Look at my new squiggly friend! I met him in the garden this afternoon.
I would like the record to show that I was a very good girl and did not try to pick up my slithery new friend or pet him, even though I really, really wanted to.
I showed my pictures to people at work today, but nobody there likes snakes. I don’t know why. I think he’s cute. I like his racing stripes and his pretty brown eyes and his flickery little tongue. I was pretty excited to find him in the garden, partly because I’ve never seen a snake in my yard before and partly because cold-blooded animals are a sure sign of spring.
As I mentioned several weeks ago, I don’t stop gardening in the winter. Time spent working in the sunshine is a necessity if I’m to keep seasonal depression at bay, and winter is an ideal time to work on a garden’s infrastructure. My focus this year has been adding raised beds. I had six last year, and my goal is to have a dozen by planting time this year — a task that should be accomplished easily enough, as we generally buy one every paycheck, and we’re still five checks away from Planting Day.
I’ve been filling the beds with compostable materials, peat moss, and finished compost. A third of a bale of peat on the bottom provides filler as well as drainage and aeration, and three bags of compost on top will just about fill up the bed, for a total cost of about $8 per bed.
I can’t say enough good things about these beds, which are just plain old 36-inch fire rings. They run between $30 and $45 apiece, depending on where you buy them and whether you catch a sale, and they’re lightweight, easy to position (just roll them where you want them), and make planting and weeding very easy. I installed them out of necessity — the juglones from the neighbors’ black walnut and pecan trees have rendered the soil in my backyard worthless for growing most vegetables — but they’ve proven so advantageous in so many directions, I’m not sure I’d go back to traditional rows even if I had the option.
As you can see in the picture, I’ve also started mulching with cedar shavings in between beds. They look neat, discourage pests, and smell nice when I walk over them.
P.S.: The tin cans you see in one of the rings in the top picture are leftovers from last year’s plantings. Besides being a good way to start seeds, the cans help protect young plants from marauding squirrels, which love to dig through my raised beds in search of nuts. My tomato plants wouldn’t have survived without them last year.
I spent a little time in the garden last week, pulling out last summer’s tomato vines and clearing the beds so they’ll be ready to replant this spring. I wasn’t sure what to do with the vines, and while the fire-ring raised beds are neat and easy to work with, they’re not terribly pretty. My long-term goal for the backyard is to turn it into something straight out of a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel — an irresistible Heligan in miniature, if you will — and big metal rings aren’t quite up to that standard. I’d been considering various options for making them more aesthetically pleasing and getting them to blend in with the scenery a little better, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on retaining-wall blocks or stackable stone. While I was standing on the deck, surveying the yard and taking a mental inventory of the tasks I need to complete before spring, I noticed an abandoned doves’ nest on top of the fence post nearest the house and had an idea for recycling those spent tomato vines:
I’m trying to decide whether I like it. It certainly blends in better than a bare metal ring, so I’ll probably keep it until I think of a better idea.
Meanwhile, I was perusing the Shumway’s catalog and found this:
I love sprouts. They’re higher in protein and nutrients than lettuce and taste good in salads and sandwiches.
What I don’t love are the plastic containers in which they’re packed. Those clamshell boxes are usually recyclable, but the little humidifier pads at the bottom aren’t, and avoiding plastic altogether is generally better for the environment than using it once and then recycling it.
That brings me to one of my favorite winter projects: growing my own sprouts.
In this planting zone, December gardening is a no-go unless you have a heated greenhouse or a hydroponic operation. Sprouts, however, grow just fine on a shelf in the dining room, where I keep a sprouter going most of the winter.
Theoretically, you can grow sprouts in a canning jar with a piece of cheesecloth stretched across the top, but I’ve never had good luck with this approach. Small sprouters are available for about $20 apiece (I use this one, but any similar model will do), and they tend to work much better than the canning-jar approach.
Sprouting is easy, but like any other kind of gardening, it requires a little time and attention. Here’s the general upshot:
1. Change the water frequently. My sprouter is designed with stackable trays that have small drainage holes in the bottom. You run water in the top tray, and it percolates down, watering the sprouts at each level before collecting in a solid tray at the bottom. At least twice a day, I dump out the water, rotate the trays, and water the top one. (Don’t reuse the old water.)
2. Keep an eye on the drainage holes. As the roots grow, some may extend down into the holes and clog them up. If you notice water doesn’t seem to be draining right, sterilize a needle and use it to unclog the holes.
3. Don’t let your sprouts dry out. If your indoor air is really dry, you may need to cover the top to help keep moisture in for the first day or two. When the sprouts are about a quarter-inch long, remove the cover and start rotating the trays each time you water so the same tray isn’t constantly on top, where it’s more likely to dry out.
4. Stagger your plantings. Most varieties will go from seed to salad in three or four days. If you start new seeds every couple of days, you’ll have a constant supply of fresh greens. (Be sure to wash the trays in between harvests.)
You should be able to find sprouting seeds at any health-food store. You can also sprout brown lentils, which are available by the pound at pretty much any grocery store.
The most wonderful time of the year is the first Saturday after Tax Day, when we put the garden in the ground.
