Archive for May, 2011

Even before our income took a massive hit during the Great Recession, Roxie and I were cheap.

Not when it came to important things like quality coffee, spices and craft beers, mind you. We love our vacations.

However, we believe that  frugality ( a happy marriage of practicality, environmentalism and thrift) is the way to go. Take my adventure this week with some storm damage.

In a way, it was good that the needs of our vegetable garden, fruit trees and strawberry patch were minimal thanks to the unseasonably cool and oh-so-dreary weather we’ve been having lately.

We’d much prefer warmer temps and sunny skies.  But if conditions were normal and the weeds and crops were taking off the way they should be by this time of years, I’d have felt a whole lot guiltier this week by cheaping out in our front yard.

We turn the clock back to last Saturday night. Storms threatened. The wind whipped. And on Sunday morning we awoke to find the mature tree in front of our house broken in half. Some chunks were on the parking area by the street.

Most of it, though, a y-shaped piece large enough to flatten a sedan, dangled from what were now the top branches.

This picture was taken after most of the mess was gone and fence repaired, but still gives you an idea. (Click to see detail.) That's Mike by the gate.

I let it sit for a day, figuring that maybe the city would forget about its recent change in policy that makes trees on city property the responsibility of the people who live adjacent. Maybe some crew would come by and take care of it for us.
No such luck. So I picked up what was on the ground, hauled it to the wood pile behind our barn, and figured we’d hire a tree outfit (what could it cost, $50?)   to remove the dangler when we felt a little more flush.


On Tuesday night,  a big gust of wind yanked that limb out of the tree and deposited it  into the front yard, taking out two sections of our cedar privacy fence. All told, the branch probably weighed a ton, despite the fact that rot made the branch weak enough to break.

First thing Wednesday morning, I emailed the insurance guy in hopes that a) I wouldn’t have to lift a finger and b) it wouldn’t cost me a dime.

Problem is, we’ve done all we can to reduce expenses. Like cutting our insurance premiums by setting the deductible at $1,000 (someone less cheap/frugal would have a $500 policy). Therefore, because the damage was several hundred bucks at the most, it would be all on us.

Others in that position might turn to the Yellow Pages. But being a cheapskate, that was beyond my comprehension. I’d do as much of the work as I could without writing any checks.

Problem was, my chainsaw wasn’t and still isn’t working. Some parts of the limb were bigger than my two chunky thighs lashed together. And the fence looked like a disaster: three of the four 2×4 crossbars were split in two, the pickets scattered all over.

Sure it could take days to tackle. (And it did.) But if I could do it alone without losing a finger, breaking my back, or having a heart attack, hey,  all the better!

Thankfully, work pressures were reduced because  I already had that week’s  columns done or underway. And secondly, keeping with our theme here, the garden was… just…kind of…sitting there.

That’s the thing about vegetable gardening. Some weeks there is simply no end to the work, worries and frustration.

In spring, there’s all that tilling, planting, installing tomato cages, etc.. In summer, it’s weeding, harvesting, battling pests.

But we’re in a lull now. This past seven days was like one of those bye week in pro football. The garden had few demands.

That allowed me to focus on the tree.  I got out the handsaw  (remember, the chainsaw was dead) and loppers. In a few hours, the tree mess was cut in half.

Likewise,  the fence looked worse than it was. Most of the pickets survived. And because I had some scraps of  treated (and aged) 2 x 4 lumber lying about, I was able to mend the broken crossbars with some rusty nails that came with the house.

Only three pickets need replacing, which should cost me no more than $10.

That still left two thick piece of limb that were maybe 15 feet long each. They were hard to saw. About the time I was ready to give up, a  tree guy I know came along and said he’d be happy to finish up the job in exchange for a 12-pack of Boulevard Pale Ale beer,

Not a bad deal, I thought. So I went out and got the beer. I needed some myself, and a 20 pack is cheaper than three sixes  — go figure?

Only he didn’t show on the day he was supposed to come, this past Thursday. I waited. And waited.

Those big limbs were still out there, I thought. Pretty soon they’ll kill the grass. Do I want to bug the tree guy with phone calls when it was an informal contract in the first place?

This is when I got the idea to finish it on my own, and it’s also when my inner cheapskate took over.

What would the pioneers have done? They didn’t have chain saws. Slipping off my wedding ring to avoid a finger blister,  I grabbed the hand saw and set to work.

It took hours, Thursday and Friday. But I finally had the limb in pieces. Most of them I could carry. Some were so large that I lashed them to a kids’ wagon and dragged  them to  behind the barn.

