Archives for category: Buckets

Mid-Year Reset

2019 has been a bust. I’m looking to reset the time clock for a fresh start. Not that I haven’t prevailed in the challenges of the year, I have. I’ve taken acute and catastrophic and whittled it down to manageable-chronic. I’m learning new rules to the game and living within them. I followed up months of serious illness with a fall, and injuries, only to have my mother hit with a brief, but alarming illness, that had me drop everything to come to her aid.

Maybe it’s the best thing to happen all year. Prolonged illness can set you up to a cycle of fragile. For the first time in my life, I felt old. Responding to my mum’s plight let me put my own stuff aside to address her needs. Now that she is on the mend, I am returning to my own life with renewed vigor.

Sure, the garden is weeks behind and every other schedule in my life is askew. But suddenly the questions are about how to catch up–not to forego. I brought my mum home (she was traveling when she fell ill) and that meant I had the chance to visit with my sister and brother-in-law. His garden is in–delayed some, because he had to deal with his father’s death. (See how lucky I’m feeling already?)

He had a bunch of orphan plants–extras from the greenhouse that would’ve ended up in the compost. I have ready gardens–but the vagaries of my past few months meant I didn’t get my starts in. Now I’m returning home with a car full of tiny tomato, pepper, broccoli, and cabbage plants. Instant garden. I’ll finish up the rest with seeds. My mum’s travels were extended by the unexpected illness. When we arrived at her house, her pantry stash of organic potatoes had gone too far–rooting and sprouting. So I have seed potatoes. My sister was tearing out a neglected flower bed–to convert it to garlic and onions. I need to start landscaping around our new house. Now I have buckets of daffodils, irises and day lilies. These little plants completely fill the back of the car. Tomorrow, I’m headed home.

Things are looking up.

For the first time this year, I’m excited to get back to writing, to get back out into the bee yard, to get the garden underway. Our crew has made good progress on the barn (which I’ll get to see when I get home.) So, despite the fact that the year is nearly half gone, I’m celebrating a new beginning.

They’re Here!

A.V. Walters–

I don’t celebrate Earth Day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice idea. But it annoys me no end when folks known for driving down the driveway to the mailbox “celebrate” Earth Day by buying “green” products they don’t need.

Perhaps it’s a meaningful reminder to people inclined to forget that the planet sits on the edge of the abyss.

Instead, we do our damnest, everyday, to live lightly on the planet. We’re not perfect. Our Spring tribute to the Earth usually involves planting trees. Many, many trees.

This year we backed off. It wasn’t that last year’s 203 tree extravaganza nearly killed us. That was last year. Annual memory lapse is normal. This year, though, we switched to pricey nursery trees. That puts a damper on how many we can plant.

When you pay the big bucks for pedigreed trees, you want to be sure you give them the very best opportunity to survive. We dig deep holes. No matter that the little bare-root sprig is less than a foot tall, our paltry soils must be amended deeply. We sprung for high end organic compost this year—horse manure may be fine for conservation trees, but only the best for these babies. That adds another $6.00 per tree. And, of course we’ll have to cage them, to protect them from the deer, the bunnies, and any other herbivore threats; add rabbit proof welded wire fencing, and a full day to manufacture their cages. We’ll have to extend water down to this newly planted area. There’s plenty of rain this time of year, but by August, I don’t want to have to carry water in buckets.

Needless to say, once the trees arrive, we drop all other activities. Some holes have to be dug by hand. Most though can be done with the backhoe. (You see, we are very serious about these trees.) I figure it’ll take about a week. Then, sore and weary, we’ll return to our regular overloaded lives knowing that we’ve done what we can to make the planet more green.

See you in about a week.

Musings on Planting Trees–

A.V. Walters–

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And that doesn’t even include the trees we bought from Benzie County!

Professional “re-foresters” can plant hundreds, even thousand of trees each day. Depending upon the terrain, they use dagger-like tools, either hand or foot powered, and can put in acres of trees in short order.

I am not one of them. I am too fussy. Each tree gets an actual hole, not just a slash with the roots jammed in. Each tree gets a shovel-full or two of compost, which must be blended into the natural soils, so water doesn’t “perch,” causing root rot. I layer in the roots, so they’ll have a stable start. This year, I’m loading up a little on the compost. They’re predicting a hot, dry summer and the compost helps to hold moisture in the root zone. I cheat a little, and soak the roots in Terra Sorb (or work a pinch of it into the hole), also to give them the moisture advantage. If no rain is predicted, they get a starter sip of water, (though spring soils are pretty moist.) Sometimes, we give trees a cage, to protect it from deer or rabbits during its infancy. There’s only so much you can do.

Professional tree-planters work on a scale that allows for a relatively high failure rate. From my perspective, there seems to be little point to doing all that work if the trees don’t survive. Sure, there are losses from natural forces, deer, bugs, and the like. This past year we lost two baby trees when other trees fell on them. There’s nothing you can do to protect from natural hazards. The best you can do is to give them the best start possible. Do I sound like a parent? I’m pleased to report that we have a good survival rate for last season’s seedlings.

In the forest, you need to look for a good spot–a hole in the canopy for light, not too close to existing trees, not near an obvious deer path, not in the “fall-line ” of any existing afflicted trees, and hopefully sheltered from strong winds. Of course, you’re carrying a bunch of seedlings in one bucket (with some water) and another bucket of compost and a spade. I spend a good bit of time, wandering in the woods, finding those good spots. I couldn’t be happier, even with the load–what a lovely way to spend time.

We don’t celebrate Earth Day. We spend a couple of weeks each year, planting. So far this season, I’ve put in 98 trees (including 3 orchard trees.) I’m over the half-way mark. I hurt like hell, but things are moving right along.

 

Wrapping up the Season

A.V. Walters

 

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Post bucket

We’ve had nearly an extra month of fall. Tomorrow, though, temperatures are expected to tumble down to seasonal norms. We’ve been rushing around to take advantage of the extended season and to get a jump on spring, next year.

