Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Wednesday's Weekend Recap

This is April (even late April) in Wisconsin. I awoke on Monday to find an inch already on the ground. It snowed all day.

Notice the small cold frames I'd finished over the weekend, all covered with snow.

These are the same cold frames completed on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I hammered 4 boards together in a box and stapled vinyl (the kind you find in Walmart's fabric department on a large roll) over one side. I also planted out my spinach (already throwing off pollen), lettuce, white mustard, and a few broccoli plants.

These are my slaves of all wor...ahem..children. Actually, I'm not sure you can have a hammer and nails and not attract small boys. The little one has quite a strong arm, something anyone who holds a nail for him should know ahead of time.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Share the wealth

I really don't know that much about plants.

Sure I know they need to be watered, and they're alive, and they take nutrients from the dirt...I watch Sesame Street.

Recently I posted about my amazement uncovering my oregano, within feet of a snow pile, and finding that they had doubled in size. I'd gotten the plants free through Freecycle. Now I know why.

Oregano is a very easy to grow. I took 3 small plants last year thinking that I would kill 1 or 2 of them. All 3 grew to be 2-3 feet high last year. If only the basil did so well. This year each plant had doubled (and in one case tripled) in size.

Because of it's fast grow nature oregano is sometimes considered invasive by gardeners. Like mint it will often spread quickly through its root system and be difficult to eradicate. Click here for more information and photos of common invasive plants in Wisconsin.

I'm down to two moderately-sized oregano plants now. I think I'll share the love. In the photo the oregano is on the right. On the left are Obedient plant shoots. They were expanding all over my Clematis and Black-eyed susan (quite a feat).

Folks in town watch out. Tomorrow morning you may have a little gift outside your front door.
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Monday, April 21, 2008

More experiments

There's always an itch in February and March to get the whole snow and ice thing over and get outside.

This year I was surfing around and I noticed something called Winter Sowing. Basically you take a cleaned container and you make drain holes and air holes, stick some dirt in it, plant a few seeds, tape it back up and set it outside in the snow. The theory being that seeds are used to being outside anyway...they need that winter downtime and when Spring comes they will respond to the terrarium conditions and bolt up strong and early. Another positive being that you won't have to harden off seedlings that have been grown in too-perfect conditions indoors and you shouldn't need to water them (since a terrarium simulates the water cycle the earth goes through).

It sounded like a nice educational project and I thought the kids wouldn't mind getting dirty after months inside so I foisted it on them with myself as crew chief and cleaning crew. I chose some colder weather varieties and we started planting green beans, spinach, basil, swiss chard, and evening primrose.

A few lessons learned:
*plastic take-home containers work well
*make enough drainage holes or else your seeds will rot in the mud (note take-home containers are now lidless so that some of the water can evaporate)
*don't leave containers on the ground if you have dogs or small children
*if you have to keep containers up on a railing the small, light containers (far right) will fall off in the wind or perhaps merely because they feel like it

So far I'm 1 for 6 out there. The chard (far left in top picture) is showing one little seedling. Everything else is proving too dry or too wet or two shaken-up or too early to tell.

If you really strain your eyes it's between 10 and 11 o'clock along the wall of the milk carton.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Shocker --Worms do not like bleach water

As part of the ongoing process of yard cleanup, house cleaning, and scientific experimentation we did an interesting thing today. We filled the kiddie pool with water and bleach (approximately 2 cups for many gallons) and dh bleached out all the garbage cans and sand toys.

That's not the experiment, that's not even surprising, he's done that before.

When we were done we decided to let the bleach be our friend and help us with our little bishop's weed/gout weed problem. I've raked that hill 2-3x last week and came up with the same number of buckets filled with rhizomes. There are many many many many remaining. Some are even starting to leaf out in the nice weather.

So we dumped trash cans full of this dirty water on the entire area because of a post I read on the This Garden is Illegal blog. There are several homemade ways to kill unwanted plants including boiling water, bleach, vinegar, salt, rubbing alcohol, corn meal (actually it stops the developing seed it doesn't kill developed weeds), and newspaper.

Originally I was planning on boiling some water and vinegar and dumping it on the area but hey, this works.

So as the beautiful toxic (kidding...this is the stuff the CDC recommends for cleaning after the world ends) puddles are forming I begin to notice some of the biggest worms I've ever seen appearing everywhere. As dh kept moving on I stopped to gather them up vaguely worried that the bleach was harming them. Son #4 helped me relocate the handfuls and handfuls of worms to my other gardens.

Worms like the dense root structure of the bishop weed. Worms do not like water...or bleach.

It reminded me of rainy nights walking the curbs of our street as our neighbor the cop shone his spotlight in the gutters so we could pick worms for our neighbor Jack's Sunday fishing trips. Yeah, half the block walking around in the rain and the dark. The kind of fun times that are fun because they make no sense. Adults should be telling you to get out of the rain and the dark, not laughing on the sidewalk with their shoes off.

That's it. Water. Bleach. Worms. Uncontrollable nostalgia. I can never see these things coming.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


This is much prettier then the big bucket of rhizomes I have sitting in the backyard. Or the wheel barrow full of sticks from the storm we had last week.

So every time I post a pretty picture this week you'll have to just imagine all the spring work I'm doing.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Making the Grade

When we were first looking at this house years ago, we noticed there was an extra (locked) door in the living room. I was hoping for an extra closet.

It does open to an old set of concrete steps and into the backyard. Before we moved in the inspector told us the steps should go because they were coming away from the house and letting water down into the basement during heavy rains. The space around the steps is filled with a tangle of lily-of-the-valley and bishop's weed. The bishop's weed spreads by root (rhizomes) and crowds out anything else planted there.

After a few years of neglect (and a little fun with a sledge hammer but not quite as much fun as the time dh demolished a copy machine in his parent's driveway) I think this is the year to fix the grade on that bed. Last year I removed the wood borders. This year I need to transplant the bulbs we planted there. Then kill the invasive plants (leaving a foot or two near the foundation for lily-of-the-valley). Finally I need to level out the mound using an iron rake so the water runs away from the house.

As usual I think I got myself into more of a project than I anticipated. I can see a week or two down the line I'm going to have to remind myself how important this really is. Maybe create my own temporary zen dirt garden.

At least until those tomatoes get bigger. I have a feeling I'm going to need that spot.

Monday, April 14, 2008


It was a beautiful day.

Since it was in the 50s the boys and I spent the day outdoors. I raked the leaves off the flower beds. Over the Rhine was playing on the radio. The boys climbed to the top of the swingset. The dog ran amok and foamed at the mouth (according to son1, I couldn't be bothered to chase him down and check his mouth since I'd really rather not see what disgusting things he's been eating.).

Last week I talked about making a new corner compost area. While my husband put together the new raised bed I placed metal posts and fastened plastic fencing with little zip ties. I think the elderly neighbor behind us was pleased. He came out the next day and restrung his foot high chicken wire fence. He's a bit phobic about leaves in his yard.

Today I filled that corner with leaves and old clods of grass. I heard a lawn mower (already? I still have snow in one corner). The birds were calling. Kids were shooting baskets. People were riding bikes.

It was a beautiful day.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

He must be thinking of some other Season

Overheard: "Well, if I absolutely had to get married, I would marry Mother Nature."

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


You can't see it in this picture, but in addition to the rug I also had some table cloths and blankets hanging out when it started snowing.

They're still out there. I gave up last night and sat down to a nice cup of hot chocolate. I'll have to drag them in to dry in the basement.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Tomato Census

Thus far~

Opalka tomato plants (red, paste variety): 16 plants

Powers Heirloom tomato plants (yellow, paste variety): 12 plants

German Pink tomato plants (large, light red/pink globe): 16 plants

Total: 44 tomato plants

Plus I seeded 8 more Opalkas (for sauce) just in case.

Which begs the question, how many tomatoes does one family of 6 need to supply a year's worth of tomato eating? And how much space does that take?

I've seen answers from 12 to 100 plants. Each has their own reasons. I think I've settled on somewhere between 20-40 plants, depending on how many will fit.

The rest will be given away.

So what do you think? How many tomatoes do you plant? How many do you think you need? How many is too many?

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Oregano Underground

I like free plants. It takes some of the pressure off.

Last year there was a notification on the local Freecycle that someone had extra oregano. I picked up 3 strong plants for a drive into town.

They grew well, much better than the little purple-green basil I planted next to them.

This morning I raked off a few beds. The ones next to the house. This bed I was just fiddling with to see if anything was coming up. The oregano is up and greener than anything I've seen in months!

Not only is the oregano up, but it has decided to grow along the ground (instead of outward) making each plant 2x bigger than it was last year! All this and it was covered with snow and ice (see the remnant above) only a week ago.

I am constantly amazed at the ability of plants to adapt themselves to conditions. How wonderful to pull away the brown oak leaves and find a green surprise.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Making Beds

According to my handy dandy Lazy Gardener Seed Starting Chart from the YouGrowGirl blog, I could be transplanting spinach outside this coming week and maybe planting a few peas and potatoes along with it.

I'm not particular about these things. Everyone's chart is slightly different, from Mel Bartholomew's in The Square Foot Garden to your local Ag office. One thing I like about gardening is that you have to be flexible. Experiment a little.