One was so big I couldn’t deal with, but our son Pete stopped in for the weekend and I had him help me with the last, massive chunk.

Was it worth it? Not if it would have me kept me from earning wages. Or letting the garden go to waste.

But since no one pays me to sit on the couch, the money I saved as a do-it-yourselfer will free up some cash to tune up the chainsaw. Once its working, I’ll saw the wood into manageable pieces for our fall bonfire.

And best of all, remember those 20 bottles of beers?

Thanks to the garden gods, they’re all ours now. Ah.

Posted by: Mike


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Have you seen this bug?

Print this picture and post it on your refrigerator. This is 2011’s “Most Wanted Plant-eating Scum.”

This is the brown marmorated stink bug–an insect that is fast becoming one of the pests most feared by gardeners and commercial growers alike.

It doesn’t bite or sting, but this little guy is capable of causing huge amounts of damage in the garden. And as an added plus, it can overwinter in your house, making  very efficient use of the winter down time.

This stink bug is the latest in a growing list of animals imported from other shores, thanks to global business or world travelers or whatever. It came from Asia to Pennsylvania in 1998, according to this story by the Associated Press. It’s been sighted in states mainly east of the Mississippi so far, but some have also been found in California. So it seems pretty likely the stinker will pop up here this summer. (The “stink” comes from chemicals released when you squish one.)

There are few chemical controls for stinkbug, and even fewer that would be considered organic. Scientists hope for a trap that uses stinkbug pheromones but apparently it isn’t ready for this season.

So the best defense so far is really the top advice we give to anyone starting a garden: Eyeballs on the plants. Every day. No exceptions.

What are you watching for? Well, the guy at the top of the post, naturally. But also the eggs.

Spotting them depends on getting right in amidst your plants and turning a few leaves over. If you spot eggs, pick the leaf and remove it to a place where it can be destroyed without possibility of eggs dropping back onto the garden.

Same goes if you find the bugs. Collect them and crush them. Or, if you don’t have the stomach for that, drop them into some soapy water and wait until all is still. You could compost them, but I think I’d rather not.

While we’re waiting for the better bugtrap to be invented, you could try your own trap. I’ve read that a pipe painted yellow  and set amongst the plants in an upright position will attract them and they will not be able to get out. Having never tried this, I can’t vouch for it. But it’s definitely worth a try.

Until then, we all can do our part by keeping track of infestations and which plants seem to be the most resistant.

Good luck.

Odds and ends: Strong winds took out the top half of a full-grown sugar maple in front of our house. But luckily the tomatoes, corn and peppers are too short to be much affected by the rough weather. That won’t be true if we get hail, though. So we’re keeping our fingers crossed.

We’re picking: Strawberries! We’ve replaced about two-thirds of the bed over the past couple of years and so far, so good. We won’t get as many as in years past, but signs look good that the bed is coming back.

Swiss chard! We had a few seeds left over from last year and once again, the chard is one of the best-looking veggies in the patch. We’ve also got great spinach this year, though the Bloomsdale seems to be a little later than the Melody we planted in the past. Oh well, it’s been colder. Arugula is also doing great, also.

Not doing so hot: Lettuce and tender, leafy “chef’s mix.” I planted year-old seed of a nice mix of several different types of lettuce, but for some reason, only the red came up. So I replanted alongside. Not too much going on so far. I guess we’ll let a few of those lambsquarters stay long enough to fill out a salad with arugula.

Posted by: Roxie

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As always this time of year, it’s us against  the birds plotting to ruin our cherry and apple crops. Them and, in the case of the apples, those marauding, bushy-tailed tree rats.

I  say bring on the terror eye!

Some home gardeners and commercial growers swear by the power of those big, heavy-plastic balloons with several shiny eyes attached that you see in garden stores and can also buy on line.

The first time Roxie and I came across one was at one of those you-pick blueberry farms south of Kansas City.

This was back in the ‘80s and they had several of those yellow orbs, as big as beach balls, bobbing in the wind all crazy like with their big, silver eyes, streamers growing out of the top.

Hey, if the commercial growers were willing to spend money on them (Amazon had scare/terror eye today for less than $10 apiece or three for $18.99), who were we to cast doubt.

So one was installed in our vegetable garden soon after. I attached it to a tall pole and unleashed it do its terrible magic.

We’re the birds frightened? Eh, who knows. But we were impressed by the commotion our scare eye made as it whipped about in the unrelenting Kansas wind.

We don’t have it any more. After more than a decade of service, it sprung a leak. Maybe this year we’ll get a replacement.

