Pruning & Protecting the Future Fruit

enterprise_appleThe daffodils are blooming, six weeks earlier than last year.  Is it global warming?  Is it the weirdness of Indiana weather?  I say “yes” to both.  Two weeks ago, I took advantage of an unseasonably warm day to inspect my fruit trees and do a little pruning.  I am an overly squeamish pruner so this year I decided to make up for years of neglect with some serious hacking at the trees I planted in 2009 (the ones that actually look like trees).  My 2010 and 2011 trees still look pretty twiggy.  They also suffered from severe nibbling by the local deer population, so my pruning focus for them was mostly surgical.

Once I was done cutting off bits and pieces, I determined that I really need more deer protection if I want these babies to grow.  The rule of thumb for trees (and all perennial plants) is that the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap.  I have several that are due to start leaping and I don’t want the deer to interfere any more than they have.  So, last weekend I installed random bits of fencing around all my fruiting trees and bushes, except the Nanking cherry bushes, which I think might take over the Earth if left to their own devices.  They have definite nibble marks but also have formed about 5,000 buds that look poised to burst into flower.

covered_fig_miniI also made the bold decision to uncover my fig tree from its winter cocoon of foam padding, leaves, and plastic bags.  Last year I waited until Easter and a week later it sent up new stems from the rootbud, which made me worry that the rest of the tree was dead.  However, the rest of the tree perked up a week later and looked just great so I’m hoping for the same results this spring.  Actually, I’m hoping for an explosion of growth and even more delicious fruit for me to enjoy.  (I ate about 15 figs last year – yum!)

Here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve planted since we moved in.  So far only the fig has produced fruit but that’s pretty typical, as trees and bushes take awhile to mature (especially when they keep getting chomped on).  If you’re in a hurry you can plant some small fruiting plants – I did eat some alpine strawberries and huckleberries last year from plants I grew from Baker Heirloom seeds.  And of course, there’s always gleaning – I think I scrounged about three pounds of mulberries from my neighbors’ trees, as they don’t consider them “proper fruit.”  Whatever; they were delicious.  Anyway, here’s what is in my yard:

  • Apple, Enterprise, 2009, Trees of Antiquity
  • bare_fig_miniApple, Akane, 2009, Trees of Antiquity
  • Apple, Liberty, 2010 Brambleberry Farm
  • Pear, Seckel, 2010 Brambleberry Farm
  • Fig, Chicago Hardy, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Cherries, Nanking, 2010, Renaissance Farm
  • Chokecherry, 2011, Garden Fair
  • Pawpaws, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Gooseberry, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Jostaberry, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Trifoliate Orange, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Currant, Black (I think), 2011 Brambleberry Farm
  • Black Raspberry, Jewel, 2011 Brambleberry Farm
  • Blackberry, Apache (I think), 2011 Brambleberry Farm

Plans for this Spring

  • Elderberry, grown by me from a cutting and currently in a pot indoors
  • Blueberries, varieties TBD, Backyard Berry Plants
  • Kiwi, Arctic, from a fellow permaculturist

Some day my yard will be full of delicious fruit.  Soon….

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Using Energy for Good

Seed Starting ShelvesSo we signed up for the SIREN Energy Challenge and have been trying to figure out where we use electricity and how we can cut back, which means Will is running around using his Killowatt on everything.  At the same time, I am planning my garden for spring and also thinking about how we will take advantage of the summer bounty.  My dad helped me set up a seed starting system with three shelves of fluorescent lights and I’m trying to talk Will into getting a chest freezer so we can store the summer’s vegetables but all he can think about is the increased electrical consumption.

It’s a tough balance!  We have managed to cut down on our natural gas consumption this winter despite unusually low temperatures.  I hope it’s from our vigilant caulking or perhaps our installation of a homemade insulating curtain over the window by our bed.  Still, our electrical use seems relatively high even after replacing our water heater (which we thought was wasting a lot of electricity).  The two main suspects right now are our refrigerator and our laptops.  Laptops are more energy efficient than desktops but we both do use our computers quite a bit since we mostly work from home and we also use Will’s laptop for much of our TV and movie viewing.

I think we’re getting close to the point where we can’t cut much more energy use without major changes to our standard of living.  I also think that it’s reasonable to use electricity for food production and storage, since homegrown food has other benefits in the form of increased nutrition, lower grocery bills, higher assurance of organic quality, and reduced transportation of food.  Still, it’s always tough to evaluate all the pros and cons and I know for now much of my lobbying is based on the fact that I’m super excited about gardening.

Did you know it’s not too early to start planting seeds indoors, even though it’s freaking cold outside here in Indiana?  I am ready to plant onions, kale, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage so I have nice fat seedlings ready to transplant when the ground thaws in March.  (All those except Brussel sprouts are available through Nature’s Crossroads and I’m enjoying the employee discount on seeds very much.)  I suspect this will be another year when I bite off more gardening tasks than I can keep up with but I’m really hoping this will be the year that I feel like I mostly get it.  Of course, there’s always more to learn so I won’t be too upset if I face a few more garden disasters…

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Seeds, seeds, and more seeds

I Love Bees Seed MixIt’s December and it’s snowing and I am feeling totally unprepared for Christmas.  None of these things are particularly unusual for me or I suspect for most people.  The good news is, I did manage to launch the webstore for my new organic seed company, Nature’s Crossroads.  It has been a lot of fun coming up with collections and kits based on the seeds we have in stock.  Probably my favorite is the sunflower fort but we are also selling some really cool heirloom tomato seed-saving kits.

Will and I are plugging away on the house and our respective businesses.  2009 has been a good year but it felt very transitional.  We’re looking forward to a little more stability in 2010.

There are also some cool green living events coming up in 2010 which I’ll post more about next week but just as a sneak preview, we recently signed up for the SIREN Energy Showdown where households try to become more energy efficient and win fabulous prizes.  I’m also debating entering an outfit in the Trashion/Refashion Show which challenges designers to make new clothes out of either discarded items or old clothing items.

It’s events (and organizations) like these that remind me how much I enjoy living in Bloomington.

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Henry the Weed-Eating Dog

Henry, the weed-eating dogThis is Henry, one of the four dogs we are watching this week.  They are all very sweet and generally mild-mannered but we have noticed that Henry is special.  Henry is a weed-eating dog.

His owners have carefully planted a selection of tomatoes and peppers in big pots (well, some of them might be labeled as “five-gallon buckets” by the unimaginative) out on their back deck.  They told us to enjoy the bounty this week so we’ve been munching on cherry tomatoes as we sit around the pool (oh, the perks of housesitting).  We happened to look over yesterday and saw Henry carefully eating the grass out of the containers.   He showed no interest in the tomatoes or peppers but was very thorough in his grass annihilation.

As an amateur organic gardener, I am always looking for new tricks, tools, and secrets.  I don’t think it gets much better than a weed-eating dog in terms of environmental friendliness and minimal labor.  Plus you get the companionship of man’s best friend!  Alas, I have no idea how to actually train a dog to eat weeds.  That would be the million dollar trick.   Pretty much all the dogs I know will eat grass sometimes.  However, Henry has access to an entire lawn so I’m not sure why he prefers to eat his