Sunday, January 31, 2010

Our Stylish Rain Barrel

Our town periodically offers rain barrels for sale, which is a great way to encourage water conservation. There's no sense in sending rainwater down the storm drains and then watering one's plants with potable water. Still, the barrels they sell are a blue color that could only in good conscience be hidden in a back yard. Even our trash cans aren't so hard on the eye.

But Chris and I were both longing for a rain barrel, so we did some research, and he found these: a stacking pair of plastic containers that are both more stable than a conventional barrel (and thus safer in a yard with a curious toddler), and that came in a color which matches our house. They were Chris's Christmas gift a year ago, and this past growing season, they made a surprisingly tasteful addition to our front flower bed.

Can you see the container, there in front of the house, on the right? My mother, whose aesthetic sensibilities surrounding homes will cause her to go on red alert in the presence of an over-full compost bucket waiting on the kitchen counter to be taken to the garden, walked right past these barrels and didn't see them.

You may notice that the barrels bulge a bit on the bottom right. That's our fault; we did not do a good enough job of levelling the ground where they sit. The barrels are tucked into the garage for the winter now, and in the spring we will rebuild the foundation.

Also our fault: when assembling the barrels, we neglected to follow the instructions and screwed the two containers together much too tight, ruining the connecting piece. But I got in touch with Arid Solutions Inc., the manufacturer, and I'll be damned if they weren't the most exceptionally helpful company I've ever worked with. They went above and beyond the call of duty in assisting us get the barrel fixed.

Here's what the barrels look like from the side. The right-hand hose is for watering the raspberries, but we ended up more often just filling the watering can at the spigot in the front. The short hose on the left is the overflow. When it rains and the barrel is full, the extra water pours into the birdbath, which is a far more tasteful and safe way to offer water to the wildlife than our previous orange bucket.

The water management in this spot needs more work, because during heavy rains the hose sometimes can't manage all the water, and we end up with a puddle in the garage. Again, something to fix in the spring.

I never did see any animals at the birdbath, but obviously the chipmunks like the location, because that's where all of my strawberry tops ended up. I have also seen snake-skins here, and wasps live in the sand between the rocks. Given how active the wildlife is in this little corner, I may have to overcome my tendency to kill potted plants, and include some here again next season.

Friday, January 29, 2010


Today the car said it was 15 degrees outside in the sun, but the car usually thinks it is warmer out than it actually is.

Let this be a lesson to me to keep better records. I have fallen in love with a plant and I am not sure what plant it is. It might be Antennaria neglecta, which is native to Massachusetts; but then again it might be Antennaria parvifolia, which isn't native quite this far to the east. Both go by the name "pussytoes", and there might be other varieties out there.

I started these from seed the spring before last. The seed came from Garden in the Woods. I would check their catalog (and buy more seeds), but it seems they aren't selling seeds this winter. Gasp!

The plant in question is the silver-blue groundcover around the feet of those irises. (Please ignore the unswept walk and the alyssum growing in between the bricks.)

This plant may not precisely be native to Massachusetts, but it thrives in the cooked, sandy desert of my front yard, and has survived and flourished after one bitter winter, so I say close enough!

I am toying with the idea of digging up half of this bed in the spring, and splitting it up into individual rosettes, which I will grow all around the yard.

Ground Cherry

Last night I watched as a half inch of snow fell in ten minutes. It was like someone flipped the blizzard switch on and then off again.

I'm a bit relieved at having the ground put safely under its cover of snow. When I can see the dirt, I long to grow things. Such mid-winter lust is impractical and leads to dangerously impromptu seed and plant orders.

So, back to reminiscing about the last growing season.

This plant is manna from the gods. It's a type of ground cherry. Specifically "clammy ground cherry, a.k.a. Physalis heterophylla. Clammy ground cherry is in the nightshade family; i.e. tomatoes, potatoes, deadly nightshade. . . did I say deadly nightshade? Surprisingly, many of our standard garden veggies are related to deadly nightshade (which incidentally is a non-native weed around here). The plants in this family are all poisonous, with the edible parts of the garden varieties being the exception. (So folks, don't make a salad from tomato leaves.)

Clammy ground cherry is most closely related to tomatillo, and like tomatillo, the fruit is a berry that grows inside of a papery husk.

This is what the plant looked like in early October, when laden with fruit.

The plant itself grows no higher than knee-high. It has fuzzy potato-like leaves. It is unclear whether the patch in our yard was planted by a previous owner, or whether it volunteered.