We garden in buckets. It’s habit, from California, where it solved some of our irrigation issues. It also kept the gophers out of the vegetables. We’ve kept it up here in Michigan for some of the same reasons–water, critters, and because our soils need a lot of work. The buckets let us amend most intensely where the plants will live. Before the next season, we pull the buckets and empty the amended soil and leftover roots back into the soil. It could wait until spring, but we had the warm weather, so I did it this week. It will make it easier to spread amendment over the whole garden area in the spring, but we’ll probably stick with the buckets for a few seasons yet. It is more work–but promises better harvests until we can get the garden’s soil into better shape.

It was also time to attend to the fruit trees. They needed an end-of-season weeding, and it was time to wrap their trunks before winter. There are two main reasons for wrapping the trunks of fruit trees. It prevents sun scalding. Winter sun can warm the trunk–expanding the bark and the moist tissues below–on the sunny side. The temperature differential can split the bark, endangering the tree. By wrapping the trunk with light colored material, you reflect the sun’s heat away. The other reason to wrap is to dissuade mice and other critters who’d be inclined to nibble at the baby trees’ thin bark. Mice can easily girdle, and kill a young tree. I knew I’d arrived to the task just in time, when I saw that one of the apple tree’s lower trunk showed the early signs of nibbling! Now all of the fruit trees are wrapped and ready.

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A tidy wrap to protect the baby tree.

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Lined up in winter finery.

Along the way, I noted some successes. Before we planted the trees, located in the fenced garden area, we dug amendment in deep–very deep. In prepping their planting holes, we went down four to five feet deep and at least that far across. We wanted to give them a good start, and since our soils are poor, it was our best chance to add nutrients to the soil for the trees’ formative years. It has already paid off. Because we were attacked early by deer, the garden orchard trees had both the fence and individual tree cages for protection. In spite of having been seriously nibbled by deer, the apple, plum and pear trees have all more than doubled in size. They’ve outgrown the cages! They look more like 3rd or 4th year trees than 1st season trees. We may even see apples and pears next year.

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The cherry trees–grown outside the garden fence–didn’t get as much care. First, they’re all cherry trees. This is cherry tree country. One of the pioneer plants in our sandy soils is the American Black Cherry. I didn’t think that the cherries would require as much soil amendment. I only dug the amendment in to a depth of 18 to 24 inches. I also thought that cherry trees would be safe from the deer. They’re bitter! No such luck. We must have voracious deer. They munched on the cherries, too. Immediately after, we gave them cages, too. But while the others have recovered and really grown, the cherries have recovered, but stayed smaller. For future plantings, we’ll keep the deep-amendment program.

It makes me wonder if we should dig and replant the cherry trees. It’s a lot of stress on a little stick of a tree. I’m sure we’ll debate it all winter. More likely, I’ll be researching organic methods of fertilizing–not as good as a nice deep start, but we shall see. Any thoughts on that?

Permaculture–

A.V. Walters

It’s clear that the neighbors all think I’ve lost it. Our immediate neighbors are retired organic farmers. When I said that the solution to poor soils in the orchard area was to amend the soil before planting, they just shook their heads. But, I meant it. It’s one of the cool things about having heavy equipment—you can do things that make sense, but normally wouldn’t be worth the effort.

When I said that we’d amend to a depth of 5 to 6 feet, I was exaggerating, but not by much. We dug out 4 to 5 feet. That’s the beauty of a backhoe. Still, it wasn’t easy. The digging goes well enough, but then you have to separate out the good topsoil, from the glacial sand below. Then you have to add in the compost—just a little over a cubic yard per hole—and mix it together with the good topsoil. You can’t just layer it, or you could get “perching,” where the compacted layers resist water flow. So the mixing and the filling of the holes has to be done by hand.

Even Rick thought I was nutty. He mentioned that it felt like he’d been conscripted into the army, and was sentenced to dig holes and fill them in again. That was what we were doing—though not quite as simple as that (and not punitive.)

If ever there was ever a good reason to go to great lengths, putting in trees would be it. It’s why they call it permaculture. They’re permanent. If you don’t take extra measures now—you won’t get the chance later. These trees deserve the best start they can get. If planted in well draining soil that’s also rich in organic material, these trees will be well ahead of the game. We live in an area that considers itself the “Cherry Capital.” All too often, though, the cherry farmers drop the whips (baby trees) into the sandy ground and then fertilize and spray them for the rest of their lives. It’s like being hooked up to an IV feeding tube! So much for conventional agriculture.

We won’t be doing that. You can grow healthy fruit without all the junk. It helps if you think ahead. This weekend was a backbreaking exercise in thinking ahead. Just as we were finishing up last evening, yet another neighbor walked over to query us on just what we were doing. I was hip-deep in the last hole. Granted, we didn’t actually plant yesterday. We were too tired. So, it really did look as though we were just digging holes and filling them. We were. In a funny way, we are burying treasure. She didn’t look convinced when I explained our system. When I told her that we’d water them with willow bark tea for good root development, her eyes widened.

This is a small town. I’m sure that within the week the whole town will know how crazy we are. Most folks just dig an 18 inch hole for a tree. That’s what the instructions say.  We’ll hear all about it when we go into the hardware store. That’s were you can catch all the good farm gossip.

Today the trees went in. We now have 4 cherry trees, 2 pear trees, and 3 apples. We still have one more orchard tree to plant this year, a plum. It hasn’t yet arrived, snug in its mail order carton. We’ll put in another four next year (they were out of stock this year!) and then the orchard is complete. All were selected for winter hardiness, disease resistance, flavor, type (cooking or eating), and timing. After all, you wouldn’t want them all ripe at once!

Between forest trees and orchard, in the past two weeks, we’ve planted 95 trees. It’s a relief to go back to building.

We can’t put in the garden for another ten days. When our frost-free date comes, we’re ready to plant our seedlings. If they think we’re crazy with the orchard, wait ‘til the neighbors see the buckets.

