Garden at Rest

It’s been almost two months since I put the garden to bed for the winter.  While I’ve missed the fresh air and home-grown veggies, I’ve enjoyed the break from the daily chores.  My cover crop is taking over (slowly but surely), and my compost pile is cooking down (also slowly but surely).

Inside my warm house, when I have a spare moment from my kid/house duties, I’ve been working on cleaning and organizing various spaces.  My seed catalog arrived recently, and I’m trying to decide what to grow this spring.

We just enjoyed our Christmas holiday, and I was thrilled to receive several garden-related gifts!  My mother gave me two “beneficial bug houses” – one just for mason bees, and one for mason bees, ladybugs, and lacewings.  This is a yet unexplored aspect of gardening for me, so I am very excited to learn more.  Everyone knows about ladybugs, of course, but I know little of mason bees, and nothing of lacewings.

bughouse

photo courtesy Gardener Supply

I also received a great little book called “Trowel and Error” (my kind of humor!).  It’s filled with little hints and tricks, and something else I really enjoy – quotable quotes!  Here is one of my favorites:

garden quote

I look forward to learning more and planning next year’s garden from the comfort of my warm living room.  Merry Christmas to al!

Final Garden Preps

We had our first FREEZE here a few days ago, and I’ve been working hard to get the last of the garden chores done before the really cold weather arrives.

Last week, I built some walls for my compost pile and planted my garlic and daffodil bulbs.

I also pulled up the last of the tomato plants, cleaned out all the debris from the raised beds, and took down the fence.  I’m going to widen the fenced area just a bit next year.  I didn’t initially realize how much the plants would encroach on my paths.  In late summer, I was pushing my way through a jungle to reach certain sections.

You can see the before picture here.

Here is the after:

after

Ready for winter!

As you can see, I cut down the nylon netting I used as a trellis for the beans and zucchini.  I do NOT recommend that method for future reference – it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.  I used it because it was all I had at the time, but it wasn’t very sturdy, and it let my vines grow all the way up to the screened porch!  I had no idea they’d get that tall.  Can you imagine trying to harvest stuff way up there?  No.  Plus the vines got so tangled up, it was impossible to clean them off and reuse it.  Re-buying every year?  No.  I’ll add that to the list of “figure out a better way for next year.”

The last thing I did was to plant my cover crop.  I bought some annual rye seed at Home Depot and sprinkled that on my raised beds and watered gently.  Hopefully it will grow and keep the soil from eroding too badly over the winter.  Then in the spring, once it has turned brown, I will just turn it under.  It will provide additional nutrition to my soil for the coming year’s crops.

That’s the plan anyway, if I can keep Ding Dong out of there.

I’ll miss the garden, but I’m looking forward to the rest.  It’ll be time to start seedlings before you know it!

Planting Garlic

One of the crops I wanted to grow for next year is garlic.  I use a lot of it in my cooking, but until recently, I always bought the refrigerated pre-minced garlic in a jar.  I’ve come to know that fresh ingredients really do taste better, so I decided to plant my own.

Garlic is one of those things you plant in the fall.  Even then, it won’t be ready to harvest until next July!  I missed my window of opportunity last year, but I’m not making the same mistake twice.

I ordered some organic garlic heads from seedsavers.org, but you can use any garlic bulbs that you like.

Garlic grows in bulbs beneath the ground. Each bulb is made up of individual cloves which vary in size and number depending on the variety and growing conditions. The cloves are in essence the garlic’s “seeds.” You separate the cloves, keeping the outer papery skin intact (if you can), and plant them with the pointy end up.

garlic2

Cloves & bulb.

There are two kinds of garlic – hardneck and softneck.  As it grows, the garlic bulb puts up a shoot called the “neck.”  The hardneck varieties, oddly enough, put up a hard shoot that feels almost like a stick. Softneck garlic is the kind you see made into braids. It puts up little curly shoots called “scapes” that can be harvested separately from the garlic bulb and used in cooking. They are yummy. And until this year when we got them in our CSA, I had no idea they even existed!