Did I forget to mention that this plant is native? It is one of the few veggie-garden-worthy native plants I have yet encountered. *And* it is perennial! In that narrow place where ecosystem gardeners and permaculturists can agree, this plant is a winner.

For fear that I might be overblowing the awesomeness of this plant, let me point out the downsides. The biggie is that clammy ground cherry is a perennial. Once it it planted, it is hard to be rid of. It spreads far and wide, and no matter how much you yank it, it'll keep popping up, even dozens of feet away. In addition to that, it's not the sort of pretty plant that you would likely want among your showy flowers. I planted some in a front flower bed experimentally, and I'm sure I'll be yanking them for years to come. But I will also be transplanting some to my lawn-meadow, where their unkillability will be an asset.

Lastly, the fruit may be poisonous when unripe, so you should take care to eat them only when they are yellow.

But back to the good stuff! Here is my late-October harvest:

Did I mention that this plant is hard to kill? This harvest was picked after a summer of yanking up ground cherry plants. I had assumed that, like last year, the whole crop would be withered and rotten inside of their husks. I had given up on ground cherries and was instead trying to keep these plants from waging war with the asparagus and tomatoes. The above harvest came from a surprisingly small number of plants.

Oh, those fruits make my mouth water now! They have a flavor that is somewhere between tomato and pineapple. The outside of the yellow berry is a little sticky to the touch, which is where it gets the name "clammy". The fruits stayed fresh in their husks for weeks after I picked them, and indeed, the unripe ones seemed to ripen up over that time.

Rumor has it that these berries make an excellent pie. But I wouldn't know, because I ate them all.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Passion for Growing

The ground was bare and frozen stiff this morning. I am worried about the strawberries, which I neglected to cover in straw for the winter. It was hard to get inspired to take care of them at the end of the season after the animals had eaten every last strawberry.

But now the snow is falling again. Hopefully it'll keep up enough to give the strawberries some protection.

But back to fond memories of the past growing season! Here's a little plant that really grew on me:

It's some sort of passionflower. I bought it, of all places, at the grocery store, on a silly whim. I hope I left the tag on it, because it looks like there are several varieties of passionflower, at least one of which are native. Hopefully it's Passiflora incarnata, purple passionflower.

So I was seduced into buying a $10 plant I knew nothing about. I then plunked it unceremoniously into a corner of the veggie garden and proceeded to neglect it through the heat of the summer. It failed to do anything of interest, so I ignored it. Then in September or October, I did a double-take at the six-foot vine that seemed to have shot up the fence overnight. That one branch of green continued to grow as other plants in the yard were going dormant. And the deep green color stayed until I was forced indoors by cold weather.

These plants have amazing, colorful flowers, and they are rumored to have edible fruit, but at this point I'm in love with it's hand-shaped leaves and elegant coiling tendrils.

I hope it won't be too massive for the fence to support.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I have heard of homesteading in the modern sense, i.e. living off-the-grid. Now a friend has introduced me to the term "earthship", which as far as I can tell is one company's fancy word for "a passive solar home made of natural and recycled materials". I have a soft spot in my heart for hand-made houses, and handmade houses that are both aesthetically pleasing and particularly green just make me giddy.

The company that makes these particular seventies-sounding houses is Earthship Biotechture of Teos, New Mexico. They have a website full of nifty stuff, including earthships that are available for purchase, and (for the rest of us) available for short-term vacation rentals. They are also gearing up to do some relief work in Haiti. There is no quick internet way of making a donation, but they've got a snail-mail address. I think I'll be mailing them a check shortly. . .

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sweet Memories

Today (which is actually the 26th) it is unseasonably warm, and the snow cover is gone. This gets my inner gardener all revved up, just in time, I'm sure, for a nor'easter. Since I am feeling hungry to grow things, I'll take this opportunity to look back on some photos that I snapped over the Autumn that I was too seasonally bummed to write about at the time.*

This is one of my new favorite plants: "sweet everlasting", a.k.a. the awful mouthful "Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium". It is an understated little white annual or biennial - meaning sometimes it will flower and die in its first year, and sometimes in its second - and it is native to my area.

I'm not sure that I have seen this flower growing anywhere except as a weed in neglected places. This surprises me, because it blooms at the tail end of Autumn when most everything else is slumping from frost damage or looking like a ragged seedy mess. And when these guys go to seed, they don't look any different from the flower: they remain covered in little white buds up until the wind blows them apart in loose dry bits. They would be excellent for dried flower arrangements, if I cared for such things.

