Archive for September, 2012

When it was good

Even though this was a far from perfect year as far as the weather, it’s still important to spend a little time at the end of each growing season going over the things that worked–if only to remind yourself that a few things did, indeed, work.

So while there was much misery over the drought and excessive heat, we can still take a few lessons with us for next year. Which is bound to be better, right?
Here are a few of our stand-out successes.

Carrots and tomatoes

You know, maybe carrots really do love tomatoes, as Louise Riotte says in her book of the same title. We’ve never been big companion planters in the past, partly because a lot of it involves flowers. Marigolds, for instance, are said to repel bugs. But we always hated to use up valuable growing space on something we can’t eat. And we’ve grown basil near tomatoes for years and not noticed much of a positive effect. Likewise, I accidentally planted potatoes near tomatoes one year–which is supposed to be a big no-no–and nothing much happened.

This year, though, I thought I’d put a row of carrots up the middle of two tomato rows because…what the heck, right? They were not especially close, so I didn’t think much about it.

But despite the brutal weather, the tomatoes (Romas) produced very well. And the carrots were some of the best and sweetest I’ve ever eaten. They were not a new special hybrid, just the same old Nantes I usually plant. Something to think about for next year.

Amazing cauliflower

I planted this variety for the first time a couple of years ago and hated it. Hated it. It was so late, I didn’t get anything before hot weather. Then last year just out of laziness, we left the cauliflower stumps in the ground rather than pulling them out.

And were rewarded with beautiful white heads in the fall.

I planted earlier cauliflower this year, but put in a couple of Amazing because I had some seeds left over. The early variety formed some heads, but they were ugly, rubbery things. However, as I write this we have a couple of nice white heads of Amazing still forming and a third one on the way. I’ll never get used to picking cauliflower in the fall. But I tell ya, I’m in favor of making it a habit.

The owl

If you have fruit trees, you know how hard it is to keep pests away. We have three apple trees (two of which are mature enough to bear significant fruit) but each year most of the apples are carried away by the dozens of little tree rats in our neighborhood. Sometimes, when it gets too dry and food is scarce, they make off with green tomatoes as well.

Not this year, though. This year, we resurrected the owl.

The decoy owl, with the swivel head has been with us for a long time, but has not been very effective. That’s not the owl’s fault. That is because we had not been disciplined enough to use him the right way.

We would put him out, with every intention of moving him around as you’re supposed to. And then we’d forget all about him for weeks. Birds and squirrels would get wise. And our apples would be gone.

This year, Mike made it part of his morning routine to move the owl. Get dressed. Get the paper. Walk the dog. Move the owl.

And it worked. We got more apples than ever before. My hero.

Or it could also be because a local cat has taken an interest in hunting in our garden.

Either way, though, it works for us.

Posted by: Roxie


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Bring out your dead

There have been few years I’ve welcomed the end of growing season more than this one. The super mild winter had us all on edge about early flowering (and possible late frost) on the fruit trees, and when that was over, we headed down a spiral of drought and brutally high temperatures. A hurricane saved us–somewhat–from crackly grass and total garden devastation. Now we hear forecast of the first overnight lows in the high 30s.

“I heard the Farmer’s Almanac said there would be a snow in October,” my hairdresser said today. And that wouldn’t surprise me a bit, in a crazy year like this one.

So it is with relief the we look back on this season. Only a few things are left out there now. Some sweet potatoes, peppers, the broccoli. Now that things are winding down, there’s time for a little look back at what succeeded (and there were a few successes) and what failed in one of the most historic droughts of our lives.

Spinach–It was a huge disappointment this year because of the relentless hot weather that started in April. Spinach just doesn’t like that much heat. So we barely had any. Good thing we planted a little Swiss chard.

Peas–We actually had a decent year for peas, which makes no sense at all. Peas prefer the cool springs just as much as spinach. Yet they didn’t seem to mind. In fact, I think they were helped by the lack of moisture, which staved off the powdery mildew.

Broccoli–We got nuthin’! Huge fail. The plants recovered some after the rain from Isaac, and Mike has been picking little shoots. But we never got a single head. and yet….

Cauliflower–produced a few heads which we managed to freeze. I’m not saying they were great quality, but something at least.

Beets and carrots–This was one of the best years ever for these two. The beets were big and round, and the carrots were sweet. Maybe its because by this point we realized we’d have to start watering more.

Tomatoes–Our pantry was really low so we planted extra and watered. Despite everything, we had enough to can 14 gallons of puree, dried a couple of quarts and put up some roasted tomatoes for the freezer. So this was a success.

Peppers–The hot ones did okay, but we’re still waiting to see a full-sized sweet pepper. They need a lot of water and yes, we did put the soaker hose under them. But, well, I guess it wasn’t enough.

Eggplant–It was a terrific year. Possibly the best ever. Usually my eggplants are sickly and plagued by bugs but not so this year. I’m scurrying to find enough things to do with them. Luckily, we like Middle Eastern food.

Butternut squash–provided me with a lesson in optimism this year. As the season wound down, I became so depressed about the drought and constant heat that I quit looking at the garden. I quit going out to see the plants. As a result, I didn’t notice the invasion of the squash bugs until too late. By that point, the boards on the ground just couldn’t attract enough bugs on their undersides to make any difference. I went for some diatomaceous earth and sprinkled it around but it didn’t have any affect either. All the vines were killed and I got six squash where I usually would get 16. I won’t be planting them there next year, that’s for sure.

