluff, and as any chicken farmer knows, the sight of blood can throw an otherwise civilized chicken flock into a cannibalistic blood frenzy. Fortunately Kim was right there when the frenzy started, and she was able to whisk the victim to safety. But as she continued to watch she realized the feather picking was more widespread, and so  the Mucky Boots Anti-Pick Campaign was launched.

Feather picking is something you want to nip in the bud as fast as you can. Not only can the chicks do serious damage to each other, it can be a habit that, once established, is very hard to break. So all other projects came to a screeching halt while Kim got on the case.

After a few phone calls and some internet research Kim went to our local farm store and bought some Stop Pick, which is a cayenne-based ointment you dab onto the areas being picked. The red colour attracts the attention of the pickers, but one taste is supposed to discourage them from continuing. And it worked, sort of. The frenzy definitely stopped, but the picking didn't entirely cease.

For the next few days Kim was parked beside the brooder, watching to see who the culprits were and then banding them, so she could keep track. She alternately separated the chicks being picked and the pickers, trying to see which worked best, and finally settled on keeping the pickers away from the rest of the flock. But they needed to be separated from each other, too, and she didn't have enough small cages. So she built some, using plastic tubbies, hardware cloth and (you guessed it) zip ties.

And the Mucky Boots Solitary Confinement Reform School for Pickin' Chickens was born.



There are currently four residents - all Buffs of course - and the problem appears to have ceased. Kim has also switched to a red light bulb in the brooder (to camouflage pick-worthy areas) and has attached pockets made of half-inch hardware cloth to the sides of the brooder that she fills with kale and other greens, to give the chicks something to pick and pull at other than each other. And she made the decision to get the chicks out into the tractor sooner than she might have otherwise, to keep them distracted and busy and make sure they're too tired at the end of the day to resort to bad behaviour. Can you tell she used to be a teacher?

We have never had this problem before, and this is the fifth or sixth batch of chicks we have brooded under similar conditions. Our best guess was that we gave them too much light (by way of the heat lamps that stayed on all night), which was part of the reason Kim switched to a red bulb (and why we spent an hour tacking tar paper over all the windows of the workshop to block the light, causing our neighbours to wonder if we were launching a grow op). Fortunately the weather is warm enough now that the workshop is warm enough through the night for the partially-feathered chicks, so even the red bulb gets turned off for nine hours of dark sleeping time.

And how have the Welsummers done through all this drama? They have minded their own business, committing nary a pick themselves.

Postscript: Kim wanted me to say that it's not all the Buffs causing problems, just four of them. Four troublesome chicks giving their hatch mates a bad name. But if there's anyone who can help them along the reform path back to the sweet and amusing Buff breed we know, it's Kim.

Monday, July 8, 2013

When is a vegetable garden not a vegetable garden?



When it's a flower garden, of course.

When we first moved to Mucky Boots I was a little impatient with all the flowers the previous owners had planted in the vegetable garden. Yarrow, poppies, roses, lavender, butterfly bushes, daisies. What the heck were they all doing there, I wondered. Sure, they were pretty, but I was set on being a practical, productive Serious Vegetable Gardener, and they were taking up valuable real estate.

After a year or two, once I had learned a thing or two, I realized all those flowers were attracting the pollinators to the garden. I had them to thank for all the peas, beans, tomatoes, squash, melons and cucumbers we ate. So my impatience turned into appreciation for the job the flowers were doing.

Now I don't care about what sort of function those flowers perform: I'm in love with how beautiful they are, and that's enough for me. Beauty is enough. What a revelation.

My herb bed is full of borage volunteers. I'm amazed they're there, because I haven't planted any in the vegetable garden for a couple of years.


The mallow growing in the same bed is in its third year of self seeding. I don't have to do any work at all (other than recognizing a mallow seedling when I see one, so I don't weed it out by mistake) and look at what I am given.


Remember what I said about having second thoughts about giving poppies a free ride and retracting my offer to let them grow wherever they are inclined to? Well I'm like the Fiddler on the Roof, thinking it out again, because I'm back to whole hearted infatuation. These poppies (and their friends the calendula) have made themselves at home in a bed that's supposed to belong to three blueberry bushes. I check periodically on the blueberries, to make sure they're not being smothered. They aren't - they're being beautifully adorned instead.


There are three rose plants in the vegetable garden. They mystify me. I thought roses were supposed to be fussy, demanding plants requiring dedicated care. All I do is hack them back in the fall, and they repay me by  looking beautiful all summer.


This all signals a change in how I view my vegetable garden. Our first growing season I was so focused on squirrelling food away Kim could barely get a few strawberries in her mouth before I was yanking them away to freeze for the winter. I canned and pickled and froze, and realized that while it was nice to have that food in storage, there are only so many pickles one can eat, and frozen vegetables are always a poor second compared with fresh. So I have gradually relaxed about preserving food and focused instead on eating as much fresh from the garden as we can, and growing vegetables that can either overwinter in the garden (like carrots, beets, and hardy greens) or store well (like onions and garlic). All of which means the pressure to grow as much as possible has been eased, so there is more room in my garden for all those beautiful flowers.

And there's more room in my heart, too. That's a Mucky Boots miracle.
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