Not only was this a bright spot on the cold slide into winter, but this one volunteered itself in a part of my lawn that I am experimentally trying to turn into meadow. And here I didn't think there would be anything to report in the meadow department until next season!

*I find that the stress generated by Christmas buildup and the lack of sunlight is best countered by a reduction in extra-curricular projects this time of year.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Traffic in the Yard

We have had a proper winter so far this year, meaning the snow-cover has been continuous this month. On one week in particular, conditions were cold and still enough that every animal print stayed crisp.

Traffic in the front yard, above, show clearly where animals feel most comfortable moving about. (There were bunnies on the doorstep.) In the woods behind the house, the tracks were so overlapped as to be one big jumble in places.

Whatever made these tracks in my neighbor's yard was pretty wide. The track is too small to be made by humans. The feet dragged too much for deer. Possibly it's the neighborhood coyote. (We finally got a good look at him in December, when he took a leisurly stroll across the yard.) But why would the coyote be running in zigzags?

I'm not sure if this is a coyote print, or a quirk of melting snow. More likely it is a deer print that just happened to toss the snow in a pattern that looks like toes. The snow was getting pretty sloppy when I took this photo.

Deer prints are usually the easiest to identify, even after significant melt. Smaller critters still baffle me, though. I usually can't tell the difference between gray squirrel and bunny. Fox and cat are also impossible to tell apart. Or perhaps that's raccoon I'm seeing. Heck, for all I know some of the prints could belong to a fisher cat. The neighbors have seen one about in recent years.

I should mention that our little red squirrel is back. I don't know if they range farther in the winter, or if they are just easier to spot when the leaves are gone and the ground is white.

In between some bunny-sized tracks here you can see where something tiny went skittering along. Perhaps it is one of the mice that have more recently moved into our basement.

This is my favorite. Figured it out yet?

. . .

It's a print made from the tail, legs, and wing-tips of a crow as it went hopping and flapping. I'm not sure if it was coming in for a landing or taking off.

Deer tracks leading away to the neighbor's well. That's the same route the coyote took when he left the yard, too.

Phosphorous is a limited resource. . .

. . .and modern agricultural practices rely on using large amounts of the stuff, the excess of which runs off into rivers and oceans and causes nasty algae blooms.

"At current rates, reserves will be depleted in the next 50 to 100 years. Phosphorus is as critical for all modern economies as water."

Click here for more info and for a lovely photo of a phosphorous strip-mine.

Personally, I prefer to collect phosphorous by having Chris pee on the compost pile.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Gardens in Winter

The veggie garden sleeps under the snow. Far left: crud, it looks like we forgot to bring in one of the garden hoses. And that rusty, unused basket-ball net needs to go, badly.

Gabe's Garden after a little melting, and full of critter tracks.

. . .and again today, under a fresh blanket of snow.

Here's the cinquefoil peeking through the snow, still looking quite green! Does nobody else use this as a ground cover? A google search on "cinquefoil ground cover" brings up one of my photos as the first result. Either I have stumbled onto something wonderful, or this plant is going to eat my entire yard.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Bad Business

Artist Thomas Kinkade paints bland, fluffy landscapes that I don't like. I would consider him to be utterly un-noteworthy as an artist, except for the fact that I watched the predatory business practices of his studios as they were used on my grandparents. Thanks to their dishonest sales pitch, I despise the fellow.

I loathe Monsanto for similar reasons. I don't have the information to say whether or not their GM foods are safe to eat, or their practices are safe and sustainable. But their business practices are deplorable. So, this makes me glad.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Signs of Hope in Detroit

Some of Detroit looks like this.

. . .but a good deal more looks like this: abandoned, wrecked, and surrounded by weedy lots where other buildings used to be. The two photos above were taken within the same half-hour, and they show locations that are just blocks apart.

Just down the street from the warehouse is the middle-finger-shaped Renaissance Center, built in the 70's to revive the city. As an indication of how unsuccessful this revival was, Chris's highschool was able to rent the top room of the tower for his class's reunion. Try that in the tallest building of any other city!

But back to the abandoned warehouse: it's located just a block away from the river - and look! A sign of hope: this building is going to be reinvented as lofts. A block away, we could see new windows being installed in another such building.

This is a garden blog, so I have to show plants of some sort. . .

I'm still wondering what sort of vine this is.

