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Call them what you will. Pie cherries, tart cherries, sour. We call them good eating, but you never find them fresh in supermarkets around Kansas City.

Sweet cherries, yes. Tart cherries, hardly ever even at the farmers market.

I never understood why until hearing this story on NPR’s All Things Considered the other day. Apparently, tart cherries don’t travel well. They’re very perishable. And since Michigan is about the closest source of commercially grown tart cherries, we here in the Kansas City area are stuck with frozen cherry filling, juice and dried cherries.

That is,unless you happen to have access to a cherry tree. We have one right outside our back door. It was one of the first things we planted when we moved into our current home almost 15 years ago and started setting up our (fruit) and vegetable paradise.

I can’t recall when we got our first harvest off of it. A couple of years later, I suppose. Steadily the tree and its output grew. Nowadays, I’m amazed at how many cherries one tree can produce. In a few weeks, I’ll be spending many hours on a step ladder picking buckets of them.

Then Roxie and I will share duty pitting them by hand. She does most of it, but I have been known to pitch in, such as one marathon pitting session a few years ago when we were about to go on a trip and the cherries had to be dealt with or else.

Tedious, yes, but the work is well worth it. In addition to baking cherry pies, Rox will make jam and dry them in our dehydrator for sprinkling on cereal and ice cream.

Three years ago we tried our hand at making cherry wine. We used too much sugar and it ended up being a sweet desert wine that was just Ok. Since then, however, we’ve gotten better at it. Last year’s vintage wine was dry and fit for serving with the main course.

Buoyed by our success in making cherry wine, we experimented with other fruits. So now there’s apple and peach wine, too, in our cellar.

If you listen to the NPR story, you’ll be depressed to learn that the tart cherry industry is now marketing their product as a health food. Eat cherries and live better, longer, etc.

Phooey. Food isn’t medicine. Some of It may have medicinal properties, or simply be good for you, but food is meant to be enjoyed.

Anyone who says differently is itching for a fight.

Posted by: Mike

We’ll have cherry pie;Cherry pies,

Wellsir, I’ll say this: It has been an exciting spring. While last year we longed for a little rain, an occasional cloud to liven things up from the unrelenting sun and heat, this spring has been…yeah.

As I write this, on May 4, 2013, we still have not put out the tomato, broccoli, lettuce and cauliflower–not to mention the pepper–plants we’ve been carefully tending in the basement for weeks. The seeds and sets we put out earlier–onions, garlic, peas and potatoes–are up, or just barely. The bedding plants have been outside a little in the cold frame, but are now back down in the basement waiting for the current cold snap to be over.

Help us!

Help us!

 

Each week I think I’ll put them out in the garden. But then I check my weather app and here comes another week with a dip into the 30s for nighttime lows. A week ago, we had a heavy frost on the car windshield (although the peas and onions handled it fine). Thursday, we drove home from a school event in driving snow.

And so here it is, May 4. Normally by this time, we have the garden three-quarters planted. Bedding plants are out, beans are planted. About the only things waiting by this time are the hard-core warm weather lovers: The squash, the cucumbers, the melons and of course the sweet potatoes and the basil. And corn, if we have a spot to plant it.

This is without a doubt the latest spring in my memory for Kansas City. And we’ve lived here since 1985.

But oh well. You have to believe it will all work out. Over the years, we’ve found it just doesn’t pay to get too excited about the weather. Because eventually, things work out.

 

For instance

Case in point: Last year’s drought was brutal for some of our perennials. Rhubarb that had been coming up for years failed. Asparagus looked weak and piddly. And worst of all, a currant bush we’d planted when we bought the house just up and died (although I think that was some kind of disease or fungus, rather than the dry weather).

Our yard. Not a monoculture

Our yard. Not a monoculture

We planted new rhubarb and a currant in different locations. But by the end of the growing season, they looked completely dead.

But being lazy as we are, we never dug up those plants. And this year our laziness was rewarded. The rains returned and so did the currant and rhubarb. The roots were not dead after all.

Which just goes to prove–your garden wants to live. You just have to be patient.

