Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ooh! Ooh! I am interviewed!

P. Price has a website, Red, White and Grew, about the resurgence of victory gardens in the United States. I've been reading and enjoying it quite a bit ever since I started this blog. Not too long ago, Price contacted me after reading about the homesteader's garden and asked me if she could interview me for her blog. I agreed, though with some reservations, mostly because of the squidginess I feel about being interviewed for things (Will I sound intelligent? Will I sound like a ding-dong?). But I really, really like the RW&G blogsite, so I thought, what the hey?

Part one showed up today: my "interview."

Check it out, but more importantly, check out the RW&G blog!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Xtracycle goes to class

My seminar met at the park today to discuss the historical background and cultural implications of the American lawn. One of the students has a broken foot, so I was going to try to carry her on the Xtracycle when I sent them all out on their bicycles for the sketching portion of the class. I thought I'd try it first with a non-broken-footed student to see how difficult it was going to be. The look on the student's face should give you a clue...oh wait, I've redacted the faces of the students. Trust me, she does not look like she has confidence in my skillz.

In the end, we decided it probably wasn't a good idea to carry someone with who already had a broken bone--no sense in breaking more. She drove her car.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Looking ahead to winter in the garden

As I wrote in my first post in the blog, this season represents a return to the garden. It had grown a little unkempt in my absence, but the bones of the organism were strong and so with just a little attention and care it is starting to look like its old self again.

I'd forgotten how much I love gardening. I'd also forgotten what a balm it is to be outside, planting, and pruning, and tinkering with design. So now that gardening season is waning, I'm wondering where to go next. Usually, I head indoors to the woodshop to build paddles, and I'll probably do that again. But I think I want to maintain my ties to the garden through the winter, so that I won't forget to get back out there again in the spring. To that end, I've started thinking about winter garden projects that I could work on for those wonderful days when the weather is benign.

I love to build garden structures. I've always suspected, in fact, that the real reason I want to keep chickens is so I can build a chicken coop--I mean, what a cool project to puzzle out: Indoor outdoor design! Perches for roosting! Secret doors through which you can steal eggs when the hens aren't looking!

But we're talking about animals here, and wanting to build their house is not enough of a reason to commit to the ten years or so I will be caring for them. So I'm still pondering that decision.

For the same reason (commitment to long-term care for something) I've never built a greenhouse, though I've always wanted to do so. I want to build the structure, but I honestly can't see myself trotting out there every day to water seedlings. One of the bonuses of growing older is that you realize what the intractable parts of your personality are, and I can report that my attention span is just isn't long enough to stay with the planting and nurturing of seedlings. And it never will be, no matter how much I wish that it were so.

But a greenhouse--wouldn't that be the berries? It would look great back there, too, all tucked away in a corner of the farm...completely unused.

One thing I do use is a big assembly bench just outside my woodshop. Its primary raison d'etre is wood projects, of course, but it gets called into potting duty with some frequency, so I thought that if I couldn't in good conscience build a chicken coop or greenhouse, maybe I could at least build a potting bench. And--here is the bonus--I could even make it a combo bench/greenhouse for those few seedlings I do plan to start in the spring for heirloom veggies. It would have a potting surface, shelves for storage, and a nifty removable "window" that could be raised and lowered for temperature moderation. I could even put in secret doors.

Here is the spot I've picked out for it:

Though it's not seen here, yesterday evening I planted an antique rose just to the left of the hose post (where those green pots are in the photo), and the bench will go to the right. I think it will look pretty nifty when it's all done--pink thornless climbing rose and garden structure. The best of all possible worlds...

Once I started thinking about the potting bench, my dreams turned to other structures. I've needed a storage shed for years for garden tools; it would make my life in the woodshop so much easier if I didn't have to trip over the lawn mower and its accoutrements all the time. So I think that after I try my hand at the potting bench, I might build a shed.

Here is where I plan to situate it:

Of course, I'll have to get rid of the ligustrum and volunteer trees growing there. So on Sunday I hacked them all back in preparation for digging them up:

I was shocked to see how much light that let into the farm. I'm going to have to pick out a different place for my farm contemplation/meditation seating area...

A friend is passing along his radial arm saw to me, and I plan to make it into a dedicated dado machine. So right now my head is dancing with lap joints and half laps, and rabbets and dados--I can just see how wonderful it will all be when I build my structures. I am nearly beside myself with anticipation. And lucky you! I'll post the progress right here on these pages for you to enjoy along with me...

Monday, September 22, 2008

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Rolling Classroom

Well, the blog has been all garden so far, so I thought I'd throw in a post about the Xtracycle, shown here pulling duty at the Tech Gardens, with a cargo of chalkboard/chalk/eraser, Crazy Creek, bug spray, and art kit. I was out there with my "Bones, Beetles, Birds" class for a lesson on sketching flowers for botanical illustration...

