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Posts Tagged ‘gardening’

It is four weeks before the last average frost day (April 10) in Georgia, which means two things…

1. I can look forward to wearing my Birkies without socks for a change. ;- )

2. Peppers and tomatoes had better be started by now in order to plant them out in the garden by the end of April.

I’ve written about starting seeds in a post from last year, so I won’t go into details here. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been starting seeds of various sorts and varieties, and have even finished transplanting the cabbages and brocolli. In all, I’m starting to feel rather accomplished.

At the same time, I’m also feeling a bit troubled, and perhaps a bit guilty. You see, in years past, I helped to start the seeds, but left the seed pots with Grandpa to care for before transplanting. He would check the moisture for the seed pots, move them in and out of the sun as needed, keeping them warm by letting them sit on the top of a chest freezer on his back porch. He would carry them down the back stairs to the water and the sunlight in the morning, and then back up the stairs in the evening to keep them from getting chilled in the night air.

I’m not talking about one or two pots, either. With six varieties of peppers, two varieties of cabbage, two varieties of brocolli, and four or more varieties of tomatos, we’re talking about quite a few pots going up and down stairs every day, and it’s becoming more and more obvious that the usual care for the seedlings may be growing more difficult, and more dangerous, for Grandpa.

This is the first year that I’ve thought before starting seeds, “How many pots can Grandpa care for at one time?” I’ve actually held off on starting some varieties so that he has fewer pots at any given time to move around and keep watered. It’s truly been a different way of looking at the work: not “what needs to be done right now”, but “what can he manage right now?”

And it has become clear to me that I can no longer start seeds and then leave them for him alone. In fact, in yet another small step, I have moved into taking just a little more responsibility for the gardening.

Now, on my back deck, warming in the sun, are two terracotta seed pots that are the incubators for Italian red peppers and Mexican poblano peppers.

It’s a strange feeling knowing they are out there. I can’t describe it. It’s a little like the first time I cranked up the tractor without being told to do so. Was I overstepping my bounds? Should I have asked permission to start it and drive it?

If I had told Grandpa what I was doing, if I had suggested that I was taking them because he already had enough to do with the others, he might have been glad I took the initiative, or he might have been hurt that I was essentially “cutting back” on his activities. These days his moods can go either way. He’s glad I’m helping; he’s angry he needs the help.

I feel as though the two pots on my deck represent two possibilities.

The first being that I am moving more and more to a daily sense of responsibility for the gardening rather than a part-time weekend farmer wanna-be. This is a good thing, because this is where I hope my path is taking me, towards full-time agriculture in my next career journey.

The second possibility is a little harder to think on – that if this tractor is going to keep on rolling, I’m going to have to drive it without oversight and supervision more and more often, until one day the guidance will be the memories in my heart, and not the voice of my grandfather. It’s the gradual move from apprenticeship to journeyman farmer, which is the long-term goal, but it also acknowledges in tiny jangling undertones the fact that one day, this will not be me helping my grandfather in his enterprise; this will be me being responsible for my own enterprise.

When I brought these seed pots home, I brought home two terracotta pots filled with a little peat moss, a little vermiculite, and a handful of seeds. But somewhere in the box that carried the pots, a tiny shadow of sadness and a large measure of responsibility, for both my grandfather and the seeds, came along with the seed pots.

Two terracotta seed pots are quiet. They sit there on my deck, unmoving, and innocuous. And yet these two terracotta seed pots are perhaps saying more than my heart is ready to hear.

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The more time I spend with my grandfather, the more I realize that I am a lot like him, and perhaps becoming more like him with time.  I know I have inherited many of his eccentricities.  I hope I’ve inherited some of his many talents.  And I’m afraid I’ve inherited not a few of his faults, as well.  One of which is an inherent inability to take it easy when there is work to be done.  To say I’m following in his footsteps is both descriptive and prophetic at the same time.

