Monday, April 30, 2012

Monday April 30

Last day of April and things are growing fast.  The ten day forecast predicts warm temperatures with lows in the 50’s.  I wanted to get the tomatoes and peppers in the beds today but there may be some severe storms with hail later today, so I’ll wait until tomorrow.  The only pickins this week was a pound of lettuce, but I expect more variety next week.

Yesterday I turned compost and blood meal into the tomato and squash beds.  This year the tomatoes/peppers/eggplant go into the bed closest to the now defunct cherry tree, which I cut down in the fall of 2010.  Nothing did well in this bed once the tree’s roots found the bed and started to mooch nutrients.  The roots in the bed have been dead long enough to break up with the shovel for removal.  That's a pretty good mass of roots for the compost bin.

I installed two tomato cages on seven foot fence posts.  The cages are made from four foot rebar mesh rolled into a two foot diameter cage.  They are suspended on the hooks on the posts so the bottom of the cage is two feet above the soil, making a six foot tall cage.  I wanted to get the cage as high as possible.   I used three posts and wired the two cages together where they touched.  It’s plenty sturdy. 

These Kolibri kohlrabi are really striking.  With decent weather this one should be ready later this week. 

I have to wonder if the purple Pac Choi grows as fast as a green-leafed variety since it seems likely it has less chlorophyll in the leaves. The purple pigment is probably anthocyanin.  From wikipedia this pigment does not absorb light in the same range of the spectrum as chlorophyll, and it acts as a sort of sunscreen in many plants.   Sure looks great.

I’m hoping to get some spinach in about a week.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Landscaping Part 2

I did not want to do this project.  If grass would grow over the septic tanks I would have no problem with a lawn there, none at all.  But there wasn’t enough soil over the tanks to grow grass.  I thought about making a mound of soil over the tanks and seeding it with grass.  I might as well put up a sign that says “Mound of dirt covered with sod that is supposed to hide septic tanks.”

So I chose to build a flower bed over the tanks.  With the edging in place, a few more inches of soil could be added and (knock on wood) something would then grow.  How hard can it be? 
That’s what I’ve been working on for the past three weeks (see April 15 post for part 1).  The first week I put in edging.  Part of this bed had already been built into the slope a few years ago.  At that time I just wanted to get some bushes to hide the big blue bulb.  (Why couldn’t they make it green?).  But the problem with the dead vegetation over the settling tank just wasn’t going away.  Corner posts were set, string was strung between the posts, and a trench was dug.  

Each edger was set in place to the string after much (emphasize much) trial and error, which means adding or removing dirt until the edger sits just right.  I'm a stickler for getting the edgers in line. 

Another course of limestone block was added to the terraced side of the bed, which was built a few years ago. 

Some of the plants were relocated in the bed and new ones put in at the edge of the bed, which is not over a tank.  The internet sources advised to use only perennials and small bushes near a septic tank, not big woody bushes.  I planted mounding plants - magic carpet spirea, rug junipers, creeping phlox – that would spill over into the areas over the tanks. 
That’s when the fun really began.  I found that the dirt over the tanks was hard Indiana clay, very little topsoil – no wonder nothing would grow.  That’s when the project expanded.  First the sod was scraped off and carted to a low area next to the driveway.  Then I dug out about half of the clay, about a cubic yard, and carted it to a low spot on the pond levee and spread it there.   At that point I had three projects going.  Well I had to do something with the dirt, and I did not want to put it in a pile and move it again later.
The remaining clay was chopped up with a hoe then broken up more with a small tiller.  It’s easy to say “chopped up with a hoe” but the reality is it took two days to break the clay up.  I hauled in two yards of dirt/compost mix and added it to the bed.  That was mixed in by shovel and hoe then broken up again with a tiller.  This is where it is now. 

Some of the dirt was put against the house foundation and graded to improve slope away from the house – a fourth project.  
I think it was Thursday morning when I tried to get out of bed and realized that work had to stop for awhile.  I plan to seed the soil over the beds with a perennial mix and hope that something grows over the tanks.   I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, the end being the end of landscaping.  There’s one more project to do, a foundation bed in the northwest corner that will make a proper setting for the bench that I finally put together after it sat in the minibarn for five years.  In comparison that will be a piece of cake.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mid Spring - Quick Tour

Southerners may snicker at this, but here in central/SW Indiana a blooming rhodendron is a real bonus.  Rhododendrons are a chancy proposition in this zone.  I inherited two when I bought the house, probably because the original owner/builder hailed from Tenessee.  The one in the yard did not make it through a cold winter a few years ago.  This one is against a south-facing wall, protected from the north winds, and has done well.  It’s had a few blooms in the past, but nothing like this. 

