Monday, August 07, 2017

What's growing on....

 I feel like its been a little bit of a slow summer garden wise. I don't know if its because I'm busy and not spending enough time in the garden or because the weather keeps going up and down.

Garlic.... so I had this not so brilliant idea to let a pumpkin volunteer grow in my garlic patch with the logic that the pumpkin could take over the patch once the garlic was cleared. Big mistake.... the pumpkin took over well before most of the garlic were done. My russian inferno did great (first year ever, they are usually very very tiny!). This is a picture of my music garlic which I consider to be ok. The others are really small.  Then I went and mixed up my german reds and inchelium reds.. uuuugggghhh (my mom got a nice pile of garlic though).

Anyway, so I have saved seed garlic from: music, russian inferno, spanish roja, and chinese pinks  (the last two are abnormally small but I'll deal).  I am giving up on kettle river giant... it never grows more than once head... which I then replant... such a waste. And I bit the bullet and ordered some new seed garlic, specifically german red and inchelium red. Of course since I am ordering garlic I ordered a few more varieties specifically: Thai fire, Chesnok Red, and Asian tempest. So next year I will have 8 types of garlic.

Tomatoes.... Top left is a new variety for me, Oregon Spring. It is the first determinate tomato I've ever grown. You can actually see in the picture that it is starting to die, but it has put out a lot of tomatoes (I have about 2 dozen more that are ripening in my kitchen). The flavor is good but it is smaller than I'd hoped. Next year I may try growing this one in the ground, definitely a keeper though.

I am growing all of my tomatoes in grow bags or containers this year. It is always so hard rotating my tomatoes. They have very specific space requirements 2-3 sq. feet of garden space and then they grow at least 6 ft tall (on a bad year... much more than that on a good year).   So my logic is that I can keep the tomatoes in the same place year after year and just  dump the dirt from the tomato bags/ container into my pepper bed (they are both nightshades) and refill the bags each year. I don't know that that will work that smoothly (its a lot of soil!!!). Lets see.

Not sure if its the grow bags, the mix I put in the bags or the weather but my big indeterminate tomatoes are still ripening. I am growing: Red Rose, Kelloggs Breakfast, and San Marzano. The tomato on the lower left is the San Marzano. These are my first big tomatoes to ripen. I saved these seeds from a San Marzano plant my neighbor was growing last year. This plant is really doing so well. I'll save more seeds this year.

This year I limited myself to only two small tomato varieties: sun gold cherry (pictured lower right) and Mighty Sweet hybrid grape tomato (pictures upper right). The mighty sweet hybrid is doing really well. The sungold is producing but not as well as it normally does. My guess is that it doesn't  like the grow bag.

Indian Borage... this plant is doing so well. I really need to figure out what to do with it.

Mexican lime... is slow to develop fruit but it has fruit. (Sorry bad picture)

 My gotu kola plant has a lot of weeds this year. I need to figure out what to do about that.

Eggplant... This year all my eggplant are in containers and they are all doing great. I have decided that I am not going to bother starting these from seed any more. Like onions their seeds are too finicky in my hand and better starts are available in the store. I bought these as seedlings from Home depot (may have been during their Black Friday sale).

Cucumbers.... So I did some unintentional succession planting with my cucumbers.  I started my cucumbers under floating row covers outdoors. Every week or two if a seed didn't sprout I would resow the seed, I did this about three times.  It worked out in the end.

This year I tried one new cucumber variety, the Green Finger Cucumber from High Mowing organic seed.  I found these seeds at Wegmans. Love these don't they look beautiful (cucumber on the left)!!! Something has killed off my other two cucumber varieties (I assume its cucurbit downey mildew) and this one is still going strong. Not sure why but if this holds up we have another reason to grow more of these next year.

I no longer seed my Mexican Sour Gherkins they just come up as volunteers. I have two that are going strong, one I've trained up a trellis and the other one is choking my lemon balm (pictured on the left). I don't feel bad for the lemon balm, I was actually contemplating pulling it out (I have two and don't need two.).

