Posts Tagged ‘gardening’

I will miss this.  Chard, beets, broccoli, carrots, peas, lettuce, turnips.  In January.  I love my little SoCal garden.


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There aren’t words enough in my writing repertoire to describe the awful crush of work both at home and at the squadron this past month, or explain why it is I left off 5 weeks ago with a post about baking bread and then, this long silence.

Sometimes we just have to do what needs done to survive, amidst the frenzy of events and demands on our time and energy that life throws at us.  That pretty much sums up July/August for me.  I am hopeful that the whitewater rapids are behind, and I can paddle at a slower pace now without fear of flipping over and drowning.  I am exhausted, my arms ache, and I need a rest.

Amidst it all, I kept up with the summer vegetable harvest, the bread baking, the hanging out of laundry, the bill-paying and lawn mowing, while Bear was out at sea.  And my plodding, just-in-time, herculean efforts in the garden saved 40 beautiful heirloom tomato plants from certain death in the recent August heat, which makes every drop of sweat worth it. 

The picture above shows only the starting point of preparing their permanent growing bed; once again, words fail me, or perhaps I’m just being lazy, at describing how much damned work it was.  You can see the huge clods of hard-packed granite fill.  You can see the tomato plants perched on the wall, peering down, hopeful and expectant for rich, moist, deep soil to fling their roots into.  I was caught in between, and it was only their soulful urging and the promise of the harvest to come that gave me the energy and will to finish this project.

Yes, my tomato plants begged me to persevere, and for them, I did.  I could not have done it without their voices in my ear every time I went down to water them in their little pots.  The digging and hauling out of the granite went so slowly and my time was so limited, I had to repot them into 1-gallon containers to buy another 2 weeks of time.  And in the nick of time, my dear friend Liz offered to haul a load of topsoil in last Sunday, enough to finish filling the bed and get my babies planted before the heat arrived.  Thank you so much, Liz.  My choir of tomato plants are singing your praises, can you hear them?

That’s 38 lovely tomato plants settling in to 75 square feet of deep-dug heaven, each with a 7-foot pole to climb and hold onto as they reach for the sky.  If it seems a little late to be starting tomatoes, keep in mind this is San Diego, where our spring-like autumns let us harvest tomatoes all the way up to Thanksgiving.  I am hoping for a deluge of fruit in October, and shall prepare to can and freeze as much as possible – tomato sauce, canned diced tomatoes for cooking, salsa, tomato paste, maybe even some ketchup this year.

In my kitchen, you can never have too many tomatoes.

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…just barely.

I would have loved to have eaten or processed all the food in this photo the same day I picked it and hauled it up the hill stairs, but it will wait a couple of days in the fridge until I can.  Life and work is hard right now and I’m grateful for a small (but productive) garden that only requires a little daily attention.

Best garden I’ve ever had, my whole life.  Can’t ever remember hauling baskets and trugs of loot into the kitchen like this, have always been grateful for every tiny handful plucked from a few square inches.  This bounty makes my heart roar with hard-earned satisfaction.

This weekend’s haul:

Turnips:        3 lbs 11 oz

French zuchinni:      5 lbs 13 oz

Pole beans:      2 lbs 11 oz

Carrots:     2 lbs 6 oz

Beets:     2 lbs 3 oz

Beet greens, chard:    big bunch

Red Russian kale:     big bunch

Plums:     4 lbs 6 oz

A lot of food.  I’m swimming in fresh food.

Bear is on travel for a few weeks, halfway around the world on an aircraft carrier teaching young kids how to troubleshoot and fix electronics.  I am glad he’s not here this month, as work is crushing my head into a flat, stupid pancake, and I am spending way too much time at just trying to keep up.  This is a sign of the rightness of my choice to exit stage left in 16 short months.  My professional sharpness has faded, the farmer in me wants out, and my brain is tired of struggling to map out strategies for an enterprise I’m no longer committed to.

The young folks, I remain passionately committed to.  So much so, it brings me to tears sometimes in front of them when they “get it” and find their power to change their corner of the Navy.  The enterprise, the unit, I could give a shit less about.

But my garden elates me.

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It’s Monday evening, and the long, lovely three-day weekend has finally come to a close, as they always do. 

Bear and I celebrated our 15th anniversary yesterday, quietly, at home, over a delicious beef roast, garden vegetables, and a cold bottle of champagne.  Fresh-baked apple pie made from our own apples, and vanilla ice cream for desert; we couldn’t eat another bite. 