The mystery waterbird now has an identity.  Every few days I see it on the pond.  I don’t know if the bird has taken up residence at the pond and is just seclusive or if it calls a number of ponds in the area home.  It’s a pied-billed grebe, a very fast swimmer and diver.  Its plumage is non-descript but the dark band around the bill of the adult is unique.  It’d be nice to see a family of these little water imps on the pond.   

The vegetable beds are shaping up.  I’m still waiting for spinach after harvesting the overwintered plants, hopefully next week.  I picked more radish, 13 oz,  which is especially good this year.  Nothing like a sandwich and a couple of radishes for lunch. 

The greens bed is in front in this pic.  It’s mostly growing lettuce and spinach.  There’s also a Major Broccoli, a Kolibri Kohlrabi and a purple Pac Choi making good progress - the first set of brassicas. They were transplanted into this bed while it still was covered with the plastic greenhouse.  The bed in the background will get the tomatoes, peppers and eggplant seedlings on the picnic table after the storms blow through later this week.  
The front bed in the center row of beds is mostly onions.  The onions are flanked by carrots on either side, and the triangular area has some herbs.  The center bed will get squash, and the back bed is for brassicas.  Two sets of brassicas – about a month’s worth – were lost when I traveled, so the bed is mostly empty except for the most recent set at the far end and two Pakman broccoli that I bought at Lowe’s to fill the gaps.  The trellis is for sugar snap peas and later on cucumbers. 

The west beds are the most recent, built in 2010.  The front bed was seeded with parsnip and the soil mulched with grass clippings to protect the slow-germinating parsnip.  The parsnips should help break up the clay pan beneath the bed soil.  Two okra plants will go into the left side of this bed and the right side will probably get some bush beans.  Potatoes were planted in the trapezoidal bed in the back, and yes those are cages.   There’s a cage of Yukon gold, two cages of Red Pontiac, and a cage of blue potatoes, a first-time for them, with five seed potatoes in each cage.  The tree line to the west blocks much of the prevailing wind.  I’ve found cages help aerate the plants and at least slow down disease.  

So far 15 pounds for the year, much of that parsnip and leek from last year.  If the cucurbits don’t get bacterial wilt like last year I’m hoping for at least a pound per square foot this year. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Rambling Thoughts

There was a visitor to the pond a few days ago – a diving duck.  It looked like a juvenile, with mostly gray feathers, and a black stripe around the middle of its bill.  When I stepped outside it would dive then surface in another part of the pond.  I checked the bird book to see if I could identify it but none of the adult birds had a bill like that.  Was it part of a group that stopped on the way north, then got left behind?  It was here for two days and I haven’t seen it since.   Hope it found its way.

