Gayla asked in a recent post on You Grow Girl why we garden. I commented that I do it mostly for the results; I find the process itself fairly frustrating rather than comforting/calming/soothing, as most true gardeners do. Nevertheless, I saved up some toilet paper tubes (and one paper towel tube, which I cut into thirds) in which to plant the pepper seeds that I'd also saved, and some tomato seeds that I'd bought.
I figured Sunday would be a good day to do the planting, mainly because (a) I was free, and (b) hopefully it would allow enough time to see the seeds germinate before we leave on vacation. I want to assess whether to leave the plastic domes on or take them off before we go.
Gayla had mentioned that the little peat disks I'd used a few years ago to start my seeds were a bad idea, but I was at a loss to make my own seed starter mix, despite the detailed instructions she gave. (I think it's because the supplies at my local Lowe's were sadly lacking; they leaned heavily toward chemical-laden mixes and Miracle Gro organic stuff that I've used before and found to be full of sticks and plastic, of all things.) I finally found a seed-starter mix that contained the stuff Gayla recommended (although it had peat instead of coir) and no chemical fertilizers, as far as I could tell.
I didn't have quite enough toilet rolls to plant as many seeds as I wanted to, so I broke out our stash of yogurt cups (which I can't bring myself to throw away, but can't recycle here) and poked a few holes in the bottom of each.
I also didn't have any plastic domes from take-out containers handy; I wasn't able to scrub all the food oils off the couple Al had saved for me. When I went out to the garage to fetch the seed starter, however, I spotted four or five Fuji apples still nestled in the plastic-crate dozen we bought at Costco a couple weeks ago. I removed the apples, cut the crate in half, and viola! I had two plastic domes to cover my seed pots. They're just high enough to allow for sprouting, and the diameter of the individual apple pockets is exactly the same as that of the yogurt cups.
Of course, the two days since planting have been somewhat overcast; I'm hoping the sun breaks out for real soon, so my little guys get plenty of light.
I'll start May's NaBloPoMo effort with an update on my garden, if for no other reason than to remember it later. (Wait, that's pretty much 90% of the reason I write *anything* here.) After planting the tomato and pepper seeds back in March, I discovered, via an incredibly helpful post at You Grow Girl, the difference betweeen determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. It turns out I've been growing the wrong kinds of tomatoes for years. Determinates = smaller, usually bushier plants (thought not necessarily smaller tomatoes—the Sweet 100s that I grew a couple years ago and that volunteered in the compost pot last year were indeterminates), whereas indeterminates = monstrosities that require a ton of space and water. Once I determined that my beefsteak-variety seedlings fit into the latter category, I set about scouring the seed racks for determinate varieties... and came up empty.
However, all was not lost: Gayla came through with a generous offer of seeds, and I found a website which offered several determinate varieties of grape and cherry tomatoes (the seeds Gayla sent were for Czech's Bush and Patio Orange, which yield medium-sized fruit). Gayla also offered some seeds for these cool Barbie-sized watermelons (actually gherkin cucumbers :-) and some "chocolate cherry" sunflowers. Thus, a second round of seed-starting was in order:
The Gold Nugget cherry tomato seeds didn't germinate, so I started another cup of them this weekend; hopefully these ones will sprout. The sunflower seeds I added to the mostly-cooked compost from last season, and I also donated a few seeds to the Beaner's school when I was there taking photos for their Arbor Day activities last Thursday.
Meanwhile, I planted just about everything I started back in March in pots on the back deck... and then discovered why all the bags of soil I'd been using said NOT FOR USE IN CONTAINERS on them. I'd never had any *trouble* using this soil in containers, but I discovered when I FINALLY bought Gayla's book (and this is something you should do, too, if you have the least interest in growing anything yourself—I put it off for so long because I AM NOT A GARDENER, or so I thought—because it's a beautifully-designed, easy to understand, virtually unputdownable and downright fabulous guide that's like no other "gardening" book you've ever seen) what I should have been using instead and why. What it boils down to is that containers need a special mix—usually some combination of peat or coir, vermiculite or sand, and perlite (the little white balls in the photo above)—that retains water well and gives the roots room to breathe. Regular soil compacts too much and suffocates the roots. Well, fart! Given that I've grown things in containers using my weird topsoil-homemade compost-manure/hummus mix before, I figure I'll get *something*, and if I make it through this gardening season and end up wanting to do it all and more next year, I'll know better and will possibly even get better results.