Good Enough Gardening

A.V. Walters–

Now, a good gardener would have done things differently. A good gardener would have had the soil tested and would have amended accordingly. This year, I’m going to have to be a good-enough gardener. The plants went into their buckets in a flurry of enthusiasm, an unexpected last chance to see things growing, and enjoy them on my dinner plate through the season. What can I say; it’s a done deal.

I’ve heard that the soil here is alkaline. (And the water is hard.) I suppose you could say that this little bucket-garden is a test plot. We’ll just have to see how things go. I fully expect to test the soil on our property, next year, and amend accordingly. So far, we’ve been pretty lucky. We planted in a good spot, which I picked for the southern exposure. What I didn’t figure on was wind. Wow. Like Two Rock, this place has wind, and then some, to spare. (The wheels are turning and I’m thinking… a good spot for wind power.) My little southern exposure turned out to be perfect, because the house also offers the garden some shelter from the wind.

I’m not joking about the wind. It’s a beautiful day, so I hung out the laundry. It hangs horizontal. By the time I finished pinning up the first load, the first things up were already dry. Whipping in the breeze, even the towels dry soft and everything comes up lint free. There has to be another way to harness that energy for good.

Today was watering day for our little garden, too. In Two Rock I was able to satisfy watering by topping off the buckets, twice, once a week. In Two Rock, there was no rain during the growing season. But, there was more clay to the soil, and that helped to hold the moisture

Here, it is largely sand. Even with Michigan’s regular rainfall, I think I may have to water a little more frequently—especially with these winds. The plants, in the ground for about a week now, look healthy and have started to take off. Everything has sprouted a round of new leaves, and the peppers and tomatoes have started to flower. I was surprised at how little they suffered from transplant shock. I’m looking forward to the results of our experimental garden.

With today’s gardening finished, I decided to take advantage of the wind and do “extra” laundry. You know, the stuff you don’t usually do—the throw rugs and some blankets, even my winter coat and the winter’s down clothing. They’ll easily be dry by evening. I’m letting the wind do the rest of my day’s chores, and I’ll get the credit.

Garden Surprise

Michigan Meets the Bucket Garden

Another Bucket Garden

Another Bucket Garden

A.V. Walters–

I had resigned myself to not having a garden this year. There’s just too much going on. We have building to do—and that has to take the lead. In Empire, we had a late spring, and nowhere to start seeds. Now that we’ve moved, well, it’s a little late. Michigan has a shorter season—and, unlike Two Rock, it’s not forgiving on the harvest end. Besides, in a rural setting like this, a garden needs infrastructure. I don’t have time for infrastructure.

A garden, especially a vegetable garden, is an artificial environment. Its inhabitants have needs. In Michigan, they have some basic needs that exceed my Californian framework. Here, we have garden predators. And not just the usual gopher hazards (though we have those, which, like in Two Rock, we can solve with buckets.) Here, we have deer. Worse yet, the place is crawling with bunnies. That means we need a really tall fence (six feet or better) and it has to extend underground. Bunnies are not deterred unless you prevent them from burrowing under the fence. With their Bambi faces and cute eyes, these critters’ benign outward appearance hides a darker garden reality

Moreover, we don’t yet have water on the property. I’m no fool. I read French Dirt. Never plant a garden until you have a sure water supply. Our well is not yet in. No well, no water. No water, no garden. It’s as simple as that

Still, Monday I ran into town and stopped at my favorite grocer, Oryana (a local co-op). I was doomed, even before I stepped inside. There, at the entrance, were racks and racks of organic vegie starts. At good prices, too! Some of them even knew my name! I have no discipline—I quickly snagged a bunch and headed home. On the way I rationalized my decision. I could plant them just outside the window of our little, basement apartment. After all, my planting buckets are sitting idle. The landlady’s dogs, though pests in many other ways, allegedly keep the yard clear of deer and bunnies. (We’ll see.) Surely the landlady would enjoy fresh produce through the summer, too.

It won’t be a big garden—only twenty buckets. Eight tomatoes, five peppers (can’t find decent hot peppers in Michigan), an eggplant assortment, cucumbers, zucchini, crookneck, and a cantaloupe. We’ll skip the leafy things—I just picked through what was left at Oryana’s. It’s just a tad late in the season, but I’m happy to have something to grow.

I was sheepish on my arrival home. After all, we’d had the garden discussion. Rick knew something was up immediately. He laughed when I admitted to my impulse purchase. But, of course, he helped me dig-in the buckets.

Spring has Sprung

A.V. Walters

We’ve been busy here in Empire. We’re gearing up to build—and hoping that the snow will melt in time for construction. Spring is making inroads into winter’s territory. Here in Empire, there’s a big patch of ground making itself visible in our front yard. Once it gets started, you can almost watch it by the hour. Yesterday, robins appeared. Neighbors whom we haven’t seen in months have started to take walks around town and in front of our house. Spring is here. (But the tapwater has yet to get the memo. It’s still 34 degrees. I can hardly wait for it to warm up enough so that I can turn off the water.)

Of course, Cedar/Maple City (only 15 minutes away) was the season’s big winner in the snow department. We went there yesterday—it took snowshoes to get us to the building site. Snow is still at least knee-deep there, mushy, crusty, difficult to maneuver snow. It’s a case of hurry-up-and-wait. We’ve fetched our tomato cages and buckets, in preparation of the bucket garden–but one look at the site and we just sighed. (We’ll need to fence the garden, the deer here are voracious.) I’m anxious to get back to my gardening.

I’ll report more as the situation develops. In the meantime, perhaps I can update the emu situation from Two Rock.

The Last Garden

A.V. Walters

It’s hot in the valley. And dry. This has been on odd year. We had heavy rains in November and December—with an absolute deluge the first week of January. And that was it. Winter is our rainy season, but this year, it wasn’t. After that, we had a few light rains and one storm in the spring. The local farmers are nervous. Over all, the state isn’t experiencing water shortages. There was a heavy snow-pack early this year, so the reservoirs are full, but those that depend on local, well water may be pumping dust by the end of summer.