Meantime I was back at it this week, up on my ladder, attaching aluminum pie tins to the cherry tree with twine fed through the hole I’d punched in each one. To birds, they’re scary, too. Also, up in the branches now are some of the remaining CDs I harvested several years ago from the give-away bins in the lobby of the neighborhood HyVee. Remember when AOL was thrilled to push free copies of the program supporting their dial-up service?

We already  had broadband. But thank you, AOL, for your support of the fresh food movement.

Do these repellents work?

Supposedly, birds are none too keen about tolerating shiny, noisy objects in the same trees they’ve chosen to have a healthful fruit snack.

Another method  is to tie to the branches a reflective ribbon that sells at the rate of $5 for 50 feet in many garden stores. I’m going to buy some this weekend. My Westlake Hardware doesn’t carry it, but Family Tree Nursery in Overland Park said they have it.

The problem is that birds are smarter than they get credit for. After while they learn that the pie tine, ribbons and old Aerosmith CD twirling in the cherry tree will not harm them.

So it’s good to mix things up. Those plastic snakes work – for a time, anyway, we’re told.

We have a garden owl, but you must move this phony predator every couple of days for it to be effective.

Netting, they say, is the only fool-proof method of keeping the birds and/or squirrels out of your fruit trees. But anyone who has worked with that black, plastic stuff knows that it is both expensive and a real pain in the butt to work with.

It tangles easily, gets caught up on branches, tears — ah, I hate the stuff.

A high tech and, therefore, expensive approach is to use sonic or ultra-sonic gear to keep birds away. But at several hundred dollars or more for the system (see here), who can justify the expense for a home garden? Plus, if it really works, wouldn’t it scare away one of the best natural defense systems you have against harmful insects in your yard?

A more reasonable approach for apples, as Roxie points out, is to install the pin tins and other noisemakers described above and to keep current applications of a natural pesticide like Bt. That prevents infestations of the worms that get into your apples and, therefore, attract birds.

Net when you can. But don’t sweat it if you don’t have the patience or the budget for it. Keeping your bird feeder full is another strategy.

Birds can eat only so much.

As for our cherry tree, we usually get a nice haul every year from what I can reach from a 5-foot step ladder.

Anything above that, the birds get without complaint.

Thankfully, squirrels don’t seem to like cherries. Or maybe it’s that they prefer apples more and don’t have much room left for the cherries after they’ve stripped the apple trees clean.

But that’s a subject for another post.

Posted by: Mike

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Let’s go first to the land of exploding watermelons.

Yes, that’s right. China. I happened onto this interesting news item via Facebook today. The Guardian.UK reported that thousands of watermelons have begun exploding like landmines due to the addition of a growth accelerant called forchlorfenuron during wet conditions.  The chemical is only one of a long list of additives the Chinese are worried about. (Birth control chemicals in cucumbers, borax in pork, melanine in milk, to name a few. Read the whole, scary story here.) 

This chemical is approved in the US for kiwi fruit, grapes and raisins. It’s profile is listed with the EPA here.

The China story was doubly interesting to me because I came across it just a day after this story appeared on the business section of the Kansas City Star.

In case you didn’t follow the link, this wide-eyed, gee-whizzy story is all about Monsanto’s efforts to “improve” the vegetables and fruits we buy at the store. Cryless onions! Supercharged antioxidant broccoli! Melons you don’t have to thump! You get the feeling writer Tim Lloyd has just returned from the World’s Fair all excited and out of breath, reeling with the possibilities he has seen in the endless marvel of science.

Turns out that this story was not written by a Star staffer, but by an outfit called Harvest Public Media. It was picked up and run pretty much as is, on the front of the business section.

Harvest Public Media is, according to its website, a journalistic network that reports on agriculture. The reporting is done by  radio stations (KCUR in Kansas City), but then, obviously, can spill over into print. The effort began with a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Interestingly, Monsanto is a contributor to the CPB.

You won’t find any publicized connection between Monsanto and Harvest Public Media. And maybe there isn’t any. But given that Monsanto has a huge investment in genetically modified seeds and farm chemicals, it’s good to be suspicious. An internal search on the Harvest website showed 18 stories with the word “Monsanto” were done since October 2010.

Maybe they were all fair and balanced. You can click on a few and decide for yourself. Maybe you can use this story in Vanity Fair as a comparison. (It has a Missouri connection).

On one side of the world–where capitalism itself has apparently been fed growth-stimulating hormones–we have exploding watermelons and farmers who won’t feed their families the things they sell.

