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Archive for April, 2011

When you live with a gardener, it’s important to have ground rules, especially when it comes to new cars.  If you don’t establish boundaries with us, we’ll put the darndest things in that vehicle, things that are guaranteed to take away the new-car smell.

I married a car guy, one who loves heavy metal as much as I love the garden.  So when we purchased the convertible of my spouse’s dreams – a sweet Volvo C70 – he sat me down, gently took my hands, and laid down the law.  “That is a luxury vehicle,” he began, making sure we had eye contact.  “Promise me you won’t put plants in it.”  I nodded yes.

“No straw bales.  No buckets of fish for the pond.  No flats of seedlings.”  Nod, nod, nod.  “And honey,” he said, leaning slightly closer for emphasis, “no – absolutely no – manure.”

Before you get the wrong impression, let me say that my spouse normally doesn’t get heavy-handed with me.  But in this circumstance he knows me well, and knows that in the frenzy of spring, I’ll pack the car brim-full with supplies and plants, without regard for upholstery, carpeting, or vinyl. 

Because his request was reasonable and we do own a pickup, I happily agreed.  After all, I have rules, too, out in the garden.  No stepping in the raised beds.  No using weed whackers against the tree trunks.  No picking flowers unless you ask first (this is for the children in the neighborhood, but my spouse thinks it applies to him, and I let him).

In the 18 months we’ve owned the car I’ve done well with the rules, only getting away with a few seedlings in the trunk by placing them in a plastic box designed to keep the carpet dry.  But this all changed in the second spring of ownership, when fruit trees were offered for sale at a local store.

“Let’s see if they have what you want,” my spouse suggested when spring storms were keeping us from yard work.  And off we went, to discover that the store had one remaining Honeycrisp apple tree, a sturdy sapling as tall as I.  I was overjoyed.

Proudly we wheeled it from the store to our car, where we realized that, in our haste to go shopping, we forgot what we went shopping for.  My spouse glanced from car to tree, tree to car.  He opened the trunk and attempted to tuck it in.  But it wouldn’t fit, and after one look at my crestfallen face, my spouse sighed, shook his head, and put down the top of his beloved convertible. 

It turns out that seat belts are remarkably good at crossing the container and trunk of a tree, so that the sapling could ride home in safety.  Slowly we drove through town, cruising at a sedate 20 mph.  A fine spray of soil and mulch arose from the container, swirling to coat the interior as we headed home. 

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 Drivers behind us were not impressed, but when they honked I waved a hand at the tree and they seemed to realize what we were doing.  Either that or they were stunned speechless to see a tree strapped in like a toddler in our car. 

We arrived home without mishap, the honeycrisp is planted and the car has been vacuumed.  Sitting down together later that day, my spouse took my hands, looked into my eyes, and gently began “promise me you won’t put more plants in that car….”

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If you’re shopping for a book on weeds for your library, look for one to help you easily identify the bane of our yards and gardens.   Truly useful tomes are those that offer photos or line drawings to help you in identification, plus information on how it grows and advice on how to control it.  But if the weed guide comes complete with cooking tips, the book you have enters the realm of must-have resources for gardeners.

I’ve never had a book on weeds include a chapter with recipes, but Nancy Gift included them in her new book, Good Weed, Bad Weed (St. Lynn’s press,Pittsburgh, $17.95) for a reason.  “There’s a sweet revenge in eating a weed that’s growing in the lawn where you don’t want it to be,” said the author and weed scientist, who brings a refreshing perspective to the plants we consider uninvited guests.

“People care about weeds because they hate them, but my background is that I love them,” said the assistant professor of Environmental Studies at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.  “I have my Grandmother’s love of plants, and I look at how people use them.”

 After a career spent working with farmers as an Agriculture Extension Agent with Cornell University, Gift moved to the suburbs and the saw that the style of weed control in home yards was based on the farmers’ method of spraying herbicides.  “But the rates of spray homeowners use is much higher than growers use, because farmers are minimizing how much they’re exposed to and trying to keep costs down.  Homeowners are more interested in getting every last dandelion out of their lawn.”

This intolerance for weeds is, in part, due to advertising that characterizes all uninvited plants as weeds to be eradicated, she said, which leads to intolerance for wayward seedlings.  “When people start to be aware of wanting an organic lawn, often they feel guilty, worried that the neighbors won’t like them because they have weeds in their lawn.  But there are weeds you don’t have to do anything about; they’re just plants.”   

