Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Eve Harvest

We finally had our first blizzard of the year, and it dropped a nice pile of snow on us. I wish we had it earlier as the snow is a perfect insulator for the pod. I've been sick as a dog, but I did go out and shovel the snow off the pod. I don't have a support in the middle and it seemed to hold up just fine with about a half a foot of snow piled on top.

The plants really haven't grown since I last peeked in it a couple weeks ago, but I felt it was time to give them a try. So on New Year's Eve I harvested Kale, Salad Greens, and a little spinach. That's kind of awesome.

Despite the cold the greens have held up well overall. Some have cold damage on them, but the majority are perfect. The greens taste great, just like any cold weather greens only better.

The Kale has held up amazingly with no signs of any cold damage on it. The flavor is unlike anything I have ever tasted before. Sweet, but with a number of other complex flavors that made it hard to put any in the bowl as I wanted them to go straight into my mouth.

It is a little difficult to harvest out of the pod if you don't completely remove the top. Since Michelle can't lift anything at the moment I had to leave it in place and just reach in as best I could.

I was really shocked to come across this daddy long legs in the pod. I wasn't really expecting much bug life in the pod.

Further inspection revealed that there are munching bugs in the pod as well as this leaf had a hole chewed out of the middle of it. It still tasted amazing though;)

On another note I broke my thermometer so no more readings for now. I blame the delirium caused by the cold. Clearly that's why I put it on top of the car like a dolt and forgot about it.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

An Awesome Mess!

Now THIS is how to install a garden! These kids are flinging balls of mud and seed in what will become a rain garden in a playground in Spain.

Thanks to Arcady at Playscapes for this delightful find!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Are you an artist?

The American Chestnut Foundation is looking for artists to sell American chestnut-themed art through their website! More information can be had here.

I used to be an artist. Now I admire art made by other people!

Since he likes owls so much, I commissioned a piece of art for Gabe from a friend and former coworker, Sean Murray. I asked him to do something with an owl as the central element, and also including a little boy, a little girl, and an American chestnut leaf and nut. Check out what he came up with!

I would love to see his work sold through the TACF. You can see his other paintings, and buy prints, here. The print quality is just amazing, and boy does he have a great sense of humor! Go look, and support an actual artist!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Woot, published again!

My Garden Geek article on American chestnut trees is in this week's edition of the Franklin Country Gazette. I didn't mean to go so long between articles, but this one had me intimidated, because I needed to contact actual people for my research. So, I procrastinated.

I'll post the article here in a week or so. In the mean time, here is a historic photo of some astoundingly large chestnut trees. There is some information on the origins of this photo in the TACF's most recent publication, but I left the magazine sitting on my desk at work, dang it, so I can't tell you much about it. But yes, that is a man standing there in the crotch of the trees for scale reference.

The sausage turned out pretty well, it seems.

Here is Garden Rant's take on the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bees and CCD - It's Complicated

This article nicely outlines the possible complexities in what is ailing the honeybees.

Watching Monsanto, EU and GMOs

I keep an eye on one of Monsanto's blogs as balance to the radically anti-Monsanto reading that I do. They have some interesting reading up today, though I haven't had time to follow the links they provided.

Well, cool!

No new info really - I'm just tickled that a few messages left on a few blogs has resulted in lots of good dialogue between blogs. :) Now the discussion on pesticides and bees has gone back to Garden Rant.

Friday, December 17, 2010

More On Bees and Peat Moss

The Garden Professors have now chimed in on the discussion about Colony Collapse Disorder - thanks Jeff! This is another very level-headed look at the situation from an actual scientist.

A tidbit:

"I am extremely unhappy with both Bayer and the EPA in this instance. They didn’t do what they were supposed to do. It’s as simple as that. Tests were supposed to be run to demonstrate that it is unlikely that clothianidin affects bees. This wasn’t done in a reasonable period of time. Period. As long as stuff like this occurs nobody is going to trust the EPA or the chemical manufacturers."

And much like the Scientist Gardener, Jeff thinks that the current popular position that a single pesticide, alone, is to blame is a case of jumping to conclusions.

