Friday, February 25, 2011

Learning from my mistakes

Sure isn't that what life is all about - learning from your mistakes?  I'm a graduate from that school of philosophy, for sure. One thing about doing the Master Gardeners program is that as I sit in lectures, learning how to garden correctly, I realize how many things I've done wrong!

Take planting fruit trees for example.  I planted five cherry trees too low in the ground and added organic matter to the hole before putting in the tree.  Wrong, wrong, wrong - on three counts!

1) Make the hole wide, not deep.  Plant the tree so that  the "delicate crown" (where the roots meet the trunk) is slightly above the grade.  Build a small trench at the drip line for irrigation. Here's a rough (very rough) sketch of what you should do.
And here is a picture of what you should NOT do!

The crown is too low compared to the level of the original soil. That red lava rock has to go, but even with it removed, the tree will still be too low.

2) Put only the native soil back in the hole - no amendments.  The tree will sink as these decompose.  Guess what I did...  Steer manure, compost and fertilizer! Another shot of what not to do...

The tree will be two foot under by the time its all over!

3) Plant trees suitable for your climate.  For example, cherries need on average 600 hours of chill time (temperatures below 45oF) and we tend to get less than 400 hours.  So what did I do?  Yep - I just planted me five sweet cherry trees that will probably never fruit!

But here's the up-side.  All the trees I planted were free.  All of them volunteers in some shape or form, so at least I'm not out of pocket.  They've all broken dormancy, so I plan to wait until next winter to dig them up and replant them if they are worth replanting.  I can also buy some more suited to this climate and at least plant them right.

And to add insult to injury we've been given a frost warning for the weekend!  A frost warning - what's all that about?  Hey, Arney - you never mentioned this is all your ads inviting us to come to California.  

I'm also sure that the rest of the northern hemisphere has little sympathy for central Californians crying about a touch of frost, but when it hits after an unseasonably warm spell, like we just had, (though I can't really figure out what unseasonable means here anymore) the trees have pushed out their buds and some have even blossomed, making them all the more vulnerable.

I swing between panic and complacency. My nectarine is in full bloom.
The predicted lows vary between 31oF and 27oF.  So my garden may be okay...
First off, it seems that the temperature has to reach 27oF to harm 10% of my nectarine tree, (read peaches) according to the Michigan State University Extension. This website has a really easy to use table of what temperature will kill which stage of growth on a variety of fruit trees. How much damage a tree suffers depends on what stage it is at in its blossoming and fruiting cycle .  

So, my cherries are safe to 23oF, the plums, with their first bloom, safe to 27oF, and although almonds are not mentioned on this website, they are related to plums and thus technically a stone-fruit, so I guessed that 27oF is the magic number there too. Having learned not to make assumptions, I checked this out with The Almond Doctor, (yes - there is such a guy!) and found that in fact 28oF is the lower limit for those.  I have one really young almond tree, so I will protect it tonight by draping a sheet over it supported by two unused tomato cages - I'm sure the squirrels will appreciate that!

It seems that the rain we are getting today will help too.  I read somewhere that if you water the soil well it helps, BUT then when I researched my temperatures for citrus, the UC Davis pdf said that humidity could make matters worst!  This is something I have no control over now that it has rained all morning anyway.

However,  29oF will damage my ripe oranges, so I'm going to have to do a big emergency harvest, juice 'em and freeze the juice, or I may loose the lot.

On a more uplifting note, I'll direct you to the photo at the beginning of this post.  That is the arbor that my Mum bought and helped erect, together with my Godmother and husband,before the visitors departed for home this week.  I'm dreaming of all the beautiful vines I will grow over it.  When I'm in the garden, I'm never far from my Mum.

Byddi Lee 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Kale and hearty in the garden!

I'm going to have to send my homegrown veggies to the Master Gardener classes so that they learn what is expected of them.  Most home grown vegetables are annuals. The exceptions include asparagus and artichokes, and in very hot climates where there is never frost, peppers.  However, in the Californian climate many vegetables get confused.  My broccoli and kale have been behaving like perennials - they just don't seem to know when to quit!

Kale in particular, has been my go-to crop since December 2009. When I say that, I mean that the seeds I planted in October 2009 grew into plants that I have been harvesting leaves from steady since December 2009.  I'd just pull the lower larger leaves from the bottom and the crown would keep on going until the kale plants came to resemble mini palm trees.  I grow the ragged-edged, purple-veined Russian red kale and the dark green Nero di toscana kale.  Both of which are tasty, versatile and just keep on giving!

