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Starting Seeds in a Time of Darkness

Starting Seeds in a Time of Darkness

Tray Seeded with Chickory
Seed Starting, Chickories

So — the greenhouse room has pretty much become my office, which means I’m starting seeds on my desk. This wasn’t the plan when we built this room, but it’s so nice out here that well, I colonized it. I think some of the geraniums might have to migrate back into the house because this year, I think the garden is going to be more necessary than ever before.

It’s very scary out there. The President is rapidly rolling back norms we’re accustomed to, from the assault on the ACA, Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security, to the tacit approval of bomb threats at JCCs and desecrated cemeteries, to banning the legitimate press from the White House press briefings. It’s gotten to the point that my mother called the other day and said “I was outraged by something, but I think there have been two more somethings since I called you yesterday.”

And so, I’m planning a better garden this year than last year. Last year I had ankle surgery in the beginning of February, and it wasn’t until August that I could walk normally again. Planting was mostly a matter of flinging seeds for hardy greens into beds overgrown with Bermuda grass and hoping for the best. I was really laid up for a lot of the year, and so stressed out by that job I wound up quitting, that I neglected the whole thing. I grew some nice greens, the beans came in very late but were delicious, and I had a lot of flowers. But it wasn’t one of my better garden years.

As I was looking in the seed box thinking about what greens I could start early, I found a whole array of chickories — red ones and green ones and some beautiful varigated ones — all from Seeds of Italy, one of my favorite sources. I just put an order in with them last week actually. So — chickories. They’re a cool-weather crop so if you don’t start them well before the last frost, they’ll bolt when it gets hot. Fingers crossed this year for a crop of nice crunchy chickories. I also started two kinds of chard and some spinach. Those do fine outdoors, but again, its a season thing. I didn’t do a hoop house this year, but if I start them inside, once the ground thaws, I can transplant them out and I’ll have about a 3 week jump on things.

It’s the thing about growing your own — it spoils you for store produce. I’m too cheap to pay the premium for the hydroponic organic greens that our local foods store carries these days — although I do splurge once in a while. They had some lovely baby bok choi and some beautiful spinach (one of the few vegetables Himself enjoys). And well, I’m really broke this year as I try to stretch out my savings long enough to finish this book manuscript, and build up a new freelance business. So, I’m going to need my own food in the backyard (also, looking forward to falling heat bills as spring arrives). I keep reminding myself, this was the plan. Pay off the debts. Pay off the house. Build a garden. Get chickens — all things that free me up from needing cash so I can write more. So, planting seeds, writing the book,  and keeping on keeping on even as the nation burns down around us.

Pruning and Despair

Pruning and Despair

Pruned Plum Tree
Pruned plum tree (and hand-me-down boy)

After calling in for the Orwellian “Tele Town Hall” my GOP Senator, Steve Daines held last night, and after this morning’s news that the GOP Congress has approved Scott Pruitt for EPA, I’m filled with despair and heartbreak. And anger at every single upper middle class person I know, which is pretty much every one I know, who continues to blithely fly around on airplanes and drive SUVs and buy new stuff just because they feel like it. We, the generation of selfish overconsumers, who have ruined the world for everyone else.

To all “my” kids — to the whole gang of you — I’m so so sorry for what we’ve done. We’re leaving you a blazing hellscape of a planet, with ruined water and oligarchs who we’ve allowed to buy up all the resources so they will be able to hold them hostage when you’re grown.

So I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do and I’m angry, and agitated, and picking fights with people I shouldn’t be picking fights with on Facebook. I went out into the garden. It’s been warm here, and most of our snow has melted. The ground is still frozen, but I had pruning that needed to be done.

The little plum tree in the picture (behind the charming little boy statue that Biba, my neighbor, left me about a decade ago when she upped and moved to Argentina), that plum tree suffered bad damage in our freak freeze three years ago that killed all the cherry trees. It went from the 60s, to minus 20 in less than 12 hours, then came back up into the 40s. It was the freeze/thaw cycle that apparently did most of the damage, and we didn’t even know until spring that the cherries were all dead. I planted two new baby cherry trees last spring, but I think it’s going to be a while until I get fruit. This plum tree turns out to be a greengage. It has been an uneven bearer — fruiting every three or four years. The first year, I kept waiting for the fruit to turn purple, and it wasn’t until I was sitting in the backyard reading a book one afternoon, and a plum fell off it was so ripe, that I realized they’re greengages. They are utterly delicious, and I only ever get a peck or two.