Basil..... This basil is one I propagated from my hydroponic winter garden (my aerogarden). Definitely doing this again next year.

We interupt this blog post to give you an adorably cute picture of Lua. She was visiting us this weekend. She likes to look for "cave-like" spaces to relax in. This was one of her favorite spots yesterday when I was gardening.

Malabar spinach.... love the growth habit of this plant. It grows vertically, looks pretty, likes warmth but can take the weather fluctuations. This is my new green of choice in the garden.  I bought these as plant starts from a local nursery but I have one that started by accident. The seed fell into my lemon grass plant when it was indoors and when I planted it out it just took off. So I really should try direct sowing next year.

Peppers... Peppers are coming along slowly. I have added fertilizer, kept them watered, but its a slow season for these in my yard.  The chilli pictured on the right is a new one to me, its a Hot Lemon. The plant itself is double the size of all my other plants. I am waiting for the chillis to turn yellow, but I am excited about this one because the plant is gorgeous (next time I'll try and get a picture of the plant)!

Herb Garden... my son wanted to grow different kinds of mint. So he has been propagating various plants from cuttings. I am letting him plant them here in buried buckets and hoping to keep on top of them so they don't spread. (hoping!!!) I've also decided to add a few plants to bring in butterflys. I have a butterfly weed (aclepias tuberosa) and will move my butterfly bush here (it needed more space). I am also trying to start Egyptian walking onions here (not picture)... they are not doing spectacular... I will keep trying though.

Shiro Plum.... OH MY GOODNESS....  so excited about this. We had about 2-3 dozen plums this year, we picked the last of them last week. Actually I am guessing the birds picked the last half dozen last week but thats ok. We were able to eat most of them, so I am happy.

Not pictured... The one thing I am pretty disappointed about is that I have no cantaloupes this year. I love eating cantelope. My seedlings died from the cool spring, and I direct seeded a cantaloupe in a clear corner of the garlic bed but once again... the stupid pumpkin volunteer blocked it. Oh well, definitely learning more about how to use my space the better. No more squash or pumpkins... I don't have enough room for them.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

What's growing on....

Ok... this may be a bit long but the weather has been absolutely gorgeous and from the extended forcast it looks like its here to stay.

Last year I took a different approach with growing basil. Continuing with the theme of  trying new things, this year I am trying to propagate cuttings from my hydroponic plant. So far so good. I hope to have a full blog post on this after I plant this out.

I made a new garden bed on this sloping section of my yard. At the bottom near the fence I have started planting my asparagus (which have long roots and are good for soil retention). I want to use the top of the garden bed for herbs.

Here are the herbs I've been collecting for this new garden bed: Left to Right: Lemon thyme and Lavendar (my son purchased these two from his schools plant sale... love this kid, he knows what his Mom likes), malabar spinach (ok not a herb this will go in my keyhole garden), tarragon, marjoram, broadleaf thyme (also known as Dodda Pathre in India), and curry. My plan is also to add a arp rosemary, english thyme, and egyptian walking onions (all of which can be perennials here in Zone 6).

 This is a highly neglected rosemary.... I'm hoping to transplant and  prune it...right now its looking pretty sad.

My local nursery was selling mature FLOWERING hardy kiwi plants for $150.... that inspired me to put some more energy into getting these hardy kiwis to flower.  I will get these to flower!!!

 Raspberries are trying to invade every possible space... I really should weed these more. I am sure I will pay the price later when I have to pull them out.

 You probably can't see them very well but my reliance grape plants are sprouting.... long story short. I moved one grape vine here last fall. (This area gets much more sun). Anyway the vine wasn't sprouting, so I ended up getting a second one from home depot.  Well now I have two sprouting vines that are too close together. Oh well... I am sure I'll regret this later but lets see what happens.

Planted out my chillis yesterday. Hopefully with this heat they will take off.

