STARTING FRESH

I have always appreciated a fresh start. I like mornings. The first of the month. I even like Mondays – although I’ve never been a nine-to-fiver, which I’m sure helps with that. Did you have “do over”s when you were a kid? I like those too. And here we are in the New Year, the biggest fresh start of all. 

So I’m calling this blog post a fresh start. I’m sorry I’ve neglected it for so long. I know how frustrating it can be to follow a blog and look forward to a new post and not get one. First it’s disappointing. Then it’s annoying. Then it makes you angry. Eventually you give up. I can’t blame you. I’ve done it too. I won’t make any promises, but I missed you and I hope you’ll come back and see what’s happening in the garden from time to time.

We’ve had a pretty mild winter so far, and I’ve been able to continue to eat out of my garden, which is really gratifying. We had our first hard freeze only a few nights ago, I think it got down to 16º. We’ll see how it looks out there tomorrow when it warms up a bit, but last I checked I still had

Swiss chard,

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kale,

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collard greens,

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broccoli raab, which went crazy and tried to escape the hoop –

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fortunately I found a really cute weight to hold down the floating row cover – 

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and leeks.

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We’ll see how much longer everything lasts.

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I’ve been pretty busy out there even so. It has long been a personal goal of mine to create enough compost to be able to give all my beds a layer of homemade organic matter at the end of the season. I’ve been working towards closing that loop since I started my garden three years ago and I got much closer this year. I was able to put a 2″ layer of mulch on 237 ft² of a total 410 ft² of gardening space. I am determined to do the entire garden next year.

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I even sifted it! The empty beds got a nice helping of this black gold.

Then I got a cool leaf blower that also sucks.

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Ok, it doesn’t suck, it rocks, because it sucks up leaves and shreds them which reduces them about ten fold and makes a great (free!) mulch with which to put a bed to sleep for the winter. This will reduce spring weeding and encourage earthworms.

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Then, come spring, I’ll dig everything in and be good to go.

I also got the important fall planting done. On October 22, I planted French grey shallots.

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They are said to be the cremé de le crop of shallots and I mean to find out. (We’ll talk more about them later.)

On November 20th I planted three kinds of garlic, about 40 cloves in total. Two softnecks, Tochliavri and Broadleaf Czech and a hardneck, German Red.

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All were from the garlic I planted last year and harvested on June 24th. I used the largest, healthiest cloves I could find. Another loop closed.

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I still have garlic in storage in the garage, but a lot of it is starting to sprout. We’ll see if it lasts me through the winter. Here’s an interesting article on storing garlic from Rodale’s Organic Life website (http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/food/6-ways-make-garlic-last-longer). I must experiment with all those great methods next season.

Because it’s been so mild and there’s not much left to do in the garden proper, I’ve also been playing with rocks in the dirt. I’m expanding the perennial bed and making a border between it and the lawn.

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I don’t know what it says about me, but this is honestly one of my favorite things to do. If you live in the Ozarks, you probably have a pile of rocks somewhere on your property. If not, rest assured, they are there, just under the surface, daring you to dig a hole.

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That’s a hole I dug to plant a tree for a client and the pile of rocks that I excavated during the process.

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Indeed.

So that’s the lowdown. The seed catalogs are rolling in and we’ll be starting seeds here in a few short weeks. I’m determined to grow some nice cabbages this year, as well as Brussels sprouts, and I’m going to give artichokes and celery a go. I’m going to be diligent about the cucumber beetles and teach you how to make the best homemade cornichons. And I plan to turn more of my yard into a dedicated herb garden. I also have some fun projects to share with you. So please come back and visit.

Circling back to fresh starts, the only official New Year’s Resolution I made this year was to meditate daily. I know that learning to sit quietly with my thoughts is at the foundation of any sort of relationship I have with myself – and therefore anyone and anything else. And so far so good. I’ve missed a day or two in there and wondered why I was feeling antsy and more scattered than usual. But I forgave myself and did it the next morning. And while I realize that actual do overs are the stuff of school yards. That once life begins often the best we can do is stumble blindly through the underbrush, trying to keep up and not lose an eye. And that any wisdom we gain along the way is mostly through chances we didn’t take, mistakes we can’t take back, and betrayals we will always regret. I also realize that no one is immune from those experiences. If meditation is teaching me anything, it’s that every breath, every moment, is an opportunity to start fresh

I wish you all the fresh starts you can manage.

Happy New Year.

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THE PERENNIAL GARDEN

By its nature, my vegetable garden changes every year. I don’t know if I’d call it a rule, but everything within the confines of that fence is an annual. It gets its season in the sun and then it’s on to the compost pile. This keeps my rotation intact so that (ideally) diseases and pests don’t build up in the soil and I get to start fresh every year. Tabula rasa. And I must say, it’s amazing to see this –

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– turn into this.

