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A lazy June garden update

Been a while since my last post!!

I’ve managed to find a postdoc position that I love (using “systems immunology” approaches to research the role of CD4+ T cells in Lupus disease pathology), am getting to some teaching, and we have an adorable new kitten who has become Inka’s BFF.  The commute to my new job is shorter- bikeable, even!- so I can spend more time at home with the the hubster and critters, but still, it’s hard to keep up with the garden and all the projects I would love to do.

The garden is coming along, at times very slowly.  The veggie garden is entering its second year and we are losing the battle to massive quantities of uber-vigorous weeds and slugs. I learned the other day that many of the weeds probably came from the garden mulch we brought in- from now on I’ll stick to buying Cedar Grove compost, which is largely weed-free and helps close the city waste loop.  And the slugs…  hilariously, some nocturnal critter keeps slurping up the contents of my slug traps- beer-soaked slugs… like vodka soaked gummy bears at a college party?  We are excited to get ducks next spring- I’m confident they’ll solve the slug problem within an hour.

Our permaculture garden is largely now in place (David says, “We have a permaculture garden?”).  By that I mean we have planted most of the perennial fruit trees, bushes, and vines that will mature into our low-maintenance permanent garden:

–  Three apples, one of which is a grafted combination tree
–  Two plums – one Asian combo and one European combo
–  Two pears – one Asian combo and one European combo
–  A combination peach with four varieties that are supposed to do alright in Seattle… we’ll see
–  A mulberry tree for our future ducks
–  A male and a female kiwi vine
–  Three hops vines, which will provide shade for our BBQ area, and which my brother will use in his delicious home brew
–  Several varieties of currant and gooseberry
–  Many kinnikinnick and lingonberry bushes
–  And the two figs, table grape, raspberries, blueberries, rhubarb, and blackberry crosses we planted last year are doing well.  –  The asparagus is doing ok…

In our annual veggie garden this year we have:

–  Overwintered kale, leeks, and garlic.  The overwintered cabbage froze to death, and the parsnips became woody.
–  Spring peas and radishes got mowed down by the slugs.  The beets might make it.   Looking forward to those ducks!
–  Just transplanted the summer veggies: Tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, squash and cukes, basil, corn, runner beans.
–  In late July, I’ll plant the fall and overwintering crops: more kale, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts and “kalettes“- a brussels sprout/kale cross that I’m very excited about, carrots, beets, radish, more leeks and garlic.

This morning I moseyed around the garden with my morning tea, scarfed a few ripe berries, and snapped a few photos:

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The first few years we grew tomatoes in Seattle, we went to great lengths to ripen the loads and loads of green fruit still on the vines when the season was over. Come the October rains, the tomatoes begin to split and rot, the vines fall apart, and it’s impossible to find an unspoilt, red tomato still in the garden.

We tried harvesting all of them in their various states of ripeness and setting them out in the basement to ripen over the winter. We tried covering the vines with plastic cloche to protect them from the rain. We tried pulling up entire vines with green tomatoes still dangling, and hanging them upside down in the garage. Very few made it with any of these methods. Perhaps the most successful was stripping each vine of it’s flowers and leaves late in the summer- forcing them to pour all they had into their fruit (like Leslie Knope’s “going out of business sale”), but that still required foresight and willingness to admit the summer was nearly over.

Then, two years ago- and I can’t remember why- we used our green tomatoes green instead of struggling to ripen them. We made pickled green tomatoes (based on a combo of the basic pickle and garlic dill pickle recipes here), and they were the best thing ever. I loved them. David loved them. We barely had enough to give away over the holidays, and friends and family immediately demanded more. Thus we entered a new era and solved two problems: no more stressing out over un-ripe tomatoes, and no more need to to grow cucumbers (another thing we’d not had much success with, but after seeing Beth and Aaron’s huge, sweet cukes this summer I’m willing to try again!!).

Then, of course, we made things more complicated, and experienced near-total failure of all things green tomato over the next couple years.

The very next year, we actually selected a specific variety to leave green- a big, long roma type that could be sliced into spears like cucumbers. The first problem was that lots of them ripened before I could pick them green- they need to be totally green lest they get soft in the pickle jar. So I couldn’t keep up. Why not use them ripe? Because I was, at that point in time, opposed to saucing- something felt wrong about processing ripe tomatoes, even though these romas were pretty terrible slicing tomatoes. (I remember bringing my boss a quart of cherry and slicing tomatoes a few summers ago and being horrified the next day when he mentioned he and his wife had cooked them (GAH!) to have with pasta.) This year I discovered the glory that is homemade fresh tomato bloody Marys, so I can deal with ripe romas now.

The second problem is that, in our ever-tightening spiral toward Portlandia, we feel a need to live-ferment everything. In giant batches. Our first live-fermented green tomato batch went well- it produced delightfully savory pickles, the last few jars of which have managed to stay crisp and tasty in the fridge for a year now. The second batch turned out terribly, with white mold and a rotten taste that could not be washed off. This year I went back to vinegar pickling cherry tomatoes, but somehow they got squishy when processed in the water bath, perhaps because I used fruit from the volunteer plants. Very disappointing.