This is the other half of my chillis with two malabar spinach vines (or mayalu  (मायाळू) in Marathi)  growing in the back. I think the malabar spinach will like this location so much better since it has a tall trellis to grow on.

Not the best picture ever but here is my tomato lineup: Mighty grape hybrid, Sungold cherry, San Marzano, Oregon Springs, Red Rose and Kelloggs Breakfast. I am growing them in grow bags this year.  Yes they will be moved, they are not going to stay this close together.

Eggplant, so far only two. I'll probably squeeze a few more in when everything is planted out.

Comfrey.... I love this plant... it really worked out as a great fertilizer last year. My son started a batch of comfrey tea a month ago. Lets see how that works out... I am trying to avoid purchasing any more fertilizer.

These are my Snap peas that I am growing in my keyhole garden. They need to be trained up the trellis but otherwise they seem to be doing fine.

I have a ton of strawberries this year. The birdnetting is up but the birds have figured out a way under the bird netting.... I guess I'm going to have to anchor down the edges. I actually found a bird in the netting yesterday but I also wonder if the chipmunks are eating them? We'll see. I am nearing the end of my rope when it comes to strawberries. Not worth the fight in my opinion.

My daughter's fairy garden...its still a work in progress ... she grew whatever flower seeds she could find in my stash... so the little seedlings in the middle are nastratiums, Probably not the best thing for a fairy garden but oh well.

 This enormous sage plant is one of the first plants I ever bought years ago. I've let it go wild and it really has taken over this shady spot in my yard. I need to prune it. I suspect I'll have lots of little baby sage's when I'm done... anyone need sage?

Square food garden number one, this one has been under a floating row cover for a few weeks now. I think I can take the row cover off for good . The first row is onions, second rows is spinach, the third row has one square of kohlrabi with three squares of what I hope to be beans (I may need to reseed), and the fourth row is cucumber seedlings which are small but doing fine (because they have been under a row cover).

 This is my "worm bin".  I throw my kitchen scraps in here,  cover them with leaves and let the resident earthworms do their thing. The earth worms are so much more efficient than my compost bin. Those are raspberries surrounding my worm bin.
 Obligatory picture of my garlic in my second square foot garden.... really such an easy plant!!

Here are the rest of my seedling under a a shade cloth, acclimating to sun. I'll plant out the cucumbers and melons next week. So many extra chillis and tomatoes!!! Anyone want some!

I found a cheap mexican lime plant at a local nursery. I haven't had luck keeping limes alive in the winter but let see maybe third times the charm. (yes the lemongrass is photobombing the picture)

Gotu Kola is coming back. Yes there is a lot of clover,  however as I understand it clover is a good cover crop. So I am letting it stay in here,  at least till the Gotu Kola takes off.

 I started this hydroponic basil plant the first week in January and its still going... I get two large handfuls of leaves a week. I'll keep this going till the garden basil takes off. Speaking of which I really should sow my basil seeds soon., maybe next week.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Michael Pollan Books-Part 1: The Omnivore's Dilemma

I need to admit that I have a bit of an addiction to Michael Pollans books. His books resonate with me from so many perspectives and he is a fantastic writer.  So when I sat down to write a review of one of his books here on my blog I was a bit overwhelmed, where do I even start.  I know I am not a great writer and I want to make sure I do his books justice. Meanwhile I continued to plow through his books so now I have four books that I want to review four you: The Omnivore's Dilemma, Cooked, The Botany of Desire and In Defense of Food.  All of these books, except In Defense of Food are structured in the same way. The author takes the topic and breaks it down into Perspectives usually three or four.  The prevailing theme in pretty much all his books are polyculture and biodiversity is good and when it comes to food we need think about what we are eating.

