The “Victory Over Coronavirus” Garden

When it seemed like the coronavirus was really going to hit us badly and stretch into spring and maybe even summer, I figured I’d need to get into “homesteading” mode. I always do a vegetable garden, but I usually buy plants instead of starting from seed. Will there be plants to buy this year? Who knows?  Let’s get seedy!

I collected all the seed packets from around the house. Some were in the garage. Some were in the laundry room cupboard. A few were in the basement. Yet more were tucked in the drawer where we keep the dog’s things (brushes, harnesses, heartworm meds etc.).

Altogether, it was a motley collection:

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All my seeds

Lots of lettuces. Lots of peas. Lots of beets. A few tomatoes, cukes, herbs and other goodies.

“Not bad!” I thought. I found some seed starter plastic thingies to start the seeds indoors and got started planting. Then I noticed something:

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Old much?

How long are seeds good for? Centuries, under the right conditions, I imagine. I mean, there are seed banks that store seeds in case of an apocalypse, right? I figured I’d draw the line at 10 years – anything older probably would not be worth planting.

Next I ordered some seeds I didn’t have – tomatoes, squashes and peppers. When those arrived (and it took a while) I popped them all into some seed starter soil and set them to incubate on the radiator.

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Homemade seed germinating system

I despaired that they didn’t seem to be doing anything. Each day I’d water as needed and scrutinize the soil for signs of life. Then one day:

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Hello tiny plants

You can’t imagine how happy I was to see these tiny specks of green.

Shortly after they all started coming. Once the seeds sprout I put them in a sunny window during the day to catch the light and warmth, rotating the tray so the plants don’t stretch too much in any one direction.

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Stretching for the sun

It’s fun to watch the cucumbers especially (they’re the biggest of the lot in the picture above). They really move to capture the most light as the earth rotates around the sun.

From all the old seeds I had two duds – spinach and basil. I’ll have to see if I can get some fresh seeds the next time I brave the grocery store.

Outside, I started the peas. My neighbor, who has the greenest thumb I ever saw, insists that peas are planted on St. Patrick’s Day. I didn’t quite do it that early, but I still got them in the ground on the first warm day.

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Peas – all wrinkly and ready for action

They still have not sprouted. I don’t know if they’re duds or if it hasn’t been warm enough (I strongly suspect the latter). I want to brave a peek at my neighbor’s garden to see if she’s had more success, but I am too chicken. I will try with another packet if I don’t see action soon. I also will start the lettuces and squash directly outside once the last danger of frost has passed, whenever that is.

Too Much Time on Your Hands? Ha!

I have now been self-isolating for 25 days. As the days have worn on – and as the virus has ravaged New York and other parts of the United States and the rest of the world – I have been trying (and partly failing) to Keep Calm and Carry On, as the British say.

It’s hard to concentrate at work. I have been giving myself something to look forward to at the end of every work day as a bit of a reward. One day I took an online Pilates class. Another day I tidied up the perennial beds. At some point, I dug out the yogurt maker and cooked up a batch:

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Homemade yogurt – not worth the effort, but a way to kill time

We ran out of bread, so why not bake some?

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Multigrain bread – tasty!

This recipe from Cook’s Illustrated was excellent. You use a multigrain hot cereal mix as a starter. We ate the last of it this morning in French toast – divine!

Then I got cocky and tried to make hamburger buns:

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Hamburger buns – not rocks – honest

They came out like hockey pucks – edible but dry and misshapen and dense. At least the toasted sesame seeds were tasty.

I’m not one to be defeated, so let’s play around with the Instant Pot! I tried making a turkey barley soup.

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Barley-palooza

I misread the recipe and put a pound of barley into the pot instead of a cup of barley. It swelled up every drop of turkey stock and affected a risotto-like texture. So why not call it “bar-zotto” and eat it with some grated Parmesan? It wasn’t half bad. There’s still plenty left if you’re peckish.

The sun came out – time to hit the garden. For years, I have been meaning to relocate some blueberry plants to encourage better cross-pollination and protection from berry-thieving birds (if the plants are grouped tightly, one piece of bird netting should cover the lot). So I dug up some plants and moved them, replanting with a good dose of fertilizer for acid-loving plants.