I chose one variety of softneck (which is less cold hardy) and three varieties of hardneck.  One I’m particularly excited to try is called Music.  (We are a family of musicians, so that name just spoke to me.)  Here is what I’m planting:

  • Inchelium Red (soft)
  • Chesnok Red (hard)
  • German White (hard)
  • Music (hard)

This is how they arrived, bagged and tagged.  Strange that the “red” varieties were in the green bags.  Huh.

garlic1

Bagged garlic.

I dug and prepared my beds a few weeks ago so I’d be ready to plant as soon as the weather cooperated. You’re supposed to plant garlic after the first light frost (which we had earlier this week), so I wanted to make sure I was ready. I made sure to add lots of organic matter to the beds because garlic is a heavy feeder.

Some people say you should soak your garlic overnight in a fish emulsion, but the instructions that came from seedsavers doesn’t say to do that, so I’m gladly skipping it!

I separated the cloves, chose the biggest ones, and set them out on top of the dirt so I could check my spacing.  I like to do it this way because they don’t have any part that sticks up above ground, and I’ll quickly lose track of where I’ve planted.  (The back of this bed is daffodil bulbs, so I didn’t want to get too close to the fence.)

garlic1

Cloves ready to plant.

Cloves should be planted about 6” apart, although I’m not sure how particular they really are.  My friend Po planted garlic last year in a bed on the side of her house.  On a warm day in February, the kids next door decided to play tackle football and trampled all through her bed, kicking up many of the growing bulbs.  She just put them all back where they belonged, and the garlic was none the worse for wear.  I’m hoping that means mine can take a little abuse from Ding Dong.

I have no idea what to expect from the flavors.  I just chose them because the catalog descriptions sounded good!  I guess we’ll have one giant taste test next year.  But really, though.  It’s garlic!  How can it be bad?

Finding New Recipes

I think I’ve mentioned once or ten times that one of my goals has been to prepare more home cooked meals.  Some nights, many nights, I still fail at this.  Either we have too much going on to be able to have a family dinner, or frankly, sometimes I’m just too tired to cook.  Or to even think about cooking.

I saw a hilarious little meme recently that said something like “There’s no food in the house. Just lots of ingredients to make food.”  Hahaha!  I can totally relate to that.

Part of my problem is that I don’t have a large repertoire of tried and true recipes to pull from.  Nor do I have a freezer stocked with meals you just stick in the oven for an hour and you’re done.

I’ve been trying to remedy that by finding new ones to try.  If my family likes it, the recipe goes in the binder.  I just need to take the next step and make extras to freeze.

One of the blogs I follow is The Pioneer Woman.  Do you know her?  Until recently, I had no idea she had a show on The Food Network, too!  Duh.  I started recording it because she has a lot of good, basic, simple recipes that I can handle.  They’re by no means low cal, but I figure eating anything at home has got to beat how much we consume when we eat out.  Am I right?

One meal I tried recently that was a big success was her chicken parmesan.  I made it with my homemade tomato sauce that I canned using tomatoes I grew!  It was deeeeliccioussss!  And I was pretty proud of myself.  Except I had a nightmare that night that I gave everyone botulism.

BUT . . . I’m happy to report that everyone is fine and showed no ill effects from my sauce.

chickparm

Chicken Parm over past w/garlic bread.

I also made her PB cup cookies which didn’t even last long enough to cool down.  My husband was shoving them in so fast, burning his mouth in the process.  But they were so good, he didn’t care!

pbcupcookies

PB cup cookies, still gooey.

Now that Winter is Coming (see what I did there, GOT fans?), I need to get on the stick (did your parents use that expression?).  It would be so nice to just stick a pan of something or a casserole of something in the oven and not have to venture out when it gets super cold outside.  Or not have to think of something creative to have for dinner.  My brain doesn’t work very well in the winter.

If you have some good “tried and true” recipes that freeze well, let me know!

My First Building Project

The first thing I did when I decided to start growing my own food was to pick out an unused corner of my yard for a compost pile.  As I showed you at the end of this post, it’s nothing fancy.

