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Archive for February, 2010

Readers, it’s true confession time:  I don’t lead a normal life.  Odd, comical things happen when I’m around, as if I’m a magnet for the bizarre.  These things don’t happen to my friends, so it must be me…

 (WARNING:  the follow excerpt is true, and contains graphic descriptions that may cause nausea, dizziness, and discomfort.  Please don’t read further if you have a sensitive constitution):

My day was going well.  All I had to do was go down to the local paper to tape three segments in a new video series they’ve started for their features section.  Every Monday through Friday they’re running short, three minute clips of someone doing something related to that section.

 They wanted gardening and since I’m their garden columnist (freelance), my editor convinced me to be the person they tape.  Friday was the big day, and I went to their studio armed with shelves, seed trays, seeds, potting mix, lights, big bowls, and, of course, fertilizer.

 The audience, I knew, would not respond well to my waving around a popular brand of liquid fertilizer from a mega-corporation, so I opted for organic fish emulsion.  The taping went fine and when I got ready to leave, a student intern from a local college was asked to help me carry all this stuff out of the building.

This nice fellow decided that several trips were unnecessary; he piled up all of my supplies into one gigantic load.  It looked like a Dr. Seuss tower, with things precariously balanced here and there.  The fish emulsion was riding point out in front.

I must say I warned him.  I did, truly.  I said “that won’t ride well,” and “seriously, that’s not gonna ride there.”  But I was assured the load was stable.  Off we went, wending our way back past archives and into the newsroom. 

Half-way through, just in front of my editor’s desk, tragedy struck.  The bottle of fish emulsion leapt to its death, its cap shattering as it hit the floor.  Being a thick liquid, the force of the impact caused the bottle to belch its contents all over the place.

Oh no No NO!…it splattered across the linoleum floor and along the cubicle walls.  Walls which, unfortunately, are made of fabric.  It went under the cubicle walls and oozed in between seams of the panels – fish gore was everywhere.  The intern quickly put down his Seuss-tower and up righted the bottle, then hustled to the bathroom to get something to clean it up.

My editor came around her desk to view the carnage, as the intern returned with one paper towel.  Now, fish emulsion like this is thick, oily, and made to be diluted.  The editor looked at the towel, looked at the mess, then back at the towel, and headed off to get a jumbo size armload of wipe-ups.

Then the smell started to rise, and it was bad.  Cesspool-fish bad.  The bottle claimed it was deodorized, but this stuff smelled like fish-yak.  Exposed to the air by the frantic attempts at clean-up, it became overpowering.  The newsroom was stunned by the smell – they stopped working, staring in frozen horror as the odor washed over them.  A counterattack was launched; Lysol volleys sprang through the air over the tops of the cubicles.

The fish-yak answered with a surge, after a passerby unknowingly stepped in a puddle of ooze then tracked it down the hallway.  I poured water, the intern scrubbed, the editor kept supplying him with more towels, but it was too late to save the newsroom.

 Casualties mounted.  One lady, faltering under the stench, rushed up to report that “That stuff really stinks!”  Attempting to be brave, I responded “it smells like spring.”  In hindsight, that was less of an inspirational speech than I should have delivered.  “NO IT DOESN’T,” she screamed.

My day got worse.  You see, I write for another paper too, a sister to this one.  And my editor for that one has his office in the same building.  I’d never met him in person before this day; we’ve always just emailed.

 You guessed it.  In the middle of “the incident” he came around the corner saying “who’s eating sardines – OH WHAT IS THAT??”  All I could do was feebly wiggle my fingers at him in a small wave and say “hi.  I guess you should know that this is how I roll.”

Wow, what a disaster.  After it was mostly cleaned up I fled, the intern trotting alongside of me as if I could help him with his extraction from the angry mob.  I feel bad for him, especially since he was kind, hard working, and professional through the whole ordeal.  It should make an interesting addition to his student report, but I know the ending to this chapter:  I seriously doubt they’ll let me come back in the building.

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Botanical Interests first-ever catalog!

Garden blogger Jodi Torpey posted a note on the unveiling of the new Botanical Interests seed catalog, extolling the beauty and unique offerings found within its pages.  I’d like to jump on the same bandwagon and urge gardeners to check out the first catalog ever produced by this Broomfield, Colo., based seed company.