I suppose I could have figured out that container plants like peat, vermiculite, and perlite from experience (and not just from that all-caps warning on the bag—that's not for me, that's for stupid people!). I ended up using seed starter mix, which contains those magic three ingredients, instead of the "layer of fine soil", which I did not have, when I sowed the beet and pea seeds outdoors. Those two veggies are doing swimmingly. In fact, that the Beaner accidentally raked up the soil in the container right after we planted the peas probably worked in their favor, as it distributed the space-and-drainage-promoting seed starter throughout the soil. These pots also drained a heck of a lot faster than the soil/manure pots when we got a heavy downpour on Monday.
The other upside is that—as you'll recall from the second paragraph of this post—I haven't yet planted the second round of seedlings, so there's still a chance to get it right this year. To that end I hunted up some organic potting soil (the only "container mix" I could find contained chemical fertilizers, which I DO NOT WANT) and some more seed starter mix, and I've been creating a custom blend of those two items, the topsoil, and the manure/hummus. This morning I spotted a container/potting mix at Whole Foods that contains coir instead of peat, so I might get a bag or two of that tomorrow if I remember to bring my granny cart or the wagon with me to the gym. I think it'll be another week or two before the indoor seedlings are ready to be planted outdoors, so I've got time if I forget.
The Sunflowers Never Had a Chance
I'm now kicking myself for not photographing the sunflower seedlings that sprouted in the compost bin (where I'd planted them about 10 days ago) this weekend. I went out to survey my kingdom this morning and found every seedling save one (that apparently just came up last night, in a divot) looked like it had beheaded by a weed whacker. Some stems where broken cleanly in two places, and it looked like something had been digging a bit in the corner.
While it's possible that the Beaner could have done the damage when I had my back turned yesterday, I don't think that's the case. I remember giving everything a final once-over before I finished yesterday's gardening stint, and while I didn't notice the sunflower seedlings in particular, I did check all the other plants. The yellow pepper that suffered the same fate—it looked like someone snipped its top off with scissors—was certainly alive, well, and upright when I went inside.
I'm now trying to figure out what could have done the damage. My deck is fairly high up, with six-foot fences separating it from my neighbors' decks. I've never seen any animals out there aside from flies, bees, birds, and one giant cockroach that Al and I each glimpsed once and then never saw again. Could a bird have made the clean cuts? Is the giant cockroach now lobster-sized? Did a squirrel find the bounty? (And if so, why just raze the sunflowers and one pepper plant instead of eating the peas or the beet greens?) It's a mystery.
I'm now wishing I hadn't donated the remaining sunflower seeds to the Beaner's school, so I could have another shot at them. I still have hope for the one growing in the divot, though. I also had an extra yellow pepper seedling still in a yogurt cup, so I just pulled out the snipped one and replaced it with the leftover. If that doesn't thrive, I still need places for all the orange pepper seedlings being hardened off as we speak.
I got a little overeager and planted a few of the second batch of tomato seedlings yesterday, before I'd fully hardened them off. The good news is that they went into much better soil mixes than the first set of seedlings, so I'm hoping that they thrive. I'm realizing that I'm going to need a few more buckets for next week's round of planting, as I've already exhausted my current supply (already about two or three times the capacity I had last year!). I'm also realizing that—*gasp*—I seem to have become a gardener. It might be time to take the gardening posts out of "around the house" and give them their own category.
The Birds! The Birds!