Initially, this worked just fine because the pile was pretty small.  But now that I’ve added an whole new season of leaves and grass clippings and kitchen scraps, it’s kind of getting out of control for the tiny little space I allotted it.

A compost pile needs to be “turned” every so often.  That simply means you get in there w/a shovel or pitchfork or something and give it a good mixing.  It keeps the pile oxygenated which helps the bacteria do their job.

With such a small space and no walls to speak of, every time I turned the pile, it spilled into my shoes, filling them with bits of yuck (technical term).  Since it needs good air circulation, I didn’t want solid walls, but I needed a little more support than what I had.

So I decided to remove the wrought iron fence – whose only purpose was to keep the dog out – and replace it with wooden slatted walls.  My first building project!  Yay!

And scary.

I haven’t used power tools or built anything since I was in middle school and had to take wood shop.  Aahhh, the good ol’ days.  I still remember my teacher – Mr. McMahon – a bearded, red-headed, pot-bellied Scot.  Looking back, I still can’t believe he let us (at 12 years old!) use machinery like that.  Of course, that was after he’d scared the crap out of us with the gory safety videos of someone chopping their fingers off with a band saw or getting a giant splinter in their eyeball because they forgot their safety glasses.  Hahahaha!  Good times.

But I digress . . .

So after taking a few measurements, off to Home Depot I went.  I found the Lumber department easily enough.  And I knew I needed untreated lumber – you don’t want treated lumber for a compost pile because those chemicals will leach into the soil you are making.  Kinda defeats the purpose of growing your own organically, yes?  Untreated lumber will decay faster, but that’s the trade off you make.

I wandered from pile to pile trying to decide what I needed and envisioning how I would use it (not having taken the time to draw up an actual plan for this project).  There was no one to ask for help which was kind of good because I probably wouldn’t have asked anyway.  I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to feel stupid (are there such people? yes, believe me, I know plenty), and I’d rather figure it out for myself.

I knew I wanted my walls to be approximately 4×4, but all the boards seemed to come in 8-ft lengths.  Lucky for me, I heard another customer (a woman!) ask about getting wood cut.  Hey!  Just what I need!  Did you know they’ll do this for you?  For free!  At least, when their saw is working.  Which it wasn’t.

Oh well, I got this!  Last spring, I bought myself a reticulating saw. My first power tool! (If you don’t count the rechargeable drill and screwdriver, which I don’t.)  I had visions of me scarfing up all the free pallets I could find around town and using them to make all kinds of fun stuff (seriously, google it, it’s a thing).  So of course I’d need a saw to take apart the pallets!

Never took it out of the box.

Until now!

I paid for the boards, came home, and performed a feat my husband has trouble with called reading the instructions.  I grabbed my work gloves, donned my safety goggles (thanks, Mr. McMahon!), and got to work.  Using my metal construction worker tape measure, I marked the lengths I needed and, with my trusty reticulating saw, I cut those suckers in half!  All by myself!

Boards

Last few boards to cut.

Here’s a close up of the saw.  It’s a little heavy and kinds scary when you first turn it on, but you get used to it.

Reticulating saw

Reticulating saw.

Not owning a pair of sawhorses, I just laid the boards across the frame of the kids’ old sandbox which we were tossing.  It worked fine.

Then it was time to build!

Guess who wanted to help?

Maya

Whatcha doin, Mama?

Since each board was 4-ft long, and I had two posts that were 4-ft high, I just made two 4-ft square walls and connected them to the existing fence posts using exterior 5/8” screws.  I wanted the boards toward the bottom of the wall to be closer together to keep the compost from spilling out.  But I gradually increased the spacing as I went higher, using my level to keep the boards straight.

I used my drill with the Phillips head bit (the one that looks like a plus +) to make the work go faster and to get the torque I needed.  Mine has a magnetic head (is that standard?) to help keep the screw from falling off before you really get going.  See . . .

Drill

Drill with magnetized screw.

