Saturday, January 31, 2009

Winter Fireworks

From Yard

The darkness presses everywhere this time of year. Even though the days are getting noticeably longer, the drizzle or fog shroud of a western Oregon winter can make for very gray days. It seems that spring will never arrive.

But in the front yard an old friend is having a party. Defying the freezing rain, wind, and just general nastiness, a burst of color shoots into air like exploding fireworks. The witch hazel is blooming.

I remember the first time I ever saw these little wonders putting on their extravagant show. Friends and I were trawling our favorite Seattle nursery one January, clutching our Starbucks (mocha with everything for me,) presumably there to look at camellias. We walked down the aisle and there on scraggly branches was an amazing site. Sulfur yellow, watermelon red, and camp fire orange blooms were bursting out of the gray. You could hear the cannons thunder they were so loud. I'd grown up around hazels my whole life but I had no idea these plants had such amazing blooms. I applauded and spilled my mocha. I grabbed one before it could skitter away and planted it in my Federal Way garden.

When I moved into my home here in Springfield, I again found a nursery and hunted it down. This time it was in the middle of summer but I was undaunted. The staff didn't think they had any and waived me over to the shrub section. I spent a half an hour before I spied it. It was tucked between sun burnt rhodies and a sad spirea. Score! It's been rockin' my Willamette Valley winter ever since.

My next garden will feature a little hedge, I think, resplendent with all the available colors. I can't wait.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Victory Garden

I have always tried to have a utilitarian landscape wherever I have lived. My rules were that the plant had to either be food or could be used for flower arranging. Either way it had to end up on the table. This year I am going to take it one step further. I am going to try to convert as much as my yard as possible to vegetable gardening.
Every day we read about something new that is out there in the food supply trying to kill us. The miracles of modern farming and food preservation means that mass produced substances move from market to table astonishingly fast. Even when problems are discovered it is often too late to prevent harm. If you ever get a chance to visit a food factory, whether it be a cannery, egg farm, or slaughter house, you'll see what I mean. There simply aren't enough humans available to inspect every item that is produced and packaged.
I'm not naive enough to believe that we should stop producing food this way. I'm a farm girl after all. Mass production means cheaper, and yes, more reliable goods are available for everyone. If everything was "hand reared" no one would be able to afford to buy it.
Growing your own food and preserving it has it's own risks too. The neighborhood cats, rats, dogs, birds, and even toddlers can contribute body-borne pathogens to your soil, e. coli being the tamest bug you can get. Then there is the helpful home canner who unwittingly serves botulism as the first course. It's a dangerous world.
But the good thing, in my opinion, is at least I have some measure of control over the food I ingest. I know where the cats like to spray, know how much to rot a pile of chicken manure, know how to wash my own pesticide free vegetables, know how to spot a bad jar of home canning.
From Yard
Which brings me back to the yard. My first piece to tackle this year is the front courtyard. I am moving the rhododendrons, peonies, and roses to the perimeter against the wooden fence. Perversely this makes the yard more "normal" because it opens it up from just a path through a jungle of plants to a lawn area of sorts. I plan on using this area to grow onions, tomatoes, thyme, and dill. Hopefully I will be able to arrange it in a way that will be pleasing to the eye as well as, eventually, the palate. Wish me luck!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Leaf Mold - Hot or Cold?

I am a scrounge. There, I said it. I blame it on my mother. Sorry Mom, but you know it's true. Okay, so maybe Dad was a bad influence too. You don't have to remind me of his "junk" pile next to the shop.

I grew up in rural Southern Oregon with, let's just say, "resourceful" parents. Mom always carried a shovel around with her in case she was driving by an interesting plant or rock she just had to have. Dad was not above throwing a piece of metal, abandoned fencing, or any other thing that might be useful into the back of the pickup or in the chain box on the logging truck. When the state redid the freeway, he came home with several loads of concrete road bed. Therefore it is not my fault that I am forever snagging broken sidewalk pieces, interesting sticks, conifer cones, pretty stones, and yard debris from the neighbors.

