Friday, February 25, 2011

Starting Seeds Indoors 2011

February 20th was the big day: seed starting day.  We invited our neighbors and had a planting party.

used coffee cups- poke holes in bottom
potting soil (plain, no moisture retaining additives or fertilizers you see in some brand name soils)
plastic bins
spray bottle (water by misting keeps the little seeds from getting washed away)

We started:
broccoli, brussel sprouts, four types of cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, kale, peppers, lots of tomatoes, basil, oregano and lots of flowers

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Making Plans- saves money & time, maximizes your harvest & happiness

A moment of sunshine in February is never wasted.  This past weekend, we grabbed the notebook, a couple cups of tea and went outside to make plans for our vegetable garden.

Before starting seeds, it helps to formulate a plan.  Since we are both enthusiastic gardeners and we share the limited garden space, we go through a negotiation dance to determine; what, where, how, and how much we plant.

The first step is sketching out all the garden beds on paper, so we can take notes.  (In the past, Terry would have done it to scale- hence the graph paper.)  This year we're comfortable with the size of the beds we're working with, so he skipped using a ruler and did a quick sketch.

There are certain crops that are planted in the same beds each year, due to the fact they are perennials or the type of structure we train them on.  So, we write them in first.  Then we discuss crop rotation.  We try not to plant crops in the same bed they were in the year before.  

There are lots of books and articles that discuss crop rotation.  Rotating crops help combat pest and diseases and also maximizes soil fertility.  The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide produced by Seattle Tilth explains crop rotation really well.  A rotation that is based on soil fertility starts with a well-manured and fertilized bed.  The sequence of crop types goes:  Leaf, Root, Flower, Fruit.  

We have more factors than just crop rotation to consider.  We have varying bed sizes and some beds get more sunlight and are easier to work in than others.  After walking through the entire garden, discussing details, envisioning our harvest, and jotting down notes; we are able to review our notes and make edits.  Once we are both happy with the plan, we can relax knowing that we both are going to get what we want out of the garden this year.  

The next step is starting seeds.  We keep our plans in a folder and keep it with our box of seeds.  The plan helps us determine how many seeds we need to start and when.  It also keeps us from wasting money and over-planting.  When the nursery is full of seeds and starts it is so hard to resist picking up just a few more of this or that.  By creating a plan early, you can research seed varieties and not feel rushed to just pick up what the nearest nursery has.     

After the season is over, we keep the plan as a record.  It's fun to look back at how our gardening plans have evolved over the years.

Whether you're a new gardener or a seasoned one, I highly recommend taking the time to create a plan, especially if more than one person is involved.  It gets everyone excited about the garden even when it's still winter, saves money, increases your harvest potential and makes planting feel a lot less hectic because you're not questioning quantities and varieties every time you visit the nursery during peak planting season. 

If you are local to Tacoma and need help developing a plan, let me know.  Happy Planning!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Touch of Spring Indoors- Forcing Blooms

While our kitchen garden is still in its winter state, we go about catching up on other chores around the garden.  A couple weeks ago we started pruning back the "thicket" of old-fashioned flowering shrubs that grow along our alley.  The stems of the forsythia were full of swollen buds and I couldn't bear to just toss the sticks into the yard waste.  I filled up a bucket of water and soon filled the bucket with branches.  I wanted to start making arrangements right away, but my dear husband reminded me that we still had a pruning job to finish.

That afternoon I took the branches inside and filled a couple of vases.  Slowly over the next week, the warmth of being in the house forced the branches to flower.  The bright yellow blooms brought a punch of spring sunshine into our home.

There are a number of other plants that this works well with including Flowering Quince, Pussy Willow and Flowering Plum.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Super Bowl Sunday Snap Peas

As January rolls into February we get really anxious to start planting some seeds even if it may be a little early.  We’re hopeful that Punxsutawney Phil was correct about us having an early spring this year.

A couple weeks ago, Terry started some test pea seeds outside in our metal trough to see if they’d germinate.  We carefully pulled the soil away to check the seeds and sure enough they had sprouted.

