Archives for category: gardening

Star Thistle.

A.V. Walters–

spotted knapweed 2

“Star Thistle”

See the lovely fields of purple flowers, rippling in the wind. Taste the delicate flavors, the floral back-notes in the honey from these “local” fields.

The real name for this heralded bloom is spotted knapweed, and it’s no local. Conservationists call it an invasive species, originally from Eastern Europe. Once it gets its roots into your soils, it never lets go. Nobody talks about eradication; they only talk about “management.” There was spotted knapweed on our property before I bought it, decades ago, so I shouldn’t complain. Only recently, though, have I learned about its evil and pernicious ways.

In a riff on Irish luck, Rick and I used to joke that it weren’t for spotted knapweed, we’d have no weeds at all. Little did we know we had that backwards. Sure, we have poor glacial soils, but the more potent force of our limited landscape is spotted knapweed. You see, not only is it a vigorous invasive, but it has the admirably devious survival mechanism of poisoning the soils around it so little else will grow. It is an expert in plant hegemony.

So that would explain our spindly vegetable garden! We have acres of knapweed.

Knapweed has a multifold program of engagement. First, it is a vigorous competitor. It sports a thick absorbent taproot that quickly captures and stores any available water (leaving its neighbors thirsty.) It is a rampant reproducer, colonizing both via ample seed production and from runners from its rhizome root system. If you try to remove it, and leave any part of the rhizome in the soil, it will sprout and flourish, like the cursed broom in Fantasia. Knapweed avoids predation by being the most bitter plant in the field. (Even goats avoid it; though I understand that sheep will eat it.) Back in California we used goats to clear poison oak from the hillsides, but even the goats are too picky to mess with the spotted knapweed. If that weren’t enough, knapweed generates its own phytotoxins, literally poisoning the soil around it. The mechanism of its catechin toxins aren’t well understood, but they prevent germination of competing seeds and poison the root zone. When a knapweed root comes in contact with the root tips of another plant, it sends a cascade of chemical messages to its victim, triggering apoptosis, or programmed cell death, from the roots, on up.

Presumably, back in Eastern Europe, spotted knapweed needed these strategies to survive. Plants from there have immunities that can withstand its chemical onslaught. Here, though, our native plants and crops have few defenses. It’s a problem from coast to coast—but especially so in the dry rangelands of the west.

But the bees love it. It’s one of the few flowering plants that continues to bloom and provide nectar in the dog-days of August. I have beekeeper friends who react with open hostility when folks discuss ways to eradicate knapweed. The honey produced from knapweed blooms is so delicious that “Star Thistle” is treated as a premium appellation product, like Locust Honey, or Tupelo.

I’m a beekeeper, but I’m also a gardener. Would a rose, by any other name, smell as sweet? A pest is a pest is a pest is a… (my apologies to Gertrude Stein.)

Star Thistle, my ass.

spotted knapweed 1

Food Fight

A.V. Walters

It has come to the attention of Big Ag that the fastest growing sector of agriculture is organics. 2016 saw well over four million acres under organic cultivation. The total organic slice of the American food pie was over 35 billion dollars. You cannot boast that kind of success without attracting attention.

Big Ag wants in, in a big way. Organic produce and products are, after all, significantly more expensive than “conventional,” chemically infused crops. It’s a “value added” product, without the trouble of adding value. In fact, these are high-end consumers who’ll pay more, but want less. Less chemicals, less guilt, and less health impacts from fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, there are a lot of pesky regulations related to organic certification. But American Business knows it way around regulations.

Recently the industry group coordinating with government regulators, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), held its annual meeting. Not surprisingly, over the past decade the elected leadership of the group has been shifting towards large-scale, corporate producers, squeezing family farmers out of the mix. Organic products are regulated by the USDA, the agency in charge of enforcing our National Organic Program (NOP.) In decades past, nobody much cared about the definitional details of organic agriculture. The industry was the backwater of hippy back-to-the-earth folks. Conventional agriculture only cared that the program made production and certification expensive and burdensome—so it wouldn’t compete with their monoculture view of farming. In it’s early years, organic farmers debated earnestly just what “organic” meant.

