Friday, July 30, 2010

Spot the Unwelcome Guest

Hanging there Silent.
Like any old leaf in the wind,
While eating its fill.

Tomatoes bursting,
With the flavor of summer.
He watches nearby.

Inviting a taste,
they come in all the colors
of a spring rainbow.

The villain is clear.
Above the Tomatoes here,
Yes, his time has come.

The first fat tomato hornworm has been found this year. While I'm sure there are more where he came from I haven't had a chance to really groom the plants. I'm hoping the wasps do their job this year and take care of most of them for me. This guy is now in a cage being fed pruned tomato branches so we can see if we can get him to turn into a cocoon for Gabe.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Really good or really bad?

Two years ago I went to my first plant-swap. As it turns out, people who go to plant swaps are really really nice, insisting that you take home more than you can carry, and then some more.

They also as a whole didn't know much about what plants are native and what aren't. I ended up with quite a few mystery plants.

This one is the most perplexing. It was identified to me as Zizia aptera, heart-leaved Alexander, which is rare here.

But I fear that it may have been misidentified.

I was too late to get photos of the flowers, alas.

Here is a patch of Zizia aptera at Garden in the Woods. The leaves look ever-so-slightly different from what's in my yard.

I'm worried that I might instead have wild parsnip, Pastinaca sativa, which would be bad. Or, maybe something else? If anyone can help me identify this plant, I would be grateful.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Oh Noes! Clover is Invading Lawns!

There is a lovely post up at Garden Rant about Scotts using high drama to sell poison to kill clover and dandelions in lawns. Let's see what Scott's so-called Sustainability Officer has to say about this.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why grow a lawn?

This is the second article of mine that was published in the local paper, the Franklin Country Gazette. My third article may be out in this week's paper, but I don't yet have a copy.

Why Grow a Lawn?

In my childhood, I lay on the grass of my Virginia lawn, picking dandelions, four-leaf clovers, and bluets. Now it is common to see signs warning that the grass is unsafe even to walk on, placed sidewalks by companies who want to convince us that a poisonous and homogonously flower-free lawn is somehow good for our children.

Prior to the twentieth century, the typical American yard was a mix of gardens and packed dirt. The clipped lawn originated in England, where it was a status symbol displayed by those who could afford to not to devote all of their land to livestock or farming. Those green power statements were watered with England’s soggy weather, mowed with scythes, and weeded by hand.

Wealthy Americans sought to emulate the practice, but gardeners are expensive, and neither the dry North American climate nor the native grasses were suitable for lawns. It took the introduction of mass-produced human-pushed reel lawnmowers, subsidized water, and garden hoses to make lawns a possibility for the middle class. And, oddly, the USDA had a hand in solving the grass “problem”: in 1915 they teamed up with the US Golf Association (golf itself originating in Scotland, a land of open grasslands) to find grasses that could withstand the North American climate. The final nail in the lawn-conformity coffin was a pamphlet circulated by the American Garden Club which stated that lawn was to be "a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged."

It takes a barrage of chemicals to emulate English landscape, and these chemicals are dangerous to us and to our environment. Canada has banned all weed-and-feed lawn products. Here in Franklin it is illegal to spread pesticide, herbicide, or lawn fertilizer closer than 50 feet to a wetland. (And yet even though so many of us live adjacent to wetland, we are still solicited by lawn-chemical companies.)

For those who simply cannot do without lawn, there are organic methods of lawn-care, such as using old-fashioned push mowers. Corn gluten can be used as a pre-emergent herbicide. Lawn that is mowed higher is more healthy, and therefore more able to out-compete weeds. Clover can be added to contribute nitrogen to the soil, and newer varieties of grass require less water or no mowing at all.

For those who don’t care to obsess over having their lawn be an unblemished shade of green, however, there is an easier option. In a recent New York Times article, author Robert Wright suggests that we continue to grow and mow our existing lawns, but leave the chemicals out, and let the weeds back in. “Next time you see a yard full of sprouting dandelions,” he writes, “note that they look remarkably like things we call ‘flowers’.” Activities that require lawn can just as easily be played in the presence of weeds.

What else can we do? To the aesthetically-minded, a yard is a canvass to be painted with flowers and foliage. To environmentalists, a yard is a place to recreate habitat. To those who like a good meal, a yard is the place to grow vegetables. Alone or in concert, all of these approaches can bring our yards back to our not-so-distant American roots and away from the idealized indusrial lawn.

For those trying to recreate habitat, a good option can be to grow a backyard meadow. Meadow needs to be mowed only once a year, needs no water, no herbicides, no pesticides, and no fertilizer. There are many flowering plants that inhabit meadows, and the local wildlife will thank you for the food and shelter that your meadow provides.