We were able to peer into the building through a busted window.

The interior looked like some level from a computer game in which you would sneak in through an overhead walk and jump down on badguys.

Right next to the warehouse was this stretch of new sidewalk. Being unused to the decaying state of Detroit, I overlooked this at first.

It's a long, thin access-way to the waterfront with gardens. A park! New construction! I can't wait to revisit this spot the next time we visit Detroit.

More info on the Dequindre Trail project, plus photos, can be found here.

The 2010 Garden's Starring Cast Has Arrived!

To long a list of varieties for me to go over in detail right now. Taking the darn picture took forever! The black seed packets are super shiny.

Michelle is growing one of the sweet potatoes from the garden in a broken cup. I think it is really cute.

Soon you will have many friends, little plant!

Hantz Farms

On the topic of farming Detroit, here is the website of Hantz Farms. Inspirational!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Decay and Growth in Detroit

I wish that I had photos of urban farms and gardens in Detroit, but our visit took place in the dead of winter.

These homes are visible from the windows of my father-in-law's house in Grosse Point.

It's just jaw-droppingly beautiful in this neighborhood. The architecture is Arts and Crafts, full of the quirks and secrets and difficulties of old homes, and the snow-covered gardens are immaculate. Just a few houses away is Lake Saint Claire.

This, on the other hand, is a common sight just a few miles away in Detroit. More stunning old houses - but these have frequently been abandoned, stripped, and set ablaze on Devil's Night. In between the houses the spaces are even more telling: empty lots full of weeds, where other houses used to be.

There is a quirky ray of sunshine in this particular neighborhood, however. (Taxi anyone?)

Yes, this house is covered with stuffed animals. This is the Heidelberg Project. In a nutshell, artists have bought the wrecks of homes in order to turn them into giant, colorful art projects.

I have to apologise for the inadequacy of these photos to truly capture the whimsy of this place. We stopped by only briefly at the end of a long tour of the city.

Strange and wonderful. Frequently absurd.

Frequently? Make that "always". Yes, those are shopping carts perched high on that tree.

This is the art equivalent of compost. Here, the detritus of the previous city breaks down and fuels the growth of the next one.

It's like looking at a bed full of tropical flowers in the heart of winter. The colors are astounding.

I want this fellow for my garden.

Here is a garden in which someone is growing chairs, among other oddments.

I could have taken thousands of photos here.

More photos of Detroit will follow!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sometimes Big Ag sounds Good. . .

John Hantz wants to farm Detroit.

"A large-scale, for-profit agricultural enterprise, wholly contained within the city limits of Detroit. Hantz thinks farming could do his city a lot of good: restore big chunks of tax-delinquent, resource-draining urban blight to pastoral productivity; provide decent jobs with benefits; supply local markets and restaurants with fresh produce; attract tourists from all over the world; and -- most important of all -- stimulate development around the edges as the local land market tilts from stultifying abundance to something more like scarcity and investors move in. Hantz is willing to commit $30 million to the project. He'll start with a pilot program this spring involving up to 50 acres on Detroit's east side. 'Out of the gates,' he says, 'it'll be the largest urban farm in the world.'"

It appears thaty lines are already being drawn between this big approach to farming Detroit, and the smaller farming and gardening groups.

"Some of Hantz's biggest skeptics, ironically, are the same people who've been working to transform Detroit into a laboratory for urban farming for years, albeit on a much smaller scale. The nonprofit Detroit Agriculture Network counts nearly 900 urban gardens within the city limits. That's a twofold increase in two years, and it places Detroit at the forefront of a vibrant national movement to grow more food locally and lessen the nation's dependence on Big Ag."

I'm afraid I have to roll my eyes at the little guys in this case. Existing urban farms are absolutely doing a good thing for the city, but there is far more empty land than they are currently using.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Seeds are Purchased!

I just bought the seeds for this years garden. A smidge over $100 on more seeds than I could possible fit in my garden, but that I need to cover the variety of plants I want. Last year when I waited until February many of the rare varieties were already sold out so I started early this year. I'm really looking forward to this year's garden!I ordered my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds which is a company I'm happy to support.

Next up I'm going to have to start serious research on chickens.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

". . .a better place to direct development aid. . ."

