Friday, April 30, 2010

Chicken Pickin's

Is there a way to minimize purchased inputs when it comes to your chickens? Obviously, a backyard is too small to grow grains for their feed. Eventually, I want to learn how to grind and mix my own feed. Many people recommend that. For now, however, I buy them a high quality organic layer feed.

Traditionally, people have supplemented their chickens’ diets with kitchen scraps and leftovers from human dinners, using the chickens, in the words of our extension agent, as “garbage disposals.” I haven’t done much of that, for several reasons. First, I doubt whether, left to their own devices, chickens would make a fire and cook up some grub. It seems to me that it is more natural for them to eat raw food.

Secondly, much of what humans (American humans, anyway) eat these days is not healthy for humans, let alone chickens. We try to eat healthfully most of the time, but we enjoy things like chocolate cake now and then (more often when I was younger and could more easily keep the weight off!) I wouldn’t dream of giving chickens chocolate cake. They’d have to fight me for it, like anyone else, and although at 4’9” tall I’m smaller than most grown people, I’m bigger than a chicken!

Seriously, the white flour and sugar are empty calories, let alone the hazards of the giving chocolate to animals. If you think I’m crazy to even mention chocolate, you should check out the Backyard Chickens message board sometime. I once saw a post asking whether it was okay to give chickens chocolate. Some of the moderators eventually put together a list of safe “chicken treats” in response to all the questions they were getting.

I’m not trying to put down posters on that site. Some terrific people post over there and I don’t know how I would have made it through my first year of chicken keeping without them. Everyone is extraordinarily helpful.

It is also the largest site devoted to backyard flocks that I know of, and so is a great place to get a sense of what’s going in with the trend. The problem I see is that many people want to treat chickens as pets rather than livestock. Even when you start out, as I did, with the intention of treating them as livestock, if you have just a small number of birds, you find yourself naming them and getting attached to them whether you want to or not.

One problem with treating them as pets is the desire to give them “treats.” People want to give their beloved pets foods they (the humans) enjoy. The result is a lot of fat family dogs and cats. Even foods like pasta, unless it is whole grain, can contribute to obesity (as with humans) because it is mostly empty carbohydrates. Our extension agent says many of the chickens kept in backyards are obese and that obesity causes many of the reproductive disorders you see in chickens, such as double-yolked eggs, internal laying, and prolapses.

What I’ve tried to do is observe my chickens and let them educate me about their diet. They have tiny brains, but they are programmed with specific information related to their survival as a species.

What I’ve learned from my chickens is this:

* They do not particularly care for cooked food, even on a cold winter morning. I’ve read and heard from many sources that cooked grains are good for warming up chickens in winter. Mine had no interest in the oatmeal I lovingly prepared for them. I offered it a couple of times, thinking maybe it was just unfamiliar to them. The only time they went for it was when I put diced apple in it. Then they just picked out the apple! I tried making a porridge of their layer mash and hot water, but they didn’t go for that, either.

Unlike many other chickens I’ve read about, mine do not care for pasta. I even offered them the good stuff, whole grain pasta. They nibbled a bit, turned up their beaks, and walked away. The only cooked food I ever got them to eat was popcorn. But they only like it occasionally.

* They are omnivores; consequently, they usually don’t want the same treats over and over. I knew, intellectually, that they are omnivores, but it didn’t really sink in until I tried giving them something they seemed to like more than once. They went crazy for popcorn the first time I gave it to them, so I made it again the next day. They just looked at me, as if to say, “Popcorn, AGAIN? With no movie? What else have you got?”

Similarly, when they were molting in winter, I read that you should give them a little extra protein. Some people give them dog or cat food, but I questioned the quality of that. Then I read about a woman who gave her chickens deer liver when they were molting. Since liver is a high quality protein, and I happened to some pastured turkey livers in the freezer, I offered them liver. They went crazy for it. The next day I brought out more, and they were, “meh.”