 Within its pages, gloriously illustrated with the botanical drawings the company’s seed packets are famous for, you’ll find the reasons I have to pace myself whenever I see their seed racks at local garden centers.  The plants are beautiful, whimsical, fragrant or delicious; they perform like champions every time I sow them.

Though I’m a die-hard vegetable gardener, the Cherry Brandy Rubeckia flower on the cover caught my eye, and it was all I could do to stop myself from moaning out loud as Curtis Jones, who co-owns the business with Judy Seaborn, handed the catalog to me.  It’s hard to focus on the interview I was there to get when I just wanted to curl up in the nearest chair to lose myself in those pages. 

Bontaical Interests Cherry Rudbeckia on their 2010 calendar

Behind us in their order fill room, where they pull and pack catalog orders for shipment, the wall was filled with racks of packets and boxes of seed collections.  These collections are an exciting way to get all-in-one gardens; from flowers that attract bees or please your cat to edibles for children’s gardens or gourmet kitchens.

I want these plants; I want them all, which is something Judy understands.  Chatting with her as their Labrador, Buddy, softly snored on the floor between us, she chuckled over the question “when you have all of this to choose from, what do you grow for yourself?”  In hindsight that was a silly question to ask someone who loves to garden – even Buddy let out a snort upon hearing it.

 “What do I grow on ‘Judy’s mini-farm’?” she said, laughing, “I love everything here, that’s the problem.”  A recent trip to a trade show had her rubbing her hands in anticipation over the new varieties she’ll trial in her yard.  With 32 raised beds, Judy takes a practical approach to trying nearly every seed they offer, planting beds a few at a time to keep her hobby manageable.

 Testing the plants themselves and offering only the finest, most dependable varieties, Botanical Interests has thrived in the 15 years they’ve been in business.  And with the addition of catalog shopping, gardeners will be watching this company grow.

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Late February is the perfect time to get out into the warm sunshine and prune a few trees.  The balmy, 45-degree days with blue skies are calling us to the garden, but wet soils mean we should hold off on tilling and sowing.  Lopping off a few branches is the perfect way to indulge our gardening itch, plus keep our fruit trees healthy.

In my first-ever two-part blog series, let’s take a look at the steps to follow when caring for trees that work for a living.  To keep your trees in full production, spend time with them this spring by giving them a nip here, a tuck there, to tidy them up and get the flowers forming.

Pruning allows air and sunlight to reach the center of the tree, improving sugars in the fruit while reducing disease.  For all types of fruit trees, follow a few basic steps:

Step 1, tidy it up:  prune out any dead or diseased wood.  Look for twigs that are dried out, with a grayish or black appearance. Though it’s tempting to snap off dead wood, cut it off instead to avoid tearing the bark.  Broken twigs are a harbor for disease, so cut them back to a bud or to the junction of twig to branch.

Step 2, one-way, please:  prune out any crossing or rubbing limbs. Branches that rub one another sloughs off bark, setting them up for disease problems. Crossing limbs, as they grow, often begin rubbing each other.  

Step 3, get rid of sprouts:  Cut out water sprouts and basal suckers (the vigorous upright growth shooting up from branches or from the base of the tree).  This type of growth is usually weak, and fruits poorly. Prune it completely off.

If you have peaches or nectarine trees here on the Front Range, you’re a gardener who loves a challenge.  Though these plants survive (well, they try to survive), they aren’t the most productive fruit we can grow; frost freezes their buds off nine years out of ten. 

 Nonetheless, we try to grow them, and to give them the best chance we can for forming fruit, it’s all in the pruning.

 Peaches and nectarines fruit on one-year old shoots, so the goal of pruning is to force part of the tree into new shoots every year.  Do this by cutting back branches that fruited last year to a woody bud – it looks pointy instead of plump.  

Woody buds on peaches look pointed

 But don’t go hog wild, cutting off every branch – only cut back one out of every four branches that fruited last year.  This gives the tree enough leaves to photosynthesize food for itself.  Do this every year, and your tree will give you plenty of fruit.

If you can’t find woody buds on your shoots, don’t worry.  Very often these trees will have triple buds, where a woody bud is flanked by two flower buds.  Prune off at this point, gently rub off the flower buds on either side, and let the woody bud grow into a shoot. 

Peaches can have single, double, or triple buds

Important note:  when pruning to a bud, prune one-quarter-inch above the bud, at a 45-degree angle.  Pick buds that are pointing outward – they’ll go that direction.  Avoid inward-facing buds, since you don’t want your branches to run back into the center of the tree.

