Archive for May, 2009

Wanna bet?

topsy turvyI have a little bet going this season, with the makers of the “Topsy Turvy.”

You know the Topsy Turvy. It’s one of this season’s hottest garden inventions–a bag that hangs from a hook and allows you to grow tomatoes upside down. (If you haven’t heard of it, go here to watch the commercial.

All those commercials have made the Topsy Turvy the gardening world’s Sham Wow or Pocket Fisherman. It’s new, it looks a little crazy and by golly, it seems like the makers have a convincing argument. Use gravity and the sun to keep the plant watered and the roots warm. Why wouldn’t it work?

I’ve been watching Topsy Turvys pop up on balconies and back decks in our neighborhood all spring. When we finally made it to Home Depot to buy ours, the slightly aggravated sales clerk said, “Oh my gosh. Did we sell out of them again?” (They hadn’t. Someone had just moved the last few.)

Alas, I am a Topsy Turvy skeptic. I don’t think tomatoes will grow anywhere near as well in this contraption as they do in the position God intended. Here are my reasons:

1) Tomatoes, like most other plants, are evolved to grow up and down. The stems are supposed to go up. The roots are supposed to go down. I don’t think flipping the container over will change that. I bet that once the plant is established, the stems will try to turn and grow upright, and the roots will seek their natural place at the bottom of the container, where water is likely to pool.

2) Take a look at a tomato leaf. Its two sides are different in color and texture. One side catches the sun, the other doesn’t. If the plant is upside down, the wrong side will be sunward.

3) The advertising claims that water and the sun’s warmth on the bag will cause the roots to (stand back) “explode!” But summers around here can be very, very hot. We spend a lot of energy getting grass clippings down just to keep the soil cool and moist. I think the roots will cook in that plastic bag in the sun.

4) Growing upside down doesn’t solve the staking problem. If you plant a tall type of tomato, the fruit is just as likely to be on the ground.

5) The tomato leaves provide protection from the sun and somewhat from animals. An upside-down plant puts the fruit on the outside, fully exposed to sun scald and squirrels. (Although the squirrels would find a way to get about any kind of tomato.)

Sorry to rain on your parade, Topsy Turvy, but I don’t think your product will work. Rather than just be killjoys, however, Mike and I have decided to put it to the test. We bought ours (a $10 version that doesn’t come with a stand) and set it up yesterday. I even gave Topsy Turvy an advantage by planting one of my leftover Romas. They’re paste tomatoes that don’t grow especially tall and have lighter fruit than some of the heavy hitters, like Celebrity or Jet Star.

We’ll take good care of it and check in later this summer. If I’m wrong, I’ll be happy to admit it to everyone and do a little humiliating dance, if necessary.

Meantime, here it is, a few feet away from the rest of the tomatoes in our garden.

topsy turvy resizePosted by: Roxie


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groundhog“So,  are you ever going to get around to writing the groundhog post?” she asked this morning.

And there was this tone in Roxie’s voice that suggested “you darn well better write the groundhog post or you’re in big trouble, mister.”

Or words to that effect.

“Darn,” for instance, is in neither of our vocabularies.

So, right. Yeah,  I’d absolutely love to drop everything and tell one and all about the groundhog that  showed up by our fishless fishpond one recent afternoon and how Roxie and I thought to ourselves at the time, “omigosh, golly gee,  we certainly don’t need a darn groundhog settling in for the summer at our place.”

Not any year do we need thieving varmints tormenting us. But clearly  not in the year that we’re writing The Great Gardening  Book .

But there he was one afternoon, chomping on our hostas.

“He’s been living in my barn, I think,” said Michelle Staley, who runs My Granny’s Attic antique store just across the fence from us in Old Town Lenexa.

Yes, we have “barns”  in Old Town.

Sure enough, that’s where the groundhog was living. In Michelle’s barn. Though the day after she showed me the varmint’s hiding place and we debated on whether to call him a groundhog or a woodchuck (turns out that they’re one in the same)  my son Peter saw Herr Groundhog outside our own barn.

