Record Keeping and What I Have Learned From It

>> Thursday, October 28, 2010

I have been gardening of and on for many years…going back too far to contemplate (is that a sign that I’m getting up there in years?) Throughout my lifetime I have lived in six states that have ranged in growing zones 5 through 9. The house I currently occupy had only a couple of rose bushes, a few (dying) cedar shrubs and five fruit trees when we moved in but has expanded to 10 beds growing everything from herbs and veggies to perennials and annuals. In the six years I have lived here I have only kept records over the past four and have learned some interesting things…like there are microclimates…that only support certain plants…that do not do so well in other parts of the yard.

I had heard of micro climates but until I saw the effects on actual plantings…I did not pay it much attention.

I have learned that there are temperature fluctuations…not just overall day-to-day flucs…but in different parts of the yard…record keeping has identified these for me.

I use a spreadsheet to record when a plant/seed was purchased and from whom. In that spreadsheet…I record the plants lifespan…from planting to harvest production…covering everything from pruning, feeding, seed collecting, flower blooming, etc along with the date and current temperature. With so few years already recorded I have not really been able to learn a great deal but I can see trends. Soon, I should be able to know when to expect blooming, visits from pests, when to prune, etc. I also know if particular plant will not survive in a certain area…just in case I decide to purchase a plant that had died here in the past.

Additionally, I am able to leave notes to myself about what will be needed to be done in the future…such as if a plant will need to be divided, or transplanted and for what reason.

Photos, of course, are an indispensable tool for record keeping. Once a month I take general, wide area shots of each bed. Photos of individual plants are taken more frequently depending on their first bloom, pest damage, after pruning, or if they are dying out. These I store by name, date and what bed they are in and then place the identifying data in the spreadsheet along with each plant.

I also draw a map in a spiral art book of what is where…and it needs to be updated fairly often. Drawing the maps has helped me get back into drawing/sketching…a love I have not visited in several years.

I find it interesting to be able to go back over the photos and drawings to see how it all looked before I dug the first shovel full.

Oh, on top of all of this…I keep a Plant Master List that gives a description of each plant including where the plant originated, how it has been used over the years, it genus/species name, etc. this is for those of us who are a bit too OCD…but, it just has to be done, I tell you. :)

I have learned so much from what appears to be a lot of work…but when you are retired…you can make it work. :)

What works for you? I would love to hear from you.


Aphid Advisory

>> Thursday, October 21, 2010

Several years ago I signed up to receive advisories put out by the Utah State University. These advisories are centered around the principle of Integrated Pest Management.

Today, I received this advisory on aphids which at first seemed very odd for this time of year, until I read it. Very interesting. It seems that this past years’ weather patterns (cool, wet spring that is now being followed by a dry, warm fall) has resulted in all kinds of “unusual” insect activity in northern Utah for 2010.

From the advisory:
“It is normal for aphids to take flight in late summer and early fall for egg-laying, but the numbers that are occurring now are far beyond “normal” populations. Starting about a month ago, they started swarming, from the mid-section of Utah to Brigham City and parts north. Winged aphids are covering people’s clothes, cars, and falling like rain. Wingless aphids are feeding on tomatoes, peppers, fruit trees, and ornamentals. A variety of species have been identified, including witch-hazel gall aphid, bird cherry-oat aphid and related species, leafcurl plum aphid, mealy plum aphid, and green peach aphid, all of which are migratory, multi-host insects with an intersecting life cycle.”

I had no idea, first off, that there were this many varieties of aphids and secondly that they could travel as far and wide as they do. Winged aphids can travel hundreds of miles with assistance from low level jet winds.

Some more interesting facts:
• Eggs that hatch in spring on the primary host (usually a woody plant) are all females.
• Once fully grown, those female adults give birth to live female nymphs that are genetically identical to themselves.
• This process continues for several generations on the primary host until overcrowding, causing adult females to give birth to female offspring that form wings.
• These winged females leave the primary host for herbaceous plants for the summer, such as weeds, a field crop, perennials, or vegetables. There, they spend the summer, continually expanding their population through live birth to wingless females.
• As the day length shortens in the fall, adult females are once again triggered to produce large numbers of winged offspring, which this time, are both male and female.
• These winged aphids then migrate back to their preferred primary host for feeding and egg-laying. The winged females give birth to sexual females nymphs, that, when mature, are able to mate with the winged males that migrated from the herbaceous hosts. These females then lay eggs for overwintering.

Their ability to survive is nothing short of amazing. But then, I am constantly in awe of how nature can devise creative methods of adaptation to ensure its survival.


2011 Great Backyard Bird Count

The next Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) takes place Friday, February 18 through Monday, February 21, 2011. The National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada are already in the planning stages fro the event. I will be posting updates here as we get closer to kick off time.

This past February’s GBBC produced another record-breaking turnout with participants turning in more than 97,300 checklists online, and identifying more than 600 species.

A new GBBC video gives an overview of the event and detailed instructions on how to collect and enter data.

This will be the fifth year my family has participated in this event and it is really interesting to see which birds are hanging around in the backyard over winter and which birds you see only in winter. Also, I like the idea of contributing to the study of bird populations for bird conservation efforts.


Green Tomatoes: Ripen Them, Compost Them or Eat Them?

I still have a bunch of green Roma and Grape tomatoes hanging on in hopes of warmer weather that we know isn’t coming. I love fried green tomatoes, but tomatoes this small don’t lend themselves very well to being battered and fried, in my humble opinion.

When the chance of day time temps ever reaching above 60F again have decreased to nil, its time to yank them off the vine and either ripen them indoors, toss them on the compost pile, or cook them up as is. Much has been written about how to ripen your still green tomatoes at the end of the season but I choose to follow the plan C.

I already pinched all the flowers off these plants about 7-10 days ago and there really isn’t much hope left of getting any more this year, especially when our first real freeze is expected this weekend.

If you want to ripen them, there are several methods to choose from, you can take down the whole plant and hang it upside down somewhere such as in the garage to dry out, you can pick them all and place them on a sunny window sill, or wrap them individually in newspaper and layer in a box in a dark corner for 3-4 weeks. But, seriously, these are small tomatoes so I’m not taking this third route. And here’s something I just heard for the first time, place the green tomatoes in a brown paper bag with a ripe apple. The apple gives off ethylene gas, which speeds up ripening. Check the bag daily. I might try a few this way just so I know if it works.

So, on with the cooking them up. You can use them in a green tomato pie, green tomato marmalade, or, as I am going to do, in a soup, recipe follows.

Green Tomato Soup with Ham served with hot cornbread. Yum!
2 T butter
4-6 oz ham (smoked or whatever pleases you)
1 small onion,, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced (I just chop mine. Less work and it tastes just as good)
4 cups chicken broth
8 medium green tomatoes (couple handfuls of green grape tomatoes or green romas)
celery stalk, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Heat butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat; add ham, onion, and garlic. Sauté, stirring, until onion is tender. Add chicken broth, chopped green tomatoes. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes.

Working in batches, pulse in a blender or food processor until almost smooth. Pour back into the saucepan and add celery. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Taste and add salt, pepper and, if you want some heat add some Tabasco sauce.

Whichever way you handle your end of season jewels, keep in mind that tomatoes don’t have to be red to be enjoyed.


End of Season is Here Already

>> Sunday, October 17, 2010

You know the growing season here in Utah is winding down when the city turns off your access to secondary water. You see, here in Utah we refer to our water as either Domestic or Secondary. Domestic water is treated and plumbed into our homes and Secondary water (here at the south end of the valley) comes from Utah Lake, straight, totally adulterated. And it stinks. Smelly, I mean. You really don’t want this stuff in your house.

There are plans, and construction is under way, for a treatment plant large enough to treat both domestic and secondary water. Our water better be improved because our water rates went up a couple of years ago on the promise of ‘improving’ the quality of both water types.

I went out this morning to turn on my irrigation system and learned the water had been turned off for the season. We have a canal system that carries water from Utah Lake northwards to the Great Salt Lake. All along that canal, cities and towns are tapping into it to give the local residents access to water by which we irrigate our properties. As the end of season nears the secondary water begins to take on its characteristic odor of a polluted water system. The smell comes from bacteria that has been allowed to build up because the water is not treated.

Anyway, I began the process of winterizing my ‘system’ by disconnecting all three of my garden hoses from my battery powered timer. I don’t have underground tubing to distribute water so my plants depend on me to remember to move a DIY sprinkler system around the yard. I carry a kitchen timer around with me throughout the day when I water. This way of watering my garden plots and lawn becomes ‘tedious’ (yes, I believe that is the accurate term) near the end of the season. So I view this inevitable shutdown each year with both relief and sadness.

After disconnecting the garden hoses I need to run domestic water through them in an attempt to flush out any bacteria. I'm sure my method is far from 100% effective. If there was an efficient way in which I could run vinegar through them I would. Next, I drain the hoses as completely as possible and lay them out in the sun to soften them enough in order to roll them up and store them in one of the sheds over winter.

The plants that are coldframe bound, such as lettuce, radish, chard, etc need to depend on me to carry a watering can out to them filled with domestic water. I am getting better about this, I really am. Witnessing plants turn brown and wilt away creates a certain level of incentive to remember. I’m sure they appreciate finally being given the cleaner water. Since lettuce is made up of such a high percent of water, I appreciate the cleaner water too.

This whole process also triggers the annual purchase of winter mulch to help protect my charges with a temperature-stable environment in which to survive our sometimes harsh winters. Some sources I have consulted place my garden in zone 5. I can believe this assessment in winter. However, summer comes rolling around and I swear we have shifted to zone 8 or 9.

Now that the water has been turned off I can scratch off one more duty I need to remember to keep track of and begin thinking about regularly placing suet and peanut butter out for the birds. It’s always something.


Finding Satisfaction in the Simple Things

>> Saturday, October 16, 2010

Oh, Happy Day! Today’s high temp will be in the 70’s again. Ah, the simple things.

Gardeners can be so overtaken by things that many others just take for granted. Like being blessed with just one more crisp Fall day in order to whittle down the ever present, and growing, garden To Do list.

We also find pleasure in things like well-cared for garden tools. I didn’t realize how much until recently when, after my long absence from my garden, the simple act of picking up my garden hand tools felt like resurrecting an old friendship. The sense of knowing they are always there for you no matter how long you are away is immensely comforting.

Properly cared for wood-handled tools can be so much more, dare I use the term, sensual than plastic or rubber. Ergonomics aside, and getting dangerously close to sounding Old School, I prefer wood-handled garden tools. And the simple act of restoring the luster of the wood of these implements of mass satisfaction by applying linseed oil is a very satisfying experience. The chore of removing the burrs and nicks from the steel edges of shovels, hoes, and pruning shears and bringing them to a usable sharpness personalizes these tools in a way that no other gardening task can.

These simple and often over-looked maintenance procedures can so easily extend the life of last years’ tools, but all too often, still usable tools are thrown away because we see a shiny or more-colorful tool that doesn’t require any effort other than whipping out our credit card.

When I pick up and hold tools that I have personally put forth the effort to restore and thereby extend the life of, well that is just one more of the simple things that make life more satisfying. And I for one am not ready to throw that away.


Death Notices and Lamentable Losses

>> Friday, October 15, 2010

As much as we gardeners try to do our best to nurture the plants in our care so that they can become the fully beautiful plants that is their heritage, sometimes things will happen that can best be described as ‘out of our control’. Then again, things happen that we could have controlled if only we had paid a little closer attention.

While reviewing my master list of plants I have come to realize that some plants simply did not survive this past summer. One of my favorites was an Achillea Angels Breath. Here it is in happier, healthier times, living harmoniously with its neighbors. Enjoying the sun, the feeding and the care that I was able to give it. Both of us totally unsuspecting of the terror that the Nepeta Walkers Low would soon visit upon it.

I should have seen the warning signs, the gentle but insistent nudging seemed playful at first, but soon the aggressive nature that is the Nepeta nature was soon apparent, as shown here. But, alas, I was sadly distracted at a critical time by other more pressing issues that took me away from the garden and the doomed plight of the Achillea was sealed. Achillea, my hapless friend, you will be missed.

Another poor unfortunate victim to my careless and barbarous neglect is this Arabis Snowcap. This beautiful specimen was a victim of a devastating and fatal cycle of drying out and over-watering. Imagine, thriving beautifully for two years, full of the promise that comes with knowing you have a full, fruitful life ahead of you only to be drowned by an overzealous garden hose. Oh the humanity. Arabis Snowcap, I hardly knew ye.

And then there is the demure, fragile Armeria Lauchean. Also fallen victim to poor hydration practices.

But, there is redemption on the horizon, my good friends. I have vowed to mend my ways. I have taken a solemn oath to never again place unfair expectations upon a plant by forcing it to survive in conditions beyond its limits. No more will I be timid in the time-honored practice of judicious and timely pruning of aggressive growers, forcing them to ‘play nice’ with their neighbors. Early next spring boundaries will be observed and plant supports will be erected. No more will those tame and timid growers be crowded out by their aggressive neighbors.

Meanwhile, I think a bit of transplanting is in order and from now on when I read descriptions of plants I will pad their width dimensions by about 10-15% just to be on the safe side.

Losing plants before their time, especially due to my mishandling, is just too hard on my psyche.


Frosty mornings and a Long Todo List

>> Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Last nights temp dipped to 35F! Arrgh, this is coming on all too quickly. I still have so much to do.

Perennials need to be trimmed, seeds collected.

I just read a very timely and informative blog called Choosing Voluntary Simplicity about growing Hollyhocks. In the article Shirley informs us that she collects seeds from her Hollyhocks and I thought, duh, why didn’t I think of that. I am still such a newbie at this stuff that I didn’t even get this idea on my list of things to do.

I don’t have nearly the collection of Hollyhocks Shirley has (and it is a beautiful collection), but I hope to correct that oversight.

My one lonely Hollyhock needs company. So, I’m going to see to it that next year it will be surrounded by more beautiful Hollyhocks.

Since I have never collected seeds before I’m a little stressed over getting to them before freezing weather kills them off. Her instructions on how to handle the seeds and store them has given me confidence to go for it.

My compost pile needs to be spread out into the beds where it will do the most good. This clay soil desperately needs this stuff every year to improve its poor drainage. After that, I’ll be able to empty about half my freezer of all the compost material I’ve been collecting over the past few weeks. It really is amazing how much compostable stuff my wife and I can create. For instance, I drink several cups of coffee a day which creates quite a bit of coffee grounds along with the paper filters. We eat a lot of vegetables so the trimmings from all of that adds up. Egg shells, extra pancakes (because I can’t seem to make just enough for two of us).

Yesterday, I made Butternut Squash soup from a recipe our daughter gave us which created even more leftovers for the compost pile. By the way, I saved the seeds from the squash. Just remove all the pulp, lay them out in a cookie sheet for 3-4 days, turning them once a day. Then put them in a paper bag, inside a plastic bag and keep them in the fridge or freezer until next spring. From what I have read these should keep for a couple of years. Tip: place a few seeds in a wet paper towel inside a plastic bag and see if they sprout after a few days. This way you know the seeds you are keeping are viable.

This morning I cut up a cantaloupe my sister-in-law gave me and I will save these seeds as well. Plus, more for the compost pile.

The tomatoes need to be covered, still a bunch of green ones after our huge harvest two days ago. Whatever is left will go to the, you guessed it, compost pile.

This year I think I may plant some cover crop in my vegetable beds. This will be another ‘first’ for me. I used to think my space is too small for such things but I figure size really shouldn’t matter. I’m sure the benefits will be worth it, even if it is not on a grand scale. A couple of suggestions are Hairy Vetch, Winter Rye.

From Organic Gardener: ‘You must kill your cover crops before they set seed and the top growth gets out of control. That's right, kill them.’ Now this just scares me. I can picture myself not getting to the crops in time and having Hairy Vetch all over my backyard. Mowing is not an option because these will be planted in raised beds. Maybe I can use a weed whacker or pruning shears.

Oh, a very important point I just stumbled upon, some cover crops such as rye are allelopathic, which means they inhibit seed germination. Great to know BEFORE buying a bag of rye. Now I need to research which cover crops don’t inhibit seed germination.

Well, I’ve procrastinated enough. So, with my coffee mug held tightly in my fist, it’s time to face the chilly morning and plan my day.


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