If you’re cutting the branch off entirely, prune to just outside of the raised area at the junction of the branch to the trunk – this is the branch collar.  Leaving this intact will help the tree seal that cut off from disease.

Up next:  apples, plums, and pears.

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The tell-tale drone of their wings is enough to make the calmest person pick up a swatter and flail about.  As they aimlessly spiral past your face, you lash out, ending up knocking yourself silly instead of knocking down the bug.  If the flitting as your sitting is making you buggy, you might have a problem with flies in winter. 

Cluster flies (Pollenia rudis) make your house a hotel during winter, coming out on warm days to press up to window panes and buzz up against light bulbs.  Think twice before you flatten that flier – they’re not disease-riddled pests.  They’re in your home looking for a little warmth, shelter, and understanding.

Cluster flies are what entomologists refer to as “nuisance insects,” which wander our homes in the off-season, waiting for spring.  Found throughout the area, most homes don’t host more than a few, but occasionally tall buildings or houses near fields can be plagued by the winged invaders. 

These medium sized, dark gray insects that look a lot like the common housefly, but with one distinction:  these buggy intruders have a flair for fashion, sporting golden hairs on their thorax. 

They’re harmless in the home, but in the wild, they’re an earthworm’s nightmare.  Related to the blow fly, when cluster flies are young they’re parasites, feeding and growing within the body of the hapless worm.   Once the adults emerge they buzz about the yard looking for love and laying eggs in soil.  After hatching, the maggots move through the soil to find an earthworm to inhabit.

In fall, the flies look for shelter in mulch, rock crevices, and buildings, where they spend the winter like we do: semi-dormant and sluggish. Their search for sun takes them to the sun-exposed sides of buildings on warm days, following the heat upwards to the upper floors where they loiter near sunny windows.

If the thought of having parasites gather at your windows bothers you, relax.  Keep in mind that they’re peering outside, where their prey rests in the winter soil.  They never look at humans as an all-you-can-eat-buffet and they don’t develop in garbage, manures, or other oozing areas commonly associated with ‘filth flies’.  Though they drone about the house, they don’t feed or reproduce indoors.  

The best way to keep cluster flies from bothering you is to prevent them from entering your home.  Make sure window weather stripping is tight, and doors, siding, pipes, chimney flashing, and soffit vents are sealed with good quality caulk. Check screens on doors and windows, repairing or replacing them if needed to form a full shield.

Because they spend time in the space between walls or fly about, indoor insecticides are not effective in ridding you of the bugs.  If they’re bothering you now, pick up the swatter and patrol your sunny windows.  In their sluggish state they’ll be easy to stun, and you can pick them up to return them outside.

This post previously appeared in the Longmont Ledger.

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  After reading the post about catalog shopping, reader Martha S. asked which tomatoes and peppers I’ll be growing this year.  The list is a little long so I decided to put it here instead of in comments.  Feel free to debate with me on which tomatoes everyone should try – I love to try new varieties, especially if they are highly recommended. 

Here’s my list, so far, of the tomatoes:

Cherry tomatoes:   SungoldGreen Doctors 

Salad slicers:  Jaune Flamme 

Paste:   Amish Paste

Oxheart:   Orange Russian 117

 Beefsteaks:  Great White ,  Brandywine (Sudduth’s strain) *,  Gold Medal,   Stump of the World,  Tajik giant tomato,  Aunt Ruby’s German Green*

  Sweet Peppers:     Shishito Pepper , Wisconsin Lakes

  Hot peppers:   Shishito Pepper ,  Red Peter (no link to photo because this novelty pepper looks like its name),  Mucho Nacho,  Anaheims,  Ancho Gigantea

This is the short list I’ve come up with, but I know there will be more to add once I’ve finished swapping seeds with a few folks.  Chan, the globe-trotting gardener who gave me the Tajik giant tomato plant last year (fruits weighed 1.8 pounds each), is at it again, talking me into giving the Shishito Peppers a try.  You’ll notice they’re listed under both “sweet” and “hot” because Chan tells me that you never know what you’re going to get from your plant – one pepper will be mild, another will flame your eyeballs out.  Sounds fun.