 

The grass

Normally we’re not that into the things in our yard we can’t eat. But it has been great to see what the rain (and snow) has done to make our yard green as Ireland. We really missed that after all the brown of the drought summer.

We joked all through our garden show talks about how our presentation on dry weather gardening probably caused the return of precipitation to Kansas City. But hey, if it works…

 

Worth checking out

I’ve been hearing about the upcoming garden tour put on by Cultivate Kansas City. The tour will feature 60 gardens or urban farming operations throughout the area. From what I’ve heard, it’s going to be an exciting and inspiring tour. So mark your calendars for June 22 and 23. For more info, go to http://www.cultivatekc.org/urbangrowntour/about-tour.html

The new currant

The new currant

Posted by: Roxie

Sorry for being so late to post, but we were working on an article for The New York Times about high tech garden gadgets. Here’s the link. Enjoy: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/25/technology/personaltech/calling-on-gadgetry-to-keep-the-garden-growing.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&smid=tw-nytimes&_r=1&

 

A rescue in the night

Call me stupid, but I helped a squirrel escape death last night.

For a vegetable gardener, that’s akin to an American soldier on patrol in Iraq who help a pinned-down Taliban fighter find safety during a firefight.

Well, maybe not exactly like that. Actually nothing like it. But you get the idea. Anyone growing vegetables in our part of town is in a constant battle with Mr. Bush Tail and his army. Deer are a bigger problem for gardeners in further-out neighborhoods, where coyotes, bobcats, foxes and hawks keep the squirrel population under control.

Here, we rarely see a deer. But the squirrels are everywhere, poised to steal tomatoes and anything else they can get their claws on during the  growing season.

Everywhere includes the mature maple tree towering over our deck. Squirrels nest high up in its branches. We often see them come and go.

But last night,  one of them made a quick exit, falling out of that nest and landing hard on the grass.

This is him

This is him

The dog and I were on the porch around 9 just chilling when we heard it shriek . The only thing I could compare that cry of surprise and agony was the squeal that baby rabbits give out when Einstein finds one and starts to “play” with them.

But the dog was minding his own business, lying there next to me on the concrete. Unsure what happened, we  go over and discover this miniature squirrel that had managed to climb from the ground to the deck where it sat motionless.

So tiny. The babies you never see because they normally stay up in the trees until they’re big enough to scamper, frolic and chew your siding and electrical wires.

He looked stunned. Eyes barely open. As you might imagine, the dog was extremely interested, but as I wasn’t in the mood for bloodsports I put Einstein inside. Then I nudged the little guy to see if was mobile. Must have been a long fall out of that tree. Could have broken something.

But no, he had some life in him. When I prodded, he grabbed the wheel of the barbecue grill and clung on.

What to do? Clearly the dog wouldn’t stay inside forever. So figuring that maybe the problem would take care of itself, that maybe squirrel mom or squirrel dad would come to the rescue if no humans were about, I joined the dog in the living room.

But  Einstein would have none of it. He wanted out. His barking was annoying the rest of the family. That’s when I figured I’d try something. What if I picked up the tiny squirrel and put him on the tree? If he could cling to the grill tire, surely he could cling to the trunk of the maple, then climb home.

So donning one of my thick winter gloves, I plucked him from the grill tire and attached him more or less to the side of the tree.

“Go on,” I said. “Take off.”

He didn’t move. Just hung there as if paralyzed. Perhaps, if I went away, he’d make a move.

But I had barely gotten to the door when suddenly an adult squirrel scurried down the trunk like a commando and either grabbed him, or he grabbed it. It was like one of those spectacular movie rescue, with Bruce Willis playing the hero.

Except Bruce would have been ballsy enough to save me some trouble and gotten the little squirrel from his hiding place on the grill

Which tells you a lot about squirrels, I think.

Anyway, for the reunited squirrel family, it was a tragedy averted.

Good for you, little squirrel, good for you. But should we meet again and I catch you taking a bite out of some juicy tomato that I had my eye on, rest assured, it will be as if last night never happened.

Comprende?