The past two weeks they’ve been cutting hay. Sometimes, especially here, where we can have drenching fogs, the farmers can get two cuttings, in the spring. Last year it was cool and very foggy—so, we saw three hay harvests. This year, they’ve cut the first time, and it’s dry and yellow underneath. One cut is all they might harvest this year. That means when the summer heat hits, and all the grass goes, (first to gold, then to brown) they’ll be using up the limited hay supply for the dairy and beef herds.

Like I said, the reservoirs are full. Water managers around the state got their snow-pack early so there’s no hew and cry over it being a drought year. In an odd twist of fate, the cities have water, but reservoirs that supply them don’t help the farmers. And, they don’t recharge local aquifers on which the rural areas rely for well water.

Changes in our lives have us wondering how long we’ll be here. I’ve loved Two Rock, and it’s been good to me. But it’s time to move on to build a different future. (Maybe somewhere where there’s water!) So I wasn’t sure this year whether I should put in a garden.

I have been in charge of the farm garden for going on seven years. If we plant it—and have to leave—would someone step up, and care for it? This year was to be a banner year. Over the past few years, the main garden has been shaded by a line of trees Elmer planted to stop erosion from the dairy next door. If ever there was evidence that livestock can damage the land—the field next door is a clear example. The land drops two feet at the edge of our garden—right at the fence. The cows line up and watch me while I garden, and because of the drop we’re nearly at eye level as I bend to dig or weed. It’s a little weird. In any event, late last season Rick spent a couple of weekends pruning and topping that line of trees. This year the garden finally enjoys as much sun as it did when I first arrived.

Early in the spring I asked Elmer how he felt about putting in a farm garden. He hemmed and hawed and finally said we should. We discussed the dry winter and I said that this year we were ready with the drip irrigation. (Rick set it up last year and it was a huge relief in the workload.) I told Elmer I’d get to the garden once he’d plowed. Usually he plows in April, and then again in the first week of May. That digs under any weed seeds that might flourish in the fresh, loose soil. This year he didn’t plow. And, I waited.

Finally, I figured he’d changed his mind. He did plow what we call the “orchard garden,” where he and his girlfriend plant their personal stuff, but he didn’t plow either the main garden or the long garden by the chicken barn. I saw that he’d plowed and tomatoes appeared by the orchard a couple of weeks ago. In the meantime, spring has rolled to summer. It’s hot and digging is getting difficult. With all this dryness, we are getting an early start on the hardpan layer in the soil. It’s a curse and a blessing, that hardpan. If you wait too long to put the garden in, the digging is near to impossible. But that same hardened layer keeps the soils underneath moist. If you water smart—you can do a garden with very little input. That’s the theory behind our bucket gardens. (See https://two-rock-chronicles.com/2012/07/04/the-proper-planting-of-buckets/)

Getting Ready

Getting Ready

Without a word, Elmer plowed Friday night. Late. I woke up Saturday and realized that I needed to put in a garden. I’d already become accustomed to the idea of no garden, so this is an adjustment. The plow didn’t go deep enough to deal with the hardpan, so digging-in the buckets is a lot of work. If you don’t loosen the soil under the buckets, the roots won’t get beneath the hardpan into the moist earth below. So today I dug in enough buckets (and gopher-shielded rings and corn rings) for a modest garden. It’ll host eight tomato plants, half dozen peppers, four cucumbers, some zucchini and yellow crook-neck squash, a couple of winter squashes, beans, some lettuce, spinach and herbs, and corn. That’s enough for the farm tenants, since most don’t cook much and fewer avail themselves of the garden. I’ll plant with seeds and some starts, this week. I’m not planting the long garden this year.

Digging-in

Digging-in

 

 

Gopher proof rings

Gopher proof rings

 

I don’t know if we’ll be here for harvest. (But, we should be able to enjoy some of the early offerings.) With the drip system, the garden will trickle along, with or without Rick and me. It’ll be like a ghost garden. If that’s the case, I can only hope my farm neighbors will enjoy the harvest. (Assuming someone will water it, said The Little Red Hen.)

Ready for plants

Ready for plants

A.V. Walters

The rains have come. Those first showers over a week ago, have worked their magic. At first it was just a blush–a wisp of color if you caught it at the right angle. Now there’s no question, our hills are turning green. It’s a funny dynamic that our gardening season is the opposite of our green season. Still, after months of dead brown hills it’s a relief to the eye to see this transformation. There are still goodies from the garden, they’ll go on until the hard frosts hit. This is the seasonal pause, the green relief in still fine weather, before the storms and cold come. It’s a pleasure to work outside in the cool, sometimes grey days.

I’ll be posting a little less frequently this month. I am, after all, fully committed to NaNoWriMo. It could be that Editor Rick picks up the slack. He’s undertaking those end-of-season projects, readying for winter, seed-saving (he’s so organized), tool management, and soon, pulling buckets. All that stuff that I let lag until the storms force my hand. My head is miles and decades away, weaving the fabric of a 1931 speakeasy in Detroit. Outside, the creeping green is putting me in the mood with the intense colors of my childhood. While California is lovely, it is difficult to go without green for five or six months of the year. I’m not saying I miss snow (though sometimes, I do) but I do welcome the return of green.

It’s less than a week to the election–don’t forget to vote. If you’re here in California, and if you value good food and informed choice, remember to vote for Proposition 37. Let’s get those GMO foods labeled.

I’ll pull my head out of fiction at least once a week, to give you the what’s up in Two Rock.