It’s not merely the absence of pesticides that defines the heart of “organic.” It’s about creating a food and commodities system that is sustainable, humane and healthy for both consumers and for the planet. During the 1980s, those same hippy farmers debated long and hard about what practices could be included under the organic umbrella, and what methods did not measure up to “sustainable.” The old organic mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant,” spoke to a holistic approach to farming, and to the planet, in stark contrast to modern, industrial and extractive farming methods. Organic farming promoted crop rotation, natural soil enhancement, composting, non-chemical pest management, antibiotic and cage free animal husbandry and regenerating the environment through gentle agricultural practices. By any definition, organic farming should build soil and animal health—leaving us with a more diverse and stronger ecosystem. It is a moral and philosophical rejection of the chemically saturated monoculture and confined livestock systems that dominate American food production.

Things went well, until organic became synonymous with money. The results of this year’s meeting illustrate where we’re headed. In the early days, when easing the burden for “transitional” farmers was important, some non-organic or synthetic practices were permitted, provisionally—to be “sunsetted” out of organic production within 5 years unless, by a margin of two thirds majority, the NOSB voted to reauthorize them. This year the Board voted that any 5 year exemption is automatically “rolled over,” unless the NOSB votes it down—creating a slippery slope of standards erosion.

One of the big debates this year was whether hydroponic growing systems could be classified as organic. Really? How could a “farming” system that grows produce entirely without soil (often completely indoors), fed exclusively on a mix of liquid fertilizers and nutrients, wholly outside of any natural system be considered organic? What happened to “feed the soil?” What happened to organic farming acting in concert with nature to make the planet healthier? The Board couldn’t agree on the hydroponic issue, and has kicked it over to the next meeting, when there will be an even larger majority of corporate board members on the Board. Can you see where this leads?

Just as troublesome is the failure of the USDA to enforce the standards of the National Organic Program. Large scale producers regularly break the rules, with no penalty from the government agency charged with protecting consumers. Small scale organic farmers are thus doubly burdened—with the high cost of certification, and then forced to compete in the marketplace by corporate farms that advertise organic, but don’t play by the rules. The little guys end up subsidizing the cheats. In the long run, failure to police the standards will only undermine the organic message—the cheats will kill the golden goose. Consumers, small scale organic farmers and the planet will pay the price.

I don’t have a solution. I recommend that you support your local organic farmer through farmers’ markets, cooperatives or CSAs, that you start your own garden, keep bees or even chickens. I think we need to get involved, not just in the politics of food production but in some hands-on action, to protect our health and the health of our soils, our water and our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ah, Spring

A.V. Walters

In our minds, our little house—our work in progress—is picturesque. All winter, we could hardly wait for spring to get back to work on it, in earnest. I’ve been asked to send photos of our progress. Then, earlier this month, the snow finally melted. It was like waking up after a bad drunk.

Construction is a messy thing. Just before the snow, we finished up the septic system, and sealed the log exterior. Somehow, in my minds eye, things under that snow were peachy. Spring has been an awakening.

Installing your own septic system is like buying new underwear. You’re happy to have it, maybe even proud of it. But it isn’t something you show off. It is, in fact, an ugly scar on the scenery. It was time to do some reconstructive landscaping. With any luck, after an enormous amount of work, you won’t be able to tell that we dug there at all.

We added this to our annual spring planting schedule. We take a fervent approach to diversity, adding dozens, if not hundreds of new trees and plants, every year, to fill in what climate change takes. I don’t mean that lightly. The forest is suffering. We are losing our ash trees to the Emerald Ash Borer, and the beech trees to Beech Bark Disease. Last summer’s “freak” wind-storm took out over 35 trees. Changes in the environment are accelerating. We have to hustle just to keep pace. We select our plants emphasizing climate tolerance, and, hopefully, outguessing the next blight. At least diversity should serve us there.