Gift is quick to acknowledge that there are weeds that fall in the “bad weed” category, such as those which cause allergies, are painful, or poisonous.  These she agrees need control and offers tips for getting to the root of those problem plants.  “We need to understand where the weed comes from, what point in its growing cycle it’s weak, and plan our attack.  If we can figure out when to take action, we can avoid using a lot of chemicals.”

Writing a book that categorizes weeds as good, bad, or not-so-bad was challenging, said Gift, because weeds don’t behave the same in all locations.  What is unremarkable in one area of the country might be an invasive nightmare in another, so her advice on learning to live with them – like trellising bindweed to enjoy its lovely flowers – might strike some as borderline wacky. 

 But her easy to use guide lists the most common weeds and includes photos to help you identify seedlings and mature plants, along with tips for using or appreciating their beauty.  For those who want to get rid of the weeds, Gift covers a variety of ways to control them other than reaching for a bottle of chemicals.

Within each description, Gift includes her experience with the weed, and what lead her to including it in the book.  Those that didn’t make it into this guide can be found on her website.

Finishing the book with a flourish, she included a few recipes, in case you want to whip up a few dishes to serve those judgmental neighbors at the summer potluck.

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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

Mention how delicious broccoli grown in your garden tastes, and you’re likely to be stared at as if you’ve lost your mind.  At the mere thought of the deep green vegetable, most people shudder, remembering overcooked, limp, bitter servings at their school cafeteria.

But a head harvested from the sweet soil of your backyard is a whole different meal, a nutty, tender flavor so delightful you’ll crave more.  Fresh homegrown broccoli is so tasty, in fact, that it can change the minds of our most picky eaters:  our children.

Just ask Robyn Bond, a Colorado Master Gardener in Larimer County.  She gardens on a small patch of yard in the suburbs, squeezing in as many plants as possible in the pocket-sized garden.   Though her grandson, Travis, helped her sow spinach and chard seeds last spring, he drew the line when it came to eating.

“He says his brain tells him not to eat anything green,” said Robyn.  Since Travis and his twin brother Gunner (who eats green things but not broccoli) weren’t interested, Robyn popped in three broccoli seedlings, just enough for one person to enjoy.

But Travis became curious about the heads that developed on the plants, and summoned the courage to ignore his brain’s advice and try this green thing.  “I told him he could cut as much as he wanted for his dinner,” said Robyn, not realizing that this meant Travis would cut all three plants’ worth of broccoli.  Finding them delicious, in a few days he returned, and helped himself to the side shoots as well.

In fact, so enamored of the tender, delicious broccoli had Travis become that he decided to share his joy with others, particularly in the produce department of the grocery store.  There the dark haired lad took his stand, stopping shoppers before they could slide a few heads into their plastic bags.

Gazing up at people, his blue eyes sincere, he uttered “Don’t buy this stuff they make here, grow it instead, like nana does.”  You see, Travis, like other children, has yet to discover exactly where food comes from, believing that grocers made the broccoli they sold.

 “The store staff got a kick out of it, they’ve forgiven me and I’m allowed back in the store,” Robyn assured me.  “They know he will now eat broccoli.”

 Gardeners need more Travises in the world, and more nanas like Robyn to teach them the joy of growing food.  One day they’ll take the hand of a child to teach them the ways of soil and sunlight, or grow into young farmers bringing produce to neighborhood markets.

In the meantime, plant some broccoli in your patch this year.  It’s easy to grow, but keep in mind that the secret to sweet, not bitter, broccoli is consistent water and rapid growth.  It’s a cool season crop, so plant seedlings now for a spring harvest.  Pick a sunny location and amend the soil with a bit of plant-based compost, and give the young seedlings a shot of starter fertilizer to get them growing.

Pay careful attention to watering, making sure the plant doesn’t dry out – this is what causes it to bitter.  Right now we’re dry; our rainfall isn’t enough to moisturize the leaves, much less irrigate the roots.  So check your plant daily and give it a drink if the top of the soil feels dry.

 Fertilize the plants at three weeks and five weeks, to keep their growth rapid.

