Thursday, July 30, 2009


It's two o'clock in the morning and I can't sleep. So I might as well use this time to 'fess up.

My garden is an abject failure. Despite a good start, my plants are now dying left and right and I don’t know why. Of the ones still living, many have lost most of their leaves – eaten away by an unknown agent. I would suspect grasshoppers, but I haven’t seen any. The weather has been unusually mild for July -- highs in the upper 80's and an occasional rainstorm, so that's not the problem. I’m not getting any lessons learned because I really don’t understand what is going on.

Here are the sad stats:
Arkanasas Traveller tomato – turned brown and crispy almost overnight.
Ancho pepper – turned wilty overnight. Water failed to revive.
Eggplants and potatoes – leaves eaten to the nubby nubs.
Cucumbers and crookneck squash – vines shriveled away almost overnight.
Zucchini – squash get half grown and then turn to mush. I’ve started picking them at half grown stage just so I have something!
Amaranth – stalks broken by first good rainstorm. Some seed heads still retrievable.
Remaining peppers, tomatoes, and watermelon – failure to thrive. Spindly, weak, with little fruit happening. The one exception is the jalapeƱo plant which, while small, is producing quite a few peppers.

Thankfully, not everything is a disaster. I expect to have a good potato harvest despite the missing leaves. My herbs are, for the most part, doing quite well. The okra is producing reliably, especially those from the seeds my cousin sent. The Swiss chard is still producing, which is more than I expected. And the peanuts are amazing -- they're growing and spreading like crazy. The plants in window boxes are doing well, too – the French sorrel looks like it needs to go in the ground and so does the lemon verbena.

So, okay, I need to start playing detective and try to figure out what went wrong. Some of the plants, like the tomatoes, may have been getting too much sun and/or not enough nutrients(despite watering the straw bales with compost tea). Some, like the squash, may have been getting too much water -- unless an autopsy reveals squash borer damage. The missing leaves are obviously insect or bird damage. And I’m also wondering about all those bags of top soil and composted cow manure I bought at Walmart -- did they have herbicides or other undesirable residues?

When I think of how much I spent on soil amendments and organic fertilizers and seeds and plants and water, and how small the return, it's depressing. I really need to do some controlled experiments – growing identical plants in different soils and conditions. I’ve ordered a bunch of seeds for a fall and winter garden, so I’ll have a chance to do just that. After I pull myself out of the doldrums.

I'm just glad we don't have to rely on the garden for our food or we would have starved to death by now. Bummer!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Stressed Out

Well . . . my garden is showing stress. The tomatoes and peppers are hanging in there, but looking rather scraggly. My cucumber is still producing, but not as vigorously. My squashes still aren’t squashing and my eggplants have quit blooming. I read on Mother Earth News that once temperatures get above 86, a lot of summer veggies shut down. They recommend creating shade for hot gardens. I guess that is my next step . . .

On the plus side, my okras are still doing well and so are the peanuts. The Swiss chard is still producing in spite of the heat (and this week is predicted to be a bit cooler than normal, so we are getting a break!). I have a baby watermelon in the works and think it may be time to harvest my potatoes.

As for my worm bin, lately I have been adding household waste that is cut in small pieces anyway – vegetable and fruit peelings or trimmings (ie strawberry hulls, peach bruises, eggplant peels). That eliminates putting garbage in the freezer and then thawing it. Always good to eliminate steps. The bigger pieces (ie banana peels) go into the compost bin. I’ve also been adding my cardboard egg cartons to the worm bin. When I’ve finished with an egg carton, I wet it thoroughly, tear it into bits, then throw it on top of the worm food. It seems to be adding more bulk while keeping down unwanted visitors (ie fruit flies, etc).

Now for the weekly roundup:

1. Plant something – more okra and ginger, a confederate rose cutting and red kidney beans (from the pantry)

2. Harvest something – tomatoes, peppers, okra, eggplant, herbs

3. Preserve something – ummm

4. Reduce waste – I bought a sheer curtain at the local big box store and made it into bags to use when I buy produce so that I don’t have to use those plastic bags. And while this news is a couple of weeks out of date, I did make an art quilt from scraps in my scrap bag – and took second place in our guild’s challenge!

My husband recycled the neighbor’s trimmings from their palm trees and made a ‘roof’ over our bar. And lastly, at my mother’s suggestion, we turned the thermostat up another degree. It’s now set at 81 and I’m thinking we could take it to 82 without noticing much difference. If we set it too high, the humidity in the house builds up and we start having problems with our appliances.