Must have looked roomier.

But with the help of our puppy, Einstein, we ran him out of there before he could set up housekeeping.

Why our concern? Thanks to the Google, source of all knowledge, I learned quite a bit about the damage that groundhogs can do to a vegetable garden.

Lots. They are voracious critters, one of the larger members of the (of course) squirrel family.

Once a woodhog or ground chuck (why not?)  discover the good eats you’re growing, not even a secure rabbit fence like ours will keep those darned little fellas out.

According to a K State University Extension brochure:

“Because woodchucks are excellent diggers, it is necessary to sink the fencing two to three feet into the ground. The entrance should be sturdy and elevated. Some gardeners prefer to build two separate sets of steps over the fence. ..”

And it goes on in great detail from there. Certainly,  I was not about to rent a trencher to sink my fence. Says you can electrify the fence, too, but be careful about the voltage, otherwise you will electrocute pets, small children and large gardeners alike.

In short, it’s a major pain in  the butt to fence out ground hogs.

Which is why some people shove lethal gas cartridges in their burrows (you need a permit) while others shoot them.

“A young, medium-size groundhog makes excellent table fare if properly prepared,” the K-State brochure said.

As we’re trying to reduce our grocery budget, roast groundhog sounded sort of appealing. But sadly, no recipes were provided, nor was there a listing in The Barbecue Bible.

So I decided on another approach. I set out a live trap baited with lettuce and waited for results. Rendition seemed like a humane approach. I don’t even know how to water board.

But nothing.

The lettuce wilted or was taken by rabbits. Then, I also noticed that no one was eating the hostas any longer.

What happened to our groundhog? we wondered.

“Yeah, I haven’t seen him, either, lately,” Michelle said me when I stopped over Friday around closing time.

“But I did see a fox out here.”

“Hmm.” I said.

“Huh” she said.

Once again, we give thanks to the great circle of life.

Bonus question:

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? If you have the correct answer, and can supply a groundhog (preferably cleaned), Rox and I will  come over to your house and cook supper using one of these scrumptious groundhog recipes.
Posted by: Mike

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Late May and things are still looking pretty good in Paradise. Everything’s up but some of the squash and pumpkins, which I just planted last week,  and the basil.

Basil is an exceptionally temperamental seed, though. After years of planting too early, having it not germinate and then planting again–multiple times–I have learned not to mess with basil until just about June. If the soil is too cold, the stuff just won’t come up. So I’ll go buy a package at the end of the week and put in that last row waiting between the tomatoes. And planting will be officially over.

The early crops are beginning to ripen. We ate the first strawberries a couple of days ago and I see some snow peas ready to pick. We have rhubarb, lettuce and radishes also, that need picking before the hot weather comes in.

To my chagrin we had to turn on the sprinkler for a bit today (because somebody went and said how he wished it would let up on the rain). But it’s still early. Maybe the dry weather will hold off for a while yet.

One trouble spot: The asparagus bed. Two or three years ago, it was a thriving area giving us more than enough shoots (and grocery store asparagus is tough as sticks by comparison) for our needs. But each year after, the yield has dwindled. This year, nothing. Here’s a pic:

asparagus small

None of my gardening resources is much help. Most of them say that after you spend the three years getting asparagus established, it’s smooth sailing from there. Sigh. I guess we’ll have to dig out a few crowns to get to the bottom of this.

Posted by: Roxie

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Is the backyard vegetable garden just a fad? Or an idea whose time has come (again)?

Columnist MP Dunleavey discusses the issue today on the MSN money page. The question: Can you really save money with a garden?

Gardening has become this year’s big thing. Dunleavey quotes statistics from seed companies and the National Gardeners’ Association that show a spike in interest for a variety of reasons–lower carbon footprint, concerns about food purity, etc. etc. But when it comes to actually saving some money, she leaves some room for doubt.