We’ll see how the sweet potatoes did, but I don’t hold out much hope. Usually, nothing bothers sweet potatoes, but this spring, ours looked pretty puny. I’m sure it was because we didn’t start watering early enough in the season.

That’s the thing about gardening, though. You can only do so much. The rest is out of your hands. But take heart. Frost is surely on the way soon. And so is another, better year.

Posted by: Roxie


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No, we are not thieves. We’d rather think of ourselves as scavengers.

Apples were the latest haul from fruit trees hereabouts that were in no danger of  being picked by their owners.

Peaches before that, and we had our eyes on a pear tree in the neighborhood, but somehow or other we let it slip away to some other fruit picking opportunist.

See, we have this cider press that Roxie convinced me we should buy back in the early 1990s. At the time, we owned a house on a small lot that happened to have two apple trees along the south fence line.

My, how those apples were going to waste, she said. There were just so many apple pies, cobblers and batches of apple sauce one could engineer. Yet the trees were loaded at times, and the ground was was littered with rotting apples.

So we found a place out in Paola that made cider presses, and we bought one for something like $300.

We made lots of apple cider back then, froze it and each fall we congratulated ourselves for not being tempted to spend a whole lot of dough to prop up the profits at the Louisburg cider mill.

Fast forward to now. We moved to a bigger lot in ’98 and planted a couple of apple trees. This year was the first where we were able to harvest a decent amount of fruit before the squirrels got them. .

Still, it was nothing like the bounty we used to get from the trees at our house on Noland Road. Hence, we did what we’ve done the last several years to bolster the harvest.

We went trolling for apples elsewhere. Turns out, a lot of people have apple trees who don’t much care to harvest the apples.

So, last weekend and the weekend before, I loaded my ladder, my fruit picking tool and some bushel baskets into the car. Within an hour I’d picked three bushels of apples at the insurance company office where I’d asked for permission to pick several years ago. Surely, the ok still stands. And if now, well, hey.

I got another couple of bushels from a pathetic tree at an abandoned gas station.  Never asked anyone for permission. Who might I have asked.

And I found lots of apples begging to be picked near a KCP&L substation.

Those trees haven’t been tended to in years, it seems. Branches breaking, etc., under the weight. And hey, I’m a ratepayer.

Total haul from all three spots and our one late bearing tree was  like 7 or 8 bushels.

And what does one do with so many  apples? On Labor Day weekend, I was a cider making fiend, pressing more than 10 gallons, of which half went into the freezer as juice.

The rest?

We’ve got 5 gallons of apple wine fermenting away in the basement right now. Walk down the stairs and you hear it — blub, blub, blub through the airlock — creating a nice little buzz for those who will partake of the produce months from now.

Other than the cost of the sugar, yeast and a few other ingredients, that wine’s  mostly free. (I get the bottles from the recycling dumpsters and corks from a lotal wine and beer making shop.)

With luck this 5 gallon batch of apple will l taste as fine as the 5 gallons of peach wine (nice and dry) we made from scavenged fruit this summer and the 5 gallons of (also dry) tart cherry wine that our very own tree made possible.

Yes, it took some work and, yes, we went to some trouble and expense, but it’s mightly satisfying when you can turn found items into something special.

Sort of like gardening in general. Sow a few seeds and the next thing you know your overrun with tomatoes, squash and peppers.

Well, maybe not this year, but that’s another post.



Posted by: Mike

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We were talking about errands, I think. I was arranging my work for the next few hours and Mike was sitting across the table from me, talking about the many stops he had planned for his day off, which was an extension of Labor Day weekend.

It was just beginning to spit rain outside, and he offhandedly said something to the effect of, “Driving around in it will be a pain in the (rear).”

I just sat there. But in my mind I was jumping and screaming, “Take it back! Take it back, quickly! Don’t you blaspheme in my house!”

Why? Because by this point in the summer all my logic and science knowledge had taken a back seat to pure, reptile-brained superstition. It was going to rain this day. It must. It hadn’t rained all summer. We are a foot below normal. Biggest drought since the Dust Bowl.

Yet our local TV weather guy had insisted on depressing us with his choice of computer models–the one that had all that precipitation from Isaac cutting east just before it got to us and giving us only a quarter to a half-inch.

As the day progressed, it did begin to rain, though. I’d look up from my computer, just to verify, then quickly back down. Better not to watch it.

An hour or two passed. Mike came by with the news that the gauge had a half-inch in it. Then later, an inch.

Now I could be happy. We had at least an inch–more at one time that we’d had since early June. Anything more would be gravy.

It kept on raining. Through the evening news. Through supper. It was raining when we went to sleep. I kept waking myself up during the night to listen. Each time, I heard rain.

We were dubious, though, when we looked out the window in the morning. There wasn’t a puddle in the low spot in the yard that usually fills up when we get a couple of inches. Maybe we didn’t really get that much.

Then we took a look at the gauge. Five inches. Another half-inch fell before it stopped mid morning.

Not many things have made me happier this year than that rain. For the first time in weeks, the grass didn’t crackle as I toured the yard. The fish pond is back up to the top.

It seems the plants have responded immediately. The grass went from brown to green. Our tomatoes, which had pretty much stopped producing, have newly lush looking tops with tiny teardrop Romas starting to grow. It’s too late for a lot of things. My new currant bush, for example. But there’s at least a chance for some more tomatoes before cold weather sets in. And maybe another butternut squash or two.

So for today, anyway, there’s going to be no more complaining. It rained. It finally rained.

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