Today, I went to the garden again for my first day “back at work” after the surgery.  There’s so much to be done it would almost be discouraging, if not for the fresh cucumbers, the lima beans, the watermelon, the canteloupe and the first ripening tomatos!  [Which of course, is what gardening is all about – homegrown tomatoes.]  I did as much as I felt I could do, given the heat of the day and the requirement to ease back into gardening, and in the end I was greatly pleased with what I had managed to accomplish.  David and I weeded about a third of the peppers before we gave out, and I can see where two more days of work would get the peppers back into shape.  That’s very gratifying.  It’s also very exhausting. 

And I planted the collards for the fall u-pick-it business, and was glad to alleviate my grandfather from the fretting about getting the cash crop planted. 

But as usual, the real benefit of the day wasn’t the accomplishment of weeding the peppers. it wasn’t the opportunity to drive the tractor [although….yippee!], and it wasn’t the ripened tomatoes.  It was the opportunity to reflect on life, the kind of reflection that happens to me most often when I’m gardening.  And it was the opportunity to catch a droplet of wisdom that falls from my grandfather like sweat from his brow, the tiniest unrehearsed phrases that seem to be inconsequential on the surface, and yet, upon reflection, can reveal the secrets of living well.

These little phrases are born in practicality, but easily trascend into the realm of philosophy, much like a parable in the Bible. And usually they are things that I’ve heard hundreds of times before, but for some reason, upon this hearing, they just say….more.

As I was planting the collards, going up and down the rows with the seeder, Grandpa supervised.  He walked just ahead of me, watching my progress, feeling the freshly tilled soil under his shoes.  And then he said, “the fewer footprints you make, the better off you’ll be in the long run.  The footprints are the first places the weeds will come up.  Try to step in my footprints.”

On the surface, this makes perfect sense.  The compression of the footprint firms in the weed seeds dormant in the soil and the contact with the moisture and the soil cause them to germinate earlier than seed laying in tilled soil.   So the fewer footprints created, the fewer early weeds will spring up. Very practical advice.

But as I walked in his footprints, placing my small foot inside his giant footprint, the advice trascended from garden sense to life-sense. 

As we walk our paths in life, there are unavoidable weeds.  They are there, below the surface, just waiting for the right conditions to develop.  The only way to prevent the weeds would be to not walk on the soil, but then our crops would never be planted.  But we can follow in the path of our elders, if we choose.  We will still have weeds, but they will be the weeds our elders have already experienced, and can help us to resolve.  They’ve been down this row before us, afterall.  And perhaps, by following in their examples and their experience, we will create fewer opportunities for weeds to grow in our gardens. 

What grows in my garden? Beans, tomatoes, cabbage, watermelon, peppers, and a lot of weeds.  But I hope that wisdom also grows in my garden.  I will always struggle with the weeds, but it occurs to me that if I follow in the footsteps of those who are experienced in life, I might possibly create fewer opportunities for the weeds to overtake me.

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The photographic evidence

I’ve been meaning to share these pictures since….forever….but since I was busy IN the garden, I didn’t have time to blog or share pictures OF the garden.  However, I did take my camera with me and got some shots to share with you.

I’ve posted them all in a web album, which you can view here.

http://picasaweb.google.com/pnearly/Garden08

The garden “matures” as the pictures progress, and I’ve added captions to help you in your tour.  All these pictures were taken at least three weeks ago, and there’s been a lot of growth since then.  I’ll let you know when I update the album!

I hope you enjoy it!  It gives you a bit of an idea about where I’ve been all this time, and what I’ve been up to. 

Love and fresh veggies to all!

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Yesterday afternoon, when the day had cooled a little, I was feeling up to a little excursion…

Wait a minute, that’s not exactly the way this story starts…

Yesterday afternoon my aunt called to give me the report on “what’s happening at the farm”.  [She’s been so good about keeping up with the watering and the weeding and the picking, all while caring for my grandparents AND her own grand-daughter at the same time.  So, what’s about to follow is in no way a criticism of her efforts…just want to get that out there.]  The plants have been watered, the tomatoes are going to get another string tied around them later this week, and the watermelons are really growing quickly.  Squash and cucumbers are being produced by the bushel.  I was really happy to hear all that.  She calls every day to keep me in the loop about Grandpa’s recovery, what’s happening in the family, and how the garden is doing.

But she didn’t mention the beans…and then I made the mistake of asking (using a little, tiny, almost plaintive voice),  “Have you been picking the beans?” 