Furry Ground-Blight

A.V. Walters

We do the garden walk everyday. It’s a way to check how things are doing, see what’s ripe and do a little weeding along the way. Admittedly, after last year’s debacle, I’m constantly checking the tomatoes for any sign of (I’m afraid to even say it) blight. By August, you expect a little bit of yellowing or leaf curl, but a true blight is a sight to behold. It can wipe out whole patches in a matter of days. The best you can do is to quickly dig out the affected plants and dispose of them—far away. Do not compost a blighted plant, especially towards the end of the summer season. It can infect your compost pile, which, if it doesn’t get hot enough thereafter, will spread the disease with every innocent looking shovel full of black gold. (By this time of year I don’t have enough high nitrogen materials to keep the compost cooking—especially this year when it’s so dry that even the weeds are gray.) Bottom line: Don’t ever risk composting blighted plants. ‘Taint worth it!

So, it was with some angst that yesterday’s walk revealed a tomato plant in full wilt. A Black Crim, too, one of my favorites. Blight? Too early to tell and it didn’t really have the signs. Was its drip emitter plugged? No. And then, the big question, any sign of gopher? We’ve never had a gopher problem with tomatoes. Last year, a friend of ours said gophers were going after his tomatoes, big time, and we could only wonder if different gophers might have different food preferences. Gophers—picky eaters?) In fact, some of the tomatoes are planted in bottomless buckets—ones that were cut in the early days of bucket farming, before I was aware of the dangers of that Furry Ground-Blight.

Our tomato plants are not small. Most of them are taller than me. They’re held up by our super sturdy, tomato cages but, by this time of the year, they’ve extended well beyond the perimeter of the cage. Rick has had to stake some of them because the weight of the plants has even the super-sturdy cages listing. And, it’s tough to find the cage in that jungle, let alone the bucket. There’ve been no major gopher signs in the immediate environs. So, yesterday afternoon, we did a triage watering to see if it had any effect. Sure enough, by evening the patient had perked up considerably. That’s a good sign.

First thing this morning I went back out to check. I’d left my morning schedule open, just in case I needed to quarantine that wilted tomato. Sadly, it had wilted again. I pushed my way through the foliage to get a look at the bucket and the drip emitter. And, AHA! There it was. The evidence. The loose pile of loamy soil was directly in the bucket. Damn gopher!!!

It is a relief that it’s not a viral problem. But, I don’t remember if this particular tomato plant is in a bottomless bucket. That’s a big issue. Following this morning’s revelation, we resolved to retire all of the bottomless buckets, next season. But, if this was a drilled-out bucket, we’ll need to worry about gophers that have learned to go in from the top!

Next season, we could have a serious problem. Don’s little, field-farming venture (the squash and pumpkin plot) has failed. Undone by gophers, is the official reason. And it is true that his “crop” has been hit hard by gophers. We include his pumpkin patch on our garden walks, and the ground is perforated with gopher holes. Every week we could count more and more of his plants, succumbing. There’s more to it, though. Don wasn’t really ready, or geared up, to harvest and market the produce. That may be okay for the pumpkins—we still have time before the Halloween, pumpkin season, and I’m sure he’ll harvest what pumpkins he has left. Pumpkins will endure enormous levels of neglect, but the other things, zucchinis, crooknecks and cucumbers, require attention and harvesting. Don never stepped up to the plate on this. There are zucchini’s over there the size of Buicks! And the crooknecks look like ancient gourds. He’s given up, and the field is now, Gopherland. He’s got a major case of the Furry Ground-Blight.

From our perspective, this is a debacle. He’s essentially breeding gophers over there and, next season, there will be more of them fur balls and they’ll be my problem. (Thank God for buckets.) So we’ll need to determine whether our poor Black Crim was the victim of a subterranean attack, or whether we need to worry about gophers mounting the ramparts of our defenses. I watered the patient again this morning. With extra water, it may be able to limp to the finish line. It’s a shame, that plant must have a bushel of tomatoes on it—beautiful green ones. During my inspection this morning I got the first two and hopefully, not the last, ripe tomatoes from that plant. We shall see. And, as usual, in Two Rock, we have a late season for tomatoes.

Rick is fuming. (Well, as fuming as Rick gets.) He’s determined to get this varmint, though he’s had limited luck with his trapping efforts in the past. Last I saw, he was muttering under his breath, “Rodenator.”

As I mentioned in a previous blog, the Rodenator is an expensive, propane fed device that explodes, frying underground varmints in their burrows. (“Hold my beer… watch this!”)

Lessons from the Garden

A.V. Walters

It’s harvest time. One of the strangest things I find about gardening is how many gardeners plant and tend, but never harvest. For me, harvesting is the whole point, so those non-harvesters leave me scratching my head. If you don’t want to harvest, why not go with flowers? I’ve seen it often enough that it no longer surprises me. I think they fall into three categories: Those who plant for the visual payback (see my earlier post, “Gardeners/Florists”); those who like the idea of fresh from the garden food, but who, when push comes to shove, don’t like to cook; and finally those who overplant, and can’t possibly keep up with it when the garden starts to mature. (I think we’ve all been there from time to time—at the moment I’m having a little trouble keeping up with the crookneck.) Occasionally, you’ll get hit with a heat wave and things will bolt—and it’s a mad dash to eat up before it all goes bitter.

I’ve said before that one of my favorite things is to walk in the garden in the late afternoon to let what’s ripe determine my menu. More than once, since I’ve been here, the garden has been my salvation—funds were tight and having this amazing bounty took the pressure off the budget. And, if you can, the bounty continues through the winter months. New polls, released yesterday, revealed that far more Americans, than one would expect in this land of plenty, have gone hungry in this past year. I worry that that may continue, given the drought-parched fields in the Midwest this season. Food prices will have to respond and that will put the pinch on family budgets. I wish more people found the kind of solace and pleasure in gardening that I do. There is no down side, it’s food at its freshest and healthiest, it’s relaxing and enjoyable and it brings us closer to our most basic connections to the planet. What’s not to like?