Posted by: Mike

Whenever Roxie and I give presentations about starting seeds for the backyard garden, I always throw in a little joke about how we’re waiting for the day when the cops bust down our doors because someone thought we were growing pot under those shop lights in the basement.

Always gets a chuckle.

But as we read in today’s edition of The Kansas City Star, that’s just what happened to a Leawood, Kan., family last April. Awakened by banging and screaming,  Robert Harte opened the door just as Johnson County sheriff’s deputies were about to use a battering ram to get in.

For the next two hours, the drug squad searched the house looking for marijuana as Harte was forced to lie shirtless on the floor, while his wife, Adlynn, and their  two children were made to sit quietly and listen as their house was ransacked in a fruitless search for illegal drugs.

The deputies even brought in a drug-sniffing dog. But in the end, nothing was found and the authorities left without apologizing for their mistake.

The apparent reason for this seeming injustice? The family had bought grow lights and other supplies to start tomato and squash plants in their basement. Kinda like a lot of us do this time of year, in other words.

At this very moment, tiny tomato, pepper and cauliflower seedlings are “sunning” under those shop lights of ours near a basement window. I’ve always wondered whether anyone with a badge has ever looked through that window and wondered “huh?” Now, I’m more convinced than ever that the answer is probably “yes.”

Naturally, law enforcement officials won’t reveal why they targeted this house in that affluent Kansas City suburb. She works at an investment firm, he’s a house husband and (get this) they first met when they both worked at the CIA.

So obviously, the Hartes don’t fit the profile of your average drug pushers — at least as far as I know.

However, the lawyer for the couple told The Star’s Christine Vendel that deputies routinely generate leads for drug investigations by keeping an eye on stores that sell hydroponic gardening equipment. Stores like the one where the Hartes bought their gear.

“With little or no evidence of any illegal activity, law enforcement officers make the assumption that shoppers at the store are potential marijuana growers, even though the stores are most commonly frequented by backyard gardeners who grow organically or start seedlings indoors,” the lawsuit said.

One object of the suit is to learn what it was about the family that so interested these soldiers in the never-ending drug war. Their lawyer says it not merely a matter of curiosity but of public policy.

Adlynn Harte told The Star that her family respects law enforcement, but wants to prevent others families from being subjected to the kind of treatment they experienced.

make sure that tax dollars are properly used and that other families — with fewer resources than (them) — aren’t subjected to similar tactics.”

“We feel llike it’s un-American and we need to do something about it,” she said. “I told my son last night that doing the right thing takes courage.”

So keep your eyes open, fellow gardeners, when you’re at the garden store or setting up grow lights at home. Big Brother might be watching.
Posted by: Mike

Gardening keeps us humble. That’s my positive spin on the boneheaded mistakes I find myself making every year. Even when I know better.

There was the time I accidentally sprayed my potted herbs with a lime-removal product. Twice! (In my defense, though, I’m left-handed so the side with the product name was facing away from me at the time.) And the time I planted mangles, which are cattle feed, and tried to make sugar from them in the mistaken impression they were sugar beets.

The herbs recovered and are alive and thriving. As for the sugar…Well, I at least got something resembling molasses. Maybe a cow would have liked it.

Yes, nature has proved to be somewhat forgiving. And that’s a good thing, because apparently I will carry on making mistakes until the day I die.

This year, I cringe to report, will be remembered as the year I tried to get away with something I knew would not work. This was the year of dried peat moss.

A few weeks back, I got things lined up to start the seed for the plants we put out once the nights warm up. Tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. Problem: I didn’t have quite enough soilless seed starting mix. I could have gone out for some, but it was snowing and I didn’t want to put off my project. So I looked around for a good substitute.

We always use soilless mix for seeds, rather than regular soil you’d use to repot your houseplants because it’s lighter and easier to work with. I’ve never had any problems with soilless mix retaining too much water and causing the tiny stems of the sprouts to damp off and die, as I have with potting soil.

Soilless mix is made from peat moss, vermiculite and perlite or a wetting agent. You can find those ingredients listed on the bag.

Well, I had some vermiculite and some peat moss in opened bags from years past. Why not just mix them up and go ahead with my planting? And that is what I did.