After reviewing our disastrous experience starting our peas early in the ground last year.  We decided to go ahead and start our snap peas today, but in pots.  Last year, we planted them directly in our raised bed.  They kept disappearing.  Was it birds, bugs, or mice?  After trying a number of barriers, we found that it was mice.  Once we got rid of them, we replanted the peas and they started coming up.  Then we noticed that the little leaves were being chewed off near the ground.  It was voracious pill bugs.  The weather was still so cool the peas were growing too slowly to outgrow the bugs.  Once the weather warmed, the peas did fine, but it well over a month since we began our effort to start peas.   

So, learning from last year, we decided to start peas early, but in pots (used coffee cups we’ve been collecting).  If we didn’t have mice and a ton of pill bugs, we’d been planting straight in the ground again. 

Here what we did...

Small pots or used coffee cups
Sharpie or Wax Pencil
Potting Soil
Seeds (we planted Sugar Snap Peas & Super Sugar Snap peas)

  1. Gather materials and set up a nice work area.  We emptied the bag of potting soil into a plastic tub to make it easy to work with.
  2. Label cups with the name of the seeds and the date.
  3. Poke holes in the bottom of the coffee cups for drainage.
  4. Fill the cups with potting soil.  Leave one half inch or so at the top for watering.
  5. Poke two holes about once inch deep in the soil in each cup.  Drop in one seed per hole.  Cover the seeds with soil.

We placed our cups in a big planter outside where they are exposed to the rain, so we didn’t water them in.  One of the advantages of planting in these cups is that if the weather takes a bad turn toward below freezing, we can moved them into the garage until it warms up again.  Peas can take a frost, but it they are frozen solid, they may die.  

We will keep an eye on our babies and hopefully see some sprouts emerging in a few weeks.  Once  peas have grown to about six inches tall, we will cut the bottoms off the cups, slit the sides and plant them in our raised garden bed where they can grow up our trellis.  I can't wait to eat the first sugar snap pea of the season.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Signs of Life in the Garden

I'm always amazed how much life there is in the garden in the winter.  

Mache aka Corn Salad aka Lamb's Lettuce

A couple years ago, we planted mache in the metal trough.  We let it flower and the seeds fell into the gravel.  Last year, the seeds sprouted and we let the volunteers grow naturally.  Now there is a carpet of it by the fence.  In a kitchen garden, you can let some plants go wild, so you don't have to do any work except harvest.    

The chives are coming back from last year.

The parsley seed itself last year in the metal trough.  Lots of baby parsley sprouted in January.  

The autumn blue scotch kale still looks good.

The savoy cabbage survived the cold weather and may actually form a nice head.

Some of the lettuce we planted in the fall survived and is growing again.

Rutabagas and Turnips are going strong.




Evergreen bunching onions are starting to flower.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dogs and a Garden

In 2004, we really wanted… dogs and a garden.  We both grew up on large properties and having dogs were an essential part of life.  Living many years in urban apartments we had a lot of time to envision our first homestead.  I also had a well-developed taste in plants from working for a wonderful landscaping company and nursery.  Terry really wanted to grow vegetables.  So we were excited to finally have a patch of earth to turn into a garden of our own.

The house we bought was a fixer.  It needed a lot of work initially just to make it livable.  It was clear that the garden would have to wait awhile, but having a dog would bring life and warmth to the property.  We put off pet adoption for an excruciating six months, then in January 2005, we adopted Oso, a fluffy, pudgy, three-year-old retriever mix from the Humane Society.  We threw up a crude fence and installed a doggie door.  A few months later, it was clear that he needed a buddy, so we adopted Smithers, a 6-month-old Rottweiler Lab mix.  We expanded the fenced area.

The dogs had a way of sculpting the landscape.  Smithers liked to dig, so we built a large sandbox.  Their constant running made the yard muddy, so we bought in truckloads of wood chips.  Finally in 2006, we made landscaping a priority; we knew it would take a few years for the plants to fill in and become somewhat dog proof.  We spent several months detailing out a budget, design, and construction plan.  That spring we sent the dogs down to my parents and we spent ten grueling days grading the site, bringing in soil amendments, putting up a new fence, mulching, and laying sod.  After the initial landscape marathon, we started planting.  We knew the dogs would damage the little plants, so we put temporary wire fencing around most of the planting beds. 

