Worth the work

So, more days than not Old MacDonald (sometimes accompanied by me, but I have late hours at the job) has been going out to water the Back 40 garden, and it has absolutely paid off:

Photo Aug 05, 6 19 34 PM

Photo Aug 05, 6 43 18 PM

I can’t get over how good it looks.  He did admit that there have been two applications of fertilizer, which combined with the watering seems to more than be working.  Our experiment with grass clippings is also a success; we’ve been out to weed only twice so far this season and both times took about an hour and a half to do the whole garden.

The secret to our success is a 50-gallon cistern we keep in the back, and refill by running hoses linked together from the house whenever it gets down in volume.

And making her first appearance on the blog, Old MacDonald’s mother and a farmer’s daughter (her father was a farmer in Denmark; apparently farming is genetic but skips generations):

Photo Aug 05, 6 40 50 PM
Like Luke, she’s smart enough to help by watching carefully

Our experiment out back is a success – this was the second picking of beans, just two days after our first round:

Photo Aug 10, 9 08 22 AM

I only wish they didn’t turn green when cooked.

It’s a long, hot summer

I can’t believe how long it’s been since we had any substantial rain.  Thank goodness we have the drip irrigation in the main garden and the raised beds:

Main Garden 7-27

Raised Beds 7-27

For the first time in ages, the cucumbers are actually doing something, and will bear fruit:

Cucumber 7-27
Lush cucumbers, dead lawn behind them

Powder mold, squash beetles and other environmental factors have contributed to the lackluster performance over the last few years.  It’s been a while since I’ve been able to make homemade pickles.  That might be changing this year.

Of course, we’re still being supervised:

I love hard work, I could watch it all day
I love hard work, I could watch it all day

The nicest thing about this cat is that he wants 5-10 very intense minutes of your attention, and then he moves off to stalk birds or mice or just snooze a bit.  We were commenting the other day about our luck in getting neighborhood cats that actually give us the time of day.  Even better when they keep away the destructive pests.

The first weeks are always the hardest

The growing season is now underway, with the plants doing remarkably well:

Main gardenMain garden 6-26

I love that picture because it’s a beautiful shot of an Adirondack chair I never get to sit in.

There’s also a critter in the garden:

Luke Main Garden 6-26

This is our neighbor Luke, who arrived with the new neighbors when they moved in across the street last spring.  Can’t have an updated garden blog without photos of a neighbor’s cat.  He’s reasonably helpful:

Watching for chipmunks
Watching for chipmunks

He’s actually a better birder but we’ve seen him snag a chipmunk or two.  Good kitty!

He’s not much help with the rabbits, though:


Fortunately this year we have not had a moment where I’ve spotted them in the garden because they can squeeze through the fence.  It seems like our bobcat from years past may not be around, because there are a lot of them.  It was a mild winter, however.

Even the Back 40 is coming along nicely:

Back 40 Second Photo

As part of our new crusade to pay more attention to this garden, we’ve been watering.  It’s pretty dry here – there was very little snow this year, and it hasn’t rained much at all.  It’s a pain to walk out there to water, but we figure it will give the seedlings their best chance.

And the season begins

Howdy!  It only seems like we didn’t do any gardening last year, because I never updated the blog.  We did grow plenty of vegetables, although the Back 40 garden was a complete disaster, overwhelmed by weeds.  I was also overwhelmed by a new job, hence no posts.  But we’re back, and this year there’s a new plan.

This year we are of course doing the usual in the front gardens:

Tomatoes 5-22
Tomato plants
Eggplants & peppers
Eggplants & peppers

These are the leftovers, which we will be giving away to friends and family.  Old MacDonald likes to have extras on hand, in case of premature vegetative death.  Or because he has the flats, so why not fill them?  I just nod and smile; as we all know, I don’t do the seeds.

Out back, though, we’ll be trying something new and different.  In previous years, the Back 40 has been a 25′ x 90′ monstrosity of a garden, where whatever is planted must survive on its own – we’ll weed, but we don’t water, and we’ll fence it to keep critters out but we don’t do much about the bugs.  Last year was such a disaster, weed wise, that we knew we had to do something different this year.  It was so bad we barely harvested anything from the gardens and I refused to go back there by late July because the conditions were so depressing.

This year we’re cutting that garden in half.  As much as we’d like to add to the square foot total of gardens, to make people question our sanity (go ahead, we do too!) – last year was depressing from a yield perspective and until we retire, we need to do what we can manage.  Its been reconfigured, too – a series of raised mounds of dirt to help create beds that can be mulched to keep down weeds:

The new Back 40 configuration
The new Back 40 configuration

We’ll fence it, as we always do, and we’re going to try putting down grass clippings as our mulch to control weeds and lock in moisture.  We’ll see how it goes.

