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.
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.”
Left to my own devices, I would have ordered at least one nuc hive and two packages of honeybees this spring, and we’d have a yard full of pollinators tending my garden and entertaining me. Ron, however — frustrated by the departure of yet another colony of notoriously flighty Carniolan-Italian hybrids last year — decided he wasn’t spending another dime on bees this spring and would just put our names on a couple of swarm lists and wait to catch a feral colony.
No one called, so we didn’t get the opportunity to catch our own swarm, and as a direct result, my cucumber crop this year consisted of three fruits. THREE. A typical plant will produce cucumbers faster than I can put them up, but those flowers won’t pollinate themselves, and without several thousand bees living a few feet away, the blossoms just withered away without producing anything.
When I finally realized what was happening, I decided enough was enough and ordered myself a leafcutter bee kit. Leafcutters are a gentle, solitary species that don’t produce honey but do pollinate at least as enthusiastically as honeybees.
The bees arrive as pupae encased in little pouches made of — you guessed it — pieces of leaves their mamas cut from lilac or rose bushes. My kit came with a little bee house consisting of a plastic PVC pipe with a cap on one end, predrilled for easy mounting to a fence or other vertical space, and a wooden block with holes drilled in it for the bees to use as nests.
One bee had already emerged from her little cocoon when she arrived a couple of weeks ago. I peeked in the other day, and it appears the others have emerged, although I haven’t seen any of them in the garden.
I may not. There are no guarantees they’ll like my yard; these are, after all, living creatures with minds of their own. But I planted a rose bush for them before they arrived, and I’m hopeful they’ll find the foliage and flowers in my garden attractive enough to entice them to stay, raise kids, and overwinter with me.
I had a secondary motive in trying leafcutters: I have a mild allergy to bee venom that seems to have gotten worse in recent years. I still prefer A. mellifera to all other bee species, but if the day comes when traditional beekeeping is no longer a safe hobby for me, I’d like a reasonable alternative to ensure I can continue to nurture pollinators in my garden.
We’ll see whether these girls decide to stick around. I’ll keep you posted.
Inspired by an end-of-season sale on echinacea, rudbeckia, and Oklahoma Indian blankets, I was just turning over the first few spades of dirt for a new flowerbed in the front yard when a young man walked up and asked if I’d consider paying him to do some yard work. He was stranded in town, he said, and was trying to earn enough money to buy a bus ticket home to Springfield, Missouri, to see his daughter.
I’d already hit three rocks by that point and was losing my enthusiasm for the project, so I told him I’d give him $20 an hour to spade up the area I wanted to plant and flatten out the rise left in the yard after the plumber replaced our sewer line last year.
I figured he’d be out there the rest of the afternoon, but he had the flowerbed spaded up in less than 15 minutes, and in the time it took me to install mulch cloth and plant my flowers, he’d flattened that rise. He was done in just over an hour, so I treated him like those fraction-of-an-hour-is-an-hour contractors and sent him off to the Greyhound station with $40, a big bottle of Gatorade, and a big smile.
After he left, I took myself to Lowe’s to pick up mulch and more flowers — including several daylilies to plant along the sewer line.
Between the two of us, I think we did a pretty good job.
I still need some flagstone to use as edging, and I need to move the coupler and spare hose to the front so I can water more easily, but I’m happy with this project so far, and I’m looking forward to expanding the beds in the coming months so they’ll be ready for planting in the spring.