Before I go on with this story, a primer on beans.  Much of gardening is tricking plants into doing what they would do once to do it over and over again.  For instance, the bean plant’s only job in life is to reproduce itself and make more bean plants. (This would be an interesting segue into a discussion about infertility…)  As the beans mature, and put out blooms and then pods, each of those pods contains the progeny of the plant.  If left to their own devices, the bean pods form, and then reach a point of terminal growth, at which point the plant receives a chemical signal that tells it, “Good job! You’ve made the next generation of bean plants.  You can quit now.”  However, if you pick the bean before it reaches that stage, the plant is fooled into continuing to put out more and more beans each season, just waiting for that signal (kind of like the way an infertile woman will fill her days with a lot of other activities, tying to get that sense that her life is complete and meaningful enough….but I digress).  So, if you want baskets and baskets of beans, you have to pick them before they reach that terminal growth stage and the plant “retires”.

“Oh, Trish, I haven’t had time to pick the beans.”

Now, this is a real dilemma for me.  Of course she hasn’t had time to pick the beans….she’s very busy with all the other things she’s doing for the family.  On the other hand, I really don’t want the beans to go to seed.  Love of aunt trumps love of fresh green beans, but….I’m only human…

Then, I ventured another step into the world of dangerous questions, by asking (in that same hesitant voice), “Has anyone watered the greenhouse…”

“Oh, Trish, I’m afraid to look in the greenhouse.  No one has watered it.”

Now, this conversation did nothing to help calm my inner voice from screaming at me, “See…I told you it was all up to you!” 

By the time Tony got home I had decided that, although I couldn’t garden, I could at least go and take a look at the state of the garden and the greenhouse.   Promising my friend, Evan, that I would lift nothing heavier than a glass of cold water, I bullied…pleaded…asked…whined my sweet husband into driving me over there to take a look.

In some ways, it was a great trip.  The watermelons are amazing, and even though it’s only been about 12 days since I was there, the garden has really changed and grown.  The beans really do need picking badly, and I’m not even sure if it’s too late or not.   I walked around for a bit, looked at everything, talked to my aunts, and then checked on the greenhouse. 

Yeah, it was bad.  A massive die-off, as a matter of fact, but I watered it just on the off-chance that some of the flowers and plants would spring back to life.  But as I told myself, and continue to tell myself, the loss of 12 flats of marigolds, a nascent herb garden, and dahlia seedlings is really a small thing in the great scheme. 

And I can plant again next year. 

Sigh.

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Well, when talking about seedlings, it’s not exactly hard to do, but it is delicate and time-consuming work!

Our goal, of course, having started our seedlings, established them to the true-leaf stage, and mixed our soil, is to separate them and put them in their own pots so that they can have room to grow. In other words, it’s time to go from this:

seedlings 1

To this:

seedlings 2

So, for each of the seedling pots, you have to consider that we will go through the process of carefully separating each seedling out of the seedling pot plant it without crushing the delicate stem.

katy linersFortunately, there’s a job for everyone! Even the smallest members of the family can help out by laying plastic sheets in the bottom of the plant trays. Here’s my 3-year-old cousin wrestling the wet sheets into the trays. She kept saying “it’s yucky!” but I reminded her that it was fun to get our hands dirty. And now a word about the plastic liners. Remember how we bought the soil in the big bags? Well, working with Depression-era farmers means never throwing anything away that might be re-purposed. We use the empty bags for lining trays, covering soil, creating frost protection, covering broken windows, etc, etc, etc. There’s clutter at Carter Acres, but never any trash.

katy and grandpaHere, Grandpa shows us how to separate out the individual seedlings. Hmmm, Katy’s not paying attention! She needs to learn this stuff in order to carry on the family traditions! Gee whiz, kid, you’d think that being 3-years-old excuses you from paying attention? I didn’t get many pictures of this stage of the process because Grandpa was in a hurry to show us and get out of the greenhouse. It seems that the tractor was calling that day….