It was a beautiful day. The students had fun (though some of them were worried about a looming biology exam--in the notorius Dr. Dini's class!). I had fun. Life is good.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Once a scientist...

OK, here's the powdery mildew (PoMi) update: I went out this morning and sprayed with a recipe suggested by Jill--a teaspoon of baking soda, a few drops of dish soap, suspended in a quart of H2O.

Curiously, the dish soap was the thing most recommended--even for the aphid treatment. (I remember my dad using dish soap on grass fungi infections with success.) The baking soda is supposed to change the pH on the leaf surface, and the soap (I'm guessing here, based on something John wrote) acts as a dessicant.

Sulfur was also recommended by Cheryl, as well as one of the websites on PoMi that I read. (Which also means that my garlic plants should be resistant to it, apparently.) However, dish soap seemed more readily at hand. I mean, sometimes University politics can be hell, but that doesn't mean that brimstone is just lying around for the taking...

So I went out and spritzed the heck out the plants, also liberally dousing my pepper plants to be on the safe side, even though they show no signs of it so far. As I was doing all this spraying, I noticed that my emotions had switched from disappointment (backyard farmer) to curiosity (scientist). Will this treatment work, or won't it? It's all data, you know...

Dang if I didn't feel almost cheerful, wanting to know what the results of the experiment will be.

Still a little p&ss*d about the butternut squash, though.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The verdict is in: powdery mildew

Well, sadly, it turned out to be powdery mildew. John had suggested aphids, which was a good guess on his part, since he's a regular grower of this squash. But Jill and Nancy both came back with powdery mildew, and when I inspected it again shortly before leaving for work, I could see that it had a fuzzy "fugus" look to it. Plus, I could find no aphids on the undersides of the leaves.

Nancy in particular sent me a stern warning, via email, to remove the affected leaves and treat it NOW!, as this will spread quickly and kill the plant. Indeed, by the time I got home from work the fungus had spread from just a handful of leaves to almost two-thirds of the plant. I spent about an hour after supper, braving the thick cloud of evening mosquitoes, trimming it back and throwing the waste in the dumpster (not the compost). Spraying it will have to wait until tomorrow evening--if it isn't already too late.

The saddest news of all is that in the course of trying to cut all the affected parts of the calabasas vine, I accidentally cut the vine on which the lonely butternut was growing. So it was harvested well before it was ripened. It is a fair size, however, so I'm wondering if I just stuck it in a cool place if it would continue to ripen on its own.

Here is a before and after view of the devastation of the vine. The first picture is from a couple of weeks ago:

And this one, compared to the same angle in the post below:

Nancy pointed out in her email that powdery mildew has a tendency to thrive in shady, moist environments, and trimming back all those leaves should increase air circulation and sunlight.

All of this has me thinking: what have I learned from this? Certainly, all the extra moisture last week helped things along, but this is also a shadier spot than is ideal for a vegetable garden. I thought I could probably get away with it, since our summers are usually so hot and dry, and our sunlight so strong, that plants normally requiring "full sun" seem to do all right in part shade here. However, perhaps full sun really means just that when it comes to vegetable- and fruit-bearing plants.

To get full sun in my garden means I'm going to have to trim back some very big limbs on some old pecan trees, however. I'd already taken down some scraggly Ketler junipers in this part of the yard, primarily toward the purpose of growing veggies. Apparently it wasn't enough. There is one limb in particular I am probably going to have to break down and have removed if I really want to grow produce. I've really needed to do it for a couple of years now, but I've been dragging my feet on the task, for no other reason than it provides wonderful shade for my woodshop in the summer. And there is no small premium on shade in this part of the country...

Still, it really is time for it to go.

Here is the other thing I've learned: I'm disappointed about all of this--the tomatos, the powdery mildew, accidentally cutting my pretty butternut squash--but you know, I looked on this first summer as a backyard vegetable grower as a learning year. I have the luxury of being able to make mistakes without starving my family; this year will only truly be wasted if I don't learn from it and do better next year.

Even so, what a summer it's been!

And meanwhile, back on the farm in "Susanville"...

How could I not plant a garlic that is named "Susanville?"

Well, my little adventures with L-4 and L-5 are behind me (no pun intended), and things are finally drying out from last week's rain, so it was fall planting time on the prairie homestead farm. On Sunday I put in four kinds of garlic in a raised bed (the aforementioned Susanville, Inchillium Red, Red Toch, and Silver Rose), probably enough to keep us in garlic for a year, as well as have a few heads to give away as gifts. I wanted to try out some different varieties this year to see if I can taste the difference. My palate is only so-so on most food subtleties, having been stunned and numbed by so many years of unabated salty fried fats, I'm sure. Here is a full view of the "garlik box", with mulch and drip irrigation (not seen) in place. If you look closely, you can also see the little tufts of BG/BG that are taking hold in the otherwise bare spaces of the garden:

I also planted an heirloom carrot, Amarillo, in what is going to be a cold frame. This whole business of fall planting/cold frames is new to me--well, frankly, growing and eating vegetables in general is new to me--so I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing or how it will all turn out. Still, there is no adventure that starts without a little bit of fear of the unknown.