After the movie we stepped out back to listen to the distant rumbling of fireworks and catch a far-away glimpse of the grand finale bursts of light and color.  It was just enough to make it feel like it was the Fourth of July.  Then went back in and watched the Boston Pops fireworks on television afterward, amazed at the extravagance.

I didn’t work too hard this weekend.  Ran one of the piles of old ice plant through the shredder on Saturday, and built a new compost pile from the mulch.  Harvested vegetables, froze some zuchinni, hung laundry out in the sunshine.  Did a bit of online reading; farming is much on my mind these days.  Sent some e-cards for the holiday.  Finally finished filing taxes, yay (we had an extension, don’t worry).

Bear will be on the road this coming month, first a week in Connecticut then nearly four weeks in Japan.  July will fly by with him gone.  So much to do, though.  It’s time to make travel arrangements for our farm trip in September, and I need to get that second garden bed dug, for my tomato plantation.  All in good time, I hope.

My garden is growing like it’s on steroids.  I am not complaining.  A band of little lizards patrol the lush jungle, alternately soaking up the sun on the cement blocks and dashing through the beans, tomatos and squash for yummy bug treats.  I love my little blue-bellied reptile friends.

Long week ahead, it may be quiet here.  Hope the heat isn’t too bad where you are.

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Worth waiting for

baby butternut squash

I didn’t make it to the Fair last week, sorry to say.  There’s just too much to do at the squadron these days as we prepare for our upcoming inspections, getting all the aircraft maintenance programs fixed that have never been set up quite right since they transitioned to the C-40A five years ago.  I’m spending long, long hours there, heading in around 6 am and usually not leaving until 7 pm.  Grueling schedule, for sure, but temporary.

This manic pace started about a month ago, as we got to the point of self-assessment where we realized just how many critical processes were off-track, and how many different things needed to be re-done, re-written, and re-trained on.  The list of projects that I own, as a program manager, have stacked up like dirty plates towering above my head waiting to be washed; an afternoon of oogling farm animals and admiring craft displays just couldn’t be justified.

Ah, well.  There will be other years and other county fairs to go see.

On the home front, I’m obviously not getting much done in the few short hours I’m actually here, which is driving me  a little crazy.  There’s only just enough time for making dinner and tending the garden at the end of the day, so weekends, once devoted to landscaping projects, are filled with all the household maintenance that I used to be able to chip away at throughout the week:  clutter, dirty laundry, mail and junk stacked on the dining room table, grimy bathrooms, gritty floors.  It is what it is.  You can only let that stuff go so long before it sucks your will to live, so I’m just holding ground, keeping my nostrils above the lapping waves.

It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve resigned myself to the situation and am consoled by the fact that once the big August inspection is over, my work schedule and my life will (hopefully) return to normal. 

On a very different and bright note, the new garden bed planted back at the beginning of May is now filled with happy, vigorous plants, and has started feeding us some of the tastiest, freshest vegetables money can’t buy.

We’ve already eaten the first sweet, tender beets; kale and beet greens, turnips, zuchinni and green beans – all delicious – and there’s lots more food to come out of this 25-foot deep-dug bed.  Two kinds of winter squash (acorn and butternut, thanks Jo!) and potatoes, onions, and carrots will be awhile in the making, but they’re worth the work, and they’ll be worth the wait.  Homegrown, organic food is definitely worth waiting for.

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I was hoping for a really good growing season for our little front yard fruit tree orchard this year.  My semi-dwarf plums, apple, pear and grapefruit trees had a tough time of it while I was away in Africa, as Bear is not at all a gardener and he mostly just kept up with mowing the small patch of lawn, leaving my suburban orchard to fend for itself on the automatic drip system.  Fruit trees need more attention than that to do well, although to his credit, none of them died.

So now that I am home and able to water and fertilize and watch over them carefully, they’re all growing better than they were last year when I got home from deployment, and flowered like maniacs in April, promising a bountiful harvest of luscious fruit.

 But flowers don’t always mean fruit.  I’ve had many years of good harvests off the two plum trees and one apple tree, though the pear has never developed much and maxed out at 8 fruits last year, before I returned home.  This year it had a dozen flowers, but none have developed into fruits.  The vigorous Mariposa plum nearest the street has a sad, lonely, single green plum on it – two years ago we took 45 large plums off this tree.