Tony and David potting But no one over the age of 3 escaped that easily! Here’s Tony and our nephew, David, working the seedlings. Being 6ft tall is no excuse for ham-handing the delicate seedlings, and these guys treated each seedling like it was precious. We’ll be seeing a lot more of David this summer, as he’s coming to work with us almost every weekend as part of his summer internship! It will be great sharing this time with him and having the extra hands in the garden. Thanks, David!

Later in the afternoon, a thunderstorm started up, and we stayed in the greenhouse, listening to the wind blow, and the rain patter on the panes of glass. I wish I could express to you the wonderfulness of the afternoon. There was a bit of wildness, a bit of pastoral beauty, and a lot of laughter amidst the work.

grandpa’s seedling method 1Grandpa even came in off the tractor to help us with the potting. Wait a minute! He’s doing something completely differently than the way he showed us to do it! And it’s faster! and easier! That cagey ol’ Grandpa.… He’s separating the pepper seedlings, but instead of putting them in individual peat pots, he’s filled a big 36-cell tray with soil and is poking a hole in the soil of each cell before inserting a seedling and then firming it in. We soon learned that you can do three trays of seedlings this way in the same time it took us to do one tray of peat pots. Which made those of us in the potting shed wonder if we’d just been Huck Finn-ed

Tony and grandpa pottingTony abandoned David and me in the potting shed and went out to work with Grandpa. He’s no fool and knows a good deal when he sees it! Of course, in his defense, he really was helping Grandpa, since Grandpa doesn’t see very well. And honestly, it was just so enjoyable to watch my sweet husband working in the dirt with my sweet grandpa.

 

We spent about six hours in the greenhouse that day, and made 21 trays of seedlings (roughly 840 plants) before we ran out of soil and had to mix some more up. The weatherman said it was a rainy day, and gave it a score of 4-out-of-10, with ten being a beautiful day. But I think he was dreadfully wrong. In the warm greenhouse, with the forces of nature surrounding us and the tranquility of gardening before us, Saturday was definitely an 11.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…We make dirt better!

Or, in the wise words of my precious 5-year-old nephew, “Aunt Trish, soil is a better word.”

And he’s right!  In fact, in our seeding and potting mixture, there’s no dirt at all!

As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve learned from grandpa that there’s a lot more to successful gardening than seeds+soil+water= plants. I learn something new every day that I’m out there, and this weekend, I learned Grandpa’s Secret Soil Blend ™ and Secret Soil Preparation Technique®. [Okay, so these processes are neither trademarked or registered, and after this post they won’t even be secret! ] Let me share it with you!

Soil 1First, you start with a new bag of potting mix. Grandpa prefers Fafard, so now I prefer Fafard. Why mess with success? Next, you open the bag of potting soil on the potting table and spread it out into a more-or-less level layer of soil. This is accomplished by using a special tool….uh…board… to make it as flat and as smooth as possible. Now, before you start thinking that maybe my grandfather has a bit of an obsessive/compulsive disorder, let me reassure you that his reasoning is that by having all the elements of the soil mixture level, we can produce more evenly distributed nutrient blends in the soil. Of course, I’m not saying that he’s not a bit OCD. My family tends to lean in that direction…your author included….I’m just saying that he’s learned to rationalize it very well over the years with a healthy application of science and chemical knowledge.

soil 3Next, we take three generous handfuls of bone meal and scatter it evenly across the top of the soil. It’s the scattering it evenly part that takes practice and years of mastery! We don’t want all the bone meal in one part of the dirt, and not in others. There’s a way you open your hand just so much to let it come out a little at a time, the same technique used for broadcasting seeds, and admittedly one that I am still trying to get right. We also add a couple of handfuls of Milorganite, an organic fertilizer that is mild enough to not burn tender seedlings with too much nitrogen. It’s all about giving the seedlings enough of the right nutrients, but not too much.