Along with this, Garden Professor Linda Chalker-Scott has poked some mighty big holes in the recent Garden Rant post on the possible sustainability of Canadian peat moss. This line is a dandy: "Unquestioned acceptance of industry talking points lends nothing to the discussion." Ouch!

Thank you Linda. I love scientists. Let's have a hug-a-scientist day to properly show them our love.

In other news, Christmas is bearing down on us, and we have yet to have a snowfall of any real substance. The ground is rock-hard, and our "sun room" (which is on the shady side of the house, thanks to some strange decision made by a previous owner) gets into the teens most nights. We have yet to see if Chris will be harvesting lettuce from his solar pod for Christmas dinner, but if we do, it'll be a close thing.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Another Opinion on Pesticides and Bees

Mat Kinase, a.k.a. the Scientist Gardener, kindly shared his dissenting opinion for me on the recent news about a possible connection between pesticides and bee deaths. Thanks Matt! I love reading both sides to an issue, when both sides are being rational and logical.

Here's an excerpt:

"Aside from the fact that this registration [of the pesticide in question] was completed in 2004 and (according to the same article) this whole bee business started in the mid-1990s, I'm skeptical that any new pesticide is causing all this. We were SO much more indiscriminate and profligate with our agricultural sprays and industrial dumping in past decades (and with much more dangerous chemicals) than we are now - it seems a funny time for a problem to pop up."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

This and That

The rest of the country has been snowed in, but all we got was a soggy mess. And a nice little flurry this morning. My parents have put in a request for snow when they come up to visit, and it'll be shocking if we don't get any.

It looks like insecticides may be involved in the decline of the honeybees after all. I am hoping for comments from some of the science-based blogs that I follow.

Another issue that I would like to hear more from the scientists on: the sustainability of Canadian peat moss. I find this Garden Rant post to be a flimsy defense of its use.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Solar Pod: Close Shave with Freezing

Last night the temperature dropped to the low teens in the back yard last night and the Solar Pod was flirting with freezing. It bottomed out at 33.8 before the morning sun started to warm it back up. We're supposed to be even colder tonight, so we may get a chance to see what happens when the pod actually hits freezing.

In theory because there is no wind in the pod disturbing the plants they should be able to super cool to several degrees below freezing without dying, but we will see if that works in practice.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Nut Update

Five of my indoor chinkapins have sprouted leaves! And all of these are in separate containers: three in milk jugs and two in soda bottles.

I was diagnosed with placenta previa and told by the doctor to take it easy - no exertion in the garden, and no lifting anything over 25 pounds (including my son). Well, feeling bloated around the middle makes me disinclined to do a dang thing outdoors anyway, so this level of gardening is absolutely perfect right now. Wait. . . peek. . . wait. . .

Monday, December 6, 2010

Solar Pod Gets a Remote Thermometer

Well, truth be told I've had them for a while, but they're now setup in the shed and in the solar pod with the base unit in the garage so it is close enough to pickup the signals from outside units. We also have another thermometer for an ambient air temperature.

The shed is reading at 27 degrees.
The ambient air is currently 26 degrees.
The solar pod is currently 39.1 degrees.

The shed has no insulation and gave up the heat it gained during the day incredibly quickly, and while the solar pod is getting chilly it is still holding its heat well enough to make some nice and tasty cold weather greens!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Solar Pod's First Winter

Back in the beginning of October I finally got around to digging out a section of the garden for the base of the Solar Pod. It needed to be in the ground to keep the pod below the freeze line. Even with digging it down the whole base isn't below ground since my garden is on a hill. I plan to fill in the exposed side with wood chips just as soon as I have a little extra free time. So far the exposed side has held up ok, though the plants on that side have recently shown some very minor frost damage as we've had multiple nights in a row that have been well below freezing.

Here is the base of the solar pod before I installed it in the ground. The actual instructions call for foam insulation, multiple layers, and aluminum parts which I ignored. Earth is a pretty solid insulator, and I'm going to put that to the test this winter.

Here I am planting seeds in the Solar Pod which we have lovingly named the Mouse Trap. I planted Kale on the right, Lettuce on the left, and Spinach in the middle. From this angle you can see that it is buried into the garden, and has insulation along the top which helps create a good seal to keep the heat in.