Last year I was laid up with the ankle surgery, and I was waiting to see what parts of the tree would come back. By this spring, the dead parts were very dry and dead and easy to identify. So I got in there this afternoon, in my agitation, and cut out suckers, and sawed off the dead tops, and generally cleaned the little thicket that is my greengage patch out. I also took a shot at the gooseberry bushes while I was at it, and the currents (which are pretty battered by Hank-and-his-big-blue-play-ball). I pulled the thick layer of straw off the komatsuna and the kales, which were green underneath, and in general, started puttering around. (Oh, and cleaned up a lot of dog shit).

It won’t help with the state of our nation or the world. For that, I keep making my phone calls, and registering to go pester our GOP Senator who won’t speak to us, and trying to be patient as I explain to angry white Evangelicals that no, I’ve never had any of my Muslim friends try to impose Sharia law on me, the only people who have ever tried to impose their religious beliefs on me are white Evangelicals. I feel like we’re living in any number of dystopian novels, from Orwell to Margaret Atwood, and I’m thoroughly heartbroken about it.

But the world is turning a wee bit. The sun is coming back. There’s pruning to be done, which at the very least lets me burn off a little physical energy. And maybe, just maybe, there will be greengages this summer. To eat amidst the flaming ruins of our Democracy.

Wild in the Garden, Garden in the Wild

Wild in the Garden, Garden in the Wild


The backside of the garden has gone a bit feral on me this summer. Actually, the whole veggie garden is pretty feral — there’s way too much grass, and weeds, and because I’ve been experimenting with broadcast sowing, things are just coming up where they will, or not. Domenica Marchetti, of the new book Preserving Italy (blog posts to come), has been using the hashtag #gardenofneglect, and that’s kind of how I feel about mine this summer.

Or do I? Is it neglect, or have I finally gotten the garden to where it pretty much does what I want it to, without a whole lot of work? A couple of years ago I read Masanobu Fukuoka‘s book The One Straw Revolution. Fukuoka turned me definitively away from row planting, and although I’m not nearly as observant as I should be about what will sprout when, and how to plant vegetable crops so that they’ll shade out the weeds (will anything shade out my Bermuda grass?), the book did turn me toward a richer, messier mode of gardening, and one that also somehow broke through my notion that flowers don’t belong in the veggie garden.

A couple of years into the most-casual adoption of the Fukuoka “method” — one I think of as “throw out the seeds and see if they take” and “plant stuff that will reseed by itself” — I have a wild and messy garden, but one that produces greens in abundance, the beans are doing great this year, the tomatoes are a little slow, but this is also the first year I haven’t started my own, and the identification sticks got lost, so I’m not even sure what’s out there. But I’m starting to get Yellow Pear cherry tomatoes, and two different red ones — one a tiny bright red, and another that’s over on the purpler end of the spectrum, and I seem to have planted at least one beefstake — which is unusual for me. Our season’s so short, I don’t usually bother. The flowers are also doing great — I have a big Monarda that came back from last year, and finally got a Gaillardia to take root. I have a couple of echineacea’s that I’m babying along in the veggie garden before transplanting them into the flower beds (which I don’t water as much as I should do, hence they need to be big enough to survive). The borage has gone to town, and is self-seeding all over the place, and I have the wall of sunflower and cosmo and hollyhocks that I envisioned in the long bed along the fence.

It’s a messy garden, but I think it’s the garden I’ve been intending to grow all along. I look out back and it just says abundance and color and food and joy. Which is what I wanted. A feral garden on the edge of miles and miles of wild country.

Raised Bed Re-Design

Raised Bed Re-Design

I’ve decided that the time has come — as much as I like the decorative aspects of my current garden design, it has several crucial drawbacks.

This design is based on 6-foot lengths of lumber, so the big square boxes are six feet square, while the triangular beds are all based on six-foot right angles. Here’s the diagram:  (Sorry about the photo quality.) While I love the decorative aspects of this design, it has several practical drawbacks. The biggest of which is that I can’t reach across the beds. Once I got chickens, I wound up fencing the outside perimeter with copper pipe and plastic mesh — which also has the added benefit of keeping the dogs out of the garden. They were never much of a problem, but it’s just not sanitary — same with the chickens (also, the chickens will devour all the greens in record time). This means that I only have access to these beds from the inside pathway, and I can’t reach the center of either the big squares or the big triangles. In past years, I’ve planted long-season crops like kales at the back or center of these beds, but in general, it’s a problem. Weeds crop up and I can’t get to them, and harvesting is a pain, and so, I wind up with a considerable amount of my limited square footage that is just enough of a pain in the neck to get to that it goes feral.