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And then back again. A perfect circle.

But I also highly recommend having a perennial garden. It’s a very rewarding investment. Perennials are those plants that come back year after year. Their tops die back to the ground in winter, but when spring arrives, their dormant roots come back to life and begin to send up new growth. Having a perennial garden is like working on a long term art project that uses form, texture, shape, color, and contrast as its materials, as well as time and nature. It’s a dynamic canvas that changes through the seasons and evolves through the years. I like to think of it like a slow motion fireworks display. Plus, perennials draw wildlife to your garden in the form of birds, bees, beneficial insects, earthworms, and toads, all of whom benefit from the nutrition provided. My perennial garden reminds me of a group of beloved lifelong friends who get together every summer to celebrate.

I get to watch this (January 20th) –

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– become this (April 8th).

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And then this (July 29th) –

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become this (September 1st) –

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become this (September 20th) –

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And apart from cutting back the grasses in early March, maintenance is fairly minimal. I don’t look at weeds as a problem. Weeds are an excuse to be in the garden. As the saying goes, “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s own shadow.” I try to mulch in early spring before things get too big. And sometimes there’s some editing to be done. For that, I’ll sit across the street on my neighbor’s curb with a beer and move things around in my mind. Early spring is a good time to do the actual rearranging, while the roots are still dormant. It’s also a good time to add plants because the weather is mild and there’s plenty of moisture for developing roots. Throughout the season there’s some dead-heading to do and I try to cut back the catmint (there at the front) at some point so it will bloom again. But otherwise I just wander around wondering at the miracle of it all.

Right now I’m looking forward to the amsonia blooming. Do you know Amsonia hubrichtii? It’s an awesome perennial that’s native to the Ouachita mountains of Arkansas and Oklahoma. Ironically, the first time I saw it, I lived on the East Coast. Seeing a plant labeled “Arkansas bluestar” was akin to seeing an Arkansas license plate when I lived in L.A. Cause for simultaneous jubilation and homesickness.

Amsonia starts like this…

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And then those little knobs begin to sprout…

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And eventually in early May it blooms these lovely pale blue star-like flowers.

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But that’s not all. The flowers last two to three weeks, but the foliage is great all season. The leaves are really thin which give it a great fuzzy texture.

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And then in autumn the leaves turn a lovely golden yellow. Once established, it doesn’t suffer in heat or drought and it isn’t bothered by deer. What more could you want from a plant?!?

I’ll talk more about perennials, design, and inspiration in future posts. As well as all those vegetables we can start planting now that we’re almost past our final frost date!

Namaste y’all!

GARDEN STRUCTURES

Hello March!  It was 37 degrees on Monday, but I still ended up spending a good two hours in the garden.  I needed to be out there so badly I didn’t even notice the cold.

David got productive much earlier, leaving me at my desk.  About the time I was getting onto myself for not getting more done, he returned from the hardware store with a trailer load and I finally got motivated.  He had PVC pipe, rebar, and a 16’ cattle panel.  I’m not a fan of PVC, but I want a hoop house to put over my (4 x 8’) leaf bed.  Last year I used bamboo from my sister’s house and it worked pretty well, although the branch stubs tore the fabric in places and she has since moved, so I no longer have a source for young pliable bamboo.  Anyway, he got 4 – 10’ pieces of grey 1/2” PVC and 8 – 2’ pieces of 3/8″ rebar.  He pounded the rebar into two corners of the bed, stuck a PVC pipe over it on one side and carefully bent it onto the other.  Six more pieces of rebar, three more bends, and voila, tunnel supports.  All in all it cost under $20. 

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I’ve still got some Agribon+ AG-19 floating row cover fabric that I ordered from Johnny’s Seeds last year.  It’s 83” wide and I have about 40’ left of it.  I’m going to cut it in half lengthwise and sew two long sides together giving me a piece about 20’ x 14’ which will be perfect.  I’ll put that over the top first.  It will provide frost protection down to 28 degrees as well as insect protection.  It lets 85% light through and is water permeable.  Because nothing under there needs pollinating, it can stay put all summer.  I’m still debating on whether I need to cover that again with plastic for these last crazy weeks of winter. 

I can’t wait to start some spinach and lettuces under it, leaving room (if possible) for cauliflower and cabbages.  I got carried away when ordering from Seeds of Italy and ordered a couple of lettuce mixes.  Misticanza di Lattughe has 14 varieties of lettuces of all shapes, textures, and colors and Misticanza di Radicchi has 12 varieties of red and green radiccios and chicories.  I also got Cavolo Broccolo Spigariello aka sprouting broccoli “an iconic vegetable from Naples” that I’m looking forward to trying.