So, every year we purchase baby trees of many varieties to diversify the forest. This year, in trees, we will plant white oaks, hemlock, tulip poplars, witch hazel, dogwood, and redbud. We’re also planting shrubs and bushes for soil conservation and wildlife habitat (a hazelnut windrow and a mixed berry hedge.) To the forest trees, we add 100 hazelnuts, red osier, elderberry, serviceberry, blueberry and high bush cranberry. And then, to fix the scar over the new septic we have clover, native knapweed and various wildflower mixes. Needless to say, we are not putting in a lawn.

So far, the 27 white oaks are in, and we’ve prepped and seeded the front with a mix of clover and over 3,500 square feet of wildflower mix for the bees. I’m trying to keep them closer to home with a delicious variety of safe blooms that haven’t seen pesticides. (I can’t account for what the neighbors, or local farmers, plant.) Rick says the bees will go wherever they want, but I’m like the frantic parent, putting in a swimming pool so the teenagers will stay home. (Rick says that just means you have to feed their ill-mannered friends, too.) That’s not lost on me because I know we may lose many of the new wildflowers to the deer and the bunnies. Bambi and Thumper are no longer cute to me.

By this time next month, we’ll have used all of the 45 tons of composted manure that we purchased last year. Rick can hardly believe it. He thought I was crazy.

I’m exhausted and we still have 158 plants and trees to go. Until the front area heals, there’s no point in pictures, it’s just sorry looking. The next few weeks will be all about planting. The first waves, fruit trees and oaks, are in. Next week the big shipment will arrive. And after that, we should be frost free enough to put in the garden. Ah, Spring.

 

 

Critters and Bunnies and Bugs! (Oh My!)

A.V. Walters–

Welcome to Michigan. Gardening in California was a formulaic cinch, by comparison. There we had concern about water, and gophers—but there aren’t many insects in California’s parched climate. Of course, we had the flies from the dairy, but they didn’t bother the garden.

Gardeners here have to be a hardier lot. There are seasons, with their never-ending uncertainties. We had a late May frost that zapped the blooms, and may cost the region much of its fruit this year. It didn’t affect our garden, because I was too chicken to plant with the night-time temperatures dipping so low. Our starts were safe and snug indoors, by the window. Not that we’ve been without garden trauma. The deer jumped the fence and did all that damage to our fruit trees. The trees are slowly recovering, the pears in the lead and the apples trailing. I think they’ll all survive. Deer are a serious garden hazard. At least we think we’ve ironed out the fence issues with deer.

We have gophers, but so far, they haven’t been seen in the garden. Most everything is in buckets (except lettuce and greens—fingers crossed.) Right now we’re trying to figure out how to amend the fence again to keep out the bunnies. We thought we had the spacing right, but somebunny is sneaking in at night and nibbling away at the peppers. Too bad we always have to learn through losses.

That’s true for the bugs, too. We’ve lost almost half of the tomatoes to insects. I’ve been out of area so long, I don’t even remember the names of all of the voracious 6-legged predators. Some kind of leaf-hopper-thingie is chewing through the tomato stems. One solution seems to be that our starts need to be bigger before we set them out. The larger ones have not been munched by bugs. Alternatively, we are considering floating row covers, which will outwit the bugs, and give us some frost protection, too. We lost some squash to cutworms—not a crisis, but the tomatoes came as a shock. In California, nothing touches the tomatoes. Here, it’s a race between the bugs and the bunnies.

The bugs are after us, too. Black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies. We’re sitting ducks out there. The worst are the black flies. Thank God they have a pretty short season and should be gone by July. We mixed up a concoction of vinegar, water and vanilla, which seems to keep most of the bugs at bay. Before we found that, we were swollen and itchy—to the point of under-the-weather.

My father used to shake his head at scant summer clothes. As teens, we ran around in cut-offs and tank tops, oblivious to the hazards. Between the summer sun and the bugs, you were toast. Now, I dress like Dad, long sleeve tees, jeans, a neckerchief and a hat. Sometimes older is wiser.