"Although Big Ag, many NGOs and other groups (e.g., the Gates Foundation and segments of the U.S. government) continually stress that the top three solutions to Africa's hunger problem are 1) more yield, 2) more yield, and 3) more yield (with additional U.S. food aid running a close fourth), Africa’s farmers have a lot more to worry about than yield. . . Designing and building appropriate technology – where the users’ many needs are taken into account before design begins – isn’t going to do much for corporate bottom lines, but elegant designs like the bicycle-powered grain mill might be a better place to direct development aid, instead of on GMOs and other projects that do more for corporate profits than for Africa."

Snippet taken from a blog post over at Mental Masala.


We visited Chris' family in the Detroit area over Christmas, and his stepbrother gave me a fantastic tour of the city, in all of its sad glory. I'll post some photos just as soon as the hard drive of our photo-editing computer is replaced, again. In the mean time, someone else has written up a lovely post on the possibilities of urban farming in Detroit, including many links: clicky here. Enjoy!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Gardening Resolution for the New Year

I understand better now how a dedicated gardener - and gardeners are typically the nicest of people - can bristle when it is suggested that what they have planted may in some way be harmful.

Years ago, I tried to strike up a discussion about the autobiography of the "horse whisperer" Monty Roberts with a friend who rides horses. Her reaction was a terse dismissal of him. Of course: Roberts is of the opinion that the conventional method of breaking horses is abuse. What gentle lover of horses wants to believe that they are perpetuating the abuse of the animals that they love? Those who are convinced by Roberts' views would have to give up horses, or radically alter their involvement with horses.

I have given up housecats for similar ethical reasons: I am convinced that it is terribly difficult to keep indoor cats in a manner that is not abusive. The alternative is allowing cats to go outdoors, but outdoor cats wreck havoc on the populations of small wildlife. However, if I did not have a husband with cat allergies as the ultimate deciding factor, my love of cats might still win out. I would keep cats, and I would be cranky at anyone so holier-than-thou as to suggest that my keeping of cats were unethical.

Nobody likes to see their "harmless" and pleasurable pursuit politicized, but there is nothing we do as humans that can't be viewed through the lens of ethics, and found wanting. Take for example the flushing of the toilet. Such a regular and inconsequential action brings up issues of wasted water, of trees harvested and processed only to be flushed and sent for processing through a plant that likely overflows sewage into wild areas when it rains, and fossil fuels burned for the harvesting, processing, transport, and cleaning of all of the above. Try to spend a single hour pondering the ethics of every action you make sometime. It's a horrifying experience that will paralyze you for fear that any action is a bad action.

When faced with that yawning abyss of such paralysis, there is that all-too human trait that both protects us and keeps us locked into patterns of behavior: forgetfulness. How many times have I been disgusted with the meat industry and changed my eating habits for days, or weeks, only to slowly forget what had upset me and laps back to my previous dietary habits? It is easier to be anti-cat for allergy reasons than for ethical reasons. Ethics don’t cause itchy eyes.

I suppose it seems odd to mention religion in what is ultimately a context of gardening, but consider this: it is easier to pick up the work of a single garden writer and believe their opinions to be the One and Only Truth than it is to read across the spectrum and seek a balance between many worthy opinions. The former offers a comfortable set of instructions - just live by the rules x, y and z, and paralysis is avoided! All of one's actions are Good, and the objectives of one's actions are clear! By contrast, finding one's own way is a lonesome journey to destinations unknown.

Religion interests me greatly from an observer's perspective. I am an atheist, but not only in the anti-religion sense of the word. I eschew, or attempt to eschew, any belief that is not grounded in fact. If an opinion is wrapped in passion, I try to become wary of it, because once a fact has been swaddled in emotional conviction, a person becomes protective of that fact, when instead she should be always open to challenges that might prove the basis of her conviction to be incorrect.

On various environmental and farming issues, I see people at the opposing ends of the spectrum marinating in their convictions to a degree that smells like religion. These are the native-plant enthusiasts who mourn at the sight of queen Anne's lace on a Massachusetts roadside, the horticultural industry professionals who don't want their business turned on its ear, and the kind-hearted gardeners who get testy when told that their burning bush is a threat to wild areas - so very much like the horse lovers who are unwilling to scrutinize possible institutionalized problems because to do so they would implicate themselves, too.

I try not to fall into religious thinking, but I am afraid I am human. As scientific as I would like to be, sometimes I feel that depending on what I read I emerge from one gravity well of belief just to fall into another; and then realizing I have done so, I plug my ears, stop reading, stop educating myself, and lapse into forgetfulness. My gardening resolution for the new year is to stop flailing about like this, and to find a middle way.