A little bit about the author He is a journalist who wrote for New York Times (You can find his formal biography here).  He is an avid gardener and was an avid gardener long before he had some of his more contemporary views on food.  Fun little fact… his is the brother of Tracy Pollan (actress/wife of Michael J Fox)

So in Part I of this series I'll talk about: The Omnivore's Dilemma

In Omnivore's Dilemma Michael Pollan attempts to address the issue of "What should we have for dinner?" when as humans we can literally eat anything meat, vegetable, fungi, etc. This book was published in 2006 (yes this book has been on my "To Read" list for too long). That was just after the South Beach and Atkins Diet fads when bread/carbohydrates all of a sudden became evil and Americans had more reasons to rely on animal proteins.

Who needs to read this book: Anyone who buys food in an grocery store in the United States. Yes... anyone. Gardener/Farmers would find the pastoral section incredibly interesting.

What are three "Perspectives" in this book: 

  • Industrial : If you read only one part of this book this is the part to read. What he writes about corn, how it has evolved and how it has shaped how we eat, is fascinating. I don't think I ever really appreciated how some plants are truly dependent on humans for their continued existence (in much the same way the modern dog has become dependent on us). My daughter is reading the young readers version of this book and even she was floored by the section on corn. She immediately got off the couch ran into the kitchen and started looking at all the processed food boxes in our kitchen to look for all the corn that was there. When I was growing up I can remember news reports on how farmers were going bankrupt,  in debt, and loosing their farms. You don't hear those news reports anymore but this book reminded me that the problem is still there, we have just come to accept it.  He also follows a baby steer from birth through slaughter... this is incredibly interesting. He explains E.coli  O157:H7 and mad cow disease, how and why they happened. For those of you that say...well I am a vegetarian so I don't need to understand this. Well three things 1) do you drink milk then yes this still concerns you 2) Do you remember the spinach recall ~10 years, the suspected cause of that was E.coli  O157:H7 in the water run off from cattle farms 3) the impact of all of this on the environment is STAGGERING. I don't really think I could appreciate the impact on the environment fully until I read this book. He talks about fertilizers, really explains whats the big deal. One thing that I appreciate is that he is presenting this as someone who eats these foods, he is not sitting on a soap box and saying you can only eat grass fed beef. He is clearly a meat eater and enjoys eating meat.  
  • Pastoral: This section is divided into two... industrial organic and a sustainable farm, two very different things! The industrial organic section made me truly appreciate "organic spring mix" from the grocery store.  He also makes a good case for why organic food is better for the environment than buying "industrial  conventional" food. He is honest that its not as good as sustainably grown food but it is still better. 
    • Polyface Farms- This is the sustainable farm that Michael Pollan chose to visit for this section of the book. As a gardener I loved this section of the book. Joel Salatin is the creator of Polyface farm. His farm is fascinating and definitely gave me some ideas for my own garden. One sad but important point that Joel makes in these books is that smart people do not want to become farmers. They are inclined to do something more "successful" and farming just isn't it. I do think this is changing but society's perceptions of farmers need to evolve. We need to appreciate our farms more, after all we wouldn't be alive without them.
  • Personal: If any of you are like me you have always contemplated trying to cook a meal with foods you completely grew/foraged/hunted yourself, in this section Michael Pollan does just that. I found this chapter as entertaining as it was interesting. Hunting wild boar, the modern day fears of picking a poisonous mushroom ... all of it was so fun to read. 
If you don't like to read... but are interested in this- Ok so I do have two alternatives for you 1) this book is available in an audio format (I was able to find it in my local library). 2) Watch Food, Inc on Netflix . Food Inc, is a documentary showing how large companies have taken control of our food chain. This documentary covers a lot of the topics from the Industrial section of this book. Michael Pollan was a consultant for Food, Inc., he and Polyface Farms are actually in this documentary. 

Thursday, April 06, 2017

What's Growing on.....

 The tomatoes and chillis are coming along.. and need to be potted up this week.  (Hopefully today). Since its the first week in April I also have to start my next batch of seedlings, specifically cucumbers and melons. Its always a bit of a risk because I can't always plant these in the ground in May.  However, I figure I can always repot these while I wait for the weather to get reliably warm. Cucumbers and melons apparently don't like to be repotted (or their roots touched/moved) but I have always had success starting these indoors and repotting once if needed.

