Friday, March 30, 2012

Urban Gardening: Part I

Last fall we helped move our dear friends Colter and Julia from one rental to another. While Colter and my husband, Jeff, were focused on trying to fit as much furniture as possible into the U-Haul, I was (I am almost ashamed to say) focused on Julia’s magnificent pot-patio cucumbers.
            My cucumbers colossally failed last year. Even companion planted amongst beans, radishes, and turnips, and despite vigilant watering and de-bugging, their vines shriveled and were lost in the surrounding foliage. Was it too much sun? The pH of the soil? Some pest yet unknown to me that invisibly attacked? I racked my brain—I had planted these varieties before, under similar conditions, and they thrived—what was different?
            I had struggled with these questions all summer, and when I saw Julia’s cucumbers I realized my self-examination and reproach was—well—irrelevant. As the wise denizen of a rented space, yet avid gardener and supporter of self-sustainable living, Julia had grown her whole garden in pots. Her efforts were extremely successful. My efforts, in a permanent space, were not so; why was I torturing myself over soil pH when that was a factor I could control for success through potting rather than planting?
            When I was living in London and earning my graduate degree, I had a balcony garden consisting of a few herbs and bulbs in oblong boxes, through which I strung a laundry line. Not that impressive, I know, but it cheered me up while I hung up the whites and darks to dry. At that point in life, I was looking forward to the someday-garden; it occurs to me that I could have had the now-garden then if I had really thought about temporary planting.
            Julia’s model, for me, exposes not only what I could do with pot gardening in my farmhouse, but moreover the possibilities open to an urban gardener. Pot gardening actually opens up a world of opportunities for the city home grower: for one, unlike a permaculture gardener, the pot makes the gardening zone almost irrelevant. You can take your pot inside and out, for sunshine and rain or for warmth and shelter. The following are just a few ideas on how you could turn your city dwelling into a gardening paradise.
Preliminaries: If you’re going to have an urban garden, composting is really important. Make your own by poking holes in the lid of a big, dark colored (black if possible) coffee can and placing the can (lid on) in a sunny area where it will get hot. Hot compost decomposes fastest because the heat helps break down the organic matter. What goes in compost: any veg or fruit waste (carrot peels, apple cores, onion skins, etc.); eggshells; coffee grounds (these are AWESOME for plants. You can actually put them right in the pots with the plants), and wood ashes (like from a fireplace). What does NOT go in the compost: any kind of animal scrap: no bones, fat, skin, tablescraps—you get the picture.  Also, cigarette ashes are toxic (obviously). Shake it daily. This quickens the process. It’s ready when it looks like dirt. Mix roughly one part compost to six parts potting mix for plant nutrition. Don’t use it if you can still spot recognizable food remnants. Or, if you’re continually adding to it, use a tablespoon to spoon out soily parts. Occasionally in the meantime, and through the holes in the lid, you can pour the compost “tea” into potted plants as fertilizer. Not too much (it’s potent).
Container Gardening:  If you have a full sun area such as a balcony or space beneath a skylight, I recommend tomatoes. They really really need a lot of sun and are prolific if happy. Heirloom varieties are cool looking, prolific, delicious, and impress your friends. Buy seedlings unless you have a lot of time and patience (order these online from a local nursery). Cherry varieties don’t really produce a lot of food, but are pretty. Run-of-the-mill Beefsteak or Big Boy are fine, but nothing special. Only grow Roma if you plan on making sauce—not as tasty. Choose a good three to five gallon container and stake the plants up vertically with long sticks or dowels and tie them upright (using zipties works best). Plant the seedling in the center of the pot. Around the plant, sow (only a few) carrots or plant basil. They make each other healthier and tastier.
            Cucumbers also need full sun but almost no space if you provide it with something to climb on. (You have to deliberately train them to whatever that is.) And they can be a really attractive vine. Pickling varieties are crisp and grow fast. These can be grown pretty easily from seed. Or, plant beans (also can be started from seed) in your cucumber containers. The bean will use the cucumber for support and they benefit each other.
            Many think that more substantial winter veg, like squashes, pumpkins, and zucchinis, can’t be grown in an urban setting because they’re so space consumptive. Not true. Just prune them. Start them from seed, give them something to climb on (this could even be a kitchen wine rack or pot holder—just make sure there is sun), and prune the vine to the desired height. Only allow the plants to make two or three blossoms, and watch then to make sure they mature and pollinate, then wait until the following buds bloom, nip them off, and EAT THEM. Squash and pumpkin flowers are delicious battered in olive oil or stuffed with onions, rice, and peppers.  Then the plant will only put its energy into making two or three monster fruits and it won’t take over your space.
            Sweet potatoes are super easy to container garden and can tolerate partial shade. When the vine dies it’s time to harvest. If you give the plant enough room you can get half a dozen medium potatoes from one plant. (Only plant one per container.) Plant leeks around the plant from seed—you will know when they’re ready because they will start to look on top like what you might buy at the store.
            There is also an added perk to indoor gardening—climate control! This means you can grow plants that might ordinarily be out of your gardening zone. If your apartment is reliably warm (sixty five degrees or so all year) try a potted fig tree, or if you have more room, a dwarf stone fruit like a cherry, peach, or plum.
            Finally, we must address the practicality of the process: the perk to urban gardening is that you really don’t have to worry about insects. Thus pest control is not a headache. The problem, however, is correlative: no insect equals no pollination. You may have to self-pollinate some of these in the absence of beneficial insects. Think of this as artificial insemination for plants. Quick lesson: just make sure, at some point, that the pistil touches the stamen and that pollen is transferred. You’ll feel a bit icky, but just wash your hands afterwards and watch a Disney movie. You’ll be fine.