We’ve also attempted green tomato chutney two years in a row, both failures. The first batch was ruined by using brown instead of golden raisins, and my unwillingness to use as much sugar as called for. We canned it anyway, and it sits in our cupboard. The second batch, this year, I ruined by putting in lots of half-ripe tomatoes. It ended up tasting like ass-ketchup and didn’t even make it into jars.

This year in our new garden, I picked 5 huge mixing bowls of green tomatoes at the end of the season, stashed them in the basement, and was super excited to make all sorts of things. And then…. life and laziness happened…. and much to my surprise, half the tomatoes had started to get ripe in the basement. Shoot!! I managed to make just 3 jars of fridge pickles out of the remaining green fruit, and the half-ripe fruit gets eaten when ripe or thrown out if it rots first. Sigh.

Lessons learned:
1) Triage tomatoes into ripe saucing (freezer), ripe slicing (eat), and totally green (pickle immediately). Do not, under any circumstances, negotiate with half-ripe tomatoes.
2) Be prepared for massive failures, which could possibly be reduced in scale by not growing so many damn tomatoes in the first place.
3) If we do happen upon a good batch of pickles/chutney/anything, brag about it but don’t give so much of it away.

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A really long post about digging a hole in the backyard.

This past weekend David and I had a few people over for a yard work BBQ party. It was really fun, and we got a lot accomplished!! David and I started working around 9am on Saturday (well, mostly preparing to have people over to help- filling up water pitchers, mixing up lemonade, setting out sunscreen and work gloves, picking up a load of compost from Pacific Topsoil). Friends and family trickled in all day to join in the work, starting with my brother, who is always on time whether you want him to be or not. Dave and Kate brought baked goods for mid-morning snack, we had a sandwich bar for lunch, then around 6pm grilled up some sausage and bratwurst to eat with the carrot-cabbage-radish-broccoli stem sauerkraut I had been tending over he last two weeks, and a fantastic salad made by Chris. It was a great day. Pictures at the end.

We were working on a couple different tasks. We had already removed the sod from the area that will become the garden and now needed to empty several loads of compost there to mix in with the soil. The major project, however, was digging a big hole for a dry well, then moving the garden shed on top of said dry well so that the area where the shed was could become part of the garden, it being the sunny SW corner of the yard. Beth busied herself painting our old wood-frame couches to waterproof them- just in time- and kept me company while David went to load up on gravel and Dave, Eric, and Aaron went to Dave’s mill yard to pick out timbers to make the foundation of the shed. She and I came to two conclusions: that our respective men-folk were wonderful, and that we should hang out together without them more often.

But, back to the dry well- why did we need one? In conjunction with it’s lovely southwesterly slope, our lot is situated such that most of the rain water from our half of the block runs off the street and right between our and our neighbors’ houses (the Italians with the pizza oven who handed us fresh-baked bread over the fence during our work party. Rock.) Our street has no gutter and no storm water drain to prevent this, and when I wrote the city to inquire about possible solutions, I was informed that the city doesn’t have money to rebuild the street and we’d have to take care of it ourselves (which is about what I was expecting).

So, a dry well is essentially the opposite of a regular well- it is a hole filled with rocks or gravel that you channel water into so that it will seep slowly into the ground and disappear. Generally people build them as a way to draw rain water away from their foundations or to improve drainage in swampy low areas of their yard. Usually there is a gravel-lined trench (aka French drain) with or without a drainage pipe leading from the soggy area to the dry well, and the dry well itself may either be a gravel pit or an actual trash can-sized container with holes in it that is half-filled with rocks and then covered with soil and sod. The spaces between the pieces of gravel provide ample room for the water to collect and flow (unlike clay soil) and eventually the water will seep out of the dry well into the surrounding dirt, ideally keeping the whole yard well watered but not soggy.

For our dry well, we dug an 8×10 foot hole, one foot deep and a deeper, trash-can sized hole in the downhill corner. The 8×10 hole served as a level foundation on which to put the shed and the floor of this square hole was graded (magnificently by Dave and Aaron) toward the deeper hole. Amazingly, we hit sand at the bottom of the deep hole after three feet of clay-rich soil- I’m hoping that leading the rain water to this layer of sand will solve all our problems!! We lined the hole with landscape fabric- this prevents dirt from moving in and clogging the gravel- and filled the deep hole with big rocks and the rest with “drain gravel” from Pacific Topsoil. We needed more than we expected- 4 cubic yards was barely enough, plus a few wheelbarrows-full of rocks scavenged from the yard. We dug a short channel from the uphill side of the hole to capture the little stream that forms between our and our neighbors’ house when it rains, then noticed a couple days later that the downspout from our neighbors’ roof is only one foot away on the other side of the fence. We will ask if we can hook their downspout up to our dry well. With street runoff and roof runoff going into this gravel pit instead of the back corner of our yard, and because we have built raised beds, I’m hoping that next spring our SW corner will de-soggify quickly and our veggie garden plantings won’t be delayed. We shall see. If that corner is still swampy next year, we will talk to our two back fence neighbors down the hill (who also have swamp problems) and see if we can jointly dig a French drain (aka gravel trench) through the border of their properties to empty into the storm drain on their street. Except today I walked along their street and there was not a storm drain in sight. Huh.