Yesterday, I was poking around and I noted what should be obvious, but now that we’re in full season, is proven out by the garden. We have just over a dozen pepper plants. There are seven green/red bell peppers (depending on how long you wait) and the rest are a variety of sweets and hots. Some of them came to the garden late, refugees from too long in too small pots. Now, at mid-season, despite many weeks of equal treatment, you can still tell which was which, with some very real impact on output. Those that were put in young, and early, have filled out with many branches and leaves (which shade the peppers and prevent sunburn.) They are bearing peppers now, but they are also putting out new blossoms, promising a long pepper-bearing season. The ones who came in spindly and late, never developed a full canopy. They, too, are bearing but some of those peppers have their shoulders burned from the sun. They need extra water, since their more sparse foliage doesn’t shield them from the sun, and the soil in their buckets bakes. And, those plants didn’t branch out as much, leaving less foliage and fewer end buds for new blossoms. So our leggy, late arrivals will end up producing less than half the peppers as their somewhat pampered brethren.

There’s a potent argument for taking care early for a good crop. That requires knowing your climate, and timing your starts. (Especially peppers and eggplants which are soooooooo finicky about germination temperatures.) If you start too early, the garden isn’t ready when your starts are, and you risk leggy, root-bound transplants or plants that can be shock-dwarfed by a chilly transplant home. Taken beyond the garden, the message is that any new endeavor fares best if its needs are met early on. It’s a pretty common sense concept, but one too often lost in the throes of gardening, and rushing around harried in life generally. Still, as a gardener I’m sometimes surprised by the unexpected. Last year, some sorry cabbages, spindly and finally rescued late in the season, ended up delicious, their flavor piqued by the frost that nipped at their necessarily late harvest. This is tough territory for me, and many gardeners, who have trouble giving up on any little plant. But this year’s peppers have convinced me to be more orderly in my starting and planting practices. I’m still left with the problem of having to turn away orphans from well-meaning friends and neighbors though, and I’m not sure I’m up to it.

There’s another lesson in the garden. It’s a comeuppance for me. I did my second round of starts for peppers and eggplants a little late. My first set took forever, which I later learned was because they are particular about temperatures. The second set was a mad dash to try to fill in the buckets. In my rush, I wasn’t so organized about labeling. They sprouted early and I got them into their bucket homes as soon as the sprouts were strong enough. Now that it’s midseason, I see that some of the plants in the eggplant buckets are peppers and vice versa. Not a real problem, but a bit of an embarrassment. Those little label-sticks are important.

I’ve been gardening in a serious way for over thirty years now and still, every year, the garden teaches me something new.

Water Wars

A.V. Walters

Have you ever noticed how folks are at their very best in times of scarcity? I don’t mean hard times generally, but true (or perceived) commodity scarcity, just warms their little hearts. It’s good to watch it on a small scale because it gives you a better understanding of it on a global level—“Worry globally, obsess locally.” So, I’ll tell this tale, but you must remember that I, too, have a dog in this fight. I can rationalize that my bucket garden is already a water-saver, and that the produce I’m growing is for the benefit of everyone on the farm—it’s all true, but I’m sure that everyone who’s got a pony in this show, has good reasons, too.

So, I’ve said, several times, that it’s been a dry year and that we’ve all been concerned about the wells running dry. It hasn’t happened yet, and we’re all trying to avoid that, but it’s in the air. We’ve all seen the news—the record temperatures and drought back east, the fires in Colorado.

I remember when I lived in the city during one of California’s recurring droughts. We were on water restrictions and it became almost a point of pride to drive a dirty car. Everyone was eager to show that they were conserving water. The lawns on our block were dead and our yards all looked like hell. When things start to get really tight though, it degenerates quickly to backbiting and finger-pointing. I had a little flower garden in my front yard then, mostly santolina, rosemary and lavender (all drought resistant), which I watered exclusively from the cold water that ran in the shower before the hot water arrived. I collected it in a bucket and used it judiciously in the garden.  One woman, whose peonies didn’t survive the watering restrictions, rebuked me for having my lovely, little garden. It didn’t matter that it was already a Xeriscape, or that it was watered with gray water, what mattered was that my garden had survived and hers had not. So, I come to this with some history. It’s why I started bucket gardening in the first place.

The landlord has been cautioning us to conserve. One neighbor has a nice garden—not a thirsty one, but she keeps it up. Elmer has complained to me several times (and to her) that she waters too much. She doesn’t really—she chose good plants and now they’re well established and deep rooted. Those comments have left her feeling defensive, so much so that if there’s any interruption in the water—she makes the point, to me, that “It wasn’t me!” By comparison, my yard looks parched. I water a couple of hydrangeas at my front gate, but I let the “lawn” die every summer and only the truly determined yard plants survive the neglect. I stated from the start that my landscaping water goes to the vegetable garden. Since last year there was produce that went to waste, this year we cut back the size the garden. The garden’s total, water consumption runs about 200 gallons per week. So far, I’ve avoided Elmer’s evil eye. In the house, we’ve always tried to conserve water—such as, fewer showers, fewer flushes. We live in California and that has, for some of us, become a permanent, lifestyle adjustment.

Don, with his field of pumpkins and squashes, keeps telling me I water too much. He says he’s keeping an eye on me. Right, like my little bucket garden compares, in any way, with a field full of water-loving squash! His is watered with drip-irrigation but, even then, just one of his waterings drops the level in the big tank by 8 to 12 inches. (He told me so, I didn’t check.) He asked me not to water on weekends, because that’s when most of the tenants are home—using water. I agreed, but said that I’d still have to water new seedlings or transplants. He wagged his finger at me. Last weekend I transplanted the last of the corn—and of course I watered it. Monday morning he commented, revealing that he knew I’d watered. (I’m not sure if he’s got spies or was bluffing!) I felt I had to defend myself—“Only the transplants!” Really, scout’s honor.

Added to the drought-anxiety is that they’ve been working on the water system (again.) Ever since this spring’s debacle with the pop-up tank, Elmer has been working to “upgrade” and add extra storage to the system. This past week, they took one of the older, concrete tanks (it’s more like a cistern) out of service to repair and upgrade it. As tenants, we never know what’s up with the water. (There have been more interruptions to water service this year than in the previous five that I’ve been here.) We are nervous every time the pressure drops—is this it? Did we run the system dry?