On the other we have a mega corporation hard at work genetically modifying everything in sight and selling them to us with buzzwords like  “tearless” and “antioxidant.” No word on how these products actually taste.

Then I look at some of the things the store offers (freaky giant strawberries with a woody core, being the latest example. And just try finding any kind of fruit with seeds.) And I think, thank goodness for our own little garden plot, where we still have some control over what we eat.

Well, enough of this ranting…

As of yesterday, our garden planting is complete. I put in the sweet potato slips and basil, and that finished it out. Now let’s hope we get some rain and a little warmth to get things going.

Posted by: Roxie

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Have you cussed your parsley recently? Seen a white bean? Talked to your bees?

Today is Friday the 13th, which has got me thinking about superstitions. It seems like whenever human beings can’t explain something or feel like things are out of control, you’ll find superstitious ritual.

And what, my friends, is more out of our control than the conditions that make plants grow?

So in honor of the day (or maybe just to ward off our own bad luck, who knows?) I’ve been rounding up some gardening superstitions. Maybe you’ve heard some of them before, but most were news to me. Here goes:

*Beware the white bean. If you find a single white bean in a row of green ones, get your affairs in order because death is nigh.

*Rosemary and sage grow well in homes where the wife dominates. Hmmm…Our rosemary is looking pretty good this year, but the sage is uncommonly puny. Wonder what that means?

*Never openly give someone a plant cutting. It’s bad luck. Instead, leave the cutting out and turn your back so your friend can “steal” it.

*Parsley and basil will only grow if you curse at them vigorously when planting. (Is it just me, or does swearing seem to go hand-in-hand with every one of my free-time activities?) Parsley, in particular, is difficult because apparently the seed must travel down to the Devil seven times before it germinates. But if you can finally get it to grow, it will show that you’re an honest man.

Basil will bring you wealth if you put a piece of it in each of the four corners of your house at the start of a new growing season. Wait…what? Is it too late for this year? Will they accept dried basil?

*Peas will be ready in about a month. When you shellyours, be sure to count how many are in a pod. If you get nine, you can throw one over your

I only count eight.

shoulder and make a wish. (No info on if that wish will actually be granted.) But if you get just one, that’s a sign of good luck.

Really? What if most of the pods contain just one pea? Does it mean I’m incredibly lucky? Or did I just have a massive crop failure? Just checking.

*If you’re pregnant whilst planting seeds, everything will do well. Now to me, that just sounds like something you tell yourself so you don’t mind the backache so much.

*And let’s not get started on the bees. They have their own rigid set of superstitions. You have to talk to them and tell them the news regularly. It’s an especially big no-no to not inform them of a death in the family. When a beekeeper dies, the rules are clear: A family member must promptly go out to the hives and rap on each one with a door key, whispering, “The Master is dead.” Or the bees will fly away. AND you have to leave them a piece of the funeral cake (or wedding cake. Did I mention they’ll take it hard if you don’t tell them you got married?)

Here’s a pretty interesting site with more gardening folklore. Check out the carrot quiz.

Well, now I see what I’ve been doing wrong all these years of gardening. It’s high time I got out there and did some serious swearing. And oh, better go look for that basil.

Posted by: Roxie

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My head was still bleary with sleep when I heard the weather guy talking, so I can’t be 100 percent sure I wasn’t dreaming.

“I love the heat! I love the humidity! This is great weather!” He went on at some length, as if the freakish May warm snap was a gift directed specifically to him from the weather deities.

Okay, okay. I get it. It’s been a long time since shorts and golf weather. And television news must have its happy talk.

But you won’t see many gardeners cartwheeling around the strawberry patch when the May temperatures top 90 degrees. Because they’ll all be asking themselves: “Is this going to hurt my veggie crop?”

The short answer is “probably not.” That’s because the thunderstorms that are supposed to roll in tonight will herald the end of the crazy-hot days and we’ll be going back to sweater weather in the 60s again.

There are a lot of good reasons to be concerned, though. Many of the first things you plant in the spring need it to stay cool to produce a decent crop. Potatoes, peas, beets, carrots, and onions all benefit from moderately cool beginnings. Even the broccoli and cauliflower kind of like the cool.

But they also can tolerate a brief bout of heat. It’s not them we worry the most about. It’s the tender, leafy greens. The lettuce, the arugula, the mixed greens and the spinach. And the radishes. Once it stays hot for any length of time, they get almost unbearably spicy.

The leafy greens, though, are apt to bolt when the temperature gets too hot for too long.

What is bolting? It’s when the leaves stand straight up (it always looks to me like the spinach is saying “Hallelujah!”) and sends up a flower stem so seeds can be developed.