We may get a couple of dozen smaller plums off the weeping Santa Rosa tree, and the little Anna apple, though she looks to be struggling to keep a decent set of leaves on, has a smallish crop this spring as well.  Both trees flowered profusely back in late March and April, so it wasn’t for lack of fruiting potential that the set was so low.

Past years have been much more bountiful than this one promises to be.  All other things being equal, I can only guess that the wild pollinators were not out in sufficient numbers this spring, though I provide lots of year-round understory nectar sources, a diverse mixture including borage, California poppy, sage, and gallardia that freely re-seed in the beds below.  I didn’t pay sufficient attention at the time the trees were flowering, but as we talked about it the other day, it did occur to us that there used to be many more wild bees in residence than we are seeing this year.

This may have little to do with the problem of vanishing bees in domesticated hives, but it is a signal to me that something has changed in the local population of native bees, and highlights the importance of these native pollinators in providing services to backyard (and frontyard) gardens.  My tiny oasis of chemical-free, bee-friendly growing beds and gardens is not enough to ensure our local populations of wild helpers will thrive.

I may need to order a batch of orchard bees this year, for the vegetable garden.

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Container-grown broccoli

I’m only feeding the two of us, so a few container-grown broccoli plants are gracing our table with plenty of goodness this winter.

The brussels sprouts will follow close behind; I’m anxiously awaiting their bounty.

On the way down to the mailbox yesterday I stopped to chat with our neighbor Les, who was conversing with another neighbor from up the street aways, an older gent named Bill, who it turns out is also a container vegetable gardener.  Those of us with small yards must grow what we can, where we can.  Bill was interested to hear of my terracing project and rued the fact his backyard hill faces north, which rules out growing vegetables there.

I advised him to tear up his front yard and plant his vegetable garden there.  I was not kidding.  It was good to talk with someone who goes to the same trouble I do to grow a little bit of food for their table.  Here in suburbia we are a dying breed. 

My passion for growing and putting by my own food is a thing of wonder to my neighbors, friends, and coworkers.  I am born to it, and have felt this urge since I learned to cook and garden and can at my mother’s elbow; it is purt’ near genetic, as far as I can tell.  And that’s just fine by me.  Keeps me out of the atrocities they call grocery stores.

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This is one of those projects I’ve wanted to tackle for a long time.

All the backyards along our side of Redlands Place perch atop the rim of a spacious and wild chaparral canyon, with half the property in back of the houses comprising a rather steep hill that merges into the hillside below.  Most of our neighbors have installed pools or decks to extend their back yard space; from the beginning I planned to terrace our bit of hillside into garden beds, to take advantage of the south-east exposure.  But there were challenges.

The previous owner had planted two bunches of invasive pampas grass in the bottom corners and a variety of ice plant (also very invasive) along the remaining slope.  The pampas grass had grown into impenetrable tangles of vegetation nearly 20 feet across at the base that took many hours of labor back in 2002 to remove.  Since then I built a rough-hewn set of free-form concrete stairs to the bottom level for access, but with the exception of removing the pampas grass clumps, we’d done nothing to improve the hillside.

But the time has finally come to tame the hill.  My container garden that takes up half the flat part of the backyard needs to expand into a permanent home, and I need room to stage materials for the fence rebuild project.  So energized by my project plan, I inhaled deeply, took measurements, and ordered enough interlocking block to build the bottom wall for the first terrace bed.  The block and half-yard of gravel was delivered Friday, amidst pouring rain and occasional hailstorms.  My goal is to complete the first retaining wall before we leave for our Kentucky farm trip on 6 Feb.

Here is what the hill looked like before I started:

The brown line of dead plants across is the ice plant I pulled out about a month ago, that had grown down from the bottom of the stairs to the fence (out of the picture at the right) at the bottom property boundary.  In one year.   Ice plant is a very vigorous, succulent invasive from South Africa, growing up to a meter in one season and rooting anywhere a stem touches the ground.  Since it needed to dry out a little before running it through the shredder to make into compost,  I threw it uphill as I pulled it.  This current project started with pulling all that half-dried material down to the bottom, and moving it laboriously up the stairs to my utility yard one forkful at a time, where the huge mound of it awaits an afternoon’s work with Chewie, my stalwart Troy-bilt chipper-shredder.

160 Keystone Legacy block will build a 35-foot long, 3-foot high wall.  I spent the afternoon and part of Saturday morning imitating a small draft animal, first carting trugs of gravel down to the bottom and then 4 blocks at a time on my garden cart from the driveway to the edge of the hill in the backyard.  I’d already dug the footer trench for the wall (see first photo) and laid a couple of block when I realized I needed to somehow get all of them down to the bottom before I could really start serious wall building.  So Sunday morning, that is what I did.