Invariably, the problem is with the switching system. It’s supposed to be an automatic changeover—when one tank gets low it should seamlessly switch to another tank. More often, something fails and, because my house is highest on the property, I’m the first to turn on the tap and… nothing! Then, I get to call and report that there’s no water, which only gets everybody started again—finger-pointing and defensive. We’ve offered, but nobody will teach us, (or permit us) to step in and pinch-hit when the system goes down, so we’re always having to call Elmer, or Don, at a family picnic or dinner out. Of course, they grumble and ask, “Well, you been watering today… was So-and-So…?” It makes us all feel a little guilty. (Which is probably the point of it.) The fact is, we’re in better shape than in earlier years because of the added storage. Don tells me that there’s an extra 10,000 gallons, but damned if he can figure out how to get it fed into my system. Only Don and Elmer understand the system and, more often than they’d like to admit, not even them. The system goes back to Elmer’s dad, parts of it at least seventy years old.

It grates on tenants that Elmer harps about conservation and then pressure-washes everything in sight. Spotless trucks and tractors shine, parked next to the shop, while tenants’ gardens wither. Well, that is the landlord’s prerogative, but I don’t think it’s wise social policy. So, the sniping goes in all directions. (Unlike the water!)

I watered Friday night—everything—all three gardens, because I’d committed not to water on the weekend. The pressure was low (don’t ask), so it took longer than usual—hours actually. Rick finally came out looking for me, wondering where I’d got to.  (He doesn’t much like the water-sniping and chafes a little with the scheduling requests and unannounced shut-downs, for repairs. We don’t use that much water!) Saturday morning the pressure was still low but there’s little we could do—Elmer was called away to a family funeral and Don’s on vacation.

Rick and I did “the garden walk” just to see how things were doing. (The garden looks great, except something’s messing with the beet greens—looks like a virus, probably carried by those little light green beetles with the dark spots.) We walked over to check on Don’s squash field. We do that from time to time—mostly because he’s got quite a gopher problem there, and we’re watching to see what, if anything, in his anti-gopher arsenal, might be working. Sometimes we just go and pull weeds there. Lo and behold, Don’s zucchinis have taken off. He has baseball bat sized squash. Don, who last year scolded me for letting the zucchinis get too big, has a field full of them. Apparently eight inches is the commercial standard (insert your own joke, here)—or so he chided me last summer. All of these squash will have to become animal feed. Partly, this is because Don’s on vacation, but it’s also because he planted a crop for which he didn’t secure a market. (I can see Rick’s blood pressure rising.) We’ve been conserving water so that Don could plant a crop that he’s now letting go to waste. (Insert your own profanities, here.)

Well, that night, the taps ran dry. Of course, nobody who knew the system (you know, the members of the secret, Only We Know the Water System Club) could be summoned—I called Don on the cell phone, cutting into his vacation, and he walked me through a manual switching to a reserve tank. As you know, I’m not supposed to know how this is done, and Don commented that he’d catch hell for letting out water secrets. (He may have to kill me.) What’s goofy is that there’s all this secrecy and water paranoia. There’s no shortage. We have an extra 10,000 gallons more than in previous years—we’re just working out the bugs on delivery. Still, there’s a perceived shortage and it’s bringing out the worst in everyone. Tenants bridle because they think Elmer is cowing them into a ridiculous level of water conservation (one man invited Elmer to live with his wife when she hadn’t showered in days.) We’ve come to the conclusion that the bee in Elmer’s bonnet is probably not the amount water being used, but the amount of electricity he’s paying, to pump it.

What’s really worrisome is how badly people behave when there’s a shortage—even when it’s not a real shortage. What happens if the wells really do run dry? Not just here, but everywhere. We really need to look at water issues in this country—nothing is more important, to keeping our world safe and sane, as a sound water policy. (So, why on earth are they permitting “fracking” without safeguards for critical, aquifer protection? We can survive without oil for a lot longer than we can live on poisoned water.)

Anyway, not everyone behaves badly. Sunday morning, Rick got up and installed drip irrigation in the long garden. Smart use of resources is half the battle.

Spiders and Flies and Cows, Oh My!

A.V. Walters

Warning: This blog contains graphic descriptions that may be offensive to sensitive readers.

It is that time of year when gardeners, plants-in and waiting, are beset by bugs. I live next door to a dairy. Dairies attract flies. (Let’s not go there. It’s enough to say, it’s about the cows.) Flies attract spiders. I live in what must be the spider capital of the universe. If I don’t “sweep” or power-wash my house a couple of times a year, it looks like the wicked witch of the west lives here. The entire shadow area under the edge of the clapboards is completely filled in by spider webs. The eaves are, well, scary. My car is home to countless arachnids as well, and gets so covered in fly specks that people comment when I go into town. While I’m not fond of spiders, living here has helped me put them in perspective. At least they help keep the bugs (flies!) in check. Our plethora of insects also feeds an enormous number and variety of birds. Hey, I’m looking on the bright side here.

At about this time every year we get The Invasion of the Leaf Hoppers. They’re after green, anything green. Wave your hand over my radishes and you’ll see a cloud of them. As the green dries out of the surrounding landscape, gardens are left to absorb the bugs from everywhere else. This past week the valley farmers cut and bailed the last of the hay from the bottomlands. The hills are golden and dry. All those bugs are on the move—looking for their next meal.

It would be easy to panic and reach for a chemical solution. I think it would also be a mistake. Organic growers have options for a real emergency, but the basic framework calls for patience. Over time, the mantra, feed the soil not the plant, should lead to soil and plants healthy enough to endure the annual onslaught. This is a natural, seasonal event and agriculture over the centuries has survived pests. I guess I can, too.