* The “never fail” treats they will always go for, no matter how many days in a row or times per day you offer them are greens, bugs, worms, and grubs. Big surprise, huh? These are the foods closest to what their ancestors, Asian jungle fowl, ate in the wild. The great thing is, you can give your chickens their favorite (and most healthful) treats and minimize purchased inputs at the same time! One of their favorite treats is dandelions, which are extraordinarily nutritious (for people and chickens!).

Whenever Batgirl, one of our Barred Rocks, gets away from me, she makes a bee line for the raspberry and strawberry patch. So now I give them leaves from raspberry shoots coming up where I don’t want them, as well as leaves from extra strawberry runners. I’ve also given them extra parsley from the herb bed, volunteer squash shoots coming up in the compost, pea vines after I harvest the peas, and carrot tops. They also love the leaves, flowers, and seeds of sunflowers – the only crop I plant specifically for them.

Last summer when I was moving their tractor to a new spot on the lawn, I happened to pass over an ant hill and they went crazy. So I just left the tractor there, and they had a blast cleaning out the ant hill. The next day I set them over another ant hill and fairly quickly had my yard cleaned of ants.

One of the hard realities I’ve learned about backyard chickens is that you can’t really let them run free – unless you don’t have a garden. Some people fence off their gardens and give their chickens free run of the rest of the yard. But that only works if your garden is limited to one spot in your yard. From my reading, I thought I’d be able to let them run around and take care of any bug problems in my yard. I especially hoped they’d be a big help with the Japanese beetles. In practice, we’ve had pick the beetles off our roses and cherry trees and serve them up to the chickens, who will greedily devour them.

The reason is that chickens will eat many kinds of greens (even the ones you don’t want them to eat) and will dig huge holes in the garden where you don’t want them. For example, a neighbor who lives a few blocks away from me let her chickens run free, for just an hour or so every evening, in her back yard and they quickly decimated all her hostas.

They’ll work their way through your vegetable garden, too. For instance, they’re smart enough to avoid eating tomato leaves, which are harmful to them, but they love tomatoes – and especially enjoy taking a few pecks from each tempting fruit you have hanging on your vines.

Chickens are champion diggers. Apparently convinced they’re going to find something good somewhere in there, they relentlessly dig without rest. One of my neighbors who has no experience of chickens, watched ours in disbelief one afternoon. “What are they looking for?” he asked. “They just won’t stop!”

It’s useful when you want to turn the soil in spring, so I put up temporary netting wherever I want them to dig and let them have at it. Yesterday, when I went to return them to their pen, I noticed that Amelia was outside the temporary netting. She had dug her way free and was busily digging a deep hole under a nearby shrub.

So, the point is that there are plenty of things you can feed your chickens, or allow them access to, that will keep them happy and healthy and will help to minimize your purchased inputs. I’m convinced that a major reason my chickens are so healthy without antibiotics or vitamin supplements, and survived the winter so well, is that I feed them greens twice a day. Greens are nutritional powerhouses – for chickens and people. I’m trying to get more into my diet.

Unfortunately, since they’re backyard chickens, I usually have to serve the greens up to the chickens, rather than let them forage for them on their own. I hang them in suet cages, in part, to keep them busy for awhile pulling them out. Watching them time their movements so they can deftly grasp a green sticking out of a swinging suet cage, I began to think giving them their greens this way, rather than just throwing them on the ground, might also help to keep their reflexes sharp. They don’t get many opportunities to use their quick reflexes since they’re penned up most of the time.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Social Class & Community Gardens

I’ve been trying to get my head around why someone would actively oppose a community garden. I can understand apathy and indifference towards a community garden. Over the past several generations, Americans have become so far removed from their food sources that many can not recognize a common vegetable plant in a garden, let alone know how to grow one. Some vegetables, even after they have matured on a plant, are unrecognizable to some people. I know I’m not the only one who’s had to identify produce in a grocery store so a young checker unfamiliar with the item could ring up the sale.

It’s amazing when you think about it. The most basic skill any living creature teaches its young is how to provide food for itself. That a majority of Americans don’t know how to do that, and further, believe that food production is something that should be out-of-sight and away from where most of us live is . . . I don’t even know how to finish the sentence. It’s just breath-taking when you think about it; I mean, REALLY think about it. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s suicidal.