Even our bees are plagued by bugs! Of our three hives, one has always been a little vulnerable. The ants have discovered the weakness, and are trying to set up shop in the top of their hive. Several times a day, I interrupt their efforts, and squish every single ant that doesn’t move faster than me. There are thousands of them. Rick has a plan for ant-wells*. We’ll get the supplies on our next town run and then we’ll foil those ants!

* hive stand legs in sheltered oil moats. More on that later.

Rethinking Hunting

A.V. Walters

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…

It’s been a busy week–construction, completion of the fence, the arrival and installation of the bees, and putting all of the little plant starts into the ground. What a relief when the last yogurt container was empty and we could survey our little garden kingdom without the feeling that something else was needed…immediately. With the fence up, we moved the tomato cages (which had been protecting the new fruit trees) into their positions over the baby tomato plants.

The bees appear to be very happy. Their comings and goings are fun to watch. They have settled in and now they they probably know the neighborhood better than we do. It rained yesterday, and the morning saw a few dead bees on their doorstep. We weren’t alarmed. Bees die everyday. The average worker bee lives no longer than 45 days. By the end of their lives, they’ve done just about every job in the hive, starting with tending the young and moving on to more skill intensive tasks–building comb and maintaining the hive, guarding, foraging and scouting for pollen and nectar, and finally, returning to the hive to again tend to the young (and to teach new bees the ropes.) What was interesting was that we first noticed the dead bees on their doorstep on a rainy day. A rainy day is an opportunity for a little housekeeping. The bees can be crabby when they have to stay inside.

Yesterday was an eye-opener. Rick was up early, anticipating the construction crew. We had a dense and drippy fog–so there was the question of whether or not to start the roof. We’re watching the forecast, hoping for a window of dry, so we can safely pull off all the tarps that have kept the weather out of the house all winter. He wandered over to the garden to get a look at how the bees were handling the fog. Bees are generally early risers.

What he wasn’t expecting was the ravaging of the fruit trees. A deer had come right over our new 5,000 volt electric fence and sampled the leaves of of every single tree! Some she liked better than others. One poor little apple tree was completely denuded. The garden plants were unscathed–probably too small to attract deer attention. Still, we were in shock. Everyone we talked to had said that the deer won’t often jump an electric fence. Once they do, though, they’re trouble. What’s up with our deer? We suspect that the fenced area is so large that it doesn’t post a mental logistics problem for leaping deer. We are reduced to guessing at deer geometry.

We think most of the trees can be saved. I immediately zipped over to our neighboring cherry farmer to buy more small “tree cages.” Now, we have fences within our fences. Today, we’ll have to solve the problem of this deer–who now thinks our garden enclosure is his personal dining room. (Just where are those guard bees when you need them?) We’re debating two options: extend the fence higher with non-electric lines (as Rick pointed out, if they’re not touching the ground, the deer won’t be shocked in the air, even if they touch the fence); or set up a lower, perimeter line to interfere with the “jumping zone.” Maybe we’ll have to do both. (Then we’d have outer fences, to protect our electric fences, which protect our tree fences.) This is getting to be the Fort Knox of gardens.

The day was otherwise so busy that we didn’t have the time to work up a really foul mood about all of this. I did see Rick brooding a bit–asked what it was about. (After all, we have so many fronts on which to fret.) He looked up and said that he might reconsider whether to hunt on the property.

(Sorry, no photos, trouble with internet connection. I don’t have the skills to do pics from an internet cafe!)

Beer Garden Blues

A.V. Walters

IMG_2132

We started our little garden plants in tiny peat pots, some weeks ago. We’d carefully researched our frost-free date, and back-calculated the time for germination. I’m picky about such things because one of my pet peeves is vegetable starts that are root-bound at planting time. The date came, and went, and the weather forecast still warns of possible frost, so we cannot plant. But, our little sprouts are ready to roll. To harden them off, we’ve been carrying them outside on nice days and back in again every night. It’s like babysitting.