David also had a cattle panel on his handy trailer.  I’ve been wanting to make a tunnel between beds to grow cucumbers up.  The panel is 16′ long and the beds are 4’ apart.  When curved between them it needed some reinforcing to keep the sides straight, so he ended up making a frame out of 2 x 4’s.  I can hardly wait to see it covered in greenery with little cucumbers hanging from it!  Here’s David figuring it out.  I love how it frames the venerable Magnolia in my neighbor’s yard.  

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And I still need to tell you about the Hot Box! 

Fayetteville is one of those places where there are many routes to your destination.  I’ll go out of my way to drive down a street with a house or tree that I like or a garden I’m observing.  A couple of years ago I was driving down one of these streets and they were replacing the windows on a house I like.  After stalking them for several days, I got up my nerve and stopped to ask what they were planning to do with the windows in their refuse pile.  We had a lovely conversation about houses and dogs and gardens and landscaping and several trips later I had a new friend and thirteen lovely old wooden windows.  It is my hope they will ultimately be part of a phenomenal greenhouse, but in the meantime, I wanted to use them to make a cold frame.  Because he’s amazing David surprised me with this one.  I may paint it, or maybe I’ll be patient and wait till the plywood mellows like the rest of the garden structures.  

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I know they’re called cold frames, but for some reason we call ours The Hot Box.  He lined it with Perma R foam board insulation.  We put a thermometer inside and have been monitoring the temperature.  One day when it was sunny in the 60’s here it was 110 degrees inside! 

In their great book “The Four Season Farm” Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman (preeminent garden gurus, especially winter gardens) advise that 75 degrees is as high as you want to let it get inside the box.  They also advise that it is much better to err on the side of too cold.  We’re still trying to figure out the best way to vent ours.  We’re thinking about using chains attached to the fence behind it to raise the windows enough to keep the temperature moderate.  In the meantime it’s 25 degrees here and snowing, so I’m not going to worry about it today. 

On my blissful day in the garden I planted ‘Astro’ arugula, ‘Spring’ Broccoli Raab, ‘Quarantina’ Broccoli Raab, and Claytonia in the hot box. 

Claytonia perfoliata, also known as miner’s lettuce from when it was eaten by miners during the California gold rush, is a super cold-hardy green that is native to western North America.  Those miners ate it to prevent scurvy because it is high in vitamin C.  I couldhave/shouldhave/wouldhave planted it last fall, but I didn’t, so I’m trying it now.  We shall see.  As soon as the leeks sprout, I’ll put them in there too. 

I love having these new structures in my garden.  They expand it in all dimensions.  Into the sky and earlier into the season.  Gaining me space and time.  Cosmic.

FAVA BEANS

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Fava Beans, (Vicia faba) aka Broad Beans, involve you in a labor of love.  They have a short season, are hard to find, expensive when you do find them, and are laborious to prepare, but I adore them so I grow my own.  I admire the way their pods are lined with fluffy white batting, like some precious gift sent through the mail.  I love their nutty, creamy, texture and the way they taste like fresh green sustenance after a cold brown winter.  I love to pair them with their fellow spring compatriots – peas, asparagus, artichokes, mint, and arugula – in a salad or pasta.  If eating that crew doesn’t make you feel alive, I can’t help you.  They’re great in a frittata or mixed with goat cheese as a dip for crudites.  I don’t mind the work it takes to get to that meaty morsel, it’s meditative, and if I serve them to you, it’s because I love you.  In the garden they are lovely plants.  Easy to grow and fairly unaffected by insects with handsome black and white flowers like they have somewhere fancy to be.

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You can even eat the leaves in a salad.  The flowers attract bees and other pollinators and as a member of the legume family they fix nitrogen leaving the soil better than they found it.  They are an ancient crop, believed to have been part of the Mediterranean diet since 6,000 B.C.  They are a great source of lean protein with no saturated fat or cholesterol, are high in dietary fiber and folate, and contain a number of minerals including iron, copper, manganese, calcium, and magnesium.  And on the off chance you have too many, they also freeze well.

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I’m growing two varieties this year; “Aquadulce”, a Spanish heirloom with large white beans and “Broad Windsor”, and old English favorite and the variety I grew last year.

I get a lot of inspiration from British gardening sources.  My all time favorite garden magazine is BBC Gardens Illustrated and I love to watch Jaime Oliver’s show “At Home” online and pause it to lust after his gorgeous kitchen garden.  A while ago I came across a video of a British gentleman planting fava beans in what he called “loo” rolls.  (I love how it sounds like Lou Rawls, and so much better than toilet paper rolls.)  I began collecting loo rolls myself.  They are the perfect container for starting fava beans as they’re deep enough to allow a nice root system to develop and they’re biodegradable so the whole thing can be planted causing no root disturbance.  With a little forethought, they’re readily available.

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 I found an inexpensive plastic bin at Home Depot, lined them up in it, and filled them with planting mix.  (I made a funnel with some rolled up paper which helped.)