It’s also elitist. The gap between rich and poor has been growing since the Reagan administration, and the current economy and job market is dismal, so it’s hard for most of us to see ourselves as “wealthy.” Compared to the truly wealthy in this country, most of us are rapidly falling below middle class. But compared to much of the rest of the world, we are wealthy. Historically, it was only the upper classes who could remove themselves from the most fundamental activity of all living creatures - food production. In much of the world today, as was true of our great-grandparents in this country, people who can’t produce at least some of their food themselves will go hungry.

So I do understand apathy and indifference towards community gardens. Food production is an activity many contemporary Americans have had no experience of and no need to learn. But active opposition to others planting a garden in their neighborhood is something I’m still thinking through. It appears to me that opposition is rooted in class bias. I’m also guessing that those who oppose community gardens in their neighborhoods do not recognize their own elitism and would be deeply offended by the accusation.

Consider some of the objections to community gardens.

1) We don’t want pesticides in our neighborhood. When the urban orchard opportunity emerged last December, and I recruited volunteers to qualify our neighborhood for the grant, I received a few emails opposing the idea. (Interestingly, those opposed did not contact me directly. They lodged their concerns with others, who then passed them along to me.) One individual adamantly opposed a public orchard in the neighborhood, in part, because she did not want more “noxious” pesticides in the neighborhood and believed that fruit production could not be done without spraying. Chemical pesticides were also a
concern when a few residents in the Sycamore Hills neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio attempted to organize a community garden.

My first reaction to my neighbor’s objection was: fair enough. I emailed her to explain (as the Sycamore Hills community garden organizer did with her neighbors) that our group agreed with her stance on chemical pesticides and planned to use organic methods of pest control. When I later conducted a survey of our neighborhood, the same neighbor reiterated her objection about pesticides and continued:

[An orchard is] labor intense (sic) requiring pruning and spraying . . . And for how many years can we sustain a volunteer crew? Without them we’ll be dealing with decaying fruit and bees (which we don’t want to eliminate). Fortunately for us, we have two farmers’ markets within walking distance where we can buy and enjoy a great variety of local fruits and even nuts.

Let’s unpack the layers of meaning in this remarkable statement. First of all, she either isn’t listening or doesn’t believe that fruits and vegetables can be produced organically. She also doubts (perhaps not unreasonably) that volunteer interest in growing our own food can be maintained. More importantly, the statement implies that the messiness, labor, and hazards of food production should occur elsewhere, with others undertaking the manual labor and
health risks of pesticide exposure.

2) Vegetable gardens detract from the beauty of the landscape, especially during unproductive seasons.
One (of the very few) respondents to our survey objected to a community garden, in part, because “vegetable and flower gardens on a large scale (emphasis in original) can be attractive for the few months they are in production but are a visual blight the remainder of the year.”

In Atlanta, U.S. Congressman David Scott and more than a dozen of his neighbors blocked a proposed community garden at Inman Park – across the street from Scott’s mansion - because it would spoil their view.

During a heated town meeting in Maplewood, New Jersey, one opponent of a proposed community garden in Orchard Park expressed a related sentiment when he commented that “it was his understanding community gardens were used to improve abandoned properties or deteriorated areas—which is not the case with Orchard Park.”

Here we have another version of the idea that food production is an ugly business, best done out-of-sight of the non-laboring classes. However, if the gardens are located in poor neighborhoods afflicted with urban blight, then those hideous fruits and vegetables can be an improvement.

One wonders what some of these objectors want to look at in the parks – just lawn and trees? Shrubs? My own neighbor (cited above) didn’t even want flowers because they are a “visual blight” when they aren’t blooming!

It’s worth recalling here that lawns originated in Europe as a symbol of social class. They indicated that their owners were so wealthy, they could afford to keep great swaths of land out of food production and pay people to maintain the closely cropped turf (since mechanized mowing machines had yet to be invented.)