A couple of things that would have made this project easier:

  1. If my yard were level and the fence posts plumb (level & straight), that would have been a HUGE help.  There was just no way I could attach a plumb wall to a non-plumb post and have it work out.  So now my walls are crooked.  Oh well.
  2. If I didn’t have any compost in the compost pile to begin with, it would have been much easier to get the right angle going with the drill.  As it was, I had to step and sometimes sit in a giant pile of wet leaves and grass to reach the right spot.  I’m still itchy.
  3. If I didn’t have a dog who wanted to supervise.  She was the Chief Leaf Inspector and Tool Thief.  Couldn’t turn my back on her for a second.

Here is the finished project:

08done

I built that!

I left a wide opening to make it easier for me to work the pile.  I’ll have to block it off so Ding Dong doesn’t get in there when I’m not looking, but I’ll probably just use some rope or something.  I may also put some wire mesh along the two fence sides to keep the compost from leaking out into the neighbor’s yard.

Anyway, I know it isn’t going to win any HGTV awards or anything, but that wasn’t the point.  It was something I’ve been meaning to do, and I did it.  All by myself.  And I feel much more confident now finding my way around the lumber yard and using power tools.

Hmmm, what should a build next?  Maybe a shed!

A Family Heirloom

My mama brought me a family quilt today.

Isn’t it beautiful?!

quilt

It was made by two “old maid” cousins of my grandmother – Nellie & Goldie (how awesome are those names, btw?!). 

My grandmother passed away last year, so the quilt (and another one like it) went to my mother.  My mother brought one to me and gave the other to my sister.

I love this quilt!  It still smells like my grandmother – a combination of her soap, baby powder, and the drawer liners she used in her bureau – and it makes me feel connected to the women in my family, going back generations.

I would absolutely LOVE to learn how to do this.  Not only is it a practical skill, but quilting allows you to create a family heirloom that can be handed down for years to come.  I can just envision myself sitting in front of a fire on a cold winter evening, quilting my little heart out. 

Quilting and skills like it – what I refer to as “heirloom skills” – are being lost.  I worry that, in the not-so-distant future, the people who know how to quilt or can or grow food will be long gone.  And those skills will be forgotten for good.  People don’t seem to appreciate or care about that stuff anymore.  Everything is so massed produced these days that anything made by hand is something to be treasured.

I want to do my part to keep that knowledge alive by learning and passing it down to my children.  A very special, very important family heirloom.

Bee Careful

I had a bit of excitement around here this week.  I discovered we have (had!) a yellow jacket nest in the rock wall around our large maple tree.

Ask me how I found out.

Yep.

It all started with compost.

The cool weather has finally returned to Virginia, and the leaves are falling in earnest.  We had the remnants of TS Karen earlier this week, and lots of leaves were knocked loose by her winds.  I had been eyeing that compost gold all week, hoping to make time to rake them up and put them in my pile before the next round of rain (several heavy days of it, if the weathermen are to be believed . . . ) hit last night.

Leaves are an awesome addition to your compost pile – maybe the BEST addition.  They provide a lot of nutrients, they don’t attract bugs (gnats, flies, etc.), and they don’t get stinky like some kitchen scraps can.  Aside: I hope you know that you NEVER use any animal products (with the exception of eggshells) in your compost pile!!  Veggie scraps can get a little sour smelling, though.  So can grass clippings if you have too many and they are constantly wet.

Leaves are light and easy to move (unless you’re raking on a windy day, in which case I’d have to question your judgment), and the best part – they are FREE!  About the only thing you have to pay attention to is what kind of tree they came from.  Most types of leaves are great in any quantity.  But Oak leaves are very acidic, so you may want to use them sparingly.  I’ve also read that you should never compost Black Walnut leaves because they contain a chemical (called juglone – don’t say you didn’t learn anything today) that kills other plants.  Having neither oak nor black walnut trees in my yard, I was all set.

So yesterday afternoon, I finally had time to go out and rake.