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New home for blueberries

There is so little traffic and noise in my neighborhood – we live on a normally busy street – that I can clearly hear all the spring birdsong. In an hour or so I counted 18 species, a few by call alone.

My house is old, with the ghosts of gardens all over the place – a wisteria vine here, a decaying stump there. In the middle of the lawn, this blue-striped quill appeared, ready to delight anyone who came across it:

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Squill making an appearance

Every night after dinner I sew 10-15 cloth face masks. My nurse friends take some to work, while others have been given to relatives, neighbors and friends.

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More masks

Finally on Friday I had to go to the supermarket. There’s only so much barzotto and hardtack a gal can eat, amirite?

The trip took 2 1/2 hours and cost me $330. I wore a mask, gloves and a hat. When I got home, I stripped to my undies in the laundry room and threw everything – including my sneakers – into the washing machine to scrub on the “sanitary” cycle.

The market was out of all kinds of weird things – no salt, no Romaine lettuce, no flour or cinnamon, no chicken breasts, no macaroni and cheese mixes, no 1% milk, no cleaning supplies of any kind, except for some feeble-looking “all natural” stuff that might be a bit better than vinegar or lemon juice.

I figured I might as well live it up – I bought a rack of lamb, a kosher chicken, an organic pork loin – all the cheaper cuts were sold out. I bought a $5 jar of applesauce and four funky-looking oranges called “Sumo” for $1.50 apiece. A big bag of Costa Rican coffee. A bag of frozen wild-caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. Organic onions and potatoes and milk.

Americans have been hoarding toilet paper. We are not guilty of this (we conserved – as a child, my grandmother admonished me that “a lady only uses four squares.”) Still, we were down to our last two rolls. The store limited each shopper to one 12-roll bundle. I felt lucky to get it.

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In the diary aisle by the display of creams, a man was arguing with someone on the phone. “They don’t have quarts of heavy cream! They only have pints of heavy cream! I looked and looked and that’s all there is!” This went on for a minute, while he shouted  all the various creams and quantities available into the phone. I stood by  (six feet away, natch), waiting for reason to arrive on the scene. Finally I suggested that he buy TWO PINTS of heavy cream, as each is 16 ounces and a quart is 32 ounces. He looked at me like I was crazy for 10 seconds. Then his face lit up like I was an angel from heaven. I never have received such fulsome gratitude in my life. He grabbed two pints and bolted for the checkout.

My good deed done for the day, I approached the display and took a pint of half and half. Upon returning home, I realized I grabbed the fat-free shit instead of the real thing. Bah!

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No good deed goes unpunished

 

The Joy and Heartbreak of Apple Trees

I planted two apple trees 10 years ago. Each year, I faithfully watered, fertilized, pruned and cleaned up around the trees. I even tried sprays to control for insects and blights.

And I got no apples.

Deer invaded our yard and ate the new growth. We put up a fence. One tree died after five years when some rodent chewed up the tender graft point. The other tree lived but never thrived. It didn’t take root properly and blew over in a hurricane. I rerooted and staked it. I kept up the orchard husbandry. I got a few apples, but most of them were lost to squirrels, birds, and bugs.

Two years ago, I said the heck with it and left the tree to its own devices.

This year I got a ton of apples.

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Only took 10 years to get these apples

OK, not a ton, but a good basketful and more on the tree to harvest soon.

Joy at finally having my work pay off? Yes. Heartbreak that the apples are malformed, shot full of bugs and not that tasty? Again, yes.

Out of the whole basket, only these three apples look “good enough” to maybe pass for supermarket apples:

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Winner, runner-up and third place in my backyard-grown apple beauty contest

Who am I kidding? If most people saw these apples at the store, they’d pass them by. The next time you buy apples at the market, think of how much human intervention is required to get something picture-perfect.

If you have ever been apple-picking, you’ve noticed that commercial orchards keep their trees pruned to the point of being stunted, for easier harvests and bigger yields. My grandparents pruned their trees annually and still had to use a homemade apple-picker made out of an old broomstick and a twisted wire coat hanger to pick some fruit.

Because I have not pruned the tree in a few years, it’s even harder to harvest. I had to buy one of these telescoping fruit-picking gizmos.