3) The land in this public space should be for everyone, not just the few growing gardens. As
I wrote in an earlier post, this was the argument our neighborhood association board used a couple of years ago to block the city from moving an existing community garden to a new location in our neighborhood. In January, when the president of the neighborhood association got wind of a meeting I was organizing to start a community garden or public orchard, he reiterated that argument. Although he repeatedly claimed that he was “not against” community gardens, he stated that “the whole park should be used by all neighbors and not just a select few.” Maplewood, New Jersey opponents of a community garden in Orchard Park voiced similar objections:

"It's not fair for a small number of people to determine the use of the space," said St. Lawrence Avenue resident Maura Sackett.

"My kids play there on a daily basis," said Chris Coreschi of Headley Place, as he noted that the raised beds would remove open space.

As I argued in my earlier post, this objection is illogical. There are plenty of facilities at parks that not everyone uses – like the softball pitch that only softball teams use or the playground that only children use. A community garden need not be any different. The only way this objection makes any sense is if one assumes that the garden will commandeer the entire park, rather than be allotted a portion of the space, as with a softball pitch or tennis court. So why make such a statement? Perhaps because asserting the right of the whole community to the use of public space has the ring of egalitarianism?

Even when the proposed garden will not be located in a park, residents have been known to vociferously object. In Shelton, Connecticut, organizers attempted to locate a community garden on a former farm, “bought by the city for $2 million in 2002 with the idea that the public would have access to the open space.” Angry residents insisted that a garden would increase vehicle trips by 500-600 per week on their quiet cul-de-sac. In fact, similarly situated gardens in Connecticut do not create that level of traffic and the planned garden would have provided parking on the farm rather than the cul-de-sac.

Residents would not be mollified, however. They put up posters, signed petitions, and packed the Board of Alders meeting to make their objections known. Interestingly, their concerns included vandalism and “security at the gardens.” A flyer circulated prior to the meeting called upon residents to “stop the madness” and “be there to defend your home.” This sounds to me like fear of outsiders, perhaps even fear that low-income people, interested in growing some food, might set foot in the neighborhood. (As of April 19th, opponents of the garden had successfully stalled the project, as the garden committee still awaited a decision from the mayor.)

There are legitimate concerns about community gardens in neighborhoods, including, but not limited to, pesticides, traffic, and how the site will be run to ensure that negligent gardeners don’t allow it to become an eyesore. It should also be expected, given the woeful ignorance of many contemporary Americans about food production that some residents will not understand some aspects of gardening; for instance, that properly managed compost does not smell or create unwanted pests. But when honest attempts to address these concerns are met with obstinance, irrational assertions, and cries to “defend your home,” it’s clear that something else is going on. As far as I can tell, it’s a social class issue.

What do you think? Do you have any community garden organizing experiences to share?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Blueberry Blossoms

Edited to add: I can't believe I forgot to mention coffee grounds! They're a great source of nitrogen AND they help acidify the soil - so a perfect soil amendment for blueberries. I only learned this late last summer, so just recently started using coffee grounds. If you don't drink coffee yourself, you can usually get free used coffee grounds from places like Starbucks. They give them away for compost. Another way to minimize your purchased inputs.

Aren’t these gorgeous? I am soooo looking forward to harvesting our first crop of blueberries this year. We planted two Dwarf Northblue (one pictured above) and one Northland (a “half-high” cultivar developed from a cross between a high bush and low bush blueberry) in the spring of 2008. The Northblue was developed at the University of Minnesota and the Northland at the University of Michigan, so they are hardy enough to withstand our Wisconsin winters. (You need two cultivars for good pollination.)

According to the labels that came with the shrubs, the Northland will grow to be about 3-4 feet tall and, when mature, will produce about 20 pounds of medium to small fruit. The two Northblue are smaller; when mature, they’ll be about 20-30 inches tall and produce 3-7 pounds of large berries.

Gardening authorities advise removing the flowers from the shrubs the first two years to promote foliar and root development. I found this very difficult the first year. The tiny shrubs developed beautifully and produced blossoms almost immediately – as you can see in the photo below. I felt like I was practically desecrating the plant – and more importantly, depriving myself of some tasty fruit! The promise in the literature that removing blossoms in the early years will produce better harvests in later years was only thing motivating me to comply with the rule.