Over the years, we designed and built out more specific features, as we better understood our needs and how the dogs interact with the garden.  We built a poured a conrete patio, ripped out dog damaged sod and built a fenced in edible garden.

During all our projects on the house and in the garden, the dogs were our constant companions, entertainers, and “construction inspectors”.  They also knew how to remind us when it was break time: time to throw the tennis ball, go for a walk, or just run around the house.  When we really needed a long break, we took them camping in the woods, and hiking in the mountains.

While our dogs were an integral part of our lives and the landscape, they develop relationships of their own: the neighbors that gave them love and treats; the neighborhood dogs that they liked or disliked; the cats that teased them; the crows that displeased them; and the mice that ate their food.  They also had each other.  We observed their dog behaviors: play bows, howling together at sirens, warning each other of strangers walking by, licking each others eyes and ears, competing for the ball and playing keep away with each others treats.

Last year the house, garden and life felt like it had really come together.  The plants created nice garden rooms for sitting and enjoying our summer morning coffee.  The shrubs and trees were large enough to provide shady spots for the dogs to wallow underneath.  Birds came to nest and feed.  We were successfully growing more vegetables than we could eat.  Looking back at photos of the house and garden transformation we could see Smithers getting bigger and Oso getting gray in his muzzle.

While feeling satisfied with the progress we’d made on the house and our transition from working constantly on home improvement to actually enjoying the fruits of our labor, another transition was taking place.  Oso started having trouble with his eyes about a year ago.  With medication it seemed to get under control.  The Vet suspected an underlying issue, but would need to do lots of expensive tests to find an answer.  Since his eyes were looking great with medication, we decided to keep on with the meds and give him the best life possible.   He was nine years old and he had been on medications since he was diagnosed with Addison’s disease several months after we adopted him.

Over the years Oso’s personality had come alive, as he had gotten stronger, more confident, and more socialized.  He loved everyone he met and was happy all the time.  Last summer he had starting losing weight and hair.  All the signs pointed towards liver disease or cancer.  We changed up Oso’s food, and I started bathing him with medicated shampoo twice a week.  Smithers was being a good buddy and spending lots of time licking Oso’s sore spots.  Over the autumn months, he continued to lose weight, but his hair was looking much better.  It was even starting to grow back.  As the weather got cooler we moved the back dogs into the house (after several years of having their beds in the garage).  I covered the living room floor with blankets and towels and the dogs thoroughly enjoyed spending time with us next to the fire and watching TV. 

As the holidays approached we put up Christmas lights, decorated a tree, and hung the stockings. The dogs knew that stockings meant treats and new toys.  They eyed and sniffed the stockings constantly.  Around this time a little bird started hanging out under the peak of the eaves of our front porch every evening.  He was there every time we turned the Christmas lights on and off.  We called him Oso’s angel.  As Oso declined we decided we had better do Christmas with the dogs early.  A couple weeks before Christmas we filled their stockings and presented them to the dogs.  Oso loved his new squeaky tennis ball.  He perked up with each squeak and spent quite awhile just mouthing and squeaking it.  He even played fetch with it outside, although we couldn’t throw it as far as before and he was much slower retrieving it.  

We weren’t sure how many good days Oso would have left and we discussed how to handle things.  Should we call the vet?  Let him go naturally?  What about the upcoming holidays?  What if he couldn’t get up anymore?  What if it happened in the house?  What if Terry was at work and I was alone?  Being such a big dog I wouldn’t be able to pick him up to rush him to the vet.  Terry, having grown up on a ranch, said a dog would let us know when it’s time and will find a comfortable quiet spot to lie in and pass.  Terry also wanted to bury him at home, Oso’s home.

When I designed our garden, I didn’t consider leaving space for a grave.  I suppose with more life experience one would think of these things.  We just happened to have an open spot that we used to store a pile of extra soil.  Terry had visions of building a chicken coop there.  I had visions of more large shrubs for privacy screening.  Now it seemed to be the only open space in the garden that wasn’t lawn or an empty vegetable bed.