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Long arm of the fruit tree cultivator

From the ground, looking up into the branches, lots of great fruit seems within reach. I finagle the fruit-picker under a tasty-looking apple, pluck it, and pop it into the basket. It looks pretty good:

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Right side

Then I flip it over:

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Wrong side

Yuck. Damn birds.

I mean, I love birds and I don’t mind sharing a few apples with them. But they prefer to peck at many apples instead of just eating one. Hey bird – if you’re going to start an apple, finish it before you go onto the next one!

Many pecked-up apples rot on the tree, Those that fall get a second life as a meal for raccoons and squirrels. This windfall encourages the raccoons and squirrels to visit again and again. I try to vigilantly pick up any fallen apples right away, but every morning some more lie on the grass, chewed and brown and yucky.

I took the basket of “good” apples inside, washed them, then got to work prepping them. These are Cortland apples, meant for cooking not eating. They’re good for pies, sauces and things like that. I figured I’d made an apple crisp. I mixed the apple pieces with the juice of a lemon, 1/4 cup of sugar, 1/2 teaspoons of nutmeg and cinnamon. The crisp topping is made from 1/4 cup each of butter, flour, brown sugar and chopped toasted pecans.

An hour of coring, peeling and slicing, and an hour of baking later:

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Apple crisp

It was pretty tasty – the apples are pretty tart, which I like. I feel a great sense of joy at this too. And then I think of all that work just for one apple crisp, to be enjoyed for a couple of meals when I could buy something similar for a few bucks. Heartbreak again!

Citizen Science for the Love of Trees

I love ginkgo trees so much that for my birthday one year, I asked my husband for a tree. It’s been growing steadily for four years, and now it’s going to contribute to climate science!

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My little ginkgo – ready for action!

I joined up on the National Science Foundation’s “Fossil Atmospheres” project, which combines contributions from citizens and scientists from the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center to conduct climate change research. The project needs citizens around the US to send leaves and photos of ginkgo and to enter data about the tree into a database. (See Fossil Atmospheres for more info.)

Ginkgo are native to China and are the among most ancient trees on earth, little changed from the days when dinosaurs munched on their leaves. Because they are so ancient, they provide a great fossil record for comparison with modern trees.

You’d know a ginkgo if you ever saw one – they are the only tree on earth with a leaf that remotely looks like this (and yes, I have read a whole book about ginkgo).

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It’s hard for even the most callow citizen scientist to misidentify one. If you do, some ginkgo in public gardens and parks will have labels, like this one, on another ginkgo in a park near my house:

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I wanted to send in at least two samples, so I sampled my little tree and also a very large, older tree that sits on the grounds of the public library near my house.

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Grandma ginkgo

I love looking at this tree – which I call “Grandma Ginkgo” and imagining what my little tree might look like in 100 years.

The project requires you to take a few samples, photos and observations. You need to take one cluster of at least six leaves off each tree to be sampled. You must cushion the leaves inside a few sheets of newspaper and then reinforce the bundle with cardboard, so the samples don’t get damaged in the mail.

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Leaf samples ready for mailing

You also need to note the sex of the tree. Yes – ginkgo are male or female. Most trees you see around are male, because people usually don’t want to deal with female trees’ stinky fruit. The fruit covers a nut that some people find delicious. I have never tried it but I promise to this year (it involves a lot of prep work and can be toxic in large doses, so there are other issues besides the smell). Here’s what a developing fruit looks like (courtesy of Grandma Ginkgo). It turns golden yellow when ripe:

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You also need to note what side of the tree the sample came from (north, south, east or west) so the scientists can adjust for sun exposure. And you note the approximate height of the tree – 10-30 feet or 30+ feet.

Here are some other fun facts about ginkgo:

  • The oldest specimens are over 2,500 years old, making them among the oldest living things on earth
  • In the fall, the leaves turn a lemony yellow color. All the leaves drop in one day.
  • The first European visitors to China took home ginkgo seeds to plant in the UK, the Netherlands, France, and Germany
  • They’re among the most popular street trees in Manhattan – accounting for about 10% of all trees there
  • The leaves and nuts have many medicinal properties

And here are some gratuitous photos of some of the ginkgo motif items in my own home. What can I say? I am a nut for ginkgo!

If you want to participate in this project, follow the directions at Fossil Atmospheres and get your samples in by September 1!

Tomato Roulette – August Update

My tomatoes are coming in – I have had at least one from every variety I planted, except the Brandywine, which is always late and therefore not my favorite.