The Mouse Trap is held open by a recycled notched 4x4. It is pretty darn stable, but still a little scary.

October 16th, and the lettuce green have started to sprout.

October 24th, and the lettuce greens are doing nicely. The spinach and kale have also sprouted. My friend Steve had two extra Boston lettuce seedlings which are in with the spinach.

November 13th, and the lettuce and kale are looking like healthy seedlings now. I've gone in and thinned them out at this point. For whatever reason all but two of the spinach seedlings have died off. I think mostly because the condensation seems to be lightest in the middle of the pod so they may have dried out a bit too much. This is the last day that I watered the pod. No more water until the spring to try and prevent the plant's cells from bursting during very cold weather.

December 2nd, and holy cow I can't believe all of the green inside of the pod. It makes me so happy when I open it up and the happy greens greet me. I have to be careful to only open the pod when it will get plenty of sun to heat back up again and when the ambient air temp is above freezing. My big goal is to have a Christmas dinner with fresh greens from the garden!

Addendum for Thom:

While I have been very happy with the results so far building the Solar Pod was a trial that I'm reluctant to go through again. To map out the end arcs I went through a very careful process of measuring the template included in the book and converting each measurement to full scale and then mapping it to the end boards. This was error prone, and didn't work out well.

If I had to do it again I think I would take the template to a Kinko's or something similar and see if they could blow the template up to full size so I could just tape it to the end boards and cut it out. In the end though a curve is just a cruel shape to try and get right with simple tools at home.
I also left out the central conduit they talked about. I tried using a conduit as they described and it just wasn't right. We'll see if I pay for that when we get a heavy snow, but I think the pod will hold up just fine without it.

My friend Steve and I have talked about drawing up plans for of our own design to build next spring based on our experience with this pod. The primary focus being on simplicity of design so we don't suffer through all of the frustration we did when we put this one together. If we do and we succeed we'll be sure to post the plans.

My final 2 cents would be that if you're looking to build one come up with a good plan for creating the end plates first and foremost. They are the hardest and most important part of the pod.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Chinkapin versus Chestnut

A second chinkapin seedling has popped up today! I swear, they must make a "sproing" noise when they emerge, the way they magically go from nothing to three leaves.

Anyway, when I got my nuts planted (har de har, I do love talking about my nuts!) I reserved a few for a photo-op and taste test. So, here they are, featured with a penny for scale-reference, and some imported chestnuts.

As you can see, there is a good reason that chinkapin aren't a part of our modern diet: they are tiny. Though I suppose size restrictions don't keep anyone from eating rice, so there goes that argument. More likely is that nobody ever focused on finding a mechanical means of harvesting and shelling them, leaving them to languish in the forgotten realms of so many other amazing foods that never make an appearance at grocery stores.

Cute, aren't they? Yes, you say, but what do they taste like?

They taste fegging delicious! The meat is soft and smooth, like acorn, if you happen to have ever eaten acorn, har har. And sweet. I can't compare them to the chestnut flavor, alas, because my fancy expensive imported chestnuts turned out to be all dried up. That big yellow brainy thing is the chestnut nut-meat. They were sweet but too tough to bother with raw, and when I tried roasting them, they turned into toothbreakers. So, not a fair comparison.

Both chinkapin and chestnut have a shell that is more like leather than wood. Again, much like acorn. This makes chestnuts versatile, because they can be cut open with a knife. Perhaps that is what I needed to try with the chinkapin. As it turns out, they are too small for a nutcracker to open. Using the extreme wrong end of the cracker, I sent a few nuts zinging across the living room, and painstakingly squashed the remainder. You can see the slightly mangled nutmeats, above. A board and a rock would have been faster, and mangled them just as thoroughly.

After eating those, I cracked open a pecan. Three things struck me. "Wow, this shell sure is a noisy brittle pain." "This nutmeat is giant!" And "this tastes like sawdust." There actually was enough moist sweet flavor in those smaller-than-peanut chinkapins to put pecans to shame. And I love pecans.


Saturday, November 27, 2010


Germination! Here is my first confirmed Allegheny chinkapin tree.