Lots more small-space gardening discussion to follow, but not enough time to write it down yet. Stay tuned. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Chicken Farming-- Take Two

I have a dream. In my dream, my free-ranging chickens roam about the yard, happily plucking insects from the grass, their soft clucking signaling their contentment as they follow me around. They greet my delighted son at the back door as he exits with a basket to collect their fresh eggs. At night, I shoo them into their cozy hay-lined coop where they nest safe and sound until morning.

Last summer’s attempt to attain this dream of pastoral perfection perished tragically.

In April, in accordance with my specifications, my husband built a beautiful sixty-four-square-foot chicken coop from bits of leftover lumber, complete with a flip-top roof for easy egg collection (protected properly with shingles left from our latest roofing project) and chicken wire floor so no predator could dig into it.  

In May, I bought six, six-week-old “pullets” (note skeptical quotation marks) from the local tractor supply store and asked when they would begin to lay: about twenty weeks was the answer I received. They lived in an open plastic bin lined with sawdust with a heat lamp overhead for six weeks or so until finally they were ready for the great outdoors.

In mid-June, they moved into the chicken coop (keep track of the math here; that would make them twelve weeks old). Every day at dawn, I fed and watered them and opened their door so they could get out and start picking those tasty insects off the lawn (soft contented clucking would surely follow); each evening at dusk I shooed them back into their coop and locked it up so they could indeed nest safe and sound.

In mid-July we had our first run in with the fox. Out to dinner one evening with friends, we came home a little after dusk (okay, it was firmly dark) to encounter a terrible turn of events had occurred.  We found four very scared chickens in the garage rafters; we found two very large piles of feathers on the lawn. Chickening fail.
We mourned, and then I bought ten more.

At first we would only see him skulking about in the evening, but as the corn grew higher and as August progressed, the fox grew braver. Finally, he was hiding just inside the first row in broad daylight. He started attacking and dragging them off, one by one. I started let the chickens out when I was out too, and shut them back in when I went inside. This was not the glorious free-ranging situation I had imagined.

Meanwhile, still no eggs. They were well past their twenty-week mark. Their combs however were quite developed. I became convinced we had a flock full of roosters.

And then there were two. These two were the perfect fowl-friends I had envisioned: I noticed the Japanese beetle problem I had had with my roses disappeared as they duly plucked and gobbled insects. They did indeed cluck contentedly while following me around. My twelve-month-old son would toddle after them declaring “Tchichtens!” If we could keep these alive, at least, I would be happy. We had planned to eat them in the late fall when it became too cold for them to comfortably roam, but I began to make plans to overwinter them, eggs or no eggs (though we were still in a no-egg state).

In mid-October tragedy struck. When I made the decision to run inside for just a minute, I left two contented birds happily picking at the front yard. When I emerged not three minutes later I found two pathetic piles of feathers. Hoping against hope that at least one of them had managed to run back into the coop, I raised the door and looked inside. I didn’t find chickens; I found three small white perfect eggs. It was a sad day in chicken farming.

This year will be different. Unfortunately, free-ranging is right out. My neighbor, who also raises her own fowl, has told me that if the fox doesn’t get them, the coyotes will and there really is no way to prevent the predators from coming. So my husband is building me a fortress: a huge box around the coop made of two-by-sixes and walled with chicken wire. The bottom frame is buried eight inches into the ground, and the chicken wire will wrap underneath the board and extend horizontally underneath the pen area. I am even thinking about electrifying it. Bring it on, fox.