Here is the point, dear readers, where you can learn from my mistake.

The peat moss was very, very dry. But still crumbly. This is the crucial mistake. Wet peat moss holds a lot of water, but acts very differently when dry. In fact, if it is not soaked, it will actually repel water.

Let me describe this: You can pour water into a pot filled with dry peat moss and it will bead up on top like a puddle of mercury. You can do this all day. The water will go straight through and minutes later, you’ll have a pot as dry and airily light as it was when you first filled it.

I knew this. I knew I should fill that bag of moss and vermiculite with water and let it soak. But I wanted to get on with the seed planting. So I went ahead anyway.

Predictably, the little pots were bone dry days later, despite sitting in a half-inch of water in the tray. So two nights ago, I brought them upstairs to the sink and gently ran water, while tapping the top with my fingers to break the surface tension.

They’re back in the basement now, and holding water. But still no sprouts. Their buddies in the soilless mix are well up. And we are now at the decision stage of whether to replant in the newly purchased mix.

I read somewhere that you can avoid this problem with peat moss by adding a couple of drops of dishwashing soap per gallon or so of water to solve that surface tension problem. Of course, now it is too late.

Folks, don’t let this be you.

Posted by: Roxie

 

Don’t get me wrong. I loved the snows of a couple of weeks ago. And I loved, loved the rain of last night, even though it meant a long scary drive through the fog and darkness to get to my daughter’s cello recital.

But the only thing about it is…now I am behind a bit on gardening chores.

Wait. You didn’t realize it was possible to be behind on your garden already? Well it is and we are. We blame the rainy weather (that we LOVE. Please don’t punish us by stopping regular rain because I wrote that, weather gods!)

The main thing we are behind on involves our apple and cherry trees and our under-performing grape vine.

If you don’t have fruit trees or grape or other types of perennial vines, don’t stop reading. Instead, make plans to put some in wherever you can manage in your yard. Everyone should have them. No kidding. They absolutely give back way more than you put into them.

But anyway. The time for pruning these vines is very early spring, before new growth has started. In other words: Now.

In other years I’ve done pruning in late February. The snow wasn’t so much a worry because it stayed so cold this spring. But now that I see warmer times ahead, it’s time to start looking for a time to prune before the sap starts running too much.

Pruning apples isn’t really so difficult. The best way is to begin pruning and training when you first get the tree (take note, all who are considering a fruit tree this year). You want to make sure you have only one central shoot for the main trunk of the tree. But of course our trees didn’t have that early advantage, so we try to do the best we can for them each year.

There are a few simple rules, and they’re easy to remember. Get rid of any obviously dead or diseased wood, and branches growing downward or straight up and the branches that shade out the middle of the tree. You want an open vase with some light and air circulation coming down into the middle for the fruits to ripen. Also, take a look at where the limb connects to the central tree trunk or “leader.” You want the angles there to be more open like 90-degree angles. No acute V’s.

As for the grapes, they grow new cane one year and produce fruit on it the second year. So cut any vines that show obvious signs of having had fruit. Otherwise, you can cut a fair amount of cane back each year, as long as you leave a few good nodes where the new growth will sprout.

When bought our first house in Lenexa, we told the agent we were attracted by the fruit trees and grape vine in the back yard. (I think she was mystified why we would want such an old house in an old part of town). But she said the owners didn’t like it because it bisected the yard and didn’t produce any fruit. So that first year, I cut a bunch of vine out. We were rewarded with bushels of grapes. And as a bonus, I got a nice big wreath out of the old vine. Sadly, the grapevine couldn’t move with us. The one we planted at our current house gets too much shade, I think.

 

Growing season underway

We’re not behind on everything, though. Some of next season’s crops are already growing happily in our basement under flourescent lights. And this week the broccoli and some of the cauliflower are already sprouting. We’re still waiting on the peppers and tomatoes, though.

seed starts

Next week will be St. Patrick’s day, the day we traditionally try to put potatoes, peas and onion bulbs in the ground. Right now, it looks a little iffy. But if it stays dry and warms up, we might be able to do it on time.

Posted by: Roxie

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