The freakish warm weather in mid-March caused many trees to leaf out way too early.  I’m noticing damage to a number of trees after a hard frost the second week of April.  The Black Tupelo that shades the back deck is showing a lot of leaf burn.  Many of the tulip poplars show similar damage.  It was the warmest March on record in this region.  I don’t think the leaf damage is anything that a healthy tree cannot overcome. 
I consider myself fortunate to have gotten a second chance in life.  I worked as a carpenter most of my working life, with brief attempts at door-to-door sales, and by my forties my back was telling me that working construction was no longer possible.   I got admitted to the Indiana-Purdue regional campus in Indianapolis and began exploring options.
After a few semesters trying different courses I settled on a major in chemistry, thinking that a degree in a technical area offered the best chances of getting a job.   It was probably better that I had no idea what I was in for.  Most of the credits for electives transferred from my first attempt at college when I was in my twenties, leaving the core math and science courses.  There was calculus and differential equations, a prerequisite for the courses in physics, physical chemistry, and quantum mechanics.  I went on to get a masters in organic chemistry then a job as a research chemist at a pharmaceutical company.
It was a lot of hard work.  You have to like science and have some smarts, but except for those really gifted few it boils down to hours and hours of hard work to wrap one’s mind around the concepts.  I think I was lucky to go back and take a science curriculum, because it opened my eyes to another world.  Without the distractions of youth I developed a real appreciation for the way science comes together.  I began to see a bigger picture that I would never have seen in my twenties.  Like the way Planck’s constant, which relates to how energy is quantized at the atomic level, kept showing up in the 19th and 20th centuries to describe different phenomena. 
I began to appreciate the way science of something develops, like a house built one brick at a time.  At first the researchers may have no clue as to what the house looks like, only some ideas, but over time as more and more bricks are added the overall structure comes into focus.  Quantum mechanics revised our view of the atom, and it was hard for many to accept since it described an electron as both a particle and a wave.  It took much of the first half of the 20th century for quantum theory to gain acceptance but ultimately the evidence was overwhelming.  And now things like magnetic resonance imaging and LCD screens could not be developed without an underpinning of quantum theory.
As one of my professors said to me once about research:  You go where the science takes you.   Like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces already in place make the places for the remaining pieces easier to find.  
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t understand climate science, that’s not my area.  I have a real appreciation for how difficult this discipline is, and the amount of dedication it takes to do research in this area.  Climate science requires a mastery of physics, chemistry, statistics, meteorology, geology.  In short it’s a science that requires one to put together all the sciences, a talent a run-of-the-mill hack like myself doesn’t have, and it really takes total dedication.  So I don’t spend time trying to come up with a grand verdict on climate change.  I just don’t have the background. 
As a scientist I find it unlikely that climate scientists as a body have set out to create a bogus peer-reviewed theory in order to (choose one):  1) Make themselves filthy rich as part of an evil grand plan  2) Conspire to perpetuate their own careers  3) March us all into green communes and create a new world order.  That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of egotistical self-promoting individuals among scientists.  There are.  But ultimately the research goes where the science takes it.  The peer-reviewed process insures that.  And where the science has taken climate scientists is this:  human-caused global warming is a reality.        
Whenever I have the stomach to look at the work of global warming deniers, including some scientists, one thing stands out.  Every study, every opinion piece starts from the same place:  They don’t want to believe that global warming is real, and they search for bits of information that will support their view.  That is not science.  If you follow the money you will also find that many deniers are funded by the fossil fuel industry.  I don’t think that is a coincidence.
At one time scientists were put on the cover of Life magazine.  Now they are demonized.  The Virginia attorney general went so far as to attempt to criminalize climate scientists, an attempt that was practically laughed out of the Virginia Supreme Court.  Repression of scientists is an action that is more consistent with a police state than a democracy.  The politics of the study of global warming has overwhelmed the science.  More so than any other country in the world, America is in deep denial of not only global warming but the amount of fossil fuels that remain.  I guess too many of us are too engaged with American Idol and reality TV to come to grips with reality.  We prefer to live a fantasy world, one where the concepts of finite resources and science simply don’t apply. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Not much came out of the beds this week, just 8 oz of radishes.  There’s a lag time between the spinach plants that overwintered – just two made it – and the spinach that was planted early this spring, leaving me bereft of spinach for a week or two.  Snap peas are about ready to begin their climb up the trellis, some cole crops are progressing, and I’ll put potatoes in when after the soil dries out a little.

Today I’m resting.  The past week I’ve been working on building a flower bed over the two septic tanks.  The installer probably wanted to get the tanks as high as possible in order to have enough fall out to the septic field.  There’s about four to five inches of soil over the tanks, not enough to sustain healthy sod.  Every summer the grass over the tanks turns brown then dies.  Two years ago I built a terraced bed that is open on one side into the slope over one of the tanks, then planted some bushes around the tank.  I realized that I needed to completely enclose the bed over both tanks or have to deal with an ugly patch of yard every year.
The bed was layed out with stakes and a trench for the the edgers was dug.  The edge of the bed will be made from scalloped concrete edgers where the ground is more or less level.  The terracing was made with three rows of limestone blocks. I’m going to add one more row of block to the existing terrace then continue around with edgers.  The block is from a quarry in Bloomington, where they sell the reject blocks for a penny a pound.  Hard to pass up a deal like that.  
After the edge structure is finished I’ll get some topsoil/compost and dig it in the bed.  I’m hoping to raise the bed another three inches.  Then it’s time to put in some plants.  The parts of the bed around the tanks can be planted with some perennials, and I’ll put in groundcover over the tanks.  (If anyone can recommend a tough groundcover that can survive moisture extremes I’m listening).  It will take a few years to get everything established.
I planted two apple trees last week.  Don’t know why I did not think of this a few years ago, but I realized that there is a sunny area on the slope toward the pond with enough room for two trees.  I purchased Golden Delicious and Fuji semi-dwarf trees, both of which are supposed to bear in mid-fall, so they should pollinate each other well.  Maybe I went overboard when planting these trees, but this is clay soil and it needs to be amended.  I dug a hole about two feet in diameter and two feet deep and mixed the soil with four bags of compost, then set in the tree after unbounding the roots.  This is the Fuji.  I pruned lightly since it’s a little late to plant them, and will get serious about pruning them early next spring. 
This is a spreader that I made for the Golden Delicious.  This tree had two leaders very close together so I decided to just forget about a central leader and train the tree as a fork (if that makes any sense).  The spreader is just a ¼” thick piece of wood with some holes drilled near the ends.  Tie straps are fed through the holes and around the branches.  I’ll ratchet the straps a little more every week until the branches are at a 45 degree angle.  The straps should probably go through some sort of sleeve since they might abrade the tree somewhat.    