So last week I went out with the tape measure, and downloaded some graph paper off the internet (handy!). The perimeter is 25′ x 15′ and I decided I wanted plain rectangular beds. After a bunch of noodling around, and consulting with the Builder, I came up with this plain-but-efficient design. The U-shaped beds are 3.5 feet across. My kitchen table is 4 feet square, and I can’t quite reach from one side to the other, so I went with 3.5 for these beds. The long center bed will be 3 x 15 feet, which leaves me enough room to maneuver a wheelbarrow.

The best part, I gain square footage! The old beds totalled 216 square feet, and the new beds total 251.5. The other thing I find exciting is that the long narrow bed in the center should be perfect for hooping, although since everything is rectangular, it will be a lot easier to use hoops not only for season extension, but for protection against pests in the early part of the season (when the flea beetles seem particularly virulent).

It’s supposed to start warming up this week — temps into the 50s– so I’m hoping the ground will thaw out enough that I can begin tearing things up, turning dirt over, and laying down new paths. Will post photos when the actual work begins.

Battening Down the Hatches

Battening Down the Hatches

A bushel of black kale, ready for the freezer

My first post-deadline, post-travel weekend and although I was woefully short on new fiction pages produced, I did get some long-neglected house-and-garden tasks done.

First of all, I’m feeling sanguine about winter because, at long last, we got our whole pig! It took a long time this  year because, well, the small packer/butcher operation we buy from sold more post-fair pig specials than they had pigs. So we had to wait for them to get more local pigs (they promised me it wasn’t a CAFO pig), and then for them to make the delicious hams and bacon. There’s nothing like going into a winter with a freezer full of pork. Also, if you get used to buying meat by the share (or if you have nice friends who give you hunks of elk, or venison, or antelope, or their own homegrown beef), and you are a person who works at home, you get really really used to not having to go to the store. It was just weird not having enough in the freezer that dinner is a choice of what to thaw. I found it unsettling. Now we’re fat on pig, the new chickens are laying, I’ve got a pantry full of pickles and fruit, there’s homemade sauerkraut in the fridge, and as you can see above, kale for the freezer.

Putting up greens is a tiny bit time consuming, but worth it. Again — there’s nothing like being able to “shop the freezer” and I like knowing that I’m really the only one who has been handling my veggies. This is black kale, also known as Dino Kale and Laccinato Kale. It’s the long skinny-leafed kale, and I love it for soups, and in the morning sauteed with onion, garlic and hot pepper with a fried egg on top (a little bacon is also welcome in the mix). This was a bushel of kale. I filled the sink with cool water while my biggest pot was coming to a boil, then used garden scissors to clip the leaves into semi-bite-sized pieces. I swished them around, then put them in the boiling water to blanch. The cookbooks say to boil them for 3 minutes, but I just leave them in the hot water, even if it hasn’t come all the way back to a boil, until they turn a deep, electric green. In the meantime, drain the rinse water and re-fill the sink with cold water and ice. The blanched greens go in the ice water to cool off. A bushel was two sinks and two batches in my biggest stockpot. I drained them in collanders, then used the salad spinner to prep them for the vaccuum sealer. Two serious spins in the salad spinner I found, got enough water out that I didn’t overwhelm the vaccuum sealer. I wound up with nine fairly solid bags of kale. There’s probably just as much curly kale out there, which I’m nursing along as fresh playing chicken with the weather. I’ve found I can keep eating kale out of the garden until we get a multi-day spate of below-zero weather — with any luck, I can get through most of December, but really, one never knows.

I also put up some pears this morning — I stole some pears out of a neighbor’s yard. A neglected tree in a rental house. They were small and hard, but after a couple of weeks in a bowl on the kitchen counter they took on a beautiful rosy hue, and smelled divine. I did them before the kale, using the stockpot of water I was bringing to a boil to sterilize a few jars and lids, and then to process them. I made a simple syrup from equal parts red wine (Bota Box malbec) and sugar. Half a vanilla bean, the zest and juice of a lemon, a piece of cinnamon stick and a couple of cloves also went in. I peeled, cored and sliced the little pears, then poached them and packed them in the simple syrup. Twenty minutes in a hot water bath and either I have an instant-dessert (over ice cream?) or a present for someone’s Christmas box.

