Category Archives: Gardening

Planning ahead

“We cannot all do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
— Mother Teresa

During this pandemic, I’ve thought a lot about the best way to leverage the resources I have to bring the greatest possible benefit to the greatest possible number of people.

Three resources I have at the moment are surplus craft supplies, creativity, and time. I am using those resources to stock a sort of free gift shop that will launch in October to make Christmas a little easier for people in my area who may be struggling financially.

My goal is to create classy-looking gift items in a range of sizes/types/apparent price points and distribute them at no charge to anybody who needs them. If people want to pay for the items, I will encourage them to donate whatever amount they deem appropriate to a local nonprofit, but it won’t be required. The fundraising component is mostly just there to provide cover for folks who can’t afford to buy gifts but don’t want anyone to know, and to give them a way to pay it forward if they wish. I use a similar approach with my obedience classes, and it seems to work very well.

Today, I took some small terra cotta flowerpots and dressed them up with leftover paint from other projects. I’m making little macrame hangers to go with them, and this fall, I’ll fill them with potting soil and tuck baby spider plants or burro’s tail cuttings into them.

I watered down some paint to get the weathered effect.

I really like this Southwestern color scheme.

Propagating plants. These will be pretty big by Christmas, but I’ll have more little ones by then.

I hope to offer at least a dozen different products, including houseplants in cute containers, spice mixes, mug-brownie kits, lotion bars, sock monkeys, bead jewelry, paintings, garden kits, hot-process soap, bath bombs with small toys hidden inside, and a few other items.

I’ll be posting recipes and tutorials as I go.

This won’t cure coronavirus, fix the economy, or end racism, but it might make life a little easier for somebody, and that’s all I really need it to do.

Emily

Victory garden

I’d planned to start seeds indoors this year, but after the growlights I bought from Amazon turned out to be defective, I moved the whole operation outside, with the help of some new tools.

First, I took Mom’s advice and did some winter sowing, which involves turning plastic bottles into miniature cold frames. I’d been saving 96-oz. cider jugs for this purpose all winter. They turned out to be just the right size to slip down into the holes in some cinderblocks I had on hand. The blocks provide thermal mass while keeping the jugs from blowing away. I need to thin the plants, but they’re doing very well.

Tomato plant growing in makeshift cloche
A 96-oz. cider jug just fits inside a cinderblock, creating a mini-greenhouse for sprouting tomatoes.

My little cider-bottle cloches are parked in a raised bed made from a $45 feed-store fire ring and filled with a mix of potting soil and chicken litter — a technique I first used in my juglone-contaminated garden in Cape. Come planting day, I’ll mulch with cedar shavings to discourage bugs.

Raised beds made of fire rings
Note the fence to protect certain beds — necessary because Ramona is obsessed with destroying every plastic bottle she can reach.

I found a bargain I couldn’t pass up at Tractor Supply a couple of weeks ago: $40 walk-in mini-greenhouses.

Small greenhouse
This little greenhouse cost $40 and took less than an hour to assemble and anchor.

To keep it warm and protect it from the wind, I parked mine in a sheltered corner next to my office window and anchored it with cinderblocks and bungee cords.

Greenhouse interior
Cinderblocks anchor the greenhouse in place and provide thermal mass.

The new greenhouse is proving to be a nice place to start herbs:

Chives sprouting in a container
Chives are beginning to come up in a dollar-store pot.

Cilantro sprouting in a container
My cilantro is starting to come up.

Out of an abundance of caution, I decided to grow a Victory Garden this year, focusing on reliably heavy producers: okra, green beans, cucumbers, collards, zucchini, and potatoes. If supply lines get screwed up, we’ll still have plenty to eat; if they don’t, we’ll have plenty to share with people whose incomes have been compromised by the coronavirus-induced drop in tourism.

Emily

Welcome to the jungle

As longtime readers know, I am powerless to resist an opportunity to meander through a greenhouse. If it’s cold or overcast outside, or I’m having a hard day, or I just need a little boost in some direction, meandering around a nursery works wonders on my mood. There’s something about the warm, moist air, the vibrant colors, and the smells inside a greenhouse that energizes me.