This weekend was gorgeous so while I had to do some spring cleaning in the front yard, I couldn't help but start some things in the garden (i.e. the back yard).  One of which was weeding some strawberry runners.  I decided to replant these instead of composting them. I know I won't get a lot of strawberries from such a small area but it will be easy to keep this covered from the birds/deer.  I've been toying with the idea of starting a milk crate strawberry tower as seen here in CaliKim's you tube video:

If I do this I'll need some strawberry starts.... so I figured it doesn't hurt to start collecting them now.

Garlic is coming along.... this year I planted a full square foot garden with garlic. Garlic is such a reliable plant in my garden. I figured why should it have to share space with my onions, which are not always consistent. Garlic also stores really well which is all the more reason to give it prime space in my garden.

These are sunchokes from last years plants... there are so many more left in the ground. I harvested a few so I can start them in other parts of my yard. I grow sunchokes for 3 reasons 1) to help with soil retention on a very steep sloping wild region of my yard (sunchokes have very deep roots). 2) for the nice fall flowers it produces. 3) in the event of a Zombie apocalypse this will be my food source (ok.... I am not completely serious about this.... but given the effect of sunchokes on my GI tract this will probably be the only occasion I actually eat these).

So I noticed last year that the earthworms can work though large amounts of leaves and kitchen scraps in a few weeks. So I have filled these two buckets with all the earthworms I can find with the hope that by the time I need to plant my tomatoes on Mothers day I have a good amount of vermicompost for them. Lets hope :)

This is my Shiro plum tree. Last year we finally saw our first ripe plums so this year we are hoping for more. I fertilized and mulched this tree this weekend. Now I am just waiting with the deer/bird netting ready for when the fruit start to appear.

Time to plant the onions!!! I received my Dixondale Farms onion order yesterday. This year I ordered all three of their long day red onions (red river, red zeppelin, and redwing) with the hopes of doing some side by side grow testing to see which one performs the best in my area. The fourth type of onion I ordered were walla walla onions which really do very well for me.

Anyway thats it for now... hopefully the weather stays warm. The birds seem to think that the warm weather is here to stay and I'm hoping they are right.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Afterschool Corner: Reading eggs...

I have been going back and forth on starting this new blog series for a while now. (I know what you are thinking... "series" implies that I will blog regularly......) When it comes to educating your children, people have so many different ideas and beliefs. My general premise is that I want my kids to live up to their full potential. I do completely agree that children need to play and if they are really playing I let them play. But lets be honest here... how much time do our kids spend these days staring at some sort of screen. Whether it be playing minecraft, watching tv, or whatever random app happens to be popular these days (i.e. Pokemon go). There are also so many educational tools out there it can be overwhelming for parents to figure out what to use. So I thought I'd share some of the stuff I have used and are using for my kids.

I guess I should start with ... what is afterschooling. It is basically where you supplement your child's normal school education with work at home that is independent of the what they are doing in school. Programs like Kumon and Jei can be considered afterschooling, however I have never used those programs because I don't like being locked in to a rigid schedule. I also think that some of these programs assign to much additional work.  I admit to being a homeschooler wanna be, however I don't have the confidence to teach them everything. I am also fortunate that my kids have had some great teachers who pick up incredibly quickly on what they need. Some of their teachers have been a valuable resource in order to figure out what we need to focus on (and what we don't need to focus on). More often than not afterschooling is done by public school kids for many reasons. One thing I quickly realized is that public schools in the US seem to be the battleground for whatever political agenda the current president has. The presidents usually don't have teaching/education backgrounds so these the new programs are not always carried out in the best manner. Afterschooling gives me faith that I am giving my kids what they need to learn despite external forces that are out of my control (i.e. a not-so-great teacher or badly implemented education program).