Though I’ve never been an advocate of multiple transplanting (too lazy), this year I’m won over, if only to avoid the dreaded tangle of strangled roots in the bottom of the peat pots. Yes, I know that peat pots can supposedly be just dropped into the hole, but I’ve never done that, because even though the roots can grow through them, I’ve still experienced them causing a strangling ganglia of roots. And yes, I know there’s a whole school of thought that advocates multiple transplants for tomatoes—almost as gardening gospel. I don’t buy it. Like I said, I’m picky.

We’re going away for a short trip. Added to my root-bound anxieties is the knowledge that the tiny peat pots would dry out before our return. They desperately need larger pots that can hold enough moisture to cover our four-day absence. Transplanting is not an option; it’s a necessity. Since I wasn’t planning on it, I don’t have pots, one or two sizes up, in which to put these little sprigs. I had planned on going from peat pots, direct to the buckets dug into the garden. We’re not talking about a handful of vegie starts here; there are a lot of them.

After exhausting all of our yogurt and salsa containers, each washed and punctured with drainage holes, I started scrounging through the recycling bin for additional pots. I scavenged some milk cartons, a cocoa tin, and the plastic trays in which my co-op sells mushrooms. Still, we were short. What was I going to do with all those tomato starts?

I ran out to our local hardware store. They understood. Though they didn’t have a solution. (Their vegetable starts are in the same frost-free-limbo.) We all thought that the cold weather was done. Optimists, I tell ya! They suggested a trip across the county to a nursery/hothouse operation. Alternatively, they shrugged, there’s always 18-ounce, plastic beer cups. Sigh.

I’m not a disposable-cup-kind-of-gal. But, in the quest for environmentally sound solutions, one must weigh the impact of the nearby expedient, versus the drive-around-the-whole-damn-county looking for appropriately sized pots solution. The local grocery had a small stack of beer cups for $3.19. So, I went for it.

The plants will not spend long in their beer cups. I’ll save them for plantings in the future (along with all the punctured yogurt and salsa containers.) Next week, I’m sure they’ll all be ready for the final jump into the garden. I’m watching the weather site like a hawk. Next year, I’m gearing up for floating row covers. It’s either that, or it’s back to the beer cups.

At Odds, Comedic… Timing

A.V. Walters

Not so much compost, after all.

Not so much compost, after all.

I drove into town the other day and was amazed that, almost overnight, lawns have turned green. There are swollen buds and tiny baby leaves on the lilacs and flowering quince. The tips of the maples are giving it away, too. In early spring, before they actually leaf out, their buds have a rosy glow to them. Across the valley, the areas with maples are blushing. The cherry orchards are blushing, too. Not blooming, but with a sort of out-of-focus burgundy haze. So, the landscape says spring.

The weather report? That’s another thing, entirely. Day-time temps in the low forties, and snow! I kid you not. They’re calling for snow, up to 2 inches cumulatively, over the next two days. It won’t stick; the ground has already warmed up. The Road Commission has lifted the frost restrictions from secondary roads. But we’ve seen snowflakes this morning already. It makes us wonder if we have our timing right.

Last week we had 45 yards of compost delivered. It sounds like a lot, but it isn’t. It looks like we have a really bad case of gophers. We’ll be digging it in deep to prep for the orchard trees (which should arrive next week.) The rest will be for the garden. We are on the threshold of gardening, but for that snow thing.

Spindly

Spindly

But growing by the day.

But growing by the day.

We’re still perched in a tiny apartment, across from our new digs. There are space and light issues here, mostly because we’re now sharing space with building materials and with hundreds of seedlings in peat pots. We used our seed favorites from Two Rock and have been pleased with a more than generous germination rate. (Oh, no! I’ll have to cull!) The only things that haven’t come poking up through the soil yet are the peppers (and, some questionable crook-neck squash seeds.) Peppers are notoriously picky about seedling temperatures–they like it warmer than we keep the house! I hope they’ll pop up soon. Everything else is up and growing. I certainly hope we didn’t start them too early. Like comedy, in gardening, timing is everything. Hopefully the joke’s not on us.

seedlings1

seedlings2

It’s snowing out there, right now. There’s a little anxiety, and a lot of hope, in the mix.