This fall, I found two nurseries worthy of a wander: Coulter Gardens in Amarillo and Rehm’s Nursery in Albuquerque.

Both businesses carry a pretty nice assortment of houseplants, and I’ve spent the past three or four months rebuilding the collection of plants I had to rehome when we moved.

Above are a few of my recent acquisitions, which I’ve already had to repot a time or two. My long-term goal is to turn my office into a veritable jungle, with hanging baskets, terrariums, and shelves full of plants everywhere. I think I’ve got a pretty respectable start on that project now.

Emily

Outdoor office

I bought a new laptop a few weeks ago. It’s much smaller, lighter, and sturdier than my old one, which makes it just right for using outdoors.

I really like the idea of taking my lesson plans and curriculum-writing projects outside to work on while the dogs play in the yard. I like my home office, but fresh air and sunshine are always better than sitting inside on a pretty day, and this is the time of year when we’re likely to get a few pretty days.

With that in mind, I’ve been surfing Pinterest and poring over hardware-store websites in search of furniture of the right size, stability, and durability to use in an outdoor office.

Most of the ready-made stuff I found was either too light to withstand New Mexico winds, too top-heavy to withstand regular assaults by a blind rat terrier and a clumsy shepherd puppy, too finicky to sit up straight on uneven ground, or too expensive to meet with Ron’s approval. And none of it seemed to fit my style or go well with anything else in my yard.

As I was winterizing the pond and trying to figure out what to do with the cinderblocks I’d been using to support the now-obsolete clarifier and gravity-fed external filtration system, inspiration struck.

Monitor-riser mode. If I want to work on a deeper surface with the laptop keyboard lower, I just move that top paver down.

Twenty minutes’ worth of elbow grease and a few flat pavers yielded a dog-proof, windproof, mid-century-inspired, faux-Brutalist desk and stool with a top that easily converts into a monitor riser if I feel like bringing out a keyboard and mouse.

Ignore the color variations. Some of the blocks were wet because I’d hosed dirt and cobwebs off of them.

I rummaged around in the carport shed and found a couple of bungee cords just the right length to anchor an outdoor pillow (purchased on sale for $3.50 at the dollar store) to the pavers on the seat.

Bungee cords anchor the cushion to the seat.

I test-drove it while blogging the day I built it, and it works just about right. If I end up using it a lot, I might see if I can rustle up some breeze blocks somewhere and expand it into a bigger and more ornate desk with some built-in storage, but for now, it’ll work just fine for typing up lesson plans and posting blog entries on sunny afternoons when it’s just too nice to stay indoors, no matter how much desk work I need to do.

Emily

Winterizing the pond

While I was working in the garden last week, I decided to do some cleanup work around the yard and start getting the pond ready for winter.

Sometimes winterizing includes a water change. Sometimes it involves skimming out fallen leaves. But it always involves removing floating plants and bringing a few inside before they freeze. Too many times, I’ve neglected to do that in a timely fashion, and I’ve found myself scooping slimy, dead, decaying water hyacinths and sludgy remnants of what used to be water lettuce out of the pond in the spring because fall turned to winter faster than I expected, and I didn’t get the plants out before they froze.

Gross.

Not this year. Last weekend, I used a pitchfork to scoop most of the plants out of the pond, leaving just a few lonely specimens floating on the surface to provide cover for the goldfish until it gets cold enough for them to go dormant.

If you look closely, you can see some of the fish under the water.

When I removed the plants, I was delighted to discover all six of the feeder goldfish I’d dumped out there this summer were alive and well.

I moved a few plants into a bucket of water and stuck it in a sunny corner just outside a south-facing window, where it should stay above freezing all winter.

Hedging my bets, I also half-filled a miniature washtub with water, threw a hyacinth, a clump of water lettuce, and a few stray bits of duckweed in there, and parked it in the living-room window, where it should make a nice centerpiece for the next few months.