I had the superb chance to observe our dry well in action (and failing miserably at first) this evening when I got home from work. It was raining quite hard and sure enough, water was racing down between the houses and surging out of the neighbor’s downspout. The backside of the shed/gravel pit quickly became a river, and I realized that the landscape fabric, though water permeable, couldn’t handle this much water at once and was keeping most of it out of the dry well. I dunked my arms into foot-deep water at the shed foundation and cut two holes in the fabric- one under the uphill corner at the base of the channel we had dug leading to the pit- I propped the fabric open with a hollowed yogurt container and the pooled water drained instantly- and one midway down the shed where the neighbor’s downspout stream was hitting- which also drained the stream instantly. Needless to say I felt like an action hero while doing this. Sadly, by this time the paths in the garden past the shed had already filled with water. I noticed that water was actually flowing out from under the shed on the downhill side as if the well had already filled and wasn’t draining quickly enough. I was a bit dismayed… but it was raining awfully hard. Were I to build this over again, I wouldn’t have lined the very bottom of the deep hole with landscape fabric, just the walls and floor of the bigger 8×10 hole. I don’t quite have a plan for limiting the amount of sediment that flows in at the entry points… but Aaron, a trained geologist, swears it will take a long time to clog that big gravel pit with sediment. Amazingly, 15 minutes after the rain stopped, the puddle in the gravel had disappeared- the water had drained. The true test will be whether the raised beds dry out quickly.

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It’s been a while, but here’s what we, and the soil, the plants, and the critters have been up to this summer.

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March/April garden photos

I have not been writing, but i have been taking photos here and there…

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The Farm

David is renting a room here, from Heather and Zak.   They’ve got horses, pigs, rabbits (not pictured), chickens, and two huge, friendly german shepherd mixes.  Word is they just got a lonely lamb and will soon bring home another one for it pal around with.  CAN’T WAIT till Inka gets to meet the lamb this weekend!!

 

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Today's harvest: swiss chard, broccoli sideshoots, purple sprouting broccoli, pink kale, baby beet greens

Today i finally transplanted the mustard seedlings that were going crazy under the grow light in the apocalypse room.  They were in a flat with leeks, arugula, and lettuce.  I cut around the mustard and scooped out the entire row, then broke groups of plants apart and planted two per hole- in case one doesn’t make it, and because the holes were far enough apart.  The soil wasn’t too dry- i had only begun keeping the rain off of it two days ago.  I didn’t dig up the soil at all, except to make little transplant holes, so hopefully that small amount of digging won’t turn the soil to brick. 

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I forget what kind of kale this is... Red Chidori? Waaay more ornamental and milder tasting than expected.

There was a good layer of worm castings underneath the fallen leaves that I raked away- so i know the worms have been working the soil and bringing organic matter down into it.  We’ll see if the “no-dig” method works for these guys (and the kale i planted earlier).

Yesterday, while it was freezing cold (not actually) and windy outside, i sowed 15 tomato plants, and some broccoli, cabbage, and swiss chard inside under the grow lights. 

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The kale transplants in their new greenhouse, with beer traps alongside- they're working well!

I’m trying 14 different varieties of tomato this year, and planting two sungold cherry tomatoes, because they’re consistently the shit.  I’ve got some non-early season heirlooms in the mix this year, which will hopefully produce with the help of the mini greenhouse.

After i finished seeding all the pots, i somehow got thinking about grafting tomatoes.  Territorial has sold them for a couple years and claim they’re amazing and vigorous.  The pictures always show someone gasping at how many huge, red tomatoes there are on the vine.  So I looked up tomato grafting on the interwebs, and found this sweet video from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  They sell the rootstock (Maxifort) used in the video for about 50 cents a seed, and it’s a hybrid plant so its impossible to save the seed.  I bought some anyway, just to try it out. 

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Our neighbor has become interested in our greenhouses and chickens- David is giving her the tour.

Maxifort is very vigorous and works best for greenhouse tomato grafting, but i’m hoping i can keep mine warm enough to take advantage of said vigor.  At the end of the video the dude mentions that you can also graft cucumber, melon, etc, onto winter squash, but i couldn’t for the life of me find the “bombo/shintoza” squash variety he used anywhere online.  So i got one called “triumph” instead. 

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Cat immediately found the seedling heat mat with her sixth sense

I’m not sure that the squash rootstock will keep the cukes and melons and zucchini from getting downy mildew (which they all succumb to eventually here- it’s a race to get some good fruit out of them before they’re taken down), but it may help them grow faster and produce more before they die.  Also, apparently downy mildew strikes plants that are weakened- usually by water stress- so a more vigorous root system may keep that from happening.

If only i had garden trial grounds where i could more thoroughly and scientifically investigate the advantages of grafted veggie plants… sigh…

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