It was a lot easier to pull off the blossoms last year because I could see that something was not quite right with the shrubs and I wanted them healthy before they went into fruit production. The leaves were paler than they should be and growth appeared to be slower than normal. I had a soil test done, expecting to find that the pH was too high. That was true – although it was close. But I was surprised to learn that the soil was very low in nitrogen.

Rick built beautiful two-tiered raised beds for our shrubs because blueberries need acidic soil (pH 4-5.5) and the soil here is very alkaline. With raised beds I thought I could better control the soil pH. (R
esearch at Ohio State University found that blueberry yields in raised beds were comparable to those planted in flat soil.) Following recommendations in a University of Iowa publication, I included a lot of peat in the soil mix. I later learned that peat has little to no nutrient value. So although I nearly achieved proper pH, the poor things were starved of nitrogen!

I amended with compost and chicken manure. I also switched to using pine needles to acidify the soil. In addition to the peat, I had added soil sulfur, but the yellow flakes never seemed to dissolve. Even when I had watered well, or we had a heavy rain, I’d find undissolved flakes in the soil. Someone recommended pine needles to me and I liked that idea. These are abundant around here, so I can minimize purchased inputs by using what’s available for free.

(Interestingly, Ruth Stout claimed (in her No-Work Garden Book (1971)) that once she built up her soil with organic matter, like hay, she found she didn’t need to pay attention to soil pH. Following Stout, my goal now is to prioritize soil building over pH – although I will continue to use pine needles.)

As with other perennial food crops, berry bushes are great for a Backyard Nest Egg. Once they’re established, you can harvest fruit for many years. They’re extraordinarily nutritious, with the
highest antioxidant capacity of all fresh fruit. Blueberries are one of the foods recommended to retard aging, preserve vision, and protect against heart disease. I just like to eat them – in muffins, pancakes, or most often, in yogurt. When we lived in Washington state many years ago, some friends showed us where to pick berries for free. We ate them fresh, baked them in pies, made jam, and froze many to last throughout the winter.

Last year I must have missed a few blossoms, because I found a couple of berries on one shrub that summer. They were delicious. If this year’s crop is just as good, we are in for a treat!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

No Community for This Garden

[Note: My laptop, recently on life support, has now expired - may she RIP. :( I have managed to get regular access to another laptop while I wait to get a new one, so WILL be posting more frequently.]

Over the last few years, dozens of articles have appeared in the media describing the development of community gardening projects across the country. But not every neighborhood welcomes a community garden. Google “opposition community garden” and you’ll find plenty of stories about resistance to community gardens in different areas across the country.

So, why do community gardens emerge and blossom in some neighborhoods and not others? Is it possible for community gardens to be established through the efforts of just a few dedicated volunteers, or is wider community support required to get the project going?

These are questions I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. Back in January, I wrote about an opportunity neighborhoods in our city were offered by the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation to establish urban orchards. I posted an email to our neighborhood list (which includes only about a third of households in the neighborhood) and was thrilled to get a group of 20+ volunteers willing to be trained to care for the trees and help maintain them, if our neighborhood was selected for the grant.

Ultimately, we did not get selected; neighborhoods with established garden projects were given preference. At the time, I thought that was a little unfair. How could new garden projects get started if preference is given to those with established projects?

Now I’m beginning to think that was a wise choice on the part of those determining which neighborhoods would be selected to apply for the grant. The interest I thought we had for an urban orchard quickly waned. After my initial disappointment that we were not selected to apply for the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation grant, I decided to use the list of volunteers I’d collected to pursue other grants, either for an urban orchard or community garden.

I emailed the group and set up a meeting, but attendance was low. Of those who initially expressed enthusiasm for an urban orchard, only four in addition to Rick and me showed up. Nobody else emailed (even after follow-up reminder emails from me) to say they wanted to be involved, but just couldn’t make that date and time. So I could only conclude that very few were interested.