Left to their own devices, plants are not defenseless against insects. When insects nibble (or chomp), plants respond chemically by making their leaves a little more bitter. It’s not so much that we’d notice (though I have tasted some overly stressed and, resultingly bitter, greens in my time) but enough to dissuade the bugs. It takes a little time. I know that when the leaf hoppers first arrive, it looks like an emergency. Hold off! Don’t reach for sprays or toxic powders. Let the plants do their magic. (The same can be said of white flies—though with them I’m inclined to reach for the Safer Soap earlier on.) You can help. Make sure they have enough water, especially if it’s hot. One year I fed my garden manure tea, but I can’t say if it was any more effective than water—but I felt better. Probably with that little extra bit of care the vegies will be just fine.

Of course, from time to time there are infestations that threaten the survival of the garden, or maybe just one of your crops. The watchword there is Know Your Bugs. We do have natural methods for most pests. For larger marauders, there’s hand-picking. This is not for the squeamish for faint of heart. It is very effective, particularly for slugs, snails, caterpillars (especially those amazing tomato hornworms, which you can feed to your chickens) and squash bugs (which I always thought was an imperative command.) These larger pests can do damage quite quickly—a tomato hornworm can defoliate a plant in days. I just squish them in my fingers, which makes the kids on the farm recoil in horror. You can also throw them in soapy water, or gently relocate them to a different environment (yeah, right.) Check the undersides of leaves for eggs, which you can squish, or wash off (or spray) with soapy water. With squash bugs, if you stay on it early in the season, you may solve your problem early on. In any event, make sure you exterminate them at the end of the season (they’ll congregate on the last remaining squash and pumpkins, or their leaves) or you’ll see them again next year. In a bucket-garden, handpicking pests is easy. When you fill the bucket reservoir, they all head up the plant for high ground. And there you are, waiting…

For little winged critters, there’s soapy water spray, both for them, their larvae and their eggs (in particular watch for those voracious cabbage moths and their larvae—sure they look like pretty white butterflies but they can do real damage.) For crawling critters—especially at the seedling stage, there’s diatomaceous earth. And if things are really bad, you can treat with Bt (bacillus thurengensis)—the organic gardener’s ace in the hole. Probably you won’t need most of these tactics.

The internet is an incredible resource, both in identifying the pest of the moment, and in suggesting treatment alternatives. Check there first, before resorting to the hardware store.

I have spiders in my garden, too. They are honored guests. I try to water and weed without disturbing them. They are my plants’ guardians. My family will be surprised that I have made my peace with spiders. From arachnophobe  to arachnophile in just a few short garden seasons.

Now if we can just do something about the gophers.

 

The Proper Planting of Buckets

A.V. Walters

Recently, I’ve come across some not-so-clear-on-the-concept plantings, and so, perhaps, we need some clarification on the bucket farm issue.

As usual, if one first defines the objectives, and communicates (and here I may have failed), the implementation will be more successful.

So, the objectives of Bucket Planting are:

1)   The bucket directs watering directly to the root zone and thus saves water;

2)   If the plant is placed low in the bucket, the top unused area (3”- 6”) serves as a reservoir for watering;

3)   Properly planted (see above), the bucket serves as a wind shield for seedlings;

4)   The top of the exposed bucket serves as a hose curb to protect the plants;

5)   By watering only into the bucket, you keep the area (walkway and unplanted areas) weed free (Since even weeds need water–granted in areas that get ample summer rainfall this is less helpful, but it will still reduce your weeding chores.);

6)   Most weeding is limited to the interior of the bucket, and once your plants are established, they’ll shade that area, further minimizing weeds and reducing water losses;

7)   And finally, properly prepared buckets prevent gophers from eating your plants!

Of course, there are limitations. Buckets can’t protect truly long-rooted plants, whose roots navigate through the bucket’s bottom holes and beyond—but they do buy them time to get established. That way they’re more likely to survive if they get nibbled on.

Here are some basic guidelines to proper bucketification:

I prefer the black, semi-pliable nursery buckets. They last for several seasons, and they don’t get all brittle in the sunshine. Plus, most people just throw them away when they bring their nursery plants home. Sometimes you can get them free from recycling (and even neighbors, “Hey, I got a bunch of them!”) They’re pliable and drill out nicely. A bucket must have enough drainage. If you use just the holes that come with it, your vegetables will have “wet feet” and they’ll suffer rot or fungal problems. We drill three-quarter inch holes (using a sharp “spade” bit) every couple of inches, or so, across the bottom and a row or two around the bottom of the sides. (That’s an editorial ‘we,’ as I am not in the drilling department.) Our hole size is specific to the size of gophers, larger holes can be used if you don’t share this risk. (Indeed, for things gophers don’t like, we sometimes use bottomless buckets, which are much easier to pull out at the end of the season.)

When you ‘set-in’ a bucket, dig a hole as close as possible to the size of the bucket (up to its ‘shoulders’ so you leave a lip above the ground surface—2”- 3”.) Loosen the dirt in the area below the bucket, so the migrating roots don’t hit a solid barrier of compacted earth. Place the bucket in the hole and fill in around it, packing the dirt firmly. Now, refill the bucket, leaving the 3”- 6” inch area, I mentioned before (depending on the level of compaction) at the top of the bucket. You need at least three inches to be a decent reservoir. At the time you refill the bucket, this is a good opportunity to add any amendment. We use well-composted chicken manure because, well, we’re on a chicken farm.

When you plant a bucket, (especially if you’re using starts) make sure you’re not filling in your reservoir area. Take out some of the soil, if necessary. (Your start may look lost, deep in the bucket, but that also helps protect it from the wind—and we’ve got a fair amount of that, here.) If using starts, as with any other transplant, remember to loosen the root ball! I recently had to re-plant some peppers that had been put in too high by a neighbor and discovered that, though the soil in the bucket appeared properly damp, she’d set the whole start in as a root-bound block, and little of the moisture was getting in to the roots through that block.

When watering, especially initially, use a soft, slow watering method. The bucket contains the water’s energy, and if you’re not careful you can erode all around your poor baby vegies! And yes, this is a good opportunity for even more water savings, if you use drip irrigation.

These simple steps should ensure buckets of success.