No rest for the weary

We have had one heck of a winter in the Northeast this year.  Boston just broke its all-time snow record for the last 20 years over the weekend, and further out where we live it has been a banner year:

This was the first storm
This was the first storm

Of course, all that snow has to go somewhere, which in our case was a big pile next to the deck:

Mount Cocktail
Mount Cocktail

That’s a pre-Prohibition drink perched up on our hastily-assembled ice bar called Satan’s Whiskers.  Here’s the recipe:

1/2 oz. gin
1/2 oz. Grand Marnier
1/2 oz. sweet vermouth
1/2 oz. dry vermouth
1/2 oz. orange juice
Dash orange bitters

Old McDonald likes to stir the cocktail rather than shake it with ice.  Your mileage may vary.

Speaking of Old McDonald, he’s got a new hobby, and oh lucky me, it involves more boiling!  The new farming hobby is……wait for it…..maple sugaring.  We did the first part the weekend of March 13:

Drilling The tapEmpty single bagEmpty double bagsOf course, you drill the taps and set the bags, and then you get some warm days and this happens:

Full single bagSemi-full double bags40 gallons worth of that, as it happens, in just about 2 weeks.  40 gallons of sap is equivalent to about one gallon of syrup, or so we have read.  But to get to that syrup, first you have to boil it:

Boiling photo 1And boil it…..

Boiling photo 2And by the second weekend, you will decide that you should also have a propane burner to assist in the boiling, and to help your wife this summer, when she cans vegetables:

Boiling photo 3We are currently at about 2 gallons of not-quite syrup, waiting for its final boil.  It’s sitting in the fridge, because we ran out of time and daylight last weekend, and intend to follow up tomorrow, just in time to have it ready for Easter.  Of course, the homemade maple syrup needs a label:

Cocktail_Farmers_LogoI cannot even tell you how excited I am we’ve got a logo now, courtesy of Old McDonald and Adobe Illustrator.  I am going to get a coffee mug out of this entire endeavor if it kills me.

New neighbors

So over on the other blog, Marginally Domesticated, I talk about the craft projects I work on in the (limited) spare time I have.  One of the things J & I do is paint a series of interesting-looking bird houses to hang out in the yard, for variety in the perennial gardens:

Battleship mid rangeThis was one of J’s creations last year. I painted this one:

Adobe birdhouseBecause we hang them on plant hangers, they are fairly unstable and thus generally unattractive as a housing situation for birds.  Also, they’re made of a pretty flimsy balsa wood, meaning they don’t hold up well.  You can see a little bit of mildew along the left edge in this photo.  I decided to slap another coat of paint on it and put it out for decoration again this summer, believing no bird in its right mind would want to live there.

Enter the sparrows.

A few weeks ago, we noticed a sparrow hopping up the ladder into the house, then hopping back out, down the ladder and flying away.  We peeked in, and discovered a mess of twigs stuffed down into the taller part of the adobe house.  Figuring this was just some confused bird, we amused ourselves by watching it hop up the ladder, go in, come out, hop down the ladder, and fly away.  Really, it was charming.

A few days later J went over and lightly touched the house, to see how “construction” was coming, when he heard, “PEEP peepeepeepeepeeepeepeepeep PEEP!” He came back in and said to me, “Congratulations, you’re a slum lord.  You slapped a coat of paint on the place, and now there are 5 birds living in there.”  We couldn’t see them, but we imagined they must have been stacked up in there like cord wood.  It’s a really tiny space in the back, with only one main entrance/exit – the side holes are more like windows.  It was more like an illegal sublet than a real home.

Over the weekend it appears that the young residents have fledged, and the nest is now empty.  There’s poop on the front porch, the inside is trashed, and the bottom is now falling off.  Plus they didn’t pay a lick of rent.  I should have demanded references.

There are always a few surprises

We have always ordered our seeds from Pinetree seeds, in Maine.  We like them because they are a small company and they promote seeds with a good germination rate.  On the few occasions that the seeds do not do well, Pinetree either replaces your seeds or refunds your money. We’ve noticed that when we let them know about a problem, it is probably not limited to us because those types of seeds often disappear from the following year’s catalog.

Last year we ran into our first case of strange vegetables.  We had ordered more of the Mr. Big Pea and decided to try Sugar Snap peas as well.  We very carefully planted the seeds in specific rows, one type at a time.  The plants came up, and we had a mix – some were the Mr. Big Pea (shell peas), others were just Sugar Snap (pea pods.) Literally from one plant to the next they could be different.  We investigated – peas can cross-pollinate.  Lesson learned – we shrugged it off, ate what we liked, and froze the rest (mostly the pea pods.)  I had the thought of using them in a stir fry; I think we still have a few bags, a year later.  Clearly not popular with us.