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Tomato log – notes on flavor and production
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Tomato records – variety, harvest date and number, size

I already love the 4 of July variety. While they are small – between the size of a golf ball and a billiard ball – they were indeed early and have a nice flavor, a bit acidic, with a good skin – not too fragile or tough.

The loser far is the so-called “Better Boy” which has produced few fruit, and most of them are malformed, like this one:

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I have no problem with ugly produce, but I do want some normal tomatoes too. The plant only has a few other fruit on it. They taste OK – nothing special. Definitely won’t plant this again. Better Boy, my butt!

The king tomato was Big Beef – almost a one-pound fruit so far and several more on the vine:

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The other two varieties – Big Boy and Brandy Boy – also were very good. They were pretty similar really – in a taste test Brandy Boy seemed a bit sweeter, with the delicate skin of a Brandywine. We’ll see what else we get for the season.

Damn You, Aphids!

When you’re a gardener, you stop and smell the roses. All the time. And all the other flowers, too. I mean, you plant them to bring you joy, right?

So it feels like someone’s stabbing me with a knife, when I peruse my flowers one day and find this:

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A metric fuckton of aphids.
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Sucking the life out of this heliopsis

I don’t begrudge a few aphids to a few bits of my garden. The birds, ladybugs and ants often take care of them anyway, and their damage won’t kill a plant most of the time. I usually let them be, or I pick off a few infested leaves by hand and throw them away. But this was a serious infestation, that left several heliopsis plants wilty and in peril. Time to take action.

If you Google “how to get rid of aphids,” you will get a lot of advice. Here’s what I tried and how well each approach worked:

  1. Spray them off with water. This is the #1 recommendation. “Just fit your garden hose with a high-pressure stream of water and spray away,” I was told. “Most aphids can’t fly, and they are too small and weak to climb back up on the plant. If they don’t die from being blasted off the plant, they’ll die of starvation.” Sounded good to me. I blasted the plants with water thoroughly, taking care to also hit the undersides of the leaves, where the little suckers congregate. I noted, with satisfaction, thousands of aphid corpses on the ground. The next day, a conga line of red aphids covered the stems again. THIS METHOD DOES NOT WORK. Maybe for a few aphids, it would do the trick, but it does nothing to stop a major infestation.
  2. Spray a solution of water and dish soap. This #2 recommendation assured me that the soap would kill the aphids by suffocating them, yet it would not harm the plants or the bees. I mixed a solution of water and dish soap in a squirt bottle and sprayed away, again with special attention to the undersides of leaves. I noted with satisfaction many aphid corpses on the plant a few hours later. I also noted with agitation many alive aphids. I sprayed again. And again. I tried adding garlic and cayenne pepper to the mix. Still no dice. I’d kill some aphids, but more would appear, and some seemed temporarily stunned but not dead. THIS METHOD DOES NOT WORK EITHER.
  3. Rely on natural aphid predators. Many experts advise releasing ladybugs into your garden to watch nature at work. When I first noticed the aphids, I also noticed several ladybugs feasting on them. When I tried remedies #1 and #2, I shooed away the ladybugs so they wouldn’t suffer collateral damage. They did their part, but we’re talking tens of thousands of aphids vs. a few dozen ladybugs. How many aphids can a ladybug eat in a day? 50 or so, I read. How nice. Maybe I could try this sometime, before an infestation gets out of control, but I am not going to pay $30 and wait a week to get mail-order ladybugs when things are this bad. JURY’S OUT, BUT I AM MOVING ON.
  4. Live and let live. I found some gardeners who noted that there’s always an “aphid season” and if you just wait it out, the aphids go away on their own. SORRY, NOT HAPPENING.
  5. The best defense is a good offense. Aphids prey on weak plants and won’t attack healthy plants, I was told. To put it another way, if you have aphids, it’s your own fault. Accept the consequences and take better care of your garden. This seems unfair to me. These plants have been well-tended, fertilized and watered. SCREW YOU.
  6. Use an insecticide. No one but the insecticide makers recommend this. The gardening world is full of people who will tell you that some combination of remedies #1 through #5 will solve the problem. Maybe with a mild outbreak, sure, but with a full-scale infestation on my hands, I opted next for the nuclear option. I cut off all the flowers so that no bees would come by. Then I mixed up some concentrated pyrethrin spray, donned a mask and gloves, and let loose. Two quarts of spray later, I had a full-scale aphid massacre on my hands. I declared victory. The next day, I noted a few live aphids, but not many. I figured the insecticide residue would get them. It didn’t. It rained. The next day, a few more appeared. I squished them with my bare hands. I got the insecticide on my skin and enjoyed a numb sensation for a few hours. I marveled that the insecticide affected me – a 155-pound mammal – while teeny aphids lived on. A week later, the infestation was as bad as ever. INSECTICIDES ALONE DO NOT WORK.
  7. Scorched earth. At this point, I was beyond angry. I decided to literally cut the aphids off in their tracks. The plants would die – or at least be very sickly – anyway, and the aphids would spread elsewhere, so I might as well go scorched earth on their asses. The aphids clustered on the soft new growth while leaving the tougher old woody growth alone. I pruned the plants back to the woody growth, taking most of the new growth and all the flowers with it. I also weeded all around the base of the plant. Here’s what I had at the end of the job:
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Pruned back heliopsis, next to one not pruned but infested.