Ironically, this little guy is growing in the container that I let Gabe set up. I had given him the small nuts, and the molding ones, to keep him busy while I got the rest potted. There may be a dozen in here. But by the way the exposed roots looked, and the sorry quality of the nuts, I had been sure they were dead! I guess they like the shallow and cluttered conditions. Perhaps it reminds them of the way they would collect naturally on the forest floor.

My next challenge: did I give these plants enough room to grow between now and December? I only left a few inches of each container unfilled with dirt.

Better that I have to deal with overcrowded greens than no greens at all, I suppose!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Waiting for my Nuts to Grow

There isn't much to report right now. Twenty-some containers, each containing two nuts, are out in the garden. I won't know until the Spring if they survive.

Another twenty-odd containers, each with two nuts, hides indoors behind the sofa.

In theory these should sprout any day now, if I haven't killed them. But the jury is still out. They sat in a baggie in the fridge, partially germinated, for a couple of weeks, with nothing but a damp paper towel to sustain them. Then I got them into the container, but didn't get them adequately watered for most of a week, thanks to wrangling a toddler at the same time.

Supposedly chinkapin don't do well in soggy conditions, so I'm crossing my fingers.

So far, the weed seeds are germinating nicely in the indoor containers. I guess that's a good sign. I'll need to use the bacon tongs to pull those out, but in the mean time, at least something is growing.

More ominously, in the one container where I gave Gabe some of my extra nuts and let him play, I can see a couple of the partially-germinated nuts peeking out of the soil, and they appear to be rotting. But in another container where my hasty watering dislodged soil, I can see what looks like new roots. So, fifty-fifty chance?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mow, mow, mow your lawn. . .

Here is an article that clears up some of the confusion regarding the pollution created by gas-powered lawn mowers. (Thanks Garden Rant for the link.)

I love my reel mower!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Just Disgusted

On the stupid news front, Seed Savers Exchange was founded, it appears, by yet another over-zealous hippie of the sort whose work causes me to fall in love and whose politics eventually break my heart. He was chucked out of the organization a few years back, and recently made a speech in which he accused Seed Savers of playing into the hands of Monsanto-type companies by giving seeds to the Svalvard Global Seed Vault. You have got to be kidding me. Read about the soap opera over at Garden Rant, and then read Squash's humorous comments, in which she doesn't actually use a cucumber euphemism.

Call me a radical moderate, but it seems to me that the best path for agriculture would be for the hippie save-the-earth crowd to play nice with big agribusiness, especially now that the Justice Department has said that genes can't be patented! The Scientist Gardener is a great blog to read if you are interested in middle-of-the-road options. His recent post on rice demonstrates how even the most perfected strains of crop varieties need to be continually bred in order to stay productive. Seed Savers-type organizations should be helping with this, not taking their toys and hiding them away where they do most of the world no good.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chased Away

What sort of raptor is this? A broad-winged hawk, perhaps? The body was rather red, the tail and wings barred with black and white. He was hopping about in the bare trees in the back yard.

There has been massive bird activity in the yard this week. I would assume that the same birds have just become more visible with the leaves off the trees, except that for the first time all year, we have had a rash of bird strikes on the windows. ("Poor bird," says Gabe. I keep thinking of a story I heard of a turkey ending up in someone's living room, along with a lot of bloodied, broken glass.)

The songbirds were absolutely mobbing this poor hawk! Note the innocent-looking robin there in the photo. I have never seen so many species working together to drive off a predator. Chris only managed three quick photos before their efforts at driving off the raptor succeeded.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Chinkapin Propagation

After decades of breeding work, the American Chestnut Foundation is now making Castanea dentata nuts available that are likely to be resistant to the blight! There is hope! This news makes me glad in a profound way. But gads, the price tag is $350 per pair. No, I didn't displace a decimal point in that number.

But it's a good thing, I suppose, because I don't yet have enough experience to be growing such a critically endangered species. Those nuts are for arboretums and the Whitehouse and people who really really know what they are doing. The price should drop eventually as production goes up, and in the mean time, there are similar species that I could practice on, such as Chinkapin, Castanea pumila, pictured above. So, I ordered some.