My favorite thing to do though, is to pack off leaves. Leaves are the perfect garden amendment. I use them instead of bark for weed suppression. I tuck them around my winter vegetables like a snug blanket. I spread them in my garden paths to keep the clay from sucking me down to China. And I make leaf mold. I am lucky to live in Springfield because the city has a leaf pickup program in the fall. All they ask is that you bag your leaves and leave them on the curb. Every fall my neighbors dutifully line the street with plastic globes of perfectly good leaves, conveniently poised for me to drive around and pluck them like ripe fruit. No fuss, no muss. I am in scrounge heaven.
From Yard
Normally mold is the bane of any gardener. But in this case the term is used to describe the process of leaf decomposition. There are two ways to get those leaves broken down: a hot compost process or a cold "mold" process. I use both.

A lot of the leaves I gather are raked up from the street. I am an organic gardener and don't really want petroleum product residue in my soil. These leaves are spread out on my garden paths. It usually takes about a full year for these to grind down into nothingness. The rainy Oregon weather and constant foot traffic both contribute to the process, as well as the natural fungi that mold away the cellulose fiber.
From Yard
The bags that contain leaves from yards are used as mulch. My closest neighbors already give me their grass clippings and yard debris. In the fall they usually just use the lawn mower to pick up fallen leaves as they try to get in those last grass cuts in. These leaves go right on top of the soil or are added to the compost bin. The added grass clippings make it a hot process and the whole mix breaks down in just a few months.

Any leaves that aren't mixed with grass clippings are used as plant blankets or left in the sack.
From Yard
I add water if the leaves aren't already soaked and tie the bags off. I let the mix stew in their black plastic homes until spring. Part of my vegetable bed prep is to upend the bags and mix them in with existing soil and fresh compost. The resulting seed bed is light and fluffy and ready to germinate something for me to eat.

Not bad for scrounged mold.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

In Pursuit of a Greener Greenhouse

I am determined to have an off-the-grid ecological sound greenhouse. My friends in the horticulture industry tell me it can't be done. They are right to a large degree; the output from my endeavor will never match the yields they get with their full-powered pest-free hot houses. Lucky for me I am not trying to support a family or a business. Yet.

There are commercial growers out there that are trying to change the equation. Many use non toxic methods to control pests. Some use solar energy to power fans, hot water to heat benches, even oil or wood burners to heat air. I take my inspiration from them.

My greenhouse is a cobbled together affair. I’ve successfully pieced it together after salvaging it from my cousin’s property. There have been many times where I had to fabricate solutions in order to get it erected. It’s been a good problem solving exercise. I’m not too proud to admit that the neighbors got an earful on those occasions where things weren’t falling into place. Luckily young children don’t live near.

Today I took the first step toward my greener greenhouse, I installed louver openers. I know, kind of anticlimactic, but let me tell you the features of my 1st solar powered endeavor. I got it from Charley’s Greenhouse & Garden. Charley’s is a local company, well, what passes for local in the Northwest – they are in Mount Vernon, Washington. For years I have spent hours pouring over their catalog and now stalk them on-line. I saw the Sesam Liberty Louver Openers appear a few years ago and considered buying them to operate cold-frame lids. They are made in Denmark. The trick to them is a slender black canister that is filled with wax. When the wax heats it moves a piston that pushes the louvers open. It is supposed to open at temperatures ranging from 60° F to 77°. They suggest you buy the 5-blade louver window to go with it for $119. As you can see, I stuck with my rusty hand me down. The opener is designed for side mounted operation. Of course, my louvers have center mounted mechanisms. Once again I had to find a solution. A trip to Jerry’s hardware in Springfield yielded a threaded bar, some locking washers and properly fitting nuts. Hopefully it will work. It’s a sunny day out today. Maybe it will get hot enough for some action! Isn’t that all a girl really wishes for anyway?