I had a nice paper sack of aphids after that. Some managed to escape the bag, only to die on the curb. Ha ha.

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Sack o’ aphids

I sprayed more pyrethrin to kill off any stragglers.

Three weeks later, behold:

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VICTORY!

I still see a few aphids, and a few ladybugs, so I figure things are in balance, finally.

So, what REALLY works? Simply this – removing the aphids – physically – from the plant. Cut them off. Spray a little too, just in case. A healthy plant will grow back. You may lose a few flowers or fruits, but you will not lose your mind.

Tomato Roulette

Gardeners in New England tend to judge our short growing season by one crop: tomatoes. It was “a good year,” “a bad year” or an “OK year.” Sure, the cucumbers might delight for months and the blueberries, packed in the freezer, might get you through the winter, but nothing beats a juicy summer tomato, fresh off the vine and warm from the sun.

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Tomatoes, settling in for a summer of growing

The past few years have been blah for tomatoes. I think the soil in my raised beds was to blame. Even though I rotate the tomato crop between two beds and liberally supplement the soil with my own compost, raised-bed soil loses its oomph after a while. So this year, I’m trying four strategies:

  1. Replace about half of the soil. I had several yards of clean, screened topsoil dug in with the old soil. The result was a richer soil, but the screened stuff got mixed in with the actual ground soil, full of small rocks that have irked New England gardeners since Colonial times. So I will need to rescreen next year. It’s fine for this year.
  2. Plant further apart. I’ve tended to overbuy tomato plants because of all the fascinating varieties you can get nowadays. The plants tend to crowd one another by midsummer, and inevitably tomatoes rot on the vine because I can’t find them through the dense foliage. This year I followed the directive to plant each 2 feet away from the next.
  3. Skip most of the heirlooms. Many lesser-known tomato varieties provide fabulous flavor and gorgeous looks, but a paltry harvest, less disease resistance or other drawbacks. I have labored with these tomato varieties many times and have concluded that while they’re fun, they’re really not worth the trouble to invest in heavily. Hey – if you’ve got the time and patience, go for it. But I have wasted too much time and money on plants that succumb to disease and insects,  or that produce only a few tomatoes late in the season, to get excited anymore. For heirlooms, Brandywine is our favorite, so I planted a few.
  4. Try a test garden for commercial varieties. Many common varieties produce bushels of tomatoes, but they might not win beauty contests or pack as much flavor as heirlooms. I decided this year to try out several common commercial varieties, in search of two I can rely on year after year for volume with decent enough taste and reliability to be my “go-to” tomatoes. . I’m trying these:
    1. Big Boy – the granddaddy of big-ass backyard garden tomatoes
    2. Better Boy – a variety derived from Big Boy that produces more, but smaller, fruits with a slightly shorter growing season
    3. Brandy Boy  – a hybrid of Brandywine and the “boy” varieties
    4. Big Beef – Big Boy crossed with a traditional Beefsteak tomato
    5. Fourth of July – An early variety that produces loads of smaller fruits

Finally, I planted go-to cherry tomatoes, Super Sweet 100s, and tried a yellow cherry variety, just for fun.