As an example, she writes about her own fledgling garden. After her first season last year, she figures a net loss of $50. This is primarily because of the $70 of topsoil and other expenses, plus the fact that some crops did poorly and slugs ate most of the kale.

Glad you bring this up, MP. Yes, it is possible to save money by gardening. We haven’t bought tomato sauce for a couple of decades. And during the height of summer it gets so that we rarely buy vegetables at all. During winter, we seldom run out of home-frozen green beans, broccoli, sweet and pot peppers.

Yes, it is also possible to make mistakes–especially your first year. And no garden is without the start-up expenses, be they topsoil, hoes and tillers, seeds or bedding plants.


A $70 application of topsoil costs you the most the first year. After the 5th or the 10th year–not so much. All you haveto do is stick with it a while, and you’ll hardly notice that money.

The other gardening fact of life is that it takes a couple of seasons to learn the ropes. Your first year in the plot you may not know how to judge the best place to plant lettuce or whether sweet potatoes are worthwhile for your climate. You might not understand that if you live in a low-lying area, your plants will be affected differently by the cool nights than someone who lives at the top of the hill.

True, there’s always your time investment to consider. But to be honest, the gardening itself doesn’t take up that much time. And no one pays for our time off anyway, so we guess it doesn’t make that much difference.

To her credit, Dunleavey is staying the course,  even expanding her plot. She’s already learned, for example, that starting her own seed is cheaper than buying bedding plants. She still has a little ways to go, though.

“Thus far I’ve spent about $34 on a seed starter kit and organic seeds,” she says. A seed starter kit? Organic seeds? Really? Cheap plastic seed cells would save her at least half of that. And she can have an organic garden, even if the seeds aren’t officially “organic.”

But then, maybe that’s learning for another season.

Now about those slugs…First you get a little saucer and pour in some beer. PBR is fine. Then you take the party out to your kale patch….


Posted by: Roxie


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Calling all gardeners! Red Alert!
You may, by your support of local, organic gardening, be contributing to obesity! Starvation! Cancer!
Sound like a joke item on, say, The Daily Show?
Well, you’re right. It is.
Sort of.
If you watch the show, you’ll know the type of item we mean. The producers SamBee01will find someone with an opinion that’s really “out there,” send a comedian over to do a mock-serious interview and the whole thing will result in a hilarious send up of the cause in question.
In this case, it was Samantha Bee interviewing a spokesman for the American Council on Science and Health. (Watch it here.)

As you can see, he sounds perfectly serious. Apparently it is ACSH’s position that White House vegetable garden is a dangerous threat to the health of Americans.

The reasoning is a little convoluted, but it sounds like the group thinks that people will become so committed to the idea of “local” and “organic” that they might starve themselves to avoid eating anything with chemicals. I don’t quite get the obesity and cancer connections, though.

The ACSH’s web site isn’t much help.  There’s no response to the Daily Show (as of right now anyway) and very little mention of the issue in its archives. The “Facts and Fears” columnist posts a brief quote from ACSH’s founder, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, saying the public support for organic and local gardening is an “emotional” issue that may cause people to become “irrational.”

“I think it’s great that the White House has a garden,”  Whelan says. “I would love to have one myself. But I worry about making it a political statement about the importance of eating only local, organic food, which is often inefficiently produced and often expensive.”

Her concern is touching. As an intellectually superior scientist, of course she would be worried that the American public, wide-eyed naifs that we are, would fall to ill health and bankruptcy from relying exclusively on that expensive and inefficiently- produced local produce.

Her comments, and the Bee interview, seem to push the same class-struggle hot buttons: Vegetable gardens are a fad–just the latest toy of the trendy elite. But they’re hopelessly out of reach and impractical for the average person.

We here at M&RVP are here to tell you otherwise. Before we moved into our current house, we gardened for years in a plowed up strip at our rental house, in a community garden and at a neighbor’s across the street (in return for mowing his lawn.) You don’t have to be a limousine liberal to garden. Just determined.