The best way to grow a meadow, from a habitat perspective, is to kill the existing grass and replace it with North American native plants. An example of such a meadow can be seen at Garden in the Woods, in North Framingham, and during the growing season, its flowers are a wonder to behold. But a lawn left to grow tall can still be an environmental improvement. At Idylbrook Field, in Medway, mowed paths meander through a heady mix of native and non-native plants.

I am experimenting with such a meadow in my own yard. In theory, it will be kept tidy by maintaining a mowed strip around the edge. Last Autumn I sprinkled the area with the seeds of native meadow flowers and grasses. Already I can see milkweed growing. And I have an emergency backup: if the meadow doesn’t turn out to my satisfaction, I can mow it down and call it a weedy lawn once again.

Monday, July 19, 2010

How does your garden grow?

We're back. This time we were in Wisconsin for my cousin Jimmy's wedding. Once again we returned home to the garden having been busy over the last couple of days. The corn is absolutely amazing, as is just about everything else.

I am not a short man. At 6'5" I can easily reach up over eight feet tall, and I can't come close to the top of the corn now. Gabe loved saying "Daddy can't reach" over and over again while we took this picture.

If the corn tastes half as good as it has grown then I'm sure it will be a staple for years to come. If nothing else it has been loads of fun to watch as it grows up.

The tomatoes are starting to trickle in, though I'm sure in another couple weeks the trickle will turn into a steady flow. Just a couple are ready at the moment, but boy do they taste good.

Leave the house for four days and the summer squash gets stupidly huge, which is no good. I like them small an tender, though this one might be good for saving seeds.

The Far North melons are starting to shape up, with this one being the most photogenic. I can't wait for a fresh from the garden melon.

I have no idea how I missed this monster pumpkin. It's about the size of a basketball already and I swear it wasn't there four days ago. Overall the pumpkin vines are being brutalized by vine borers despite my best efforts. Soon I'm going to have to cut the bases of the plants off and depend on the re-rooted sections I buried further down the vine to support the plants.

Last but not least the soy beans have started to form. I can't wait for fresh edamame!

The garden is really turning into an impenetrable jungle. I will do better with the layout of the garden next year as it is getting really hard to navigate.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How much milkweed can a woodchuck chuck?

This was what the garden looked like in the middle of the recent drought. The bee-balm, creeping thyme, and native grasses held it all together.

But the down-side of a wildlife garden is that, well, it attracts wildlife!

Something is going to be eaten. This fellow is fat from eating my plants.

Milkweed? Seriously??

I had thought the damage to the milkweed tops was due to insects, or maybe a deer with an iron stomach.

The woodchuck bends the whole plant over to graze the top.

I watched him do the same to the bee-balm, but instead of eating the tops, he ate the leaves from the bottom of each stalk. And here I though they just shed their lower leaves naturally!

Nom nom nom nom.

I can't believe that any mammal can stomach milkweed. But he obviously prefers it, because these same plants keep getting eaten.

I call this a successful ecosystem garden.

Yup, I see you.

Monday, July 12, 2010


Finally! What was that, a month of no rain?

This is the rainbarrel overflow station in action. Two overflow hoses go into the watering can when it isn't being used, and the can sits on rocks that keep it tilted to pour the overflow into the bird bath.

It took less than fifteen minutes for the rain barrel to fill and overflow. That's a hundred gallons in a very short time. No wonder the flooding was so bad this Spring. Just think of all the water running off of all those roofs and parking lots.

There is so much water pouring out, that one hose is missing the can entirely, and the can is still overflowing from the side. Yay water!

This was rain from Saturday. Last night we had another deluge, and this morning is blissfully foggy.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Time flies: we just hit 500 posts!

The last couple years of blogging about our gardening adventures have gone by in a flash.

This blog started as a way for us to document our gardening discoveries for ourselves, and while it still does that it has also helped to connect us with like-minded gardeners both locally and on the other side of the world!

Thanks for reading, commenting, and joining us on our journey!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Rain Barrel Water Conservation

Our stacked rain barrels hold a total of 108 gallons of water when they are full, and at the start of this dry spell we've been having in Franklin they were full. We have them setup so they also collect water that our air conditioning unit produces every day, giving us a steady inflow of several gallons. At this point we're down to the last twenty or so gallons in the tanks, which will hopefully fill up again if it rains tomorrow.

The water barrels have been the only source of water for my borrowed earth boxes which combine to consume around 8-9 gallons of water a day. Those nearly seven foot tall tomato plants are thirsty beasts in this heat. We probably use another couple gallons watering the plants at the water station and Michelle's seedlings/transplants. With the additional input from the air-conditioner we've easily saved two-hundred gallons of water use that would have otherwise come out of the tap.

