A Garden Walk

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This past Sunday, the day warmed up into the 60’s – a perfect day for a walk outside. But a sharp wind blew straight out of the north so it was not so nice after all!

Still, how often do you find sun and relatively warm air in January? I headed off to the garden to do the one task I’d been meaning to do for a while. I needed to clean up the asparagus bed.

Or did I? Everything I’ve read said to cut down the dead asparagus fronds and stalks. I just can’t recall that my mother – a “master” gardener in her own right – even cleaned the asparagus bed until spring. I have not-so-found memories of those pulling out those prickly fronds to make way for the green stalks just pushing up through the mud.

Still, the current wisdom appeared to be to clean it up now to prevent fungus and bugs. So I toddled out to the garden shed to get my wheelbarrow and clippers.

Except I couldn’t get the doors open far enough to pull the wheelbarrow out. Well, I wanted to walk, after all. I clipped each plant and walked the 37 steps to the composter, then 37 steps back to the garden bed. Fourteen times. 1,036 steps. Not a long walk as walks go, but at least I was outside!

Now the question is, did I ruin my asparagus?

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Damped Off!

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Damping-off – or sudden seedling death due to some variety of fungal problems – attacked my seeds when I first tried to grow them in 2004. And even with some how-to advice, here I am again, as you can see!

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We have the seeds on heat pads in the heated garage. After Jim lost all his broccoli seedlings, which we though was due to soil temperature, I used a soil thermometer to take soil temp every morning. Then I sprayed my seedlings with warm water mist. Oops.

Last night, I attended a class at the Miami (Kansas) County Extension Office on seed starting. I learned a great many things that I didn’t know before, the main one being NOT to mist the seedlings after they sprout. That makes them too wet and can cause damping-off.

Among the bits I didn’t know before was to water the seedlings with a narrow stream of water to prevent overwatering. Lenora (my Master Gardener friend) suggested using chamomile tea for watering, and I found the same advice online.

The online gurus also suggested that I “bake” the seed starting mix in the oven or microwave before using it to make sure the mixture is sterile. Last night, we learned NOT to do that because of the smell. Learning from someone who has years of trial and error experience, along with years of success, is such a plus!

I also learned how to figure out if a packet of seeds is still viable. Now this may be old hat to some folks, but for me, it’s all new information. This is nothing like going to your local big box store and buying a couple flats of annuals and a tomato plant or two!

In a way, it’s easier to know nothing. Let’s me relax and be as wide-eyed and “sponge-like” as I can be. Meanwhile, I’ll be starting seeds all over again.

Live and Let Buzz

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In my life, I’ve been bitten or stung exactly seven times: a black fly, three bees, two wasps, and a spider. Four of those times, I’ve ended up hospitalized. But my phobia of bugs predates these events. For years, seeing a bug or spider was an occasion of terror. This fact makes gardening an interesting choice for me.

I spent about 15 years in Nebraska where we moved into a house built in 1905. Old. The washer and dryer were in the basement. I saw a bug crawling across the floor on my first trip downstairs to do the wash. I didn’t make it all the way down and I didn’t go back down for seven years. You get the picture.

Even today, I get a creepy feeling down my spine when I see a bug I don’t expect to see. Since the country is just chock full of bugs and nothing to be done about it, I’ve learned to take the nearest hard object whether a book, a shoe, or a rolled up magazine, and bang away until the thing stops moving. Then I call my husband to dispose of it while I wait in another room.

I started flowers-only gardening on weekends about ten years. I learned that if I get outside at dawn, I can beat the bees to the garden. I know I’m done when the big black bees start to dive bomb me. And they do! I have one family of bees that hover in front of my bedroom window and watch me, waiting…

My Master Gardener friend and mentor, Lenora, has now educated me about good bugs. Intellectually, I get it. You need bees and butterflies for pollination, so don’t kill the bees. Spiders kill some bad bugs, so don’t kill the good spiders. I know that to garden successfully, I’m going to have to learn about bugs. I’m starting with the good ones. As long as they let me live, I will let them buzz.

Starting Seeds

A couple of weeks ago I bought the things I needed to start seeds.  I had heat mats and a light from ten years ago when I last tried to start seeds.   In 2003, I got busy at work and didn’t give the seedlings the attention they needed to thrive.  They all died.

One big problem was temperature.  Back then, I thought the heat mats would suffice to keep the starter soil at the right temperature.  I forgot that when the plants started to grow – well – I don’t know a veggie plant that thrives in 20 degree weather, wind or not.

My husband, Jim, continued to insist that “the barn would do.”  And he went behind my back and started some broccoli to prove me wrong.  Yes, it was just like the raised bed argument.  Jim looks for the simplest way to get to goal.  I have to read everything I can find and ask for expert advice.