 Stuart has promised to send me seed of his favorite tomatoes, Creole, Old Brook, Gail’s Sweet Plum, and Demidov, which he says were both tasty and productive in his Colorado garden.  As a dwarf plant, Demidov did well in containers, but if you can’t find it, give Super Bush a try.

I admit, I don’t grow vegetables in pots – I’m fortunate to have enough space for a good-sized garden.  To be honest, I have a little problem called “forgetting to water” that I’m guilty of with my containerized plants.  This is never bad enough to kill them off, but they seesaw between drought and drowning, which is a recipe for blossom end rot in tomatoes.

When choosing your tomatoes, try to plan for early, mid-, and late season fruit, to ensure that you have love apples throughout the season.  We have a short growing season, due to snow squalls that pop up to surprise us in late May or mid-September.

Any variety that sets fruit at higher temperatures is also a plus, since our summers can be scorching hot.  One of the more common causes of blossom drop – where the tomato doesn’t set fruit and the flower fades – is daytime temperature above 85-degrees F plus nights that remain above 70.  Black From Tula is one type that likes the warmth, or if you prefer a hybrid, look for Heat Wave.

*Denotes tomatoes listed on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste.

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Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.

Crop To Cuisine

There are time honored traditions in the gardening world, habits you find yourself falling into the longer you garden.  Some, like planting peas on St. Patrick’s day or getting your corn knee-high by the fourth of July, are shared bits of wisdom passed down from generation to generation.

 There’s a rhythm to the seasons, activities that punctuate our year in preparation for the next phase of gardening.  But big company marketing and business plans based on bottom line are wiping out one way of life that this gardener, at least, misses.

I’m speaking of seed catalogs that once arrived like the first heralds of spring in our mailboxes in January.  While others might suffer the post-holiday blues, gardeners can’t wait to get their hands on these pages of plant promises.

Pouring over brightly colored photos and tantalizing descriptions as snow falls outside gets us dreaming of spring.  But this year, the rhythm was broken by the catalogs arriving in late fall, right around Thanksgiving.

I admit, I was outraged by this; I don’t want my seed catalogs cozied up against ads for wool-lined moccasins and Snuggies.  Robbing us of that January surprise is the gardening equivalent of the Grinch that Stole Christmas, so I bundled up the bunch and set it aside for the proper time for perusal.

 Which is now.  Getting a jump start on your garden plan is a smart move this year, since seed sales are expected to be brisk. Last year, millions of U. S. households tried food gardening for the first time, and if you started your shopping late, you might have found your favorite seeds were gone.

There’s wisdom in shopping early, but unless you want to end up with more plants than places to put them, take a cozy morning and draw up your garden plan. Begin with measurements of the square footage you can devote to your garden, then sketch out the garden on graph paper. I use one square per square foot, drawing in paths, raised beds and trellising.

Next, make a list of vegetables, herbs or fruit you’d like to plant. Look up the space each one needs to grow, and note that next to the item on the list. Draw the plants into your garden sketch, planning for them to have enough room to grow to mature size. Place taller plants to the north of the garden so they don’t shade the shorter ones.

As your map fills in, you’ll be able to tell if you’ve plenty of room for everything on your list or if you need to scale back your expectations. In my case, I won’t grow potatoes this year; they take up a lot of room and my interests are leaning toward more peppers. You might decide that planting fewer of everything is best.

Once you know what plants fit in your garden, you’re ready to shop. The choice of seeds versus seedlings is a personal one; it depends on whether you have the room to care for seedlings as they grow for eight weeks. Purchasing plants ready to pop in the ground is an easy way to jump into the garden.

But if you want a kitchen garden your foodie friends will envy, start your own seeds. Hundreds of varieties fill stands at local garden centers and catalogs are a good way to educate yourself on the cornucopia food you can grow.

Bold gardeners will plant at least one new variety each year, but new plantings can be risky, what with the sheer variety of new or untried plants.  You can easily get lost in the belief that a gardener can do no wrong, because those catalog writers gush about every plant they offer.  The best advice would be: plant what you like to eat, and toss in a new variety or two as an experiment. 

Not all plants do well here, so look to local companies such as Botanical Interests, Abbondanza, Rocky Mountain Seed company, or Lake Valley Seed to steer you to choices that thrive in Colorado. Then get with a buddy to plan your purchases, stretching your dollar while increasing your gourmet choices. Order early, and you won’t be disappointed.

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