This year something’s going on with the squash.  We’re growing yellow squash and zucchini; they are in the same area.  One yellow squash plant is producing these:

2014-08-13 19.16.25Now, you would think that it’s a cross-pollination issue, right?  Except that there is a type of squash that looks just like that, called a Zephyr squash.  We know this, because we grew it two years ago.  It was not a particularly disease-resistant plant, so we only grew it that one year.  So it could be cross pollination (both types of plants are in the same area) or it could be a Zephyr squash plant.  Which is essentially a cross-pollinated summer squash/zucchini whose seeds are saved.

Maybe we should start our own seed company with the offspring of all of our mistakes.

Now we’re cooking

I can stop complaining about the lack of vegetables now:

Harvest on 8-14
Harvest on 8-14
Harvest on 8-17
Harvest on 8-17

This was a lot of stuff to come in all at once.  It looks very impressive, posted on Facebook.  I had several offers to, “….take some of that off your hands.”  So kind of those folks!  Where were they when I was on my hands & knees for four hours, weeding?

In the end, we put up 5 jars of pepperoncini peppers:

PepperoncinisI found a great recipe for pickling them on Food.com. Our first batch tasted a little mushy, probably from the length of time they sat in the canner until I was able to finish stuffing all the jars and bring it to a boil.  This time we stuffed the jars, filled the brine, removed the air and then put them all into the canner at once.  We’re hoping this makes them crisper.  The ones available commercially taste too bitter to me, so if they are just a little crunchier, they will be perfect.

We’ve got some beans coming, too:

Anellino di Trento and Royalty Purple bush beans
Anellino di Trento and Royalty Purple bush beans

We grilled these with a little bit of olive oil, lemon juice and dill and they were fantastic.  We’re enjoying the beans more than normal, given that just three weeks ago we thought they were a total loss.  Something was getting over our fence and eating the bushes.  We suspect a woodchuck, and so we set up the electric fence around the wire one.  Problem solved.

After picking all those tomatoes, we parboiled, peeled, seeded and diced them into 2-cup quantities and froze them.  We ended up with 2 bags of Krim, 3 bags of Kellogg, and a bag each of Brandywine and Roma.  But we didn’t freeze all of them:

2014-08-17 19.22.33That is a Tomato Stack Salad with Corn & Avocado.  It is delicious.  We used Krim, Kellogg and Brandywine, plus corn, fresh chive and basil from the garden in the dressing.  We have been waiting all season to make that stack of deliciousness.  It was worth the wait.

In a fit of optimism, I planted 191 Knight peas in the back 40 yesterday.  Average time to harvest?  56 days.  That puts us somewhere around October 12, give or take depending on how warm fall is.  I may have wasted $1.50 in seeds if we have an early frost.  This is my idea of living dangerously.

Be careful what you wish for

In my last post, I mentioned that we should maybe think about a pet with fur, rather than something like this:

Not as cute as a cat
We constantly have to move this guy out of the way of the mower

Just before 4th of July, I was out picking lettuce for dinner, and while walking back to the house, saw something out of the corner of my eye under the hammock.  Turned out to be a bobcat:

BobcatYou really have to zoom in on the picture to see him, but he’s there in the dark patch in the middle of the photo.  A friend estimated him at 45-50 pounds, slightly larger than our former resident cat.  I had mixed emotions about the bobcat  – part of me thought, “How cool!” while a stronger part of me thought, “Run away!”  I managed to get J out to the back deck to see our new feline neighbor before he strolled off into the brush that the evening.

Fast forward a week after that, and I was under the rhododendron weeding, when he popped out of the brush about five feet from me.  I am certain that both of us had the same “Aieeeee!” look on our faces, although I could only see his.  He ran one way, I ran the other.

I am now wearing bells out in the yard.

First harvests

I have been spending my spare time weeding, rather than posting on this blog, for which I apologize.  I find this the longest time of the year, when everything is growing merrily (especially the weeds) but there is nothing to pick and enjoy.  But that is starting to change.  First up:

Turnips and lettuce
Turnips and lettuce

This year we are growing the same lettuce mix we purchased from Pinetree last year, and it is doing equally well.  We have a new type of turnip, an Asian-style that you pick while they are still fairly small.  I have been trying to correct my less-than-stellar thinning efforts from earlier in the season by picking ones that are too close to other ones.  We only have a small row of them – about five feet across – so I am picking them for meals as we need them.

Yesterday was very exciting, because this is what was harvested:

Summer squash, banana peppers, sungold tomato
Summer squash, banana peppers, sungold tomato

Oh yes, your eyes do not deceive you – that is the first sungold tomato of the season.  J picked it and brought it in for me to enjoy – what a generous guy.  I think I surprised him when I cut it in half to share.  That’s very unlike me, where sungolds are concerned.

The precioussssssss
The precioussssssss

Meanwhile, our search for a substitute pet continues:

Not as cute as a cat
Not as cute as a cat

I really couldn’t tell if the toad was closing his eyes because he was relaxed, or he expected imminent death and didn’t want to see it coming.

We maybe need something with fur.

Adventures in aggressive suburban gardening