The starlings were mocking me. I understand that now. I spent the morning on the back deck, transplanting the orange pepper seedlings and repotting two yellow pepper plants in more container-friendly soil (I carefully took the plants out of their containers, mixed some seed starter and coir-based potting mix into the topsoil/manure & hummus blend that was already in there, and then replaced the plants), and the starlings shouted at me from the former sparrows' nest they'd taken over the whole time I was out there.
Little did I know that they were just waiting for me to leave so they could undo all my work. Sometime this afternoon, they attacked both orange peppers and the smaller of the two yellow peppers—AND the Baxter's Early Bush Cherry tomato. The peppers are GONE. The tomato might be salvagable; I'm not sure yet. The watermelon that was attacked a few days ago seems to be clinging valiantly to life, so I suppose the tomato could do the same.
I took the time tonight to make a chicken wire cloche for the Sprite grape tomato just in case, and I'm glad I found a water bottle that would work for the Elfin grape this morning. I'm going to have to think of a solution for the already-fragile Mexican Gherkin soon too, or it will likely be the starlings' next target.
I mentioned that I'd done some more chicken-wiring after the bird attacks of Saturday, and that I would be posting photos shortly. I've started a garden 2008 set on Flickr for this purpose. The photos are in chronological order starting with the first seed planting back in March, so the latest photos of bird damage and chicken wire-covered planters are at the end.
I was out surveying my garden domain on Friday night, feeling really happy with how things were growing, when upon closer inspection of the largest orange pepper plant, I spotted a bunch of tiny green bugs covering the new growth in the center of the plant. ACK, APHIDS!!
Somehow, I thought I was immune to these pests. I'd never noticed them in previous gardens... and thus I had no idea how to combat them. "I need to get my You Grow Girl book RIGHT NOW!" I said to Al, even before grabbing my camera to snap this photo:
I quickly looked up the bug spray recipes I'd noticed on prior readings, and was happy to learn that I had all the ingredients I needed on hand. (I can't remember what I thought I was going to do with that lemon I bought last week, but it's now been put to good use.) I chopped up the lemon peel and set it in a bowl of boiling water to steep, then grabbed the already-peeled garlic from the fridge. There were two packets left, so I threw those into a second bowl of boiling water. I then measured out a heaping tablespoon of cayenne powder and dumped it in with the garlic. I briefly lamented not having an onion until I remembered the bag of chopped onion I'd stashed in the freezer. It might not be as good as fresh, but it was better than nothing.
On Saturday morning I went to the gym, then stopped at Whole Foods to look for spray bottles. They only had the kind used for perfume and essential oils, so I bought one and figured I'd rinse out an almost-empty bottle of Method grapefruit surface spray and use that for the other mix.
The lemon oil solution was much easier to strain than the garlic-onion-pepper mix, so I started with that. I strained it into an empty bottle of Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Castile Soap to take advantage of the soap's bug-killing qualities, then poured it into the sprayer. After three or four applications some of the aphids were jumping off the plant and running along the soil and the edge of the pot, but too many seemed to be surviving.
In between assaults with the lemon oil spray, I blended up and started straining the garlic-onion-pepper mix. That process took forever thanks to the powdered cayenne, but I eventually got a double-strained mixture into the bottle. In preparing for the pepper assault, I neglected to put on vinyl gloves or even shoes—a rather large mistake. My hands and feet were tingling/burning all day after the first round of pepper spraying. By the third pepper assault (after a thunderstorm), I'd learned my lesson.
After spending so much time on the most obvious victims in the garden, I thought I'd just check the other plants to see if they were OK. The tomatoes all appear to be healthy and uninfested, but a closer inspection of the red pepper plants and a small yellow pepper—both planted a few weeks ago—revealed more aphids. I hit those with the pepper spray, too.
This morning the red pepper and small yellow pepper seemed OK, but the large yellow pepper and large orange pepper showed a few living aphids still clinging to tender leaves. I hit them with the pepper spray again and will continue to do so until either all of the aphids die, or the plants do.