5. Preparation and Storage – I pulled out my crochet hooks and yarn and have been practicing a bit. It’s been a long time since I crocheted. However, with the house as warm as it is, the yarn tends to stick to my fingers – which affects the tension. So, I’m putting it on hold until cooler weather. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to look at properties on the internet and to hint that this might not be the best place to hang our hats long term. Not working very well. Hmmm.

6. Build Community Food Systems – I blog (on occasion). I bought multiple copies of What’s the Worst that Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate to give as gifts (that may not seem like building community food systems, but as climate change is related to food production, I’m including it!)

7. Eat the Food – mostly soups and salads. The peppers went into a chicken and rice dish from a Rachel Ray cookbook.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sunday Mornings

I love Sundays! For one thing, my husband makes us breakfast. For another, Sunday is my official day of rest. Not because it’s Biblical, although it is, but because it makes good sense. We all do better when we have ‘time off.’ So Sundays are for things that absolutely have to be done (like water the garden) and for things I want to do. Like blog!

This has been a week of inspiration and new energy. First, there is the story of Will Allen:

Like others in the so-called good-food movement, [Will] Allen, who is 60, asserts that our industrial food system is depleting soil, poisoning water, gobbling fossil fuels and stuffing us with bad calories. Like others, he advocates eating locally grown food. But to Allen, local doesn’t mean a rolling pasture or even a suburban garden: it means 14 greenhouses crammed onto two acres in a working-class neighborhood on Milwaukee’s northwest side, less than half a mile from the city’s largest public-housing project.

And this is why Allen is so fond of his worms. When you’re producing a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of food in such a small space, soil fertility is everything. Without microbe- and nutrient-rich worm castings (poop, that is), Allen’s Growing Power farm couldn’t provide healthful food to 10,000 urbanites — through his on-farm retail store, in schools and restaurants, at farmers’ markets and in low-cost market baskets delivered to neighborhood pickup points. He couldn’t employ scores of people, some from the nearby housing project; continually train farmers in intensive polyculture; or convert millions of pounds of food waste into a version of black gold.

And then there is the energizing commencement address of Paul Hawkin to the class of 2009, University of Portland, OR:

This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food—but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.

With all that inspiration to keep me going, I’m offering my weekly update:

1. Plant something – This week, I ‘planted the pantry.’ I raided my pantry for seeds – anything I thought might grow – and planted them in recycled plastic containers. I don’t know what will grow, but that’s the fun of it. My pantry yielded: four colors of pepper corns, fennel seeds, coriander, allspice, cloves, caraway, poppy and chia. I didn’t have to wait long for the chia – it was up the next day. We’ll see what the rest does. I also planted a chunk of ginger from the grocery store – since the expensive piece I ordered from Gurney’s rotted in the ground.:-(

2. Harvest something – mostly herbs but a few okra pods. I harvested some dollar weed from the garden but haven’t gotten up the nerve to eat it yet (why is that so hard, I wonder?) My garden has really slowed since the weather got so hot and dry. I recently found a couple of leaks in my soaker hose so I’ve switched back to hand watering. Maybe I’ll get better results now. I hope . . .

3. Preserve something – maybe never? I did buy a book, Well Preserved: recipes and techniques for putting up small batches of seasonal foods by Eugenia Bone. Bone gives basic advice as well as detailed instructions for preserving foods – everything from cherries in wine to smoked scallops, along with recipes for using the preserved food. Stay tuned.

4. Reduce waste – I was in Target this week (hey, my shopping options are extremely limited . . .) and noticed that the Starbucks counter was giving away bags of used coffee grounds to one and all. I took all they had. I also asked my mother’s hairdresser for her hair clippings. I had read what a wonderful mulch/compost they could be and thought it worth a try. But the hairdresser pointed out to me that the hair contains not only all the good stuff from our system (vitamins, minerals), but all the drugs as well. Changed my mind!

5. Preparation and Storage – I learned to make my own pita this week. I used the recipe in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Hertzberg and Francois. Wasn’t all that hard and turned out really well. I did find out that cooking the pita less was better than more, more being rather tough and crunchy.

And I’ve spent huge amounts of time on the internet – I discovered Freedom Gardens, an interactive community where I joined groups all the way from ‘making ink’ to ‘permaculture’ to ‘culture club’ (as in yogurt and sour dough and other cultures . . . )

And I’ve been fantasizing over property in other, more amenable-to-self-reliance locations. This place is just too hot, too dry, too sandy, and too vulnerable to hurricanes!!

6. Build Community Food Systems – blog (on occasion) and comment on other people's blogs.

7. Eat the Food – I made a fantastic Greek salad with cucumbers and peppers and herbs from the garden (to go in my yummy pita bread). The okra goes in my ‘refrigerator soup’ made from leftovers.

And that's it for this week.