The group, which according to Sourcewatch has received funding from food and chemical industry giants such as Monsanto, Pfizer, Dow industrial farmChemical, Archer Daniels Midland and the American Beverage Association, needn’t worry. Traditional agribusiness isn’t going away any time soon.

But apparently it feels threatened by our little victory gardens. And isn’t that cool?

Posted by: Roxie

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The onslaught is coming one of these days. No doubt about it. The varmints are on their way.
But so far this spring, they haven’t attacked our garden paradise.
As usual, we bought off the birds with straw. A few years ago, the starlings and robins picked our pea patch clean before the plants had a chance to get very far out of the ground. With their beaks, the birds would snip off branches of young tomato plants, too, and carrry them off who knew where.
We couldn’t figure it out at first, and then we decided it had to be for nests. We were right. Because as soon as we provided another ready source of nest-making material, the thievery stopped
We started by piling up twigs. But setting out a bale of straw (only $6, and it lasts at least two seasons) was easier and really did the trick.
The birds now stop by and load up building material as if our back sidewalk was the loading dock at Home Depot.
As for the rabbits, we fence them out. With 1 by 2s and chicken wire, I built multiple fence sections that measure 8 feet long and two feet high. It took me a week to nail the sections together and stretch poultry mesh over them. That was a few years ago. Now each year I set them up in the spring and take them down in the fall for storage and maintenance.
How it goes together is I drive posts into the dirt every eight feet and wire the sections to them.
Like I said, it’s only two feet tall. Yet the rabbits won’t jump that high, and neither will they dig under the fence iif you leave a couple of inches of wire extending beneath the bottom crossbar of the fence sections. By covering that skirt with dirt and then letting the grass grow up into the mesh, the fence is practically impenetrable to bunnies.
Now as for the squirrels, that’s another matter. Still working on that one.
However, while doing some research on the subject for the book we’re writing on vegetable gardening, I looked up squirrels and plants on google and came up with this instructional video. Must have been a typo in the search line:
Posted by: Mike

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My feet hurt,  my back aches and I  aggravated some muscle  in my foot —  but we’ve finally  got grass clippings on the garden.

No big deal? Think again. It would have been so much easier to have spaced it off, because it sure wasn’t easy laying down that first layer of mulch amid the rows of tomatoes, cauliflower and broccoli  plants.

Would have been had I not hit a rock with my lawn mower blade last year. Luckily, it didn’t break the crank. So Mike at Maisch Small Engine in Lenexa got the Snapper running again. But then I hit something else this spring, which the 6 hp Tecumseh engine didn’t much  like. And then last week, the engine started running rough before finally seizing up entirely.

It might still come out of it. But the upshot is that I no longer have a power mower to bag grass clippings for the garden at a crucial time, which is when the ground is still moist and the weeds haven’t taken hold.

Some gardeners use straw or other biodegradables to control  weeds and keep the soil from drying out quickly in those tiny 35 mph “breezes” that Kansas is known for.

Others use plastic or something else.

We use grass clippings because they are free and plentiful — when your power mower is working.

But lucky me. I just  happen to have three old-fashioned reel mowers in the barn. You know, the kind that your grandpa’s grandpa used to use. They’re quiet, for sure, but you supply the power.

Really, it’s not all that bad. The newer ones are easy to push.  The two Great States mowers that came from Home Depot a couple of years ago are about a third as heavy as the WWII-era push mower that I bought off a WWII-era friend of mine some years back.

Problem is, the job takes forever if you use the  grass catcher (at least the one I have) when the grass is long.

Which it was.

I don’t even want to know how many hours it took me with all the stop and go that was involved. Twice as long as normal. Had to stop every two swaths to scoop the clippings out of the catcher by hand because it was too much work to remove the whole rig each time.

But in the end it was worth it, I tell myself. Our roughly 15,000-square feet of turf yielded more than three big garbage cans full of nice, chemical-free clippings that will reduce the workload later on — or so I hope.

Roxie took a couple of pictures of me in action.

Posted by: Mike



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