Last week, after a particularly warm stretch of weather, I noticed that the Nero di toscana had decided enough was enough - they were putting out blossom.  My Mum and Aunty Teresa (My Fairy Godmother), who are visiting at the moment, were recruited to help bring in the kale harvest before it all bolted.
We spent the afternoon picking, washing, drying and chopping kale, ending up with a freezer full of portion sized bags of kale. To be honest, I was glad to make room in my garden.  I still have the Russian red growing, and the broccoli contines to push out tasty florets, but I've planted a host of other seeds, and when they germinate they will need space to grow.
 My basil has germinated nicely already.
 And the sunflowers are shrugging off their seed coats too.
 The strawberries loved the rain we got this week. 
We had another visitor to the garden this week.  My husband noticed a strange bird hovering in one spot above our yard one morning.  The bird was able to hang in the sky and even turn it's head towards me when it heard the screen door pull back.  It seemed to look me straight in the eye.
My guess is that this is a barn owl, thinking it was still dawn due to the grey skies - obviously it's not just the plants in California that get confused by the weather here!  If you know what this bird is please leave me a comment.
Like all good guests to my garden, this owl is helping us out big time.  Whereas my Mum and Aunty Teresa were a dab hand at extracting weeds and pulling kale, (Mum actually enjoys weeding!) the barn owl will keep the squirrels and other rodents under manners!

Now, that's what I call teamwork.

Byddi Lee

Friday, February 11, 2011

Happy Birthday Blog - 1 year old today!

On this day last year, I started this blog.  I sent the link to all the people in my address book and hoped someone would read it.  It was, and still is, such a thrill to get comments and followers.  As I became more fluent in the World of Blog, I discovered that I could keep track of how many times a blog page was viewed (hits) and where in the world it was read. I love looking at the list of countries where people are reading my blog from - far flung places like Pakistan and Argentina.  Places where I have no connections, and yet someone has stumbled across the thoughts I have committed to words.  It's the magic of modern communications.

To mark this auspicious occasion, I decided to have a look at what was written last year and give some kind of an update.  This first post, and so much of my blog, discusses slugs, so following a discussion with fellow Master Gardener Trainees about slugs preferring expensive beer, I decided to carry out an experiment.

At the end of January, I planted seeds that I had saved from last years mixed leaf lettuce crop.  In a few days the ground was carpeted with tiny dicotyledons - the new lettuce crop.  But before I could even say "slimeballs", the very next morning, each and every one was gone. Many expletives later, I decided to replant and make sure I had killed as many slugs as possible.  I was pulling out all the big guns, Sluggo, the squishing stick, beer and even wine...

No, I wasn't about to drown my sorrows - just my slugs.  I put each drink into a similarly sized pot with the same diameters, set them in the soil, and labeled them A-E (just in case the slugs could read - got to keep it a fair test!)
Bet you can't guess which ones are the beer.

I left them out over night and came back the next morning and there was nothing, nada, not one slug!  In fairness, I had blanketed the garden in Sluggo, but last year I did that and still caught the slugs in the beer.  The beer was the same as last year too - well at least one of them was.  Two nights in  row and still no slugs at all. I was completely baffeled.

I went back to the crime scene with my camera to see if I could gather any more clues, wearing none other than my CSI Belfast Tee-shirt - bought for me by my friend Laura who came to stay during the summer and couldn't get over how much CSI, Criminal minds, Bones and other crime shows we watch - basically, if someone doesn't die in the first three minutes of a show, its not worth watching, and that includes House!

Upon closer examination, I discovered that the newly germinated seeds had not just been chewed down but that they had been uprooted - as in pulled out. You can see at least four shinny white stalks here.
And a closer look ...

I can only draw one of two conclusions here...

Number 1
The slugs have mutated and grown arms with which to pull up the plants before they eat them and to enable them to climb out of beer pots after having a good old drink.


Number 2
It wasn't the slugs at all!  So, if it wasn't them, who else could carry out such a precision task?  The birds perhaps?

It seems that my fight against one garden mafia family, whilst successful, has only left room for another more sinister crime syndicate.

I fortified my veggie patch with bird netting in the hope that I can have some winter produce for myself...

And not to be too despondent about things, I have a lovely crop of scallions from saved seed coming up - slug and bird free.
And the bulb garden that I planted last autumn is now blossoming.


Also, the Almond tree is in full bloom.

So despite the little upsets, the garden always gives back nice surprises too.

Byddi Lee

Friday, February 4, 2011

Not quite a community garden!

From the day we moved to this house, I wanted to tile the back doorstep.  It was covered in fraying green plastic that was supposed to resemble grass.  It was lifting at the corners and becoming a hazard, so last week I took the head staggers and decided to get the job done. 