With nothing but fish and algae to muck up the water, the pond doesn’t really need the elaborate, multi-stage filtration system I designed for it last spring, so I disassembled the whole setup and replaced it with a variant on the biofilter I had on my pond in Cape. I upgraded the original design by placing the pump inside a half-gallon sherbet tub with 3/8-inch holes drilled in it, wedging chunks of old memory foam around it, and setting the whole thing inside a one-gallon ice-cream tub with 1/4-inch holes drilled in it. I slipped a layer of Scotch-Brite pads between the tubs, providing additional filtration, and anchored the lid with a bungee cord.

After I put away the excess filter components, I was left with a stack of cinderblocks just right for another project I’d been considering for several months. I’ll show you that one tomorrow.

Emily

Permanence

An ending marked a beginning of sorts last weekend.

We’ve lost pets before, but until last week, we’d never buried one in our yard, because we’d never lived anywhere I considered permanent, and I didn’t want to leave anybody behind in a place I knew I wasn’t planning to stay.

Last Saturday, I buried Lillian in the garden and installed a new raised bed above her grave.

As I worked, it struck me that Lil’s grave was a tangible confirmation of what I’d wanted to believe when we moved in last year: We are home. We are settled. We are staying.

I mulched Lil’s garden with water lettuce and water hyacinths culled from the pond ahead of a predicted freeze.

After stumbling across an interesting Twitter thread this week, I figured out just what to plant in Lil’s flowerbed.

Sage is readily available here in New Mexico, but apparently it’s hard to find in some areas, and some wild varieties are threatened by overharvesting, so a woman posted a thread listing other herbs suitable for cleansing a space of evil spirits, negative energies, and the like. I’m not certain such entities exist or such ceremonies are necessary, but I am certain that if something gives you peace of mind, and it isn’t hurting anybody, it’s worth doing.

I thought about how easy it is to grow sage here in the high desert (I’ve got a big, healthy plant in the garden right now) and how important it is to feel safe.

Lillian rarely felt safe. When we adopted her, she was a nervous little dog who showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Loud, angry voices terrified her, so I made a concerted effort to stabilize my moods and remain as calm as possible. I didn’t always succeed, but I definitely became more aware of my tone and temper as I tried to reassure my frightened little friend.

Reading that thread, I realized I could honor Lil by using her garden to grow the sort of calming, healing herbs that might help someone else feel safe. I made an offer to my Twitter followers that I also make to you: If there is a particular variety of sage or other herb you need to put your mind at ease, tell me what it is, and I’ll try to grow it for you.

Emily

 

 

 

Duck update

I haven’t really moved in until I have a fire ring full of compost in the backyard. The five-gallon buckets are the latest in my epic quest for an acceptable duck-pond filtration system.

Plan A: Adopt four ducklings, free-range them in the backyard, and give them an $8 kiddie pool to play in and a $60 doghouse to sleep in, because it’s cheaper than investing $300 in the prefabbed chicken coop that I want but Ron says we can’t afford.

Plan B (four weeks later): Get tired of draining the kiddie pool with a bucket every two days. Build pond and biofilter — with hose bibb attached to the top to make water changes fast and easy — out of a $60 stock tank and another $60 worth of gravel, plumbing parts, and other materials. Feel terribly clever.

Plan C (12 hours later): Discover that biofilters made from five-gallon buckets float, even when filled with water. Cuss. Add sand, gravel, and various other media to try to get submersible filter to stay submerged.

Plan D (12 hours later): Discover that five-gallon buckets full of waterlogged sand and gravel also float, because to hell with the laws of physics, that’s why. Cuss. Jury-rig $4 system for anchoring filter in place.

Plan E (12 hours later): Discover design flaw in anchoring system that keeps pump from functioning in new filter. Cuss. Spend another $30 on parts to build an external biofilter.

Plan F (5 days later): Discover that ducks generate way more particulate matter than a simple biofilter can handle, thus choking down the pump approximately 37 times a day. Cuss. Rummage through shed, find small plastic tub and some bungee cords, and construct mechanical filter to protect the pump.