We then open another bag of soil up and spread it evenly on top of the first, and repeat the addition of the solid soil amendments. So now we have the following layers: soil + amendments + soil + amendments. Got it? If your potting table is larger, you can repeat this process, but for our purposes we like working with two bags at a time.

soil 4The final soil amendment we’re going to add is one that will be familiar to almost everyone: MiracleGro. Grandpa waters the stuff on in the hose-attachment and really soaks the soil. Don’t mix it up! Just cover it up with some plastic bags or a tarp and let it sit for 24 hours. This will allow the soil mix to absorb all the liquid and dissolve the solid particulate into the peat moss. Just cover it and walk away from it. Go on! close the potting shed door and go do something else for awhile. It’ll be here when you get back…

Time passes…

The next day, you uncover your soil and it’s nice and moist, but not muddy. But wait! You can’t put seedlings in it yet. You have to mix it. Get out a big shovel, and start scooping it methodically from one end, turning the soil and scattering it on the other side of the potting table. If you are familiar with the process of double-digging a garden bed, this is what we’re doing. I wish I could explain this to you better than that. It’s all in the technique. Scoop-turnscatter. Scoop-turn-scatter, until you’ve moved all the soil from one end of the table to another. Then you do it again, back the other way. Back and forth across the table three or four times, and your fertilizer and moisture is evenly mixed through the soil.

Ready to work the soil now? Hold your horses! These things can’t be rushed! Just cover that mound of soil back up with the plastic and go water your seedlings. That soil has to rest for another 24 hours before it’s reached the peak of peat-fection!

The next day, when you uncover the soil, it will be a perfect souffle of nutrients and moisture just right for the growing plants.

In fact, come to think of it, I think I’ve actually cooked souffles that weren’t this involved…

Grandpa watched his parents go through this process and practiced it himself for eighty years, and now I’m trying to learn as much as I can, as fast as I can, while I can. I’m so glad I have this blog to keep track of all this. I hope it’s as interesting to you as it is to me!

Next stop, seedlings!

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Okay, I’ve been promising updates and pictures for a long time, and I’m going to do my best to get them out to you!  If it’s any consolation, I think about blogging all the time!  As I’m doing all these wonderful gardening activitites with my grandfather, I’m composing blog posts the whole while, trying to capture and remember each precious moment.  But when I get home, I crash, and put off blogging.  I’m just finding it so challenging to both live a rich and rewarding life, and at the same time, write about it.  Sometimes, the living takes all my energy.

How we start the seedlings.

I showed you the pots of the seedlings growing a couple of weeks ago, and now I’m going to show you how we get the whole thing started!  In this next series of pictures, we will be planting the summer crop of tomatos.  Before we begin, though, take a moment and think on the last really ripe, juicy, homegrown tomato you had.  Mmmmmmm.  That’s what this is all about. 

seedling pots

These are the seedling pots.  We use these each year to start our seedlings for the plants that aren’t sown directly into the garden.  I’ve just washed these in a bleach solution in order to kill any fungus or bacteria from last year and have set them out in the sun to dry and burn off the bleach.  When they are dry, I’ll put them back into the water to soak them, letting the terra cotta absorb water so that it won’t dry out the seedlings and wick moisture away from the seeds.  That would be counterproductive.  The reason they have holes in the bottom of the pot is not so that water will drain out, like in the bottom of a flower pot, but so that water will seep up and into the soil.  We don’t water the seedling pots from the top, because that would cause the top of the soil to form a hard crust as it dries and make it harder for the seedlings to break through.  Instead, we set the pots down in a tray of water and let them soak it up into the pot.  Also, we want the seedlings to establish strong roots going down, not reaching up for surface water.  Who knew that this was going to be so scientific? 

Our toolsThese are our seeding tools.  I happen to love this picture, because none of these tools were purchased from an uppity suburban garden shop.  No sir-ee, these are handmade tools specific to this job, what we like to call a Grandpa Special in our family.  The screen is used for sifting the soil into the pots, removing any leaves or large chunks of dirt in order to create a more uniform growing medium.  It’s really just a piece of quarter-inch hardware cloth folded up to fit exactly the width of the seedling pot.  The round thing is a device my grandpa made about twenty years ago to tap down, or firm in, the soil.  But don’t think it’s just a round piece of wood he found laying around somewhere!  This is a quarter-inch thick tapper-thingama-giggie so that he can be sure his seeds are set a quarter-inch below the surface.  And of course, my favorite tool is the Clorox bottle-cum-dirtscooper.  Brilliant!  Nothing goes wasted at Carter Acres!

fillingHere is Grandpa, sifting the soil into the seedling pots.  He puts that Rubbermaid lid down so that he can put the overflow soil back into the mix.  Even dirt doesn’t go wasted here!  We fill the pot all the way to the top, leaving the screen resting on top of the pot, and just sliding it back and forth.  That way, the screen both sifts and levels at the same time.  Didn’t I tell you this was scientific?  I’m not kidding, these are the thoughts about the process that my granddaddy shared with me. You can’t get this kind of education from reading a book!