Our tiny group of six decided to do a survey. The survey had two purposes:

1) to reach out to the two-thirds of the neighborhood not on the email list and perhaps enlarge the group of those interested in a garden project; and,

2) to fulfill a requirement for a local new garden grant.

The response rate to the survey was anemic – around 3% of households. (For comparison, among social researchers, a 33% response rate is considered “good” for a snail mail survey.) Responses were low even among the original group who volunteered for the urban orchard opportunity. Only about a quarter of that group responded to the survey.

So what’s going on with our neighborhood? I think it’s no accident that Detroit has a thriving community garden network while our (upper?) middle class neighborhood of university professors, lawyers, judges and other professionals is largely disinterested. People in areas hard hit by the economic downturn (impending collapse, some would say) have had to struggle to meet basic needs; i.e., food, shelter, and clothing – and in the process, learn about the importance of food security. Whereas many people in our affluent neighborhood do not seem to understand the value of growing your own food in your own neighborhood, when you can, as one person told me, "just go to the Farmer’s market or grocery store and buy it."

To be fair, one woman in our neighborhood is getting a children’s garden started at an elementary school. Unbeknownst to each other, she was trying to get a children’s garden going at the same time that I was pursuing the urban orchard. They are slated to break ground for the children’s garden this month.

The children’s garden has the advantage of having the land problem solved: they can plant it on school grounds. Whereas the location of an urban orchard or community garden will likely be contentious. The neighborhood association Board of Directors successfully resisted a past effort by the city to move a community garden to one of the two parks in our neighborhood. The Board argued that the park should be for all the residents of the neighborhood, and not just the few who would be gardening there.

When the Board was notified by a well-meaning neighbor that I was holding a meeting to discuss a potential urban orchard or community garden, the president fired off an email to me reiterating their opposition to use of a park for that purpose. I’d always thought their reasoning was ludicrous on its face: There are plenty of facilities at parks that not everyone uses – like the softball pitch that only softball teams use or the playground that only children use.

Besides, some people enjoy a garden even if they are not working in it themselves. Several elderly neighbors who responded to the survey indicated they would like to see a garden project in the neighborhood, but noted they would be unable to participate due to age or disability.

Moreover, the argument that a community garden should not be in a park because the park is for everyone, not just the few who garden, sounds like the kind of thing people say when they want to cover less worthy motives with something that sounds a little more high-minded.

The woman who initiated the children’s garden project advocated for it using educational research on children and learning. So far as I know, she has not encountered any opposition. I’m guessing that’s probably because it’s hard to oppose something that’s “for the children,” that has a foundation in research on education, that utilizes land nobody else is using, and that involves only people who live in the neighborhood.

It may be that I took the wrong approach to advocate an orchard or community garden. Not wanting to scare off my neighbors with talk of “peak oil,” the problems with industrial farming, climate change, predicted food security concerns, and the like, I instead wrote about my experience of a mini neighborhood orchard back in New Mexico.

I began my article for the quarterly neighborhood newsletter by describing the pecan trees that were planted in our New Mexico neighborhood as part of a Depression-era jobs creation program. I related how much our neighborhood enjoyed those pecans and that I had the opportunity to meet the guy who had been paid thirty-odd cents per tree to plant them.

Then I went on to talk about the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, how we were not selected for the grant, and noted that those selected already had established gardens and organizations to run them. My (not so subtle?) goals were to describe the non-controversial benefits of producing food in the neighborhood and to suggest that we were missing out on opportunities enjoyed by other neighborhoods who had already gotten started on their gardens. I urged everyone to make their “voice heard” by responding to the survey.

I was disheartened by the anemic response – but not too surprised. I’ll write in more detail about the survey results in my next post, but just leave you with this question. Of 998 households, only 32 (counting our own) responded. Two were opposed to any garden project, two opposed an orchard, and several preferred ornamental gardens like prairie gardens or rainwater gardens. Just 12 indicated they would be willing to help with an effort to get a garden project started. I had hoped to get a core group of at least twice that number. Given that 25 volunteers to help with an urban orchard quickly dwindled to six, (two of whom are Rick and me), my feeling is that 12 may be too few.