Plan G (3 days later): Discover that pump is way too powerful to get away with using half-inch fittings for the entire project. Cuss. Blow another $70 on parts and materials to construct a finer mechanical filter, a clarifier, and a filter with outlets of increasing size. Damage filter while building it. Cuss. Repair it with duct tape and caulk, because hell with it. Watch in amusement as duct tape and white-trash engineering one-up all previous efforts and filter works better than all previous attempts, ostensibly because of better engineering, but probably because duct tape fixes everything.

Plan H (Somewhere in the middle of all that): Discover, on first warm day, that duck poop attracts a veritable plague of flies. Research problem. Determine that deep-bedding method will control flies while generating good compost starter. Make plans to invest $250 in enough fencing to confine the ducks to a comfortable corner of the yard with their pond, their house, and their favorite tree.

I’m so glad we didn’t waste $300 on a prefabbed chicken coop we could have assembled in one afternoon….

Emily

Duck yeah!

I can’t believe I got away with this.

They already smell weird, and I’m pretty sure they are going to annoy me beyond belief, but don’t act like these aren’t the cutest little things you’ve ever seen.

I hired some help for the garden.

Complaining already. It’s gonna be a long four weeks.

Walter is a bit more curious than I’d like, but I can lock him out of my office easily enough to keep them safe when I can’t supervise.

“Mom! Mom, what is that? Is something alive in that crate? Can I make it dead?”

We’ll see how this goes. The good thing about ducks is that they grow faster than chickens, so they should be big enough to kick out into the backyard in a month or less.

Emily

Broody.

My late buff Orpington hen, Pushy Galore, was one of the funniest animals I have ever owned.

As I do every year at about this time, I’ve gone broody.

I need chickens.

Actually, what I *really* need is quail, but they aren’t available locally. Failing that, I’d like a duckling. Or two. Or six. Whatever. Ron is balking, but I’ve seen a couple of people in town raising them as backyard pets, and they appear to be thriving. Sure, their wading pool will probably add a coupla bucks a month to the water bill, but that’s still cheaper than buying eggs at the grocery store. Plus if I ever adopt that Border collie I’ve been thinking about since January, it will have something to herd, so it won’t get bored and spend all day annoying me. And if we end up hating them? Duck is DELICIOUS. I’m not seeing a down side here.

Anyway, one way or the other, it is that magical time of year when a Rubbermaid tub full of shavings and a screen are supposed to appear in my office, and a heat lamp is supposed to hang over them, warming a flock of stinky-yet-adorable balls of fuzz.

My favorite chicken breed, as anybody who’s spent much time on this blog knows, is the buff Orpington. Orps are good layers with great personalities — curious as cats and almost as friendly as dogs. They get along well with other chickens, they’re decent foragers, and they’re entertaining enough that I could probably cancel my Britbox subscription if I had a flock. WIN.

Tractor Supply — the only local source for chicks that I’m aware of at the moment — does not carry buff Orpingtons. Or any other variety of Orpingtons, for that matter. They do, however, have a few barred Rocks, and if I’m completely honest with myself, I’ll admit that Rocks are probably a better choice for our yard than Orpingtons, because they’re much more aggressive foragers, and I’m told this neighborhood is lousy with scorpions in the summer. A flock of feisty barred Rock hens would happily knock down the scorpion population for me.

I think I’ll head out to the shed to take a quick inventory of my chick-rearing equipment, and then I’ll cruise down 66 to Tractor Supply and see what kind of feathered friends I can rustle up.

Emily

Squiggly friend

Look at my new squiggly friend! I met him in the garden this afternoon.

Isn't he pretty? I think he's a garter snake.
Isn’t he pretty? I think he’s a garter snake. He’s about two feet long and about as big around as a penny.

I love his little red tongue.
I love his little red tongue.

I hope he likes slugs. I could use some help reducing the slug population.
I hope he likes slugs. I could use some help reducing the slug population.

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.

Emily