On December 15th, Oso stopped eating, but would still get up and go outside when he needed to.  I called a couple Vets to find out if they did house calls and how much it would cost.  On December 16th, a Thursday, I tried to take Oso on our daily walk around the block.  He made it to the sidewalk and just looked dazed.  He was pooping water and drooling.  I knew it wouldn’t be long.  It was a beautiful dry sunny day.  I got him back up on the front porch, but he wouldn’t come inside.  I got his old comforter from the garage and threw it in the washer.  In the afternoon he moved to the back porch.  I tried to make a comfy spot for him with towels.  I kept checking on him and stroking his fur and soft ears, and I could tell he probably wouldn’t last the day.  He looked like he couldn’t even get up again.  I hoped Terry would make it home from work on time.  Around the time Terry would be coming home, I looked on the back porch and Oso was gone.  Did he go find a hole?  I went to the garage and he wasn’t there.  I went to the front porch and he was curled up on the doormat waiting for Terry. 

Terry came home and we petted Oso and decided to let him take the journey he needed.  We ate supper and checked on him and he was still there.  I got the comforter out of the dryer to lay it under him and he was gone.  I looked in the garage to see if he went to his old bed.  Nope.  We turned on the floodlights and grabbed a flashlight and looked for his old wallowing holes in the garden.

Sure enough he had gone to lay under the bushy Cryptomeria tree in the bed just off the front porch.  He was still alive, but just barely.  I laid the comforter just in front of him and he pulled his front legs forward and sunk his head into it.  We rubbed his ears and told him what was a wonderful dog he was.  We went back into the house to let him make the transition peacefully.  We could see him from the front porch, so we checked on him little while later and he was still alive.  I checked again a little bit after that and I could tell by how his head was flopped over he was gone.  He had passed.  His eyes were open, but the life was out of them.  It felt strange to see a beloved creature without any life in him.  After agonizing over his declining health for so long, I finally felt at peace.  He was still warm and we stroked his soft ears again.  We knew that by morning he would be stiff, so Terry repositioned him to make him easier to move and bury.  He looked so peaceful under the tree.  Since it wasn't going to rain that night, we let him be in the spot he picked.

We went back into the house, snuggled with Smithers by the Christmas tree, and talked about how Oso was such a sweet and good dog.  He was such a great dog he even picked the most perfect day and time to pass.  He waited for Terry to get home, Terry had the next day already scheduled off, it was a beautiful mild sunny day, and it was one of the shortest days of the year (meaning the days would be getting longer and brighter after this experience).  It being winter, there also wouldn’t be pesky flies to go after his body.  It was even far enough before Christmas that we could recover and enjoy the holidays.

The next morning was clear and beautiful, we went to the front porch and looked at Oso under the Cryptomeria tree and he looked so peaceful.  I’ll never forget the way he looked under there.  When we went out to check on him, he was cold and stiff except for the flaps of his ears that were still as soft as ever.  Terry measured the body and we prepared the spot to bury him.  As a gardener, I’m used to digging, but this was truly different.  Terry dug down about four feet.  As he got deeper and deeper into the hole, I thought how strange it must be to bury a loved one.  Smithers stood beside me perplexed at what we were doing. 

Once the hole was dug we went to get Oso’s body.  We pulled him onto the comforter and carried him to the hole.  We laid him in the bottom taking care to make him look comfortable.  I grabbed some tennis balls and an old rubber hot dog toy from his early years to put with him.  Smithers didn’t know why we were putting good toys in such a deep hole.  The hardest part was shoveling the soil over Oso.  We were burying not only our dog; but also our first dog, and the first six years of our life in this house.  Smithers leaned against me during this process with concern at our tears.  Once it was done, we spread bark over the loose dirt.  We had some stones piled around, so I spelled out “OSO” with them.

Life has changed since Oso left us.  The house is quieter.  No more pills and medicated shampoos.  Oso's death reminded us of how much time has actually passed since we bought this house and grew our lives around it.  We can’t believe he died before we finished renovating the house.  (We still have a couple projects to complete).  We always talked about how he’d be great with kids… we also noticed how much Smithers was considered Dog #2.  He is now our Dog #1.  Someday, maybe this spring... we’ll get another Dog #2. 

In 2004, we really wanted… dogs and a garden.