From an e-mail I received yesterday from the Morris Arboretum (where Al, the Beaner & I are members):
Last Chance for Moonlight & Roses registration
Deadline - 6/4/08
A truly enchanted evening at the Morris Arboretum
Friday, June 13, 2008
6 p.m. - Cocktails in the Rose Garden
8 p.m. - Midnight - Dinner and Dancing
The party begins at 6pm with cocktails in the Rose Garden and continues with dinner and dancing under the stars. Once again, guests will have the option to dine in one of two tents - the "Moonlight Tent" featuring soft music in an intimate setting (behind the Widener Visitors Center) or the "Rose Tent" featuring the music of Jellyroll, the party band back by popular demand for their sixth year at Moonlight & Roses.
Dinner and Cocktails starting at $250 per person
Cocktails Only starting at $125 per person
Young Friends Ticket Prices (for guests 35 and under)
Dinner and Cocktails - $125 per person
Cocktails Only - $65 per person
I had two thoughts when I read this: (1) wow, the gardening world really *does* skew older, if they consider a 35 year-old a "young friend", and (2) I'm too old to be considered a "young friend." Hmmm.
Just a quick note to say I ate the first tomatoes from the garden today, and they were TASTY. The Beaner picked a bunch of half-green, half-orange ones without my permission, but he also got one 95% ripe beefsteak tomato and one 90% ripe Sprite grape. I ate the former raw and the latter sliced in a quesadilla.
There are several more tomatoes that are likely to be ripe in the next few days... when I will be in San Francisco. I've charged Al with supervising the picking in my absence, and the Beaner now knows that he's not to pick without a parent.
Also, I'm having a bit of shoe anxiety in regards to BlogHer and the various parties I'll be attending. There've been so many mentions of "cute shoes" that I'm not sure I'll measure up in my Dansko Marcelles. Ah, well. I'll just wear some striped socks with them and hope for the best. This is how I am, ladies: Not particularly fashionable, but eminently practical. Get used to it.
This Might Be a Joke
I finally cleaned out my Inboxes last night after being in California for about 10 days, and I came across the April NaBloPoMo e-mail. The theme is GROWING (UP), which kind of makes sense for April; by this time last year, I had several seedlings well on their way. This year I've yet to plant anything (yes, I know, I'm way behind in gardening as in many other things), but I PLAN TO. So I gave some thought to participating in NaBloPoMo for April.
I'm not sure I'll be able to do it—lately I've been posting every 3-4 weeks, it seems—but it's worth a try. I do have a garden to get into the ground (or into containers, I should say), and I do have a 4 year-old who's growing up fast, and I probably have a story or two about growing up myself that I could share (maybe). To get things started, here's a story from the archives about why I hate April 1st.
Photos of seeds tomorrow, if I remember.
I took a photo of all my seed packets today, I did! I just can't be bothered to edit and post it right now (it's late, other things to do, yadda yadda yadda). Instead I give you my Polaroid from Tuesday, which is actually apropos of what I did today: namely, turn the dirt in most of these containers.
Al has class on Thursday nights, so I'm always looking for something to do with the Beaner. He was enthusiastic about helping me plant tomato and pepper seeds, but lost interest about a third of the way through. He did participate in the turning of the soil in several pots, the clearing out of the giant garbage bin of tomato soil (I'm trying to keep the tomato soil separate from the non-tomato soil, but I think I've now managed to lose track of what's what, thanks to a shortage of vessels for the emptying of the garbage bin), and the turning of several bins of compost. He even brought his little Diego table and chair out to the deck so he could eat dinner out there with me (he not only carried the table and chair out himself, he also got his own dinner—rice pasta and yogurt).
We had a lovely time gardening in the twilight (and finally in darkness, by camp light and flaky deck light) while a neighbor across 21st Street serenaded us with a continuous loop of John Denver's Rocky Mountain High. Nice.