Broccoli heads are actually a cluster of immature flower buds, harvested before the flowers open. Monitor your heads as they size up; the plant tag will give an indication of the size of an ideal head.  Pick the broccoli before any yellow begins to show, cutting the stem five inches below the head.  Let the plant keep growing, and you’ll enjoy a second crop of side shoots as well.

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“Just don’t turn your back on the turkey,” my friend and co-worker, Audra Harders, said when offering to let me pick up some of the extra straw bales they have at their farm. I’ve taken it into my head to try and grow potatoes in straw, and she had plenty of it stacked neatly in the drive, left there by strangers last fall after decorations at Thanksgiving gave way to bright lights and tinsel.

These offerings come regularly to Audra and her husband, Gary, because people know they and their children have been raising animals as 4-H projects for years, so they drop off bales for use on the farm. But the kids have grown and gone off to college, and now the couple scaled back their livestock to a few chickens, three dogs, and one very big turkey.

“You have to keep your eye on him, because he’ll stand back and watch you for a few minutes, then fly up and get you with his spurs,” she said, holding up both hands with two fingers and a thumb in the claw position. Along with clawed toes, male turkeys grow sharp, bony spurs on their lower legs. “It’s actually pretty handy when sales people come calling.”

My desire for straw is strong, and I’ve dealt with peckish poultry before – our son raised ducks for years, and one male was predisposed to nipping heels. So, enlisting my husband for help, we discussed strategy.

“Let’s see,” he mused, “what can we use to shield ourselves from it? I can lift those bales into the truck pretty quickly if you can just keep the bird off of me while I do it.” Plywood shields and blankets came to mind, but we settled on a simple broom, and drove bravely to the farm.  Spotting the straw stack but not the bird, I felt confident that we could get through this without bloodshed.

It waited until we’d hopped out of the truck, and shut the doors.  

Then, rising from it’s lair near the front steps, a huge turkey appeared, a male in spectacular plumage. Blue-and-red headed, dark feathers giving way to buff and grey penciling, he rose in full glory, puffing feathers and fanning his tail until he looked as large as a Buick.

“There he is,” my spouse whispered as the bird slowly stalked toward us. “OhmygoshOhmygoshOhmygosh,” I blurbled, unable to form words in my near panic. The beast let out a bellowing gobble-gobble as it approached, every step gliding it closer to us, its prey.

Just then our savior arrived, as Audra opened the door and started down the steps. Though I was relieved at her appearance, it was Katie, dancing quickly down the stairs, that made me the happiest. At a foot tall (counting her ears), the black and tan Welsh Corgie trotted between us and the puffy creature, bringing it to a halt in its tracks.

“Katie’ll protect you,” said Audra, and we vigorously greeted the dog as if she were our own. Safely tucked behind the Corgie, my spouse and I felt brave, carelessly laughing and discussing the bird, which was now pacing slowly toward the front of the truck.

Strutting, putting in alarm and occasionally gobbling, the beast walked its new path around the truck to us. “It’s spring, and he’s a little feisty. Had you been here in summer, fall or winter it wouldn’t be a problem, but right now it’s spring and he’s wooing you,” my friend joked.

Or did she? If anyone knows anything about love, it’s Audra, a romance novelist and author of Rocky Mountain Hero (Steeple Hill Books). And that bird began drumming, making a deep, percussive noise in its chest that’s usually used to attract hens.

I called up to Gary, standing on the upper deck of the house with Hank, his hound. “Is that true?” I asked and he laughed. “It’s spring!” he said, tossing his hands up in a shrug, “knowing that bird, yeah, probably.”

Wonderful – now I had something new to worry about, as the turkey relentlessly, albeit slowly, moved toward me. “Dummmmmmmm,” uttered the Tom, his red snood – that fleshy protuberance dangling across his beak – waving in a suggestive manner, “dummmmmmm.”

But keeping the truck between Katie and itself didn’t work out for the turkey; the Corgie could see under the four-wheel drive vehicle. And when the bird get close enough, Katie herded it away. “Good girl! That’s a VERY good girl!” I screamed in relief, and Don loaded up the truck. Katie kept it at bay until we were done.

Quickly climbing into the cab, I managed to shut the door on the treacherous bird. Thwarted in its attack, it let out a piercing gobble at the steel of the door as we thanked the Harders for the straw, and slowly rolled away.

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