In order to gather the leaves for the compost pile in the most efficient way possible, I use a giant tarp.  I rake the leaves up onto the tarp, drag it to the next spot, rake some more, then pull the whole thing around to the compost pile and dump them all at once.  I’ve tried using bags, boxes, buckets, pretty much every container you can think of, but the tarp seems to be the fastest method.

leaves1

So I’m out there raking the leaves from around the base of the maple tree, along the rock wall, and out of the flower beds.  I guess yellow jackets don’t like people (unless they’re holding a cup of apple cider).  Or yard work.  Or people doing yard work.  And they certainly didn’t like me.  They started coming out from between the rocks, just a few at first, then by the thousands (ok, that might be an exaggeration).

I dropped the rake and RAN.  And you know what?  Those little bastards chased me!

Luckily, it was a cool day, and I was wearing long pants/sleeves and a hat.  But they still managed to sting me in about the only place they could – my neck.  OUCH!  I haven’t been stung since I was a kid, and I’m not sure I have ever been stung by a yellow jacket, so I was a little worried.

It hurt like crap, and I felt a little tingly and weird afterwards.  It could have been because I was totally freaked out, but just in case, I took some Benadryl.

Then I sat at my computer with an ice pack on my neck and planned their demise.

In between internet searches and youtube videos on how to get rid of yellow jackets, I peeked out the window (the closed window) and took a few pics.  This is where they have the entrance to their batcave, right at the end of the wall.  You can see where I casually put down the rake and walked away.  Uh huh.

IMG_8813

Apparently lots of people take care of such nests by pouring gasoline down into the hole.  I was really hoping for something a little less . . . flammable . . . so I decided to call the pest control company.

Normally, I limit or eliminate the use of chemicals wherever possible in our home and yard (and I use NONE in my vegetable garden), but in this situation I was more concerned about my kids being attacked.  My son (who’s eleven) just learned how to use the mower, and he cut the grass right in this spot last week. I’m SO very thankful they didn’t come after him!

The pest control guy came right out and sprinkled magic poison fairy dust onto some of the rocks and inside BOTH (yes, there were two) entrances to their hive.  Or nest.  Or whatever you call it.

Boy were they mad.  But do you know that pest control guy, who showed up in shorts & a t-shirt, didn’t get stung once?  I guess because he wasn’t doing any yard work.

Then we had to wait several hours for all the stragglers to come home and get dusted before I could go back out there.  Here’s a couple of them now . . .

Yellow jackets are members of the WASP family.  Like hornets, they are very aggressive, predatory, and can sting repeatedly.  They are not bees.  If this had been a bee hive, I never would have destroyed it.  Instead, I would have called someone who could move it to a more appropriate location.  Of course, that probably wouldn’t even be necessary because they most likely never would have attacked me in the first place.

Bees are extremely beneficial, and without them, our food supply (and hence our way of life) is in grave danger.  We rely on them to pollinate all manner of fruit and vegetable blossoms so that those will, in turn, give us apples, cherries, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc.

Perhaps you have read some of the reports of mass bee die-offs, lately.  This is no joke.  Please consider carefully before you use pesticides; and if you must, please take every precaution to achieve a targeted application.  I made sure this gentleman knew my stance on chemicals, asked him what he was using (low toxicity puff powder), and asked him to be as careful as possible when treating the area.

This section of my yard is away from human/pet traffic and has no nearby water sources (drains, streams, etc.) for the poison to wash into.  I feel like I was as careful as I could be.  As much as I didn’t like it, sometimes you have to make a trade off to keep your family safe.

Later, when all was clear, I went back out to finish my raking.  I did not take the leaves near the wall because I didn’t want to risk putting any of the poison into my compost pile.

Here is my compost pile after the addition of the first round of leaves.

leaves2

As you can see, it’s nothing fancy.  Just an unused corner of my backyard.  The only reason I have the little fence there is because the dog kept treating it like a free buffet.

This will “cook” down over the coming weeks.  It’s perfect timing since we are getting several days of rain which will help the process along (and keep the leaves from blowing away).  In a couple of weeks, I can turn the pile and add some more kitchen scraps and newly-fallen leaves.  By next spring, I should have a bunch of good, nutritious compost to add to my garden.

And hopefully a bunch fewer wasps.