And oh. Crap. I should have read up on these guys a little more. Sometimes, when conditions are right, they start germinating right on the tree. Unlike other seeds I have started over the winter, I don't have a few months to leisurely get them into containers. These little guys arrived already trying to grow.

So I posted a flier up at work explaining my need for containers, and entitled it "Help! My Nuts are Germinating!" My coworkers can't resist a good gag, so by the following day, my desk was covered in milk jugs and soda bottles.

(This prompted a discussion in which a male friend asked after my nuts, and I asked after his jugs, and we both walked off laughing our asses off. I love my workplace!)

The soda bottles, I cut like this.

And the milk jugs, like this.

This gives me maximum pot space in each jug type. With the milk jugs, it also allows me to hold the lid open easily with one hand, making filling easier.

In the Spring, I plan to cut the tops of the containers off, and continue to let the seedlings grow in the container they germinated in. Unlike the standard approach to winter sowing, I will not immediately be transplanting the seedlings. Each container gets only two nuts. One in each pot will be sacrificed next year.

This is me, using my fingers as a dibble.

And here is the final army of containers, ready to be sealed up with tape. The containers function as mini greenhouses. They will be left outdoors all winter, and with any luck, I will have more trees next year than I know what to do with.

I still have a lot more nuts, however. Hopefully my coworkers will continue to bring me plastic gifts.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reptile Show on Halloween!

Wooooot! I just learned that Marla Issac will be giving a reptile show on Halloween! If you live in my area, I can't say enough amazing things about this woman. Go see her show. Take your kids and cameras! We'll see you there.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

How to Stop Junk Mail

There is a fantastic organization dedicated to removing unwanted junk mail from the world and from your mailbox: The next time you sort your mail, save a pile of the stuff you would rather not get any more of, go to this site, and fill out some information. The basic service is free, and includes tracking the replies of the companies you have contacted through them.

You can use Catalog Choice to opt out of mailings from non-profit organizations, too, and one of the reasons that you can specify for opting out is "I want to help the environment". I find it ironic that I have to use this environmental organizations who have proceeded to spend the entirety of my donation on asking me for more donations.

Catalog Choice even keeps score of how many trees and other resources you have conserved by using their service. As I well know from the games industry, watching one's numbers go up can be addictive.

Thank goodness for Catalog Choice, because my previous attempt to halt junk-mail was a total failure. The post office couldn't figure out my post cards, and most of them were sent back to me. Grrr.

I'll be upgrading to the paid version of Catalog Choice soon, I think.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

An Owl for Gabe

Late nights, and early, early mornings, we have been hearing a most magical sound. It's exactly what the owls in movies sound like: hoo hooo hoo hoo! We haven't seen the owl, but Massachusetts Audubon has a lovely report-an-owl-sighting page that includes recordings of owl calls. As it turns out, most owls don't make that distinctive "hoot". What we have been hearing is a great horned owl!

Being an elusive night visitor, we have no photos of our wild owl. Instead, here are some images of Merlin, a rescued great horned owl who was presented at a raptor show last year. (Click here to see photos of the whole raptor show.)

The funny side effect of hearing an owl is Gabe's reaction. I keep encouraging him to listen for the owl. So, one night, he turns toward the dark window and announces: "I eat the owl". He proceeded to stand there with his mouth open, as if an owl would fly in!

The owl has been a reoccurring theme for him ever since. Sometimes we joke about eating owls; at other times he announces randomly that he is afraid of the owl! But now he almost always follows up with "the owl is nice," because we want to teach him that our local animals are nothing to be afraid of.

But I suppose when you are two, an animal that eats mice might just seem big enough to eat you, too.

I'll have to show him this photo from the raptor show:

Thanks Merlin, you were a good sport!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Last Flowers of the Season

This was my last big hurrah of flower gardening for the year. I had let this bet turn into quite the mess, and I really like having a nice tidy garden up where the neighbors see most of the yard, so towards the end of September when I found myself stuck at home with a slightly sick child, I raided a local nursery for instant gratification plants.