My method was what I’d call “ghetto.”  One woman, 160 blocks needing to be moved down 20 feet of ice plant on a 45 degree incline.  Carrying them down the stairs one by one was out of the question.  So I gerry-rigged an old half sheet of plywood backstop against the chainlink fence at the bottom, padded the whole affair with prunings of ice plant, and started rolling 55-lb blocks like bowling pins.

It worked.  No blocks were damaged in the making of this blog post.  And at $3.50 apiece, that’s a good thing.  Man, it was a lot of work, though.   I managed to get three at a time rolled down without hitting each other, then had to clamber down the spongy bed of ice plant to stack them safely out of the way, and climb back up to the top for another round of ghetto block bowling.

After a bit of rest, Sunday afternoon I started laying the first course.  This is the most important element of the wall, these first blocks; they must be perfectly level or everything above will turn out badly.  Following instructions, I laid a couple of inches of sharp gravel down, then set the block.  Ever laid flagstone or brick?  Levelling on a bed of sand is tricky at best; on gravel, near impossible.  So, I cheated a little and used a bit of decomposed granite fill dirt overtop the gravel, to get the level right. 

It’s turning out well.  I’ll backfill with gravel and lay weed-barrier cloth before pulling the dirt down as the courses go up.  More ice plant removal will be required.  Lots of compost to be made, hooray. 

Garden beds are dancing like sugar plums behind my eyelids.  I can’t look at that hill without seeing all three terraced beds completed and a marvelous Spring garden emerging from the compost-enriched soil.

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 The weather-guessers called for another band of rainstorms through here, beginning yesterday, with rain anticipated to fall off-and-on through Sunday.  It’s drizzling now, with hope for as much as an inch in the next couple of days.

My little backyard garden will appreciate that, especially if they are right about the winds being absent.  Monday’s deluge with 40-mph gusts nearly knocked my peas out of their roots.  I tied them up when I looked out and saw the lovely ladies all bent double over their trellises, and they made it through intact with no lasting damage, but I’m sure it was stressful to be blown about like that.

The peas are organic Green Arrow English Peas, from  Heirloom Seeds, first time I’ve grown these.  They dig the cool temps and made good growth despite the short days, climbing to 4 ft high before dressing themselves with jewel-like white flowers.  Now, tiny pea pods dangle like miniature ornaments, promising sweet treats to come.

Gardening in a Mediterranean climate in the winter months is quite extraordinary.  It’s a lot like having a second Spring, with shorter days of course.  I shall miss the luxury of growing brocolli and brussels sprouts, peas and lettuce and scallions, beets and kale, through December and January.  A better gardener than I could have a continuous supply of edibles for the dinner table with nary a gap in harvests, with careful planning and year-round succession planting. 

As it is, I lose track of time, forget to start the next round of seeds, and we suffer the occasional short hiatus from ultra-local, organic home-grown food.  But peas are on their way, two plantings spaced 3 weeks apart, the leaf lettuce is filling salad bowls twice a week already, and I have high hopes for my happy brassicas.

It’s raining lightly but steadily tonight, and the garden is soaking it up.

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mel_and_J_in_garden_008GOD SPEED THE PLOUGH
(from an old English cup)

Let the wealthy and great
Roll in splendour and state.
I envy them not, I declare it.
I eat my own lamb,
My own chickens and ham;
I shear my own fleece
and I wear it.
I have lawns; I have bowers.
I have fruits; I have flowers.
The lark is my morning alarmer
So jolly boys now,
Here’s God speed the plough.
Long life and success to the farmer.


No, that’s not a plow behind that horse; it’s a drag harrow.  And no, that’s not me, that’s Mel driving “the ‘J’ mare” as Jason calls her, working the garden on Ridgewind Farm.   But I stumbled across the poem the same day he sent the picture of Mel and J, and for that reason they go together in my mind.

“God speed the plough, ‘a wish for success or prosperity,’ was originally a phrase in a 15th-century song sung by ploughmen on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Day, which is the end of the Christmas holidays, when farm laborers returned to the plough. On this day ploughmen customarily went from door to door dressed in white and drawing a plough, soliciting ‘plough money’ to spend in celebration. “Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins” by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

I found the poem on Hollin Farms website; another good Virginia farm worth taking a look at.

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