The second-most wonderful time of the year is the day Cubs pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
But the third-most wonderful time of the year is now, when the companies that sell seeds for the garden and beekeeping equipment for the apiary start sending out catalogs, which means I can start dreaming about spring in specific detail and figuring out how many times we’re going to have to eat enchiladas or sauerkraut to save up enough cans for all the seeds I intend to start. (Tin cans with the bottoms cut out make the world’s greatest seed-starting pots/squirrel deterrents. Unfortunately, about the only products that still come in cans with identical tops and bottoms are Ro-Tel tomatoes; certain brands of sauerkraut; and most enchilada sauce. This means for about two months every winter, my grocery list revolves around my gardening needs.)
Gardening and beekeeping catalogs are my saving grace every winter. Gray skies and short days don’t do anything positive for my mental health, and after a while, I start to wonder whether I’ll ever get to put my hands in the dirt and bask in the sunshine again. When that first seed catalog lands in the mailbox, I see the first glimmer of hope.
We got catalogs this weekend from Seed Savers Exchange and Betterbee, so I’ll spend the next few months dogearing pages and circling varieties that sound promising and drawing scale diagrams of the garden while I dream of spring.
We’re sneaking up on the first frost of the year, which means it’s time to start putting the garden to bed.
This is always a bittersweet task for me — more bitter than sweet, because I’ve never liked winter — but prepping the garden for winter ensures it’s ready to go in the spring, and this year, I have a long list of projects to work on.
I’ll share more specifics about some of these tasks as I go, but today, I’d like to offer a general overview, in case you’re looking at a soon-to-be-dormant garden and trying to figure out what to do before the next planting season. Your garden’s specific needs may vary, but here’s my to-do list for the next 25 weekends:
* Make compost. Not sure how? Click here. * Buy six more fire rings. These will become raised beds. * Harvest seeds. Instructions here. * Harvest the last of the produce and pull out the old plants. * Rake leaves. If yours are from safe trees, compost them. We don’t have that luxury, as our house is flanked by pecan and walnut trees, so we’ll have to let the city take ours. * Plant daffodils and tulips. * Winterize the pond. * Winterize the quail pen. The Great Stuff I used to seal it when I built it is wearing out, and the polystyrene panels are degrading a bit, so I’ll have to hit the hardware store for replacements. * Fence the berry patch. * Treat the strawberries with coffee grounds. Supposedly this will ward off slugs. * Inventory beekeeping and gardening equipment. * Buy flagstone and install more paths. * Mulch between paths. * Mulch strawberries. * Build raised bed in the front yard. * Prune rosebush. * Map next year’s garden. * Order seeds. Two good sources: Seedsavers.org and Baker Creek Heirloom seeds. * Start plants. Check the USDA planting-zone map and consult your seed packets before you schedule this.
Harvesting seeds is one of my favorite fall chores. This year, I’ve brought in tomato seeds, which are drying on paper towels on top of the refrigerator as we speak; Trail of Tears beans, which need to be removed from their pods; and a newcomer to the garden this year: zinnias.
I spent the better end of an hour the other day separating zinnia seeds from chaff. It’s tedious work, but there’s something hopeful in the act of saving seeds — a sort of contract between the plants and their caretaker. The seeds contain the promise of spring; saving them is an act of faith in that promise and a statement of intention: “I’ll be back to tend you in a few months.”
I got to help with a cool project Saturday morning. Some volunteers from the local Islamic Center teamed up with some members of Abbey Road Christian Church — which I’ve been visiting for the last few weeks — to pull weeds and trim back perennials in the flowerbeds around the church’s labyrinth.
There has been a strong effort lately to foster better communication between members of the Muslim and Christian faith communities here in Cape, which delights me to no end. (My favorite high-school anecdotes all start with what sounds like the setup to a bad joke — “A Muslim, a Jew, and a vegan walk into a pizzeria” — and end with a bunch of kids laughing until our faces hurt while our scholar-bowl coach tried to figure out what we were up to this time.)
Anyway, between my fondness for interfaith activities and my love of labyrinths, showing up Saturday was a no-brainer, and I spent a couple of happy hours making new friends and working in a pretty garden.
Unfortunately, the project became less pleasant for three participants who encountered a colony of red paper wasps that were nesting in one of the flowerbeds. Paper wasps are usually fairly docile, but if you disturb their home, they’ll invoke the castle doctrine.
Several church members suggested using pesticides to kill the wasps, as they presented a safety issue for the volunteers as well as anyone who might come out to walk the labyrinth.
I understood their concern, but as a beekeeper, I knew I could suit up and remove the threat without harming any adult wasps, so I suggested everybody simply avoid that flowerbed while I called Ron to bring me a protective suit and gloves.
Once Ron arrived, it took about 15 minutes to suit up, find the nest and remove it. Problem solved. I brought the nest home so the pupae developing inside the sealed cells could finish maturing and hopefully hook up with a colony in my garden when they emerged. (Sadly, the larvae and eggs were doomed the minute I removed the nest from its original spot, but I’d rather lose a little brood than destroy the entire colony.)
I’m always amazed at how far I’ve come with respect to wasps.
As a kid, I didn’t know much about stinging insects, and I was terrified of them. As I grew up and learned more about pollinators, however, fear gave way to understanding, respect, and appreciation, and today, I’m not the least bit shy about running interference on their behalf when necessary.