My last chore was modifying the chicken house door. The chicken house has a much more beautiful door than a chicken house really deserves — but it came out of the Sweetheart’s immense store of salvaged, recycled, bought on sale contractor supplies, and it was just the right size to lean in, collect eggs, and clean out the bedding. The problem is, that in the winter, it was too big to keep much heat inside, even with a light bulb. So today, I took it off and cut a chicken-sized hole in the door, and put it back on it’s hinges. Now they’ll stay warm, and I can still get in when I need to (knock wood, because I’m in the middle of town, so far I haven’t had varmint problems, but it is a risk. I kept the piece of wood figuring I can put it on a hinge if need be).

I also lucked out and the Sweetheart fixed the broken dog door while I type up a bid for him, so the wind is no longer blowing directly into the kitchen. All in all, a very satisfying weekend of house and backyard farming tasks. Winter is upon us, and I do have to admit, I’m looking forward to holing up and carrying the deadline energy back over into my own work, but there’s also something so pleasant about an afternoon in the kitchen, listening to back podcasts of Fresh Air, and putting up food for the winter.

Hay Mulch

Hay Mulch

A couple of years ago I blogged about how great straw mulch was in my veggie beds, but I stopped using it because I got so much wheat and grass seeded into my beds that it became unmanageable.

This spring though, I was having trouble with weeds in the long tomato beds along the back fence, so I turned over the soil, put down a layer of paper weed cloth, and mulched with a couple of inches of grass clippings I begged off the nice older man who cuts the lawn at the Baptist church on my corner (he told me he hadn’t sprayed for weeds). That was working so well, and keeping the soil so moist that I started looking at my other beds. I only used the paper in one other bed, the one in the foreground of this photo, because it’s got the zucchini plants in it, which means a lot of bare soil was going to be exposed. That one too is holding moisture really well.

It was also this spring that my stepmother kept telling me about some online videos she’d seen from someone who used hay for mulch, and almost never has to water. I hadn’t thought of hay, probably because as someone who grew up around horses it seemed wasteful to use it for mulch, but when it went from 40 degrees to 90 degrees in a week’s time, and everything started keeling over from the dry heat, I decided to give it a shot.

So far, I love the hay mulch! It’s much softer and easier to work with than the straw, and I can’t help but think all those green bits are going to be good for my soil. It’s keeping the seedlings from burning up (I’ve got some lettuces, arugula, beets, herbs, and beans coming up. I know, it’s the end of July, but we’re at least a month behind this year). And I had some extra, so I lined the paths with it, which makes them really nice to walk on barefoot … since we only get about 3 months of nice weather a year, I just can’t bear to put shoes on. I am watering daily, by hand, in part because I like seeing what’s going on out there, and in part because there’s so many tiny seedlings coming up that I don’t want to burn up. Once things are established, I might start with a weekly, or bi-weekly soak and then just leave them alone.

I’m also experimenting with dry farming the tomatoes this year. I haven’t watered them at all — we’ve had a few thunderstorms that seem to be doing the trick, and they’re growing just fine. I might have to soak them this weekend, but I’m experimenting to see how they’ll do in their raised beds with their heavy blanket of mulch.

First Real Harvest 2011

First Real Harvest 2011

Here’s my first real harvest — I’ve been eating a little bit out of the hoop houses, some spinach here, a couple of scallions there, some komatsuna as it came in, but this is the first real harvest of the season.

Today I picked a big bag of scallions, probably the equivalent of two big supermarket bunches, a huge bag of spinach, a big bag of arugula, two re-purposed tortilla bags full of broccoli rabe thinnings, and a big bag of mixed Chinese greens. Enough for the week at least.

Here’s to give you an idea of the difference the little hoop houses make. Inside each of them all was green and warm and humid. Outside. Well, let’s just note that it snowed a few moments ago. The peas are only just beginning to sprout, I have a few radish seedlings, and some overwintered onions. Other than that, nothing is growing out here in the endless winter we’re having this year in Montana.

The other interesting thing is that the poor baby chickens were out in their playpen when it started to snow — I ran out to get them, and for the first time, they seemed to get it that I’m not there to kill them. They ran over to my side of the pen for a rescue and although I still had to “chase” them down, for the most part they came willingly. That’s a first. I’m pretty bored with teenage chickens who need to go out every day, but they’re still little enough I think the big hens would kill them, and all this handling can’t hurt.



Look what came in today’s mail — new seeds! This order is from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (I also have some herbs coming from my beloved Seeds of Italy).

Of course, its snowing again today, but I did eat the first overwintered scallions out of the hoop house for breakfast, and the spinach, komatsuna, arugula and bok choi are sprouting out there so in a couple of weeks, greens for breakfast. Sigh. Can’t wait.