Or maybe I’m just lazy. I take that back. I don’t mind doing a lot of heavy lifting, as I already have done to solicit volunteers for the first grant opportunity for trees, research other grant opportunities, write the newsletter article and survey, recruit volunteers to hand deliver a quarter of the surveys (as our Board president funded postage only to those households who had paid their association dues) and now analyzing the survey results and writing a report.

But I can’t do everything, and feel I need a truly dedicated core group to work with to make it happen - especially as I have reason to believe there is more opposition than the survey indicates. What do you think? Anybody out there have experience with establishing a community garden in a relatively affluent neighborhood?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cherry Blossoms!

(Quick note: My laptop, which has been on life support, is quickly fading away. :( I'm writing this from someone else's laptop - hopefully, I'll get regular access until I replace my own - and so will be posting more frequently.)

Both our cherry trees are sporting beautiful blossoms on multiple branches - dare I hope for cherries this year? We planted dwarf Bing and Black Tartarian trees in the spring of 2007. Generally, cherries take 3-5 years to come into production, a bit less for dwarf trees. When I saw a few blossoms last spring, I got all excited, but only a handful appeared on one branch and I never saw any fruit.

Still, it was a hopeful sign. We took a chance planting sweet cherries. Door County, Wisconsin is famous for their tart cherries. However, here in Madison, we’re on the border between climate zones for sweet cherries and University extension publications generally advise against planting them.

But I love sweet cherries and didn’t want to plant fruit I’d have to add sugar to in order to eat them. (I’ve since learned that if you dry tart cherries, they’re sweet because the sugar is concentrated.)

Cherries are rich sources of antioxidants, helpful in preventing cancer and slowing the aging process. Cherries, and cherry juice, in particular, are an old-time folk remedy for gout and arthritis. My mother says my grandfather swore by cherry juice for his gout. I have an arthritic hip and can vouch for the effectiveness of cherry juice in reducing inflammation – and therefore pain. Medical science supports the claim of anti-inflammatory effects of cherries.
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2006 reported that consumption of Bing cherries lowered markers of inflammation in otherwise healthy men and women.

Those trees have been a lot of work. I’ve noted before that I never even heard of Japanese beetles until I moved to Wisconsin. Then I unwittingly set about planting just about everything they love to devour – roses, cherry trees (which are in the same botanical family as roses), raspberries. (Come to think of it, there aren’t too many plants those voracious beetles won’t devour.)

Japanese beetle season generally begins the first week in July. It’s been a battle every summer to protect those trees without chemical pesticides. The first year, we tried spraying them with Neem oil; however, the beetles all but laughed in our faces. Next, I sewed together large swaths of cheap, fine mesh netting (found in the bridal section of fabric stores) and we draped those over the trees. This worked okay, when the trees were small, although the wind tends to shift the netting, sometimes bending the branches, so we have to reposition.

As the trees got larger, this solution became unworkable. One year we tried stapling sheets of floating row cover together and draping this over the trees. Our neighbor thought it was cool-looking, especially at night, when a light breeze moved the draped trees giving the appearance of two large ghosts swaying.
I awoke one night, during a thunderstorm, looked out and saw the trees bent nearly double from the weight of the water on the row cover. Frantic, I shook Rick to wake him. “The cherry trees are about to snap in half!” I wailed. We ran outside in the pouring raining to remove the cover. Amazingly enough, they survived and eventually straightened up again.

Last year they were too big for any physical barrier. We just had to do the tedious work of picking the bugs off by hand. We fed them to the chickens who went crazy for them.

This year I plan on trying kaolin clay. I read about using this product for protecting the fruit long ago, but stupidly never considered using it to protect the leaves until someone recommended it to me last winter. With any luck, I’ll be protecting our first crop of cherries as well!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Spring has Sprung!

My computer's been down; luckily, I have my own personal, live-in IT guy - with benefits! It was a HUGE job to get it sorted out - Thanks, Rick!

Meanwhile, life goes on! Here's a little photo essay of some of the season's earliest growth in my garden. The first is (look closely!) lettuce coming up.