Monday, April 9, 2012

10 Days of Neglect

I got back home on April 5 after visiting family in south Texas.  I left on Monday morning, March 26 and drove across Missouri, NW Arkansas and Oklahoma, and traversed Texas north to south on the way to the Rio Grande Valley.  I expected Missouri to be midwestern with lots of farms.  It’s much hillier than I thought, and most of the country along I-44 is wooded – the Missouri Ozarks.  The Boston Mountains south of Fayetteville Arkansas are beautiful – just big enough to be mountains, not hills – with a lot of sweeping vistas.  Oklahoma seemed desolate, poor.  Dallas is huge, monster freeway interchanges, densely structured.  I took US 77 through central Texas and camped at a State Park, the next morning stopped at a Czech bakery in LaGrange for breakfast tacos and Kolaches – food of the gods in my opinion.  If you ever find yourself on the byroads in this part of Texas look for one of these bakeries, you won't regret it.

So what happens when I leave a garden plot for 10 days in the spring to its own devices?   The day before leaving I transplanted a set of cole crops into the beds – broccoli, kohlrabi and pak choi.  Cutworms got the broccoli and damaged the others.  I bought a 4-pack of broccoli seedlings at the greenhouse and planted 2 of them in the bed.  The next day the cutworms went to work on one of the new broccoli seedlings.  I planted one of the remaining seedlings in its place, put a collar around it from a paper towel tube and doused the soil around all the seedlings with Bt.  So far so good.
The day before I left I seeded a set of cole crops under the lights.  Another set of cole crops had been planted on March 12 and was just beginning to show true leaves.   The seed-starting system uses a wicking mat in a perforated tray that sits in a reservoir tray, which I believed would provide enough water while I was gone, and the lights are on a timer.  When I got back I found that the seedlings that were already up when I left had not grown at all.  The plants that were seeded the day before I left had germinated  and were already larger than the previous set.  In the picture, the set of plants that was seeded on March 12 is on the right, the set that was seeded March 25 is on the left.  The leeks were in bad shape as well.

Why did the older seedlings just stop growing?  Here's my theory.  Extra water was added to the reservoir tray before I left so there was some standing water above the mat.  The soil mix got too wet and the seedlings drowned.  By the time the next set of seedlings germinated the excess water had evaporated and the moisture level in the soil was better.  So the newer set of seedlings did fine, the older seedlings drowned.  If that's not it it's time to go into the paranormal.
On the plus side the plants in the greens bed thrived.  The homemade cage over the bed kept out any critters (rabbits) that consider greens a tasty meal.  I picked some of the larger lettuce plants and reseeded the open spots with more lettuce.
A spinach plant (Space) was harvested, as well as the first row of radishes.  I seeded more spinach (Renegade, a fast maturing variety) where the radish grew.  Then I took two young spinach plants that needed to be thinned out and transplanted them to the spot where the spinach plant was removed.  The first set of broccoli, kohlrabi and pak choi is doing well.  That purple pak choi is really a beautiful plant.

A half-wheelbarrow load of compost was applied to the parsnip/leek/okra bed.  It may need some fertilizer, but parsnips do a good job of bringing up nutrients.  I turned over the soil by shovel, rototilled the top few inches and raked smooth.  Six rows of parsnips were seeded then the soil surface was dusted with a little sulfur, which I would like to think deters the squirrels from digging.  This year I tried Lancer parsnips instead of Harris Model, which is usually what you find in stores.  This bed was full of cilantro volunteers before it was dug up and I saved a few of them in pots.
Not much more work needs doing in the beds for a week or two.  Potatoes are scheduled to go in April 18 but I might move that time up a week since all plants are about two weeks ahead of schedule this year.  I’d like to see the compost in the bin finish out a little more before digging it into the beds.  With 3 beds mostly planted there should be enough compost to apply about an inch over the remaining 4 beds.
For the week I got spinach 10 oz, lettuce 20 oz, and radish 7 oz.  So far this year the beds have produced:  parsnip 7.6 pound, leek 1.5 pound (both planted last year), lettuce 2.5 pound, spinach 1.4 pound, radish 0.4 pound.  Total 13.4 pounds for the year.  Off to a good start.