Amarillo is a yellow carrot (hence the name), and is supposed to be very sweet. Maybe these two attributes will encourage me actually to eat them.

In other veggie garden news, I've been disappointed all summer by the tomato crop. The Sweet 100's kept putting forth all these sparse, tiny, pea-sized fruits, and the yellow grape tomatos tasted odd--kind of buttery and neither sweet nor acid. I was never able to wrap my head around what my eyes saw (tomato) and what my mouth tasted (butter), and as a result found them to be vaguely unsettling and unpalatable.

And then, yesterday, when I went out to check on them after the uncommonly heavy rains, I found all the fruits split wide open and in the beginning stages of rot. In a mild fit of pique, I pulled the plants up and tossed them in the compost bin. Time to give up on throwing good time and water after bad. Not sure what went wrong this year, but I've other reports in the 'hood of under-performing tomato crops. Still, one of the things I've learned from ornamental gardening is that there is a time to cut losses and move on. Non, je ne regrette rien.

I'm also concerned about my squash crops. I have one (count it--one) butternut squash, seen here:

I'm thinking of putting up an armed guard...

And while I have quite a few small calabasas squashes, the leaves are starting to show some signs of what I suspect might be powdery mildew. Here is a shot of a healthy leaf (those spots are apparently part of the color variegation of the leaf, and are on all of them from the beginning--the non-variegated leaf in the picture is a butternut leaf), followed by one of the mildewy-looking ones:

This phenomenon is found only only the leaves of the calabasas squash. Thoughts, anyone?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Texas Rock Rose and Rain Report

I thought I'd do this little sketch of a rock rose flower, just for fun.

We've gotten a lot of rain the past few days--according to the radio this morning, over 7.5 inches of it fell yesterday alone (here is a picture of my over-topped rain gauge). The city and county have been declared disaster areas, but I think the main problem has been traffic disruption. A few reports of flooded houses, and the cotton crop is probably affected. Haven't been out to the garden yet this morning to see what's going on, but I'm sure it's small potatoes compared to the trouble the rain is causing for area farmers.

This is all from a system coming in from the west. It will be interesting to see what happens in a couple of days when we start getting the effects of Ike from the south.

And speaking of Ike, let's hope the people down in Galveston are safe.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More Rain.

80% chance of rain today.


I really, really need to get more rain barrels. Heck, I need a cistern...

Monday, September 8, 2008

Rain Barrel Report

All three barrels got filled in short order today. It was a nice little rain, and filled them so quickly (200 gallons!) that it's clear I need to add more barrels to take advantage of all that goodness coming off the roof.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Texas Rock Rose

I've never been a big fan of pink flowers, but I dunno, this summer I seem to be planting a few of them. Like this Texas rock rose (Pavonia)--how could I not love it? Maybe it's my inner girl finally coming out after 51 years...

Next year I'd like to try my hand at growing some cuttings of this for the prairie homestead garden.

I have been to the mountain top, and it was made of goat cheese.

Look at these lovely ladies! It is true that they are all dolled up with those pretty blue collars, but don't be fooled. Once a day they roll up their sleeves and get down to business at Haute Goat Creamery, an artisanal cheese-making operation I had the very good fortune to visit on Friday, right here in LBB. And friends, my culinary life has been ruined forever. I have been to the mountain top, and back here on planet Earth nothing will ever taste as sweet again.

You think you know goat cheese? Ha! I respectfully submit that you have never tasted goat cheese like this. Owner and cheese-maker Nancy Patton gave me some little niblets to try and I was transported. The flavor simply blossomed in my mouth.

And the variety! Goat blue cheese. Goat yogurt. Goat cheddar cheese. Goat cheese with black olives nestled inside...Award winning cheeses, all. Here's picture of some of the many hard cheeses being aged.

And here is another of Nancy scraping some Tequila Abbey, a cheese soaked in tequila, and chipotle, and...uh, I didn't hear anything after she said tequila and chipotle. I was too busy thinking about that smoky goodness and wondering how I could smuggle one of those wheels out of there without her noticing.

Sadly for us, Haute Goat cheese is not sold in the grocery store. Nancy sells primarily to high end restaurants, including--good news!--a few here in town. She can also make some up special order, just for you. Here's her website for the details.

And now I want goats to go with my chickens and bees.