Sure enough, when we went out to the barn this morning, he had tiny shoots poking up through dry seed starter mix.  He’d also forgotten to soak the mix in water before sowing his seeds.  I pulled out my new soil thermometer and tried to show him two things.  One, the seed packet said that the ideal soil temperature for broccoli is 80 degrees.  Two, the temperature of his soil was maybe 59 degrees.

And so we looked at each other for a while.  I went into the garage, which is heated, and started clearing a place on one of our shelves.  Jim came in behind me with the plant light, the drill, the level, some brackets – in fact all the things he’d need to set me up.

So we’re almost ready to sow more seeds and his little broccoli shoots have really shot up in just the few hours since this morning.

Special thanks to my Master Gardener friend, Lenora Larson, for the “when to plant” chart.  Yes, I was trying to reinvent the wheel using average first and last frost dates and seed packet information.  Lenora’s chart is so easy…

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Not a Sore Loser

One thing I have to say for my husband – he’s not a sore loser.  With the decision made to create raised beds, he found the materials and put together four that measure 20’ x 4.5’ and one that is 10’ x 10’.  Well, approximately. 

My role in building projects like this one is as “grunt.”  Like good grunts everywhere, I get to stand around and wait to see what the builder needs.  I have to know the difference between a hammer and a wrench, along with the different types of wrenches.  I have to find “lost” items, which means keeping an eye on where he puts things.   I get to walk back and forth to the barn to look for forgotten items, as in “Get me one more piece of cardboard.”  And I get to clean as we go.  

The most important thing about being a good grunt is not to wander off.  So cutting down the weeds around the lumber pile is a bad thing.  Checking on the dogs is just as bad.  Going in the garage for water – totally unacceptable.

Despite my ignorance of wrenches and my penchant for wandering off when needed, I now have my five raised beds filled with amended soil.  One is devoted to asparagus.  One – the little one – is designated for strawberries per my husband.  Strawberry shortcake comes up in discussions quite frequently now. 

The remaining three are mine to do with as I wish.  So, one for lettuces, spinach, and kale.  One for root veggies, carrots, beets, onions, and garlic.  One for squash and melons.  The beans and cucumbers will probably end up where they’ve been for the past couple of years, near the house.

Now I just have to check on the chart that tells me what veggies grow well with what other veggies.  Then it gets run by my gardening mentor to answer questions about fertilizers and – horrors – pesticides.  Is it possible to garden in Kansas without pesticides?  Hope so…    Image

To Raise a Bed or Not

My husband and I moved to this Kansas acreage in 2000 and immediately started to argue about vegetable gardening. 

He said, “All you have to do is throw some seeds on the ground and stand back.”

I said, “You need raised beds, amended soil, daily weeding, and a watering schedule.”  And maybe some other bits, but I’ve forgotten what my friend the master gardener told me.

Since I work full time, I devoted my leisure hours to developing perennial beds around the house. My husband had ten years of rotted seed in a garden plot consisting mainly of Kansas clay.  So the argument continued.  To raise a bed or not, that was the question – with apologies to Will.

Two years ago, I was walking through one of the warehouse stores and saw a small raised bed kit.  I pointed to it.  My husband knows me well enough that he simply picked it up and put it in the cart.  For about $50 and a little labor – his – we had a raised bed.  We also had a competition.

He planted potatoes, carrots, and corn.

I planted cucumbers, lettuce, and basil. 

His rotted in the spring rains.  I was harvesting cucumbers in November.  The answer to the question?  Raised beds!   

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Why Gardening?

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Think about combining a childhood spent pulling weeds with a veritable hatred of dirt and bugs; gardening shouldn’t be my first choice.  It must be in the blood.  My mother and my grandmother were committed gardeners.  My mother used to complain about housework but extolled the virtues of planning, planting, and harvesting, with everything that came in between.  My grandmother raised crop after crop of vegetables that just in the last ten years have hit the groceries – I remember her giving us slices of just-picked, just-cleaned kohlrabi.

But gardening isn’t what I would have chosen when I thought about retirement.  A few events conspired to get me to this place.  A second marriage moved me to four acres in Kansas where the land is flat and the soil needs serious amendment.  You can’t live on four acres and not have a garden – at least I can’t.

And, I never met a flower I didn’t love.  The idea of planting any flower within reason – meaning that will survive zone 5 – tempts me beyond reason.  Also beyond fear of bugs.

Finally, I have a dear friend who is a master gardener and who has encouraged me to take this step outside my comfort zone.

So here it is.  New Gardening Blues.  Full of the foibles, faults, and failures of the beginning gardener.  Let’s play in the dirt together!