PackingNext, we gently tap the soil down to a quarter-inch below the rim of the pot, using our special tapper-thingama-giggie tool.  Firming in the soil gently allows the capillary action of the soil to distribute the moisture evenly through the whole pot.  By using our thumbs along the edge of the rim, we can tell when we’ve tapped it deep enough, but no deeper!  This is important.  Remember, this is science.

 

 SeedingYou might not believe this, but eventually, we actually put seeds in the pot! We put the seeds in this special seeding tool, which looks suspiciously like a scrap of metal flashing.  Hmmmm.  The important thing at this stage is to get a uniform spread of seeds across the soil, without piling too many in any one area.  This way, the seedlings have room for healthy root development, and it’s easier to separate them later into their individual pots if they are not all grown together.  Grandpa likes to tap on the edge of the special tool with his pocket knife, but I just use my finger.  My pocket knife is a little bigger and more unweildy…  After we’ve seeded the pot, we tap the seeds down gently so that they make even contact with the soil.  This helps the moisture in the soil to break down the enzyme coat on the seed more evenly, and hopefully they will all develop at about the same rate.

vermiculiteNext, we use our sifter again to add a quarter-inch layer of vermiculite over the top of the seeds.  Vermiculite is much lighter and more porous than regular potting soil, which allows the seedlings to break the surface of the soil more easily with their cotyledons (or first leaves).  It’s important to use the botanical names for things when engaged in scientific endeavors.   Once we’ve filled the top of the pot with the vermiculite, then we can tap it ever-so-lightly with the tapper-thingama-giggie in order to smooth the surface and improve the capillary action of the soil.  Whew, are you tired yet?  And this is just one pot!  We did about 30 of these altogether!

finished seed potsHere are our finished pots!  We’ve laid a plant label in each pot to keep our varieties straight, and marked the label with the date of seeding.  Here’s something interesting and very scientific that you will want to know:  The reason we fill the pots up to the top of the rim, instead of leaving a space, is so that mold and bacteria can’t grow there due to poor air circulation and damp conditions.  So, if you get moss and mold growing on the top of your flowerpots, you can avoid it by filling your pots all the way to the top with dirt!

Greenhouse boundAs I mentioned in this earlier post, we keep the seedling pots at the house until they start greening up, so that we can watch them carefully and monitor their special watering needs.  Once they have broken the surface and the stems start showing green, we can move them to the greenhouse.  This seems to involve Grandpa loading them on top of a garden cart, not in it, and pulling it up a hill.  Yes, I tried several times to get the cart away from him and do it myself, but this is one proud and stubborn 85-year-old!  If my mom sees this picture, she’ll be very mad at me for letting Grandpa do this while I just took pictures, so shhhhhhhhhh, don’t tell her!

In the greenhouseHere are our seedlings in their new home, the greenhouse.  We’ve buried them in potting soil on the greenhouse tables in order to keep their temperature regulated.  For about two weeks we will keep them here and water the soil around the seedling pots in order to keep them moist, but not damp.  This also helps the developing root system extend itself out in search of more moisture.  Finally, because we occaisionally have incursions of squirrels in the greenhouse, we’ve covered the seedlings with hardware cloth screens to protect them from critters.   [The rickety looking contraption in the background is a sophisticated pvc-frame that my grandpa made a few years ago for growing hothouse tomatos in the winter.  It has since been repurposed for use as a warming tent with tarps when we had a cold snap earlier this week.]

So, that’s the seedling process.  It’s a lot of steps, but as you can see, each one has purpose and is carefully considered for the optimum in seeding success.  Science, after all, is what separates seeding from …uh…just putting seeds in dirt.  I guess.

 

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