(Does, hens, and bees. Have you noticed it's always the women doing the work? Just sayin'.)

Spotted in the garden this morning...

...little sprouts of blue grama. I love this part of gardening, when things come up in spite of all my gloomy expectations. I am generally a pessimist by nature, so when I sow seeds, I always anticipate that nothing will come of it. But I water anyway, and for days nothing seems to be happening at all. And then one morning, there they are--all those little green soldiers.

Blue grama germinates faster than buffalo grass, so that is what we're seeing here.

I'm also continuing to water in this antique climbing rose (Trier) that I transplanted to the farm from a spot in the front yard, where it simply wasn't getting enough sun to thrive.
The astute reader might look at this delicate specimen and think, "Why, carrying a transplant of that diminutive size would be no more strenuous than carrying a small load of laundry!"

Ah, but be warned, gentle reader. Picking up this unassuming plant is apparently enough to aggravate a hinky bulging lumbar disk and put the brave little gardener out of action for a few days. Don't ask me how I know.

As a result, Walu may be the one digging in the garlic bulbs that just arrived in the mail, while I direct the action. I'm sure he's thrilled.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The prairie homesteader's garden: planting the grasses

A few years ago, I scattered some buffalo grass/blue grama seeds (BG/BG) in an area at the rear of the back yard that the former owners used as a dog run. I thought it might be nice to establish a little vegetable garden there, and I wanted it to look like it belonged on a prairie. I had in mind something like a kitchen garden that a woman homesteader might have had outside the door of a sod hut--some heirloom vegetables in a tidy plot, with perhaps some pretty prairie flowers for color, and an antique rose or two to remind her of the place she had left behind. All this would be surrounded by soft prairie grasses.

I've been slow getting the prairie homesteader's garden going--other areas of the garden, and life, seemed to need my attention first--but I did throw those seeds down, and pictured yellow grasses someday gently waving in the afternoon wind.

It's a trick to water in new lawns, since you can't really walk on the little seedlings, but you end up doing so anyway in order to reach all the areas that need soaking. I had some big flagstones lying around, and I put them down so I'd have a place to tread. But I didn't get around to setting them in the ground (they were heavy, it was hot--you know the story...), so they wobbled a lot when I walked on them. After awhile, it got to be annoying--stepping onto a stone, wobbling, dragging the hose over, wobbling some more, then stepping cautiously onto the next stone and wobbling and dragging some more--and like all annoying projects, I soon lost interest.

Still, some of that seed persisted, needing no help from me, thank you very much. And where it did survive, it formed a tough, thick mat that seems to choke back the crab grass and green foxtail that spring up every time we get a good rain.

This year I thought I'd do it right, and set the stones properly before seeding, so today was that little chore. Here are some photos of the process. This is a shot showing one of the stones being set into the path. (To the left, between the vegetable plot and the stone-lined garlic bed, you can see some of the original BG/BG.)

This next shot shows the stones from the opposite view, before seeding. This cedar picket fence is where I'd like to plant some antique roses and prairie flowers to go along with the irises and lavender that are already there (the crab grass is outa here, however...).

And here is again, after seeding, with the future cold frame in place to show me where not to bother scattering the seeds:

And finally, a shot of the path after everything has been tamped in and watered for the first time. I think the stones make it look like an inviting place to spend a morning:
It's late for sowing the seed--about six weeks before we might get the first hard freeze, and I really need two months (maybe it will be late this year)--but I've got my fingers crossed. If it doesn't survive, I'll try again in the spring. The hard part--tilling and setting the stones--is already done.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Planting a prairie homesteader's garden

First, a weed identification puzzle: Green foxtail (Setaria viridis)? No hairs on leaves, even at base, which keys out to green foxtail. Any opinions, anyone?

The seedhead of this nasty weed grass is always getting into my dogs' fur, and the farm is full of it after a good rain. And where the foxtail is not growing, crabgrass makes a thick carpet. The only patch that hasn't been covered is planted with buffalo grass/blue grama (BG/BG) from some seeds I scattered several years ago and then forgot. I'm thinking that I could choke back the foxtail and crab grass weeds with a thick sowing of BG/BG. So today I borrowed my neighbor Jeremy's tiller and plowed it all up. I'm going to put down some stepping stones and then seed with the BG/BG mix I ordered from Plants of the Southwest. I would have finished the project today, but it got hot working in the sun, so I'll try to finish up tomorrow.

I really like my BG/BG lawn in the front, and I've wanted to create something like that for the farm for a few years. I've always had this picture in my head of a small food crop patch in some homesteader's yard, surrounded by prairie grasses, and I thought it would be nice to pay homage to that. I'll keep you posted on how it all turns out.

In the meantime, here is a shot of some of today's tilling, before I raked up the crab grass: