Thursday, December 29, 2011


I'm not a geranium person, but I purchased one last spring because I loved the color of the flowers. As long as I remembered to water it, this Calliope hybrid continued to bloom all summer long. Once freezing weather threatened, I decided to bring it inside, to see if I could keep it alive until next year (not always a sure thing in my household).

Not only is it alive, it is blooming. Nice!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A new toy

I always try to take vacation days between xmas and New Year's, not to fly off to exotic (or even warm) places, but to stay at home and hibernate a bit. I also get the chance to do some of the things I have trouble finding time for while working. Like playing with my new food dehydrator.

After reading The Feast Nearby, I was inspired to purchase a dehydrator, but between the disaster otherwise known as the garden and a pinch for time, I never had the chance to try it out. Yesterday I decided I was tired of tripping over the Ida Red apples in the garage and dragged them inside for a transformation.

My peeler-corer-slicer produced relatively uniform slices of apple, which took about 5 hours to dry. At least, I hope they are dry. I don't purchase dried apples ordinarily, so I'm not sure exactly how they should feel. I sampled some of the thicker slices, though, as I put them in jars, and they were delicious.

The peels, cores, and the apples that would not cooperate with the peeler-corer-slicer went into a pot, along with culls from the apple collection (Fuji and Cameo) that needed to be used, to become applesause (after a trip through the sauce maker). So besides two "quarts" of dried apple slices, I also have seven pints of applesauce.

Besides rethinking the garden, I am also being forced to rethink the freezer and just what I put in it. When I purchased it, my intention was to fill it with fruits and vegetables, so I would not have to water bath or pressure can anything; I'm lazy that way. But now that I am purchasing grass-fed meat from Honored Prairie, the freezer has proven to be too small for bulk purchases. I expect I will have to can some stuff, but the dehydrator now offers another option.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Rethinking the zone 5 garden

Usually at this time of year, I review the past gardening season and make plans for the next. To that I say, Bah, humbug! Last summer's garden was a disaster. The whole backyard was a disaster. I was happy to let everything die, only to have this area experience an extended fall (the grass is still green!) that I failed to take advantage of.

There is a city park near my house that is, in part, a working 1930's farm. It also includes gardens and a small orchard, the picture of what I hope my backyard will be some day. My son and I visited the park on Thanksgiving and again on xmas, and saw that kale is still growing in the garden and greens in the cold frame.

So now I am getting serious about building my own cold frame. There is a good spot for it, on the south side of the West Wing, next to the porch. Cement blocks are cheap, so all I need are some old window frames.

There also will be three 4'x4' square foot garden beds near my patio. The plan is one will hold aspargus, another strawberries, but I think I will reserve the third for vegetables that can winter over.

What are your garden plans for 2012?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Adventures with raw milk

When I decided to buy a herd share, I committed to getting two gallons of raw milk every two weeks. Quite frankly, this is a bit much for a household of one. I skim the cream off the top for my coffee, I drink some (usually as part of a fruit smoothy), I've made some cheese (not always successfully). Now I am making yogurt from an heirloom culture that is supposed to work at room temperature, so you don't need a yogurt maker.

At least, I hope I am making yogurt. It took me two tries to make the yogurt "mother". You see, making yogurt with raw milk is a little more complicated than using pasteurized milk, as the natural bacteria in the raw milk will slowly kill off the yogurt bacteria. So, instead of using some of the made yogurt for the next batch, one has to maintain a pure mother culture.

I don't know what went wrong with my first attempt at mothering. Maybe I did not get the milk warm enough to kill off the natural bacteria, maybe I added the culture before the heated milk had cooled enough, maybe my house is too cold. I had used a candy thermometer, a thermometer so old that the glass casing broke off when I washed it afterwards. Alarmed that there might be broken glass in my mother, I decided to throw it out, but let it sit anyway. It never really thickened up, so no loss there.

With the second batch, I used a dairy thermometer, then put the mother in the oven with the light turned on. I also put a remote thermometer in there, just to see how hot the oven would get with only the light burning. Turns out it gets to be 80F. No wonder bread rises so well in the oven.

So tonight I am making the yogurt itself, plus a new mother. I purchased the starter from Cultures for Health, a website that has all kinds of fermenty things. This particular yogurt culture, Viili, purportedly makes a mild, semi-thick yogurt. We shall see.

Then maybe I will try butter.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Purple fingers

According to my not-necessarily-accurate memory, when I was a kid, one or more pomegranates would appear in our kitchen around xmas time. Not quite sure how to eat one, I would fill my mouth with the garnet-colored berries (or whatever they are called) and gently chew on them, releasing the juice and fruit from the seeds, which were then unceremoniously spit out. As an adult, that memory has kept me from purchasing pomegranates for my own kitchen. Until now.

After reading this, I decided I would try my hand at making grenadine. Too bad I did not read the comments as well, because my method of extracting the juice was a bloody mess (which is one reason there are no photos with this post [edited to add one photo]). I erroneously thought I could just put the berries through my Roma, with no preparation other than separating the berries from the rind and membranes. Don't try it - it doesn't work very well.

In the end, I did manage to get three cups of juice from seven (I think) pomegranates. The recipe calls for two cups of sugar to two cups juice, but I started with two cups sugar to three cups juice, and the result was delish. I poured the mixture into three pint jars, added a tablespoon of vodka to each, and now they are sitting in the freezer in all their slushy splendor.

So, was all that work worth the trouble? I held some back, to make a Tequila Sunrise. It was so good, I made another. So, yes, it was worth it, but don't expect me to do so more than once a year.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Slush from the sky

(Edited to add photos.)

As I was standing by the diningroom window, watching the rain/snow/crap fall, I realized a small pond was forming where the storm drain is. The storm drain that was dug up and replaced. The area around the storm drain across the street looks even worse. Hopefully, the grates are just plugged up with loose straw. I called 311 ("one call to city hall") and hopefully someone will look into it. Someone who is paid to be out in this weather.

The other night I made some tomato potato soup (from Love Soup, of course). I used up the last of my Irish potatoes from this year, the last of the frozen paste tomatoes from last year, and 10(!) cloves of homegrown garlic. The soup also called for parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, all of which I have growing indoors.

Re the Meyer lemon, I did a little research and they are fully ripe when orange-yellow, but once they are yellow, they may be used. Maybe tonight, after I shovel the slush off the driveway, I'll celebrate the season with a vodka tonic with a twist of Meyer lemon.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Note to self

Today I planted some spring bulbs and I want to remember what and where.

Winter Aconite (Eranthis cilicica) - 12 bulbs (they look more like corms), nestled in the curve of the front walk, close to the concrete

Golden Bells Carpet Daffodil - 50 bulbs, most along the south side of the north shrub bed in the backyard, some in the middle of the bed by the front walk.

Sunny Twinkles Allium (Allium moly) - 35 bulbs, along the castle block in the bed by the front walk.

Every year, I try to resist buying spring bulbs that must be planted in the fall because I *know* I will not feel like planting them when the time arrives. And usually I am successful in resisting. But not this year. Fortunately, today was lovely and mild, perfect for putting up outdoor xmas decorations (which I don't do) and planting bulbs.

My only concern is, the winter aconite should have been planted in partial shade, and their location is more morning sun/afternoon shade. We'll see how they do.

(All bulbs were purchased from Brecks.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

A green Thanksgiving

And by "green" I am not talking about ecology or recycling or any of that Earth Day stuff. I am talking about the green, green grass. Even the impatiens on the front porch hung on until a week or so ago. If I were more motivated, I would mow the lawn. But I'm not that motivated.

My SO was motivated to help me finish up the raised beds, thank goodness. I made one 2'x8' bed and two 4'x4' beds; he put together five more 4'x4' ones. I like the *idea* of woodworking, but in reality, find it very tedious. Knitting thousands of stitches to create a sweater or a pair of socks is not daunting to me at all, but drilling a few dozen holes and screwing together pieces of cedar did me in.

While contemplating experimenting with square foot gardening, I debated on what materials to use in building the raised beds. Cedar was one choice, obviously, but I also considered cement blocks, primarily because I pictured planting flowers in the holes. Cement blocks have their shortcomings, though, so I am going to give them a small chance to prove they are a good idea.

Meanwhile, in the garden proper (which is mostly weed patch and mint farm) today I positioned some of the beds according to a design I have worked over and over and over again. The ultimate plan calls for more beds, of course, but I did not want to go whole hog yet. (In the background is the 2'x8' bed, upside down, awaiting its final fate.)

The first vegetable to enter the square foot garden experiment is garlic, which I planted today in one of the patio beds - four varieties, 9 cloves of each, one square per variety. This is very different from how I planted it last year, in rows spaced 12" apart. We shall see how this works out.

The Meyer lemon retreated to the indoors quite a while ago, and finally, *finally* one of the fruits is ripe.

I think. It looks ripe, but I hate to pick it prematurely. Must do some research.

More recently, more outdoor plants moved back inside.

The parsley in the foreground is some that just sat there, sharing a pot with a tomato plant that also just sat there, all summer long. I think I created my own potting soil for this particular pot, and apparently did not do a very good job. Once the parsley was repotted with some commercial potting soil dumped out of the sweet potato bags, it began to perk up.

Speaking of sweet potatoes, I roasted some last week and they were delicious.  And yesterday our Thanksgiving table was graced by the Irish potatoes.  The green beans were *not* from the garden, but the onions were.  The climate is changing, which means we need to adjust our gardening methods, so as to continue to grace our tables with backyard bounty.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Must be an election year

The plan was to post this before election day, but per usual, plans are meant to be spoiled.  Anyway, the missing storm sewers have been replaced.  What other work occurred is a mystery, but I am hoping when the winter snows melt and the spring rains fall, my yard will not be under water.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

More power!

Even though I own a circular saw and electric drill, I'm not big on power tools. I usually leave them to my SO, who is very obliging in that area. However, I figured that even I could put together some raised beds for the garden. And I was right.

Here is a 2'x8' bed, fated to hold raspberry plants. My original plan to locate it near the garden proper has been put on hold, as while researching raspberries in raised beds, I learned that raspberries have a tendency to ramble. To prevent this, one needs a root barrier that goes at least 18" deep. I'm not sure how I am going to accomplish that, but I have all winter to think about it.

The other beds are 4'x4', the size recommended for square foot gardening. It is also a good size for someone with my (lack of) upper body strength.  My personal design uses 1"x2" boards at the corners, with one inch protruding below the bed proper, to help anchor it, and about 7 or 8 inches above, in case I want to double the depth of the bed in the future.

These two are for asparagus and strawberries. I am hoping that, by placing them close to the house, I will pay more attention to them. We'll see how that works out.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Cache and carry

In the spring, when the feeder population degenerates to starlings and grackles, I stop feeding the birds, usually until the snow flies in late fall or early winter. But this year in October I put out first some niger thistle seed, then some black oil sunflower seed, and was amazed at the ensuing activity. And now I know why: many birds cache food in the fall, to ensure a supply all winter long.

Chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and other birds will store nuts, seeds, and insects in knothole and bark crevices, under shingles and in the ground. That certainly explains the comings and goings in my backyard these days.

My current quandry is fall clean up. There is a lot of dead stuff in my garden. The dead vegetable plants will go into the compost pile, but what about the weeds? I can see birds feeding on the seed heads as I type.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Last mow of the season?

I've noticed that, while I think taking a walk around the neighborhood is boring, walking back and forth across the lawn behind the mower is totally acceptable.

The weather this weekend has been GORGEOUS. We had a frost Friday night, followed by sunshine and mild temps. Yesterday was already full (including a trip to Cook's Orchard for apples and cider), but today I made sure I spent some time outside. There was the above mentioned mowing, plus repotting of a house plant, emptying of garden containers, etc. Just enough activity to make my hips ache.

I purchased a copy of the All New Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew, a while back. It is a lot different than the copy I checked out from the library. It is also giving me some food for thought re the garden. There were already some major changes percolating in the old gray matter. Now there is even more. My brain is getting full.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Today's rain looked as thought it was going to drift south of my location, but no, it is raining here, albeit not very enthusiastically.  Our total rainfall for this year is above average; too bad it can't be spread out evenly throughout the growing season.

The wind has also been acting up here lately, gusting in the 40 mph range, which proved that weaving the patio canopy between the rafters is not a total solution.  I took the canopy down for this year; some grommets and tie downs will have to be employed in the future.

My SO and I recently took the new trailer for a spin, to pick up (free!) horse manure.  The bedding used with the manure is (weedfree!) wood shavings.  We layered the manure with the existing dirt in the beds by the patio.  (I was concerned the dog would consider the manure a new source of snacking, but she showed little interest in it.  Guess horse shit is not hardwired as a food source in her brain like rabbit poop and litter boxes.)  I will plant garlic in one of those beds.  Although this year's garlic harvest was adequate, we shall see if nature's fertilizer makes a difference (assuming I do a better job of watering next summer). 

I purchased some fresh niger seed and splurged on a new finch feeder, and now my yard is full of finches.  Although I usually wait until the snow flies to put out the bird seed, I also hung a feeder full of sunflower seeds.  The avian population is grateful.  (The stale niger seed went on the ground in the meadow; while the finches won't touch it, some critter or another will.)

Still waiting on a hard frost, although I have basically abandoned the garden.  The prediction is we are in for a doozy of a winter in these parts.  Since I have a new driveway that is not part gravel, I am actually looking forward to shoveling some snow.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

In situ

The June 1978 issue of Organic Gardening (which I found in a box under the bed in the guest room - I was looking for an article on growing sweet potatoes) included plans for "easy compost bins".  We started with the plans for the "Rodentproof Composter" and with a few modifications, created this:

The color turned out a bit more fuscia than I planned.
My SO deserves 95% of the credit for this baby.  I purchased the parts and he did the cutting and assembling and painting while I "supervised".  (He's good with tools; I'm not.)  It is situated on the north side of the West Wing, where I can open a window and toss out the kitchen scraps without risk of stepping in doggie doo in the dark.

Feed me!
The sides are removable for easy access to the end result.

My SO makes my dreams come true!
Don't worry - the arborvitae shield it from the neighbor's view, and I plan to mix in plenty of compostable newspaper and yard trimmings, to keep it from becoming stinky. And if it does become stinky or buggy or whatever, we can always relocate it.
You know, if the city would let me keep a few chickens, I would not have to resort to crazy ideas like this one.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Bits and pieces

Rodent-proof compost bin in the making

Weaving canopy cover among the rafters keeps it from blowing away

Pathetic if colorful pepper harvest

New patio bed, with coneflower (and weeds) already growing in it

Praying one's mantis on one's sleeve

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


I belong to Arbor Farms Nursery's "club" and received a birthday coupon, good toward one perennial plant (priced $9.50 or less).  Of course, the unspoken rule is one does not go to a nursery and pick up only one free plant.  And the one I picked cost a bit more, so I paid the difference, plus picked out another plant from the bargain bin.

Maidenhair amongst the grasses
The bee balm and Shasta daisies growing in this general area have been losing the battle with their neighbors, so the bed is going to be all grasses, all the time.  This maidenhair should fit right in.

That was the bargain.  For my free plant, I looked and looked and looked some more.  Slim pickings this time of year.  I had almost settled on a sedum when I chatted up one of the employees re coreopsis and why they are not very hardy.  She mentioned that she liked 'Route 66'.  So guess what I ended up with.

'Route 66' coreopsis
The dark red and yellow blossoms will be perfect in the new sidewalk bed.  If the 'Jethro Tull' live through the winter, I will move them into this bed as well.  I do like coreopsis; maybe they will like this bed better.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

My tax dollars at work

Recent record rainfalls in other parts of the country got me worried about my own property.  Each spring, when the ground is saturated, the storm sewers just can't keep up and my front yard floods.  Were we to receive one of those deluges, I'm afraid my house would be underwater.  So I sent the city an email, to see what could be done.

One thing that can be done is the storm sewer casings can be removed so the engineers can see what is what.

One surprise was, while the inputs were obvious, the output was not.  My neighbor across the street had seen some storm sewer maps once upon a time and said those showed the storm sewer drained to the east.  But actually, it drains to the west.

There is a utility easement on the north side of my property - and presumably on the south side of the property to my north.  The sight line makes it look like, if any further digging must occur, it will occur on their lot, not mine.  I have shrubs planted on the easement, not always a good idea since the utility people can rip up an easement at their discretion.  Let's just home it doesn't come to that.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

September vacation

My SO and I recently spent a week on the road.  I lugged both my little Canon and my new video camera around with me, but took very few pictures.  My SO is interested in old cemetaries and architecture, so he finds things to shoot almost everywhere.  I'm interested in gardening (OBVIOUSLY) but I didn't want to take pictures of the same stuff that grows in my backyard.  Yard ornaments, on the other hand, are almost always unique.

All these were found in Concord, MA.

Friday, September 23, 2011

At least something liked that hot and humid weather

This is my first year for sweet potatoes.  I planted a dozen or so slips of a bush variety (Vardeman purchased from Pinetree) in containers.  This represents about half the harvest:

I have no idea whether this is a lot or a little.  Once they are done curing in the shed, I will weigh them.  Regardless, I consider this crop a success, a sweet one in this summer of failures.  Next spring, I hope to grow my own slips.

Thursday, September 08, 2011


I see you!
It's a sweet potato!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Labor Day labor

Yesterday my SO and I decided to spend our Labor Day laboring on the patio canopy.  I purchased this one from Lowes (which is a story in itself - the box weighed around 250 pounds; we let two employees wrestle it into a borrowed pickup truck, then at home unloaded the canopy piece by piece).  Fortunately, others who had purchased this unit left not only online reviews but detailed instructions on how best to anchor and assemble the structure.  (The instructions that came with were okay but not the best way to accomplish the job.)  With their virtual help, we were able to finish in five hours, and that included a trip to Home Depot and two trips to procure lunch (a lot of places are closed on Labor Day - go figure).

Since removing the silver maples and the Florida room, my west-facing patio has proven to be brutal under the afternoon sun, rendering it unusable for a good part of the day.  I dithered about what to do - pergola? awning? trees? - and finally settled on a canopy.  One thing my yard demonstrates is, I change my mind.  Frequently.  Plants get moved, gardening methods evolve, new ideas come and go with regularity.  So the canopy felt like the right way to go - quick but not prohibitively expensive, sturdy but movable.

We started around 11am with a quick trip to Home Depot, to purchase four 16"x16" cement pavers, concrete bits and anchors, 14" plastic ties, and in an semi-related purchase, 8 bags of pea gravel.

Getting started (ignore the mess)
Several reviewers recommended inserting 4"x4"x31" posts inside the vertical supports, so we did that.  (I happened to have a 4"x4" laying around, left over from a never-even-started project from about 15 years ago.)  This provided some ballast to the structure.

Maiden voyage for trailer and hitch, easier than carrying everything from garage to backyard
We followed more online advice and anchored the posts to pavers instead of directly to the patio.  For one thing, this allowed us to adjust the final placement of the posts.  For another, if I decide to relocate the structure in the future, it will be doable.  (The instructions left the anchoring as the next-to-last step and assumed one would be putting it on lawn; 16 "stakes" that look like big Allen wrenches were provided for this.  I'm not sure how well this would work.)

Measure twice, drill once
 Initial placement:  centered in front of the patio door.

So far, so good!
After this step, the instructions suggested assembling all four outside cross pieces and somehow getting them on top of the posts in one fell swoop.  Without anchoring the posts first, I think this would be really awkward.  Also, we were able to put the outside cross pieces on one at a time.  Next came the rest of the cross pieces, which are not anchored, hence the need for the plastic ties, to keep them from rattling.

Coming together
 Initially, I wondered about the stability of the structure, but the corner supports made a big difference.

Overcast skies helped keep us cool
The final step was the canopy itself.  It was my decision to orient the structure so that the "rafters" ran north and south.  After we put on the canopy, though, I began to have second thoughts.  When the afternoon sun is low in the sky, a lot of light streams in through the patio door, so I thought this was the way to go.

But after ducking not once but twice in order to exit the house and cross the patio, I am having second thoughts.  Also, the canopy really blocks the view.  With a little help, we should be able to detach the top and rotate it.  Then the long ends of the canopy will provide more privacy to the south while still blocking most of the sun.  Theoretically.

4pm - time for a beer
One hope I expressed was that the dog would now consider the patio to be an extension of the house and not part of the outdoors, and stop peeing and pooping on it.  No such luck.

And what about that pea gravel?  That was for the area by the outdoor faucet, an area that is not very conducive to plants yet weed-prone, an area where I keep my bird seed bins.  It is right next to the patio and an eyesore.

After weeding, before pea gravel
 I think the area could use a few more bags, but it will do for now.

My SO did the heavy lifting, literally.  I will say that, given enough time (weeks?) and some clever work-arounds to make up for my lack of upper body strength, I could have done it myself (if I did not hurt myself and/or get utterly discouraged).  BUT!  The man knows his way around tools, had some good ideas for how to get things done, and stuck with the task until finished.  I'm very pleased, in more ways than one.  And grateful!  And lucky!