Before I start let me just reiterate a few things about my style of "afterschooling". If my kids are playing, truly playing, with something that does not involve a screen then I do not stop this play to "afterschool". When my kids were younger (i.e. 1st grade and younger) and did not have very intense schedules they had to earn screen time by doing afterschool work. This doesn't work so much anymore because school is more intense and they have a lot more going on with extracurricular activities (dance, gymnastics, tennis etc.).  However we still do some afterschool work, just not as much as when they were younger.

So I thought the best program to start this series would be Reading eggs.

Reading eggs was probably one of the first really successful tools I used with the kids. I can not sing its praises enough. Here is a little overview:

Reading Eggs by Blake eLearning is an online program which teaches children to read. I had started using this with my kids when they were 3-4 years old (this I think is the key to my success). My daughter was able to start when she was 3 almost 4 and used the program pretty independently. My son was a solid 4 years old when he started. He was just not ready any earlier than 4. When he was finally ready, he did not have good fine motor skills to use a mouse so he could not do reading eggs independently. In the beginning I would have him point to the screen where he wanted to click with the mouse and I would click the mouse for him. This worked out well and he was able to progress through the program.

The program itself uses a variety of really catchy songs, cute animations, and all sorts of games to keep the kids engaged (much more so than any activity book I ever bought them).  There was one game in particular which the kids had to find letters in a big jumble of letters (almost like a crossword), the game exactly mimicked one of the kindergarten assessments. The games can get quite intense and rigorous. When my kids would complain about it being too hard I would assess whether they were just being lazy or whether it really was too hard for them.  If it was too hard I'd give them a break... sometime the break was short (a few days) and sometimes it was much longer (a few months). There were levels that made some pretty huge jumps in reading ability and my kids just weren't there. (I don't know if they have changed some of these levels)  The point for me was to make sure my kids were going at a pace right for them so if they really were hitting a brick wall with the program we took a break. My two kids really learn differently... things come easy for one not so easy for the other one.  I had to embrace the fact that they were both not going to work at the same pace and that they both needed breaks.

 For me the true success of this program came when they started kindergarten and both were reading at the level equivalent to or higher than the end of kindergarten year. The one real benefit of this is because my children can read well they do read a lot. My kids used this program from the age of ~4 till they were 6, neither finished it all the way to the end.  However honestly this was probably one of the best things I did for them. It has been a few years since my kids have used this website but they continue to be strong readers.

Reading eggs is not a free website. You can try a free two week trial here. I also suggest searching around for discount codes because they are readily available (try sites like retailmenot, etc.). They do also try to offer a bundle or package deals. For me Reading eggs was worth every penny I spent on it.  I don't send my kids to Kumon or Jei or any of those learning places. The money I spent on Reading eggs was a fraction of those tutoring centers. Since reading eggs was an online program that we did from home... it was one less thing I had to drive them to, we could do it when it was convenient for us, and the kids could work at their own pace.

Let me also make a few comments on the other programs in the Reading eggs website because often times they offer bundle deals with their other programs, specifically Mathseeds.  My kids did use mathseeds, first I will say it is not a very rigorous math program. I did continue to let my kids use it though because it did a fantastic job of teaching my kids about counting money, telling time, and geometry (Since common core math is weak in counting money and telling time this was worth it for me).  Math seeds was often times my kids "easy way" to earn some tv time. When we used this program they only had up to 1st grade math available. They seem to be constantly adding new levels, but I really can't comment on its use in higher grades as we switched math programs after first grade.

The other program that they offer is reading eggspress... we tried several times to use this program and my kids liked it because it was easy. I did not like it because I felt like it gave my kids too many options and the kids need one clear path to move through. Our public school gives my kids Reading A-Z which honestly I like much better than reading eggspress.  

One of the cons (which of course is a pro for my kids) is that this is an online learning tool. I sometimes wish I tried out their physical workbooks. My kids hate to write, I sometimes wonder if its because I use a lot of online learning tools. I do have physical paper books but my kids move much faster through computer based curriculum. One teacher explained to me that if your child is a good reader than he/she's a good writer. So my kids aren't bad at writing, they just don't like to write. If you can't tell this is one thing we are trying to focus on now.