My chicken purchase, like the spring, was early this year. Once again, I went to the local tractor supply store to buy my little hatchlings and asked specifically for hen chicks. The cashier looked at me blankly.

“Or I can look. How do you tell?” I asked her, trying to be helpful.
“Um… you can’t yet,” she told me, plainly confused.

So I picked my chicks (nothing wrong with a few roosters) and left. And then, of course, I started doing my research. Surely there must be some way to sex a chicken.

I talked to people who swore you could tell by the shape of the chick’s egg or the behavior of the chick. One experienced farmer cited body shape as an indicator. While there seemed to be no foolproof way to sex a chick (apply desired human sexual metaphor) there is apparently a best way: look at their cloacae.

This is the method, as I understand it: First take hold of the chick with its anus pointing toward you. Then, gently but firmly, squeeze it like a tube of toothpaste and get out of the way. Whatever feces it is holding on to will come out. Then quickly, before those intestines fill up again, repeat that motion with its anus right in your face. You will see places for three possible bumps. If the bump in the middle is pronounced, the chick is a male. But some male chicks don’t have pronounced bumps. And some females do. So if you’re confused you might want to let them grow a bit and try again. Alternatively, you can just wait for their secondary sex characteristics to emerge.

Yeah. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty, but I think I’ll take that latter course.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Attack of the lawn thistles!!!!

This is not a B-rated movie from the 50s. This is my backyard.

Obviously, this would normally be a suboptimal situation. However, with a twenty-month-old baby, who I hope will fall in love with outdoor play, this is a downright terrible turn of events. Thistles are, classically, the symbol of neglected or diseased land; of malcontent and decay. Or, as Hamlet would say, "an unweeded garden, that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely." Not in my backyard, than you very much.

My relationship with thistles has, however, been somewhat confused. In my various travels through the United Kingdom, especially in Scotland, I admired beautifully cultivated thistle gardens. Those old-world varieties are capable of noggin-sized deep purple blooms any gardener would be proud of. The thistle is actually the national plant of Scotland, and is there propagated to purple perfection. According to legend, some Norse invaders tried to ambush a Scottish village in the middle of the night. Right before the charge, one of the manly bare-footed warriors stepped on a thistle and cried out in pain, alerting the Scottish sentries to the Norse presence. So the day (or night, rather) was saved (for the Scottish at least, that is). Just goes to show that the definition of a weed is simply a beautiful plant in the wrong place. The wrong place for those thistles is my back yard.

I thought I had a lot of them a couple days ago, but each time I went outside I see still more thistles! Where are they all coming from?

The thistle is apparently the Trojan Horse of plants: you can't see what's happening until they suddenly surprise you and take over. They spread seed everywhere from July to September up here in Zone 4b, and they thrive with little competition. This seed grows little florets in the fall, if they can, at which time they seek to establish a root structure. If they can do that before the first killing frost, you will see them again in all their serrated glory in the spring. Thus, an early killing frost would eliminate much of the thistle threat. This year, however, we had a very mild winter and a very early spring. The upshot? The thistles thrived. Additionally, the grass and all its competing "weeds"-- yarrow, dandelion, chamomile-- haven't appeared yet as they are slower in growth than the terrible thistle. The result is thistle takeover.

There is though an old-fashioned and fail-safe method to kill these little buggers: regular table salt. Just take the canister outside and sprinkle a good amount in the center of the floret. I used to watch my mother do this every spring as a little girl. This is how it works: if you've ever rubbed a thistle leaf you've noticed (after your initial shock of pain) that they're pretty succulent. The thistle needs this extra fluid to grow. The salt desiccates the leaves and through the plant's circulatory system, the root, thus killing the plant. Voila.

After using all the salt I had in the house (which is a significant amount, as I keep plenty on hand for canning, salting, and pickling), I went to the local grocery and bought another five pounds. When the cashier looked at me askance, I explained what I was doing. She shrugged and replied, "Oh, I always just use an herbicide."I could not suppress a shudder. Putting extra sodium chloride on your lawn and then into the water table probably isn't great, but it's sure a lot better than introducing chemicals-- especially unnecessarily. Yuck. At least the salt is a naturally occurring mineral.