Once this happens, the leaves get smaller and become aggressively bitter–a kind of spit-it-out-scrape-off-your-tongue unpleasantness you won’t want to be serving your kids.

Prolonged hot weather has been blamed for bolting for years, but there’s also evidence that accumulated hours of daylight also plays a role. Experiments have shown that plants exposed to the sun for longer hours are quicker to bolt, even in equally hot temperatures. (Check here for more on this.)

Once it happens, there’s no going back. That’s why most of us are watch the weather forecasts so closely during hot weather like this week’s. While that weather guy is going on about how great it is, we’re thinking, “When will it be over? When will it be over?”

A quick check of our garden shows the spinach is still pretty small and shows no signs of bolting yet. The lettuce–well it didn’t germinate well so I had to replant and it still isn’t up yet.

It would probably need to be hot for longer than the three-day run we’ve had so far for things to start going seriously awry in the garden.  So no need to panic just yet.

There are a couple of things you can do to minimize chances of bolting.

1.Plant early enough. This is tricky when frost still threatens. But if your lettuce, like mine, is planted late, chances are you won’t get as much.

2.Keep it moist to minimize the stress of all that heat. We like to keep a light layer of straw over beets and carrots to keep those tiny seedlings from drying out. But beware of any kind of grassy mulch for spinach and lettuce–you’ll never get it all picked out of your salad.

3.Choose a variety proven to be slow to bolt. Sadly, you can’t always trust what the seed catalogs say on this. The best way is to keep good records of your own garden and rule out the kinds that don’t work. I can’t say that I’ve ever found a favorite lettuce that doesn’t bolt, but we’ve enjoyed Melody spinach for years. This year, though, I’m trying some Bloomsdale.

There is one type of “spinach” that originates in India and is specifically grown for hot weather. It is called Malabar, and is not really in the spinach family but reportedly has a similar taste. Some types grow up in a vine, like a pole bean.

Green stemmed malabar spinach

4.You could experiment with limiting the full sun on your tender greens by using some kind of tent or maybe a wood-slatted shade arrangement. It would be interesting to see if that helps, though I seriously doubt we’ll ever have enough time to put something like that together.

In the meantime, take heart. Cooler weather is just around the corner.

Posted by: Roxie

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We made it!

Unless the Earth somehow falls off its and axis and we drift off toward the chillier orbits of Jupiter and Mars, it now looks as if all chances of frost are now behind us. The record last frost date for the Kansas City area is tomorrow, set on May 7, 1989.

Which is a heckuva relief, given how close the lows teetered toward freezing in the weeks since we slid past the average frost date of April 15.

So head on out to the garden center this weekend and purchase mom those bedding plants and seed packets she hasn’t gotten around to buying for herself. It’s not too late to plant warm weather crops like tomatoes, peppers and watermelon. Though you’ve  missed the boat for cooler season plantings — your lettuce, spinach, peas and the like — it is the perfect  time to plant sweet corn.

In fact, my late-afternoon plan today is to plant corn, having  put it off for a week. It was kind of chilly, Roxie and I thought. But today,  the forecast is much like it is for the week ahead, sunny and warm, with only the occasional chance of rain over the next seven days.

Mom has all the plants she needs? Other gardening gifts she might like: A new planting spade, sturdy garden fork, heavy duty grape hoe or a good quality soaker hose. I know this dad would enjoy any of those.

And then of course, there are any number of gardening books on the market. For history buffs, there’s the recently published tome by Andrea Wulfe describing the gardening chops of George Washington and the other men who fought the American Revolution. “Founding Gardeners” has received good reviews, including this one published in The Kansas City Star.

But if you’re looking for a more hands-on, how-to book on vegetable gardening that’s tailored especially for the Kansas City market, then —  gee, I wish I could think of a book other than the one Roxie and I co-authored.

(After all, selfish self-promotion is so unseemly, don’t you think?)

However, if you are looking to get hold of this handsome, four-color and very-affordable volume published by Kansas City Star Books, then visit the Kansas City Store on the Plaza, or most major chain book stores.

Better yet, buy it online (just go to the right rail of this blog and look for the somewhat pushy suggestion: “Buy Our Book”). Or even better: contact us directly at kc.mikehendricks@gmail.com. We’d be happy to get you an autographed copy. Maybe even deliver it, depending on where you live.

Just know that, however you celebrate it, happy Mother’s Day from Mike and Roxie at Mike and Roxie’s Vegetable Paradise.

Posted by: Mike

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