If everyone in Franklin took advantage of similar rain barrels to water their gardens with during this drought we could have combined to save a little over 7,500,000 gallons of water, which surely would have helped our over-burdened aquifer!

Many rain barrels I've seen only have a spigot a half a foot or so up from the base of the barrel, effectively cutting off many dozens of gallons capacity. While our rain barrels from Arid Solutions weren't cheap, they are very well designed, with multiple output spigots at different levels and overflow spigots at the top. The main source of water comes out of the base of the barrels through the green hose.

The fact that the spigot comes out the base of the barrels means we have access to all the water in them, and the other important aspect of our water station is the hose drops several feet to where we access it. This differential in height gives us great water pressure for a rapid flow. Filling a gallon jug takes about twenty seconds or so through this filling method, while using the brass tap mounted higher on the barrel takes much longer. If you do get a rain barrel consider placing it where you have a natural incline to take advantage of, or put it up on cinder blocks to give it a height boost.

The first year we had the rain barrels we didn't use them as much as we do now. Adding the hose that comes out of the bottom with a valve on the end of it made all the difference. It lets us take the hose where we want it and turn it on/off where we are. The hose and the valve cost a little extra, but combined with the height differential they make a world of difference in accessibility and flow rate over the generic spigot out of the side of the barrel. Happy conserving, and please everyone do a rain dance! ;)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Garden's in Bloom

Despite a record heat wave up here the Garden is holding up really well. It is during times like these that I feel digging out the garden beds to 2 to 2 1/2 feet deep really payed off. I've been watering the garden deeply once every four days. The potatoes are looking ragged due to bug damage, but the flowers are still beautiful.

The Earth Boxes with the tomatoes in them are going through roughly six gallons of water a day each, and I've been exclusively filling them with water collected in our stacked rain barrels. The rain barrels hold 108 gallons of water and were full at the start of this heat wave. They collect some water each day from our air-conditioner, but with two of us using it to water plants we're down to the last thirty gallons or so. Hopefully will get a nice Thunderstorm soon! No hail please.

The heat wave has helped the tomatoes along, and we've been sampling the first of the year. Here are some very early Yellow Amish Paste tomatoes. While I'd prefer a slicer, they're still excellent with some fresh basil and salt.

The Black Cherry tomatoes are setting fruit in bunches, though they haven't started to blush yet. I'm really looking forward to these after missing out last year due to the blight. I've seen some early blight on some of the lower leaves of a couple of the tomatoes, but nothing serious. My miscalculation on row width has made it very challenging for me to get in and prune and they're suffering a bit for it.

I went a little wild with the cucumber, melons, and squash this year and maintaining them has turned into a full time job.

In nearly every flower I find at least one, if not three or four, cucumber beetles. Despite my efforts every morning and night to squash as many as I can there seems to be no end to them. They've already caused some serious damage to the vines in the earth box, though the in ground vines are holding up so far.

This cucumber flower in the earthbox had two mating pairs on it. A quick shake dropped all four into my palm where they were quickly dispatched. They usually respond to being disturbed by dropping off the flower they're on so putting a hand or soapy water under and shaking works well. Though they will sometimes fly away.

A rare undisturbed cucumber flower. I wish I saw more of these.

Three different varieties of potato this year, and I can't wait to harvest them. I have done a poor job of hilling them, and I'm sure our harvest will be worse for it. Interplanting the potatoes with beans made hilling impractical, which I'll remember for next year.

I really enjoy the purple flowers, and the seed pods are nice too. Has anyone ever tried starting potatoes from seed? Can it be done?

There are many varieties of beans in the garden this year though I only have flowers from two at the moment. The Soya bean and Dragon bean varieties have nice flowers as well that I'll have to photograph soon.

I grabbed a few young green beans off this plant tonight and they were heavenly. The harvest should start to roll in on these this weekend.

The Scarlet runner beans are an experiment this year as I've never grown or tried them before. Their flowers live up to the name at least!

One of the pumpkin vines climbed a pole bean tower, and there is a baby pumpkin sitting near the top of it. If it starts to grow I'm going to need to buy some pantyhose to support it with.

The garden is filling out nicely. Too nicely, in fact. I really screwed up on the layout this year in the corn and the tomatoes side by side, and now I can hardly fit between them. We unfortunately are going to have to take down a few ailing trees this summer, which should provide us with a ton of mulch. I think I'm going to adjust the layout this fall and line the new wider pathways with mulch.

I went to stand by the corn today and it was officially taller than me!