That being said, there is another thing you can do with your thistles: you can eat them. (That's right, you knew I was going to get there eventually.) Thistles have a reputation for being nutritive and healing; the Ancient Greeks advised chewing leaves for minor headaches or body pain, while today's more daring chefs add young greens to a saute or entree. Some herbalists claim that tea made from crushed thistle seed protects against and even helps heal liver damage, while nearly all agree that the plant has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. I personally have never tried this before. If one of my targets manages to escape my notice, perhaps this will be the next experiment.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Homemade Garden Supplies

I faithfully read my various gardening magazines, and am always impressed by these gardeners who have state-of-the-art equipment: I salivate over their cold frames, row covers, cloches, and greenhouses. I plot and scheme about the gardening I could do with such equipment. Then I look at the prices in the catalog-- yikes! To be honest, a significant motivator in my backyard farming endeavors is the simple fact that I really, really hate to spend money. However, I can't live with the idea that there are tools out there that would make my gardens healthier and more productive, and I'm not using them. The solution to this daunting conundrum is obvious: I should just figure out a way to make these things myself.

Through various construction projects, we had amassed a number of old glass windows in our garage, as well as some odd bits of lumber. To make a cold frame, I laid out one of the glass windows and cut some spare two-by-six boards to make a box the exact size of the window frame. I placed the box on the south side of the house right up against the foundation and lined the bottom with black plastic. I filled the box with composted manure, planted seeds, and topped the box with the window. Instant greenhouse. Last year, I was able to grow early and late rounds of spinach and various salad greens due to my little invention... yum.

Though I haven't fully experimented with these yet, it seems that row covers would be fairly easy to construct from spare pex piping by simply cutting even lengths of pipe and arching them over the seedlings, pushing each end firmly into the soil. Rather than look in the gardening catalogs for the actual cloth cover, look on the sale table at your local fabric store. Your cloth should be light colored and breathable-- a light thin cotton is perfect. And much cheaper. Affix to the frame by threading a light-gauge wire (like a craft wire) around the pex at the end of the rows and through the fabric, and twisting closed.

A simple-- although not altogether attractive-- cloche-replicate can be as simple as a milk or juice jug with the bottom cut out and the top off. Although one may not fancy one's garden looking like Christo discovered the redemption center, the results are good. Just don't forget to take them off once the seedlings establish.

Today, I again filled the cold frame with composted manure and sowed seeds for spinach and kale-- we can look forward to delectable baby greens in about forty days. In the meantime, I discovered another full bucket of maple sap which is boiling and bubbling in the summer kitchen right now-- am beginning to feel like one of Macbeth's witches.

The crocuses are out!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

First maple syrup batch-- accompanied by a complete breakdown of willpower

Attempting to be a responsible maple sugarer, I duly harvested a little more than eleven quarts of raw syrup two days after I tapped the trees. At a loss for containers, I gathered all the juice pitchers and empty milk jugs available (with and without lids), poured and stored them in the fridge. Thankfully. That night, a terrific wind storm blew my buckets right off the trees as well as a few shingles off the roof. Only today have I gotten around to re-affixing the taps into the trees and hanging the buckets. By the way the taps immediately dripped, I would guess I have a few more quarts of liquid left to gather.

Yesterday, I began the boiling. All the resources say that you're supposed to boil outside, but we, in our monstrous ancient farmhouse, are blessed with a summer kitchen in which we brew beer and wine, can food, and repot plants-- it is purely a utility room, so I felt no qualms about boiling syrup in there-- I did however crack a window, just in case. (If anyone has ever brewed beer, the general film over all surfaces afterward is nothing to the aftereffects of maple syrup making.)

I began with my roughly eleven quarts of raw syrup. After six hours in a low rolling boil (stirring vigorously about every fifteen minutes) I had about fourteen ounces of usable, delicious, homemade maple syrup! I hot-packed it into sterilized Ball jars (best container on earth) and sealed the full jar for storage. I will put my three-quarters-full jar in the fridge for immediate consumption. I feel an urge to make copious amounts of French toast coming on.

During this process I spent a lot of time in the summer kitchen. The seeds are back there. And the potting soil. And they were staring at me the whole time. Just staring. Boring a hole in my head until I began counting weeks until May 15th. And, you know what, we're only a little more than eight weeks (we're actually about ten) there. And peas and beans are technically cold weather crops. And those Chinese Lantern seeds I bought do need at least eight weeks indoors as seedlings to do well outdoors in this cold, cold climate.

So I started 72 seeds today. I placed the flats on a shelf behind the woodstove so they are warm enough to germinate. Hoping and hoping that spring is around the corner and they can survive. 

But the snowdrops are out, the daffodils are poking through the soil, and spring can't be far behind...