I planted pots of Bronze Arrow and Emerald Oak, as well as some baby leaf spinach and left the pots outside. I knew they would take longer to germinate there than inside under lights, but transplanting is always tricky and it's a pain in the ass to "harden off" plants.

Basically, this means dragging them in and out for a week or two, gradually leaving them outside for longer periods of time, so they can adjust to outdoor temperatures, light, and wind. I'm trying to avoid all that and minimize my use of grow lights by planting everything I can outside. I'd love to have a little greenhouse, and not use fossil fuels to start any seeds, but that's down the road a bit.

Besides conserving space under the lights, I'm also trying to conserve precious garden space by growing these in pots. Plus, I'm trying to get around the usual problem of having too much lettuce all at once in early summer, and then having it bolt as soon as the weather really warms. I'm thinking I'll plant a few at a time, move the pots to cooler spots when the weather warms, and hopefully, space my harvest out over a longer period of time.

Here you can see garlic coming up in the long containers, and maybe if you squint, see the spinach coming up in the clay pot.

I'm very pleased with the garlic. I planted it in the fall, when I planted garlic in other places in the garden - among the roses, in the herb garden, and a few in places I now can't remember!

Anyway, after I planted it, I checked "the bible;" i.e. McGee & Stuckey's The Bountiful Container and learned that garlic is one of the few crops they recommend against planting in containers. Oh, well.

I left them in the garage over the winter, stumbled across the pots a few weeks ago, and was pleased to see them sprouting! I think I will carefully transplant them soon, into the ground. Or maybe just one container, and leave the other - see how it works out.

Here is the current state of my herb bed. I should have taken a "before" photo; before I let the chickens dig here, and then pruned things back. You can see a heavily pruned clump of sage in the back, between the tree and the window.

To the right and forward of the sage, you can see chives coming up. To the left of the chives is a clump of oregano, with clumps of thyme in the left foreground. The right foreground has two seemingly bare patches that actually have mint and the only clump of parsley I left from last year coming up.

Parsley, as I'm sure you know, is a biennial. That means it will come up again this year, but quickly go to seed. I started new seedlings indoors, but left one of last year's so it can seed the garden for next year. Hopefully, that will be one less set of seedlings I'll have to start indoors next year.

Here's something fun - "volunteers"! I like this name for seedlings that you haven't planted, at least not this season, that sprout in unexpected places. These seedlings look like curcubits of some sort, but what I do not know. I don't remember ever planting cucumbers in one of these planter boxes, but it's entirely possible that compost I dumped in there had cucumber seeds in it.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it's spaghetti squash. The reason is that, during winter, I gave one to the chickens. The hay you see on top is from the chicken pen. I wanted to keep them active in winter, as our extension agent advised, so put a flake of hay in there.

Normally, I wouldn't do this, because the hay, like their droppings, is high in nitrogen. The goal with a chicken pen is to keep the carbon (wood chips, e.g.) to nitrogen ratio high. If you have too much nitrogen, you end up with a very nasty smelling pen.

In the fall, they had a blast in the yard scratching apart flakes of hay. But in winter they just stood on it. I finally realized it was keeping them up off the cold frozen ground. So I gave them more, thinking I'd take it out as soon as the weather warmed - and before I ended up with a nasty mess on my hands.

A couple of weeks ago, I raked up the hay (which by now they had scratched apart), together with their droppings and other matter, put some of it in these planter boxes, and covered the planter boxes with plastic, thinking to speed the composting process. Yesterday, I took the plastic off, and voila! Curcubits.

The potatoes (that I wrote about here) sucessfully transplanted out. You can see one of our two potato towers in the background of this photo. In the foreground are three raised beds with dwarf blueberries.

What else? The raspberries are starting to leaf out. Indoors, I have Juliet, Amish Paste, and Brandywine tomato seedlings just sprouted under lights, as well as parsley, cilantro, basil, and eggplant. The bell peppers are just starting to lift their heads, and I'm still waiting on the poblanos and jalapenos.

What about you? What's sprouting in your neck of the woods?