In the meantime, I ordered a few new things — a couple of new tomatoes: Cherokee Purple, Stupice, Koralik, and Reisentraube — all short season, all fairly small sized tomatoes. I’m also going to plant Jaune Flamme (my very favorite), Princess Borghese, Galina and something else I can’t remember but I pulled when I went through the seed boxes last week before ordering. Mountain Princess maybe?

I ordered more Hungarian Hot Wax peppers because they were a huge success last year (and I forgot to save seeds). I loved loved loved them in Michael Symon’s Pickled Peppers, and I ordered a Tunisian pepper in garden solidarity with their recent revolution, a jalapeno called Santa Fe Grande and a green and yellow striped pepper called Fish Pepper, which apparently Thomas Jefferson grew (and is traditional in the Philadelphia area). I’ll also replant cayennes, which did pretty well, although they had to live in the hoop house under plastic for about 6 weeks to ripen, and the Turkish Aci Sivri that I love. This year, I’m going to put the Granpa’s Siberian peppers, which are little tiny hot hot hot peppers, in pots, so I can bring them in in the fall. I have a hunch they might overwinter well in the beloved’s bay window.

I ordered a few replacement packs of spinach (one of the few veggies the beloved will eat) and some lettuces, as well as a curly blue kale that looks interesting. A couple of new cucumbers (cornichons this year?), a tomatillo (another one I have to save seed for next year) and a free packet of carrot seeds round out the vegetables.

As for flowers, I ordered a bunch of different sunflowers — mostly pale and multi-head types. They grow really well here as long as I keep the chickens out of the flower beds. And I bought a bunch of old marigold varieties — I’ve become a huge fan of the marigold — they keep bugs away, and they smell good, and I love the old fashioned stripey ones.

So, this weekend, time to clear off the garden bench and plant tomato and pepper seedlings! The earth is still motoring around the sun (even if world events do seem really alarming right now) and in my best Voltaire-ean manner, I’m going to tend to my own garden, see what I can grow to feed my friends and loved ones.

Hoop Houses, Year Two

Hoop Houses, Year Two

Here’s the overwintered hoop house. The spring greens I planted a month ago are only now starting to sprout — there are teeny tiny seedlings of spinach, bok choi, and arugula in there among the overwintered scallions. I planted seeds a month ago, but I hadn’t expected another bout of subzero weather.

So today I pulled the plastic off, watered, planted a row of Gai Lan (where I pulled out the kale that finally gave up the ghost) and replaced the plastic. The key to hoop houses, I’ve discovered, is 2-inch binder clips — they’ve held the plastic during even the worst of our Livingston winds.

Behind this bed you can see the other bed I hooped. Today I watered it pretty thoroughly and put up the plastic, figuring I’ll give it a few days to warm the soil before I try to plant anything.

It’s been a long long winter here and we’re all jonesing for some sort of springtime. I ordered seeds last night, and I usually start tomatoes and peppers about March 15. I know spring has to come eventually, but this year it just seems like its taking an awfully long time.

Spring Experiment

Spring Experiment

The famous Livingston winds hit last night — up at Choteau, near Glacier, the gauge clocked 114 before it broke into pieces — I don’t know what it was here, but it was the kind of morning where stuff is all over the yard. Among the things that blew askew was the cover that’s been on the hoop house all winter.

Here’s how it looked inside — the scallions are pretty battered, but they look like they’ll come back strong. The chard, hard to tell? I pulled the deadest leaves off the surviving chard plants, and pulled a couple of dead-looking ones out altogether. The fetid arugula came up, as did what was left of the baby bok choi. I left the laccinato kale, hoping that with a little warmth it’ll fill out some — if not, it’ll come out in a couple of weeks and I’ll succession plant.

And then I planted. I’ve never planted anything this early, but it’s supposed to be in the mid-40s all week, and although I’m sure we’re going to get more snow, and more cold, somehow it just feels like maybe we’re out of the sub-zero zone. At any rate, I’m tired of store produce, and what I really really love is spring greens. If it wasn’t for the tomatoes and peppers I’d be perfectly happy in a climate cool enough for greens all season. So here’s what I planted: arugula, green baby bok choi, a few more chard, spinach, white baby bok choi, komatsuna, and some mache, which I’ve never had any success with, but who knows? maybe this year?

I watered until it all seemed pretty saturated. The ground was nice and un-frozen, unlike the rest of the yard, so I’m kind of hopeful. A couple of weeks? maybe some spring greens of my own.