I went with ye olde Autumn Joy sedums, New England aster (or something similar), some black-eyed Susans, and something in the mint family with purple flower that the bees were rioting over. Hyssop, maybe?

The bees and wasps were seriously nuts about that flower. They were actively fighting each other over it, which I have never seen before. But I didn't really pay attention until one of the bees came zipping over to the wagon and stung Gabe, unprovoked. I didn't get a look at what type of bee it was, but it left the stinger behind, so it was likely a honeybee. Such strange behavior!

Gabe was such a trooper. He yelled "Ow!" a few times and then looked at his arm with an expression of "WTF?" The nice woman running the shop, bless her, didn't have any ice, so she gave him a popsicle instead. It didn't last long as an ice-pack before Gabe just HAD to eat it, but boy did it make him happy!

That was his first bee sting. Hooray, no sign of allergy! And not even a tear shed!

The nice lady also enthusiastically waded into the bees to retrieve the plant for me, because, being as nuts as I am, I wanted the flower that attracts so many pollinators at this late time of year. And the bed by the mailbox is a good place for bees, since it doesn't get a lot of foot traffic.

I had to back off a few times when getting them into the ground, because of the bees. They must have felt Winter coming on.

Here is Gabe, upset with me for walking around without my shoes.

A row of two plants alternated is really not my style, but I was craving something extra-orderly after the mess I let this bed become. But at least I wasn't tempted to buy annuals. Please shoot me if I ever waste a penny on a chrysanthemum. Here's hoping that the road salt doesn't do all of these in over the winter. If half of what I planted comes back next year, I'll consider it a success. This is a very tough spot to grow things.

It's mid-October now. How did that happen? The flowers are mostly done for the year, and the few bees I've seen about have been very, very sluggish. It has been cold and wet. Some of the trees are looking bare. My ridiculous saffron crocuses are popping up, and one of them has even bloomed. That little flower is playing games with my sense of time! I plugged some daffodils into the front beds, and that's about it for me and gardening this season. Now I get to hibernate.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Garbage Disposal = Wasted Water

By far the simplest way I have found to conserve water in my home is to avoid using the garbage disposal. Here is a device that takes perfectly potable water and transforms it instantly into waste water. Plus it adds more gunk to wastewater systems that is already, in many areas, so overloaded that they overflow into rivers when it rains. Plus the disposal burns fossil fuels in the process. Plus it wastes perfectly good composting materials.

(This is my last minute oh-shoot-I-forgot-that-today-is-blog-action-day post.)

Thanks to wikimedia commons for the image.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Scarlet Runner Beans

I decided to grow some scarlet runner beans this year in marginal locations around the garden where they wouldn't have the best conditions, but would have plenty of room to grow. Based on this year they have definitely earned a place in a garden next year. When they are young they are amazingly tender and flavorful. Probably among the best green beans I've ever eaten. As they get larger they lose their texture and flavor, but you are rewarded with large beautiful beans. We still have to try the beans I've collected in a meal, but even if they aren't good there the tender beans alone are worth the space and effort.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Autumn feels like a relief this year. As usual, I am more inclined to watch the season change around me than I am to document it. The trees are a bit muted this year anyway, due, I suspect, to the mercilessly dry summer.

There go the Canadian geese. Even from this distance, a hundred of them all at once make a lot of noise.

I know almost nothing about the migration of birds of prey. Three red-tailed hawks circled past just after I photographed the geese. I guess they are traveling together, but it surprises me to see them in numbers greater than two.

Perhaps they will be dropping back down to two, judging by the squawking and dive-bombing going on.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

American Chestnut at Franklin Matters

I put up a post on American chestnut trees for Franklin Matters.

I've been getting in touch with TACF members to learn more about the Idylbrook breeding site. The biggest surprise? Most of the trees are going to be cut down next year. But this is a good thing! The trees have started to reach maturity. They have been exposed to the blight, and by next year, the breeders will be able to tell which ones are worth breeding. The rest are to be eliminated from the gene pool.

Even though it is an entirely logical step, the thought of these beautiful, healthy-looking American chestnuts being deliberately killed makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

They will be needing volunteers at some point, but nothing has been scheduled yet.