I asked my neighbor, Laurie, if she would come with me to choose the tiles.  I had it all worked out.  The doorstep was only 3 feet by 5 feet so we would need 15 tiles.  I was sure it wouldn't cost that much. When we got to Lowes, I spotted a lovely 2" square mosaic of different colored stone tiles.  Even easier, we thought, because it gave us some wiggle room and they were sold on a 12" square plastic backing which was easily cut so no horrific grinding and cutting of tiles - not to mention having to hire all the equipment etc. 

I actually did a Saturday tiling class a couple of years ago, back in Belfast, and the one thing I learned - do not undertake tiling lighting - it is a tricky job, and you can waste a lot of money if you mess things up.

However, deaf to my own advice, I started to get fancy. There was a 1" square tile in the same variation stone effect, and I reckoned it would make a lovey trim.  Sure we could just cut the bigger squares off and replace it with four of the wee tiles.  Laurie and I planned it all out on the floor of Lowes, (I'm sure the staff loved us!) called her husband, Ray, a few times to get advice on types of adhesive (formerly called tile-glue by yours truly) and grout, and I hyperventilated about the cost of, well, just about everything!

Nearly $200 later, we were on our way home thinking, crikey - if a 3'X5' foot doorstep cost this much, how much more does a full kitchen floor cost...and that's only materials.  I was to be the labor!

But it was going to take more than just my labor! 

Unlike the rest of the country, Saturday morning broke sunny, warm and clear.  I began at 8am, my morning mojo having pulled me out of bed early with the thrill of an easy, fun project.  My morning mojo is dumb!

Ray had taken one look at my doorstep the night before and told me that under no circumstances was I to apply the adhesive until I had cleaned the old glue off.  I thought, how hard can that be?  Especially as Ray had lent me all his scrapers and tools...

Two hours later, fighting back tears of fustration the doorstep still looked like this.
By this stage I had employed the use of paint thinner, horrified at having to use chemicals in my garden albeit on the concrete.  I moved my patio containers far out reach of any run-off, but I wasn't happy about using this stuff.
At 10.30am Ray and Laurie (bless their hearts) called in to see how I was getting on.  I asked Ray if I'd removed enough of the glue, but he said (he's in the construction busuness so I was inclined to pay heed), "Keep going until you get to the bare concrete."  Followed up with, "And you need to put tiles on the side too, or it won't look right!" 

It was one of those moments where you can like someone but hate them too.  Laurie held my hand as I cried all the way back to Lowes to buy more tiles!

After we came back with more tiles and I resumed scraping, Laurie said she'd go home, change and be right over to help.  My husband couldn't help - back problems and work commitments gave him an out.  But Laurie came back and brought over another of our friends, Christie. We three girls sat and worked on the doorstep, pouring paint thinner, scraping off gunge, generally inhaling the fumes, and getting giddier and giddier!

But still the step was not clean enough.  It was now lunchtime and not a single tile yet laid.  Ray, by general consensus the supervisor of the project, tried a wire brush...still too much gunge left behind.  Then he disappeared and returned a few minutes later with an electric sander.  He was bringing out the big guns - Hooray for power tools!

And twenty minutes later we were ready to lay tiles!  Laurie's Mum and Dad arrived over at this stage and Karla (our neighbor on the other side, who helps me weed) was observing from the safety of her back yard.  I think at one stage we had 8 people all looking at the doorstep.  At which point I said, "It's not quite a community garden, but I think it does qualify as a community doorstep!"

I liked this shot of our hands all working together.
Notice the bowl of roasted almonds in the corner that Laurie had brought over - a boost to our energy levels and moral!
The actual tiling took no time at all.  Ray had to cut two or three tiles on the vertical sides with a machine of some sort that he had at home - a job he did with minimum fuss, as if he were cutting soft butter with a hot's a task I fear and hate, so Ray was reinstated with hero status...actually he never really lost that throughout the project, though us girls had not relished being told to get the doorstep cleaner, and those tiles around the sides - well they made the project look so good, so professional, yet at the time of first mentioning...

I left the tiles and adhesive to set and undertook the grouting myself on the following Monday.  I was terrified I'd mess the entire project up single-handedly - especially when you put the grout on (left-hand-side of picture below) and it looks like this.  But one wipe with a big sponge and you start to see it come together...
 And the finished project makes it all worth while.
Our community doorstep symbolizes the home we have made here and will always remind me that we are lucky to have found such wonderful friends and neighbors in our new life in California.