Anyway, in my head I'd planned to make a new raised garden bed. One thing I like about raised beds is that it makes a visual barrier for children and pets. No more walking right through the bed on the way to somewhere else.

In my plan I wanted to put the leaf crops like spinach and lettuce and broccoli (all early things) in the new bed. I also wanted to try out the Lasagna method again (I think we flipped the traditional layers around last time).

This morning dh and I were having one of those great talks which encompasses all of the things you usually forget to talk about. Up came the subject of this new bed I wanted and he agreed to help me look around the back and find some supplies for throwing one together. He also mentioned that he had some extra cinder blocks that I could use.

So while I was putting together a corner compost area (a subject for another day) he was fitting blocks and boards to make a rectangle. He filled it with compost and leaves. Then he and my youngest son filled the holes in the cinder blocks with potting soil and planted marigolds. All I had to do was pace off the dimensions and carry a few cinder blocks.

It looks great. Now if the rest of the snow will comply we'll have a bed made out there to tuck a few seedlings in. Maybe in a week or two.

I could use the room on the seed table.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Sugaring Season

We have two maples. One in the back. One in the front.

Whoever did the landscaping in 1960 thought trees should be planted smackdab in the middle of the yard. Usually the only time I'm enjoying them is Autumn. They have beautiful bright red leaves. The rest of the time I'm wondering why anyone would plant a tree in the middle of a yard so that it shades out most flowers and vegetables.

Last year some friends of ours were over for dinner and the husband said, "those are good syrup trees." He probably said a lot of other things too like what kind of maple they are and how many taps he has going at his house and other things like that. He knows these things. He's from Northern Wisconsin.

Well, I was charmed by the thought. I've read Little House in the Big Woods. I remember my fascination with the fact that trees could make sugar for the pioneers. Heck, I don't even live that far from Pepin, Laura's first home in Wisconsin.

This Spring I picked up a few taps from Fleet Farm. My husband got an awl and a hammer and we went to the backyard. First we had to decide how high to make the hole. We had lots of suggestions for various boys about this. Then we had to figure out how to hang the milk jugs I'd bleached out. In a few moments we had them all hung and ready to go.

And the weather has been perfect, cold at night (below freezing) and warm during the day (40s). The front tree has been filling a milk jug every 24 hours on good days. On days where it's too cold, it slows to a trickle.

This is a picture of my second batch boiled down. It takes 4-5 hours in a large dutch oven on the stove. My first batch burned because I forgot about it. Right now I'm winging it by taste until I can get another digital thermometer.

Yum! Everyone gives it high marks and at the rate we're going we may get a whole 4 CUPS of the stuff (@40 gallons of sap makes 1 gallon of syrup). That should last....until the Farmer's Market starts up again and we can buy local honey.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The little seedlings that couldn't

I sneak peeks at my seedlings a lot.

They're just down in the basement. All it takes is a few steps from the kitchen when I'm washing dishes or making dinner.

And it isn't really that strange. Proper analyzation will reveal that my seed trays are one of the few things I do each day which don't immediately spiral into chaos. Quite the opposite, the little plants make their orderly stretches toward the lights. Its enough to make any mother sigh with contentment at her role as plant midwife and wonder why her own progeny can't be nearly as orderly (and quiet).

My peppers are not cooperating.

So far I have ignored their obstinateness. They have to get up sometime. Once they see all their cousins are up they'll leap out of bed and reach for the sun. And peppers are notoriously nitpicky about their conditions. Sometimes I wonder if my fourth son is a pepper in disguise.

This morning I snuck down when my husband was in the shower and checked them again. Even my German pink tomatoes are finally up. In disgust I turned to my Square Foot Gardening to check Bartholomew's germination tables. It seems peppers will not germinate unless it is over 60 degrees F. The whole house is set at 62F. Hmmm.

So I brought the babies up to sit in the window for a while with the lettuce. Between the heater vents and the sun they should pop up soon.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Spring's sprung unwound

I took a walk around the yard today. It's April 1st and we still have snow. Worse, I have complete acceptance of the snow. I no longer shake my fist at it or moan at the weather forecast. The snow has created a sort of Stockholm syndrome. I don't talk about Spring. I make a semi-conscious effort not to even think about Spring.

Today is April 1st though and I'm tired of being inside, so I went for a non-sidewalk walk. I toured the backyard.

After putting my life at risk on the icy steps I noticed that a large portion of my yard, the part protected by trees but enjoying direct sun, had melted. Several red shoots were pushing their way up through the oak leaves. Further along thick green leaves were boldly announcing that lily-of-the-valley (or perhaps iris) were unafraid of last night's snow.

Old Man Winter, you have an all out plant rebellion on your hands.

To celebrate, I picked up dog poop.