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I soaked my fava beans in water overnight, popped one into each container with the dark eye facing downwards, made sure they were buried to a depth about twice their size, topped them up if they needed it, and watered them in.  I’ve also been saving my half and half containers to make plant labels.  I clean them out, cut off the top and bottom, slice open one side and cut them into strips.  They are somewhat waterproof and can be inscribed with a Sharpie.  

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They should germinate in 8-10 days.  Last year I direct seeded mine on March 15th. 

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Here they are (above) on April 26, 2014.  

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And again on May 23rd with potatoes above them, swiss chard below, and “Calypso” bush beans just coming on in front of them.  I hope by starting them a little earlier this year and growing two kinds, I’ll get to enjoy even more of them.

It should be noted that ingesting fava beans and even inhaling their pollen can trigger a hereditary disease, known as favism, in susceptible people of Mediterranean descent.  If you’re curious, you can find a lot more information regarding this online.

And by the way, the leeks I planted last week have germinated!  I promptly removed the plastic wrap and have put them where they can soak up some sun.  I’ll keep you posted!

PLANNING THE GARDEN

So now that I have assessed the seeds that I have on hand and new additions are on the way, I have to decide where to put it all!  We had a couple of beautiful 70 degree days here.  My sap began to rise and I got a little anxious.  I started to feel overwhelmed, like I was already behind.  I had to remind myself that gardening and well, a lot of seasonal things, and things in general, are continuums.  It’s not a race, it’s a circle.  You can jump on the train at any point.  Or you can enjoy watching it go by.  It’s nothing to get anxious about.  And really, what is?  Today is cold again anyway, so I can relax in front of the fire and get down to the business before me.  Okay, I’m not the one relaxing in front of the fire.

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What really helped me last year was making a plan. 

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I started with a blank drawing of my garden.  And then I began to fill it in.  It helped me prioritize space and desire.  Of course changes occurred along the way as happens when a creative work comes to life, but having this place to start was incredibly helpful.  It also serves as a document I can refer back to over the years.  And if I forget what variety I planted where, I can just check the plan.  I was careful to note planting dates, but I still need to make some overall notes on the season that was while last year’s successes and failures are fresh on my mind.  And a column along the side with weather and rainfall information would be a nice addition.  I definitely need to note harvest dates this year.  That will help with late summer planting.  For instance, last year I planted purple hull peas and potatoes way too close together and the purple hulls never had their chance in the sun, but then after the potatoes were finished, I was able to plant purple hull peas again and had a nice late summer harvest.  We’ve almost decided to skip purple hulls this year.  As much as I love them, they take up a lot of space for the yield and are almost always available at our exceptional farmer’s market.

This week, I got out last year’s map and made a copy in ink so I’d have a keeper and so it would read better in a photo for y’all.  This is not the garden’s finest hour, but I wanted you to have a real life comparison, so bear with me. 

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For this year, peas are a good place to start because they get planted first and the legume bed is pretty simple having only a few inhabitants.  Peas and fava beans can go along one side, several pole bean varieties up the towers in the 4 x 8′ bed, bush beans beneath them, and potatoes along the other side.  Ideally the peas will climb up the fence, but I think I’ll also make them some supports perpendicular to the fence and have them grow between fava bean varieties.  Yellow Finn potatoes supposedly spread more than other varieties, so I’ll keep that in mind when I plant them.  And voila, one quadrant planned!  I do like to think about how things will look together, because some combinations are more satisfying than others, but in the end, it’s all beautiful, so I’m not going to lose sleep over it right this minute.

The root bed is pretty simple too; onions, leeks, carrots, radishes, beets, parsnips, and maybe some turnips.  I’ll probably put some chervil in there too since it’s in the carrot family.  I really enjoyed it last year in all its ferny delicacy.  

I planted garlic on November 20th of last year in the then empty 4 x 8′ bed in the fruit quadrant so that it would end up in this year’s root bed.  I worked the soil and added compost when I planted, so that bed is prepped and ready for carrots.  As a space saver, I like to interplant radishes with carrots.  The radishes break up the soil for the slower germinating carrots and they’re gone and eaten when the carrots get going.  Onions can go along the long side to keep them away from the peas, just in case.  Supposedly they don’t do each other any favors.  Beets and leeks can alternate on the other side with parsnips taking their time along the fence behind them.  

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Already showing growth!  I should give them more mulch.

How about those name tags?  Sexy, huh?

So that’s half the garden planned for spring.  Thanks for the motivation!  Now to mulch the garlic, top dress the beds with compost, and figure out where to put all those leafy greens!  And it’s about time to get some seeds started!  This is when I’m thankful for a few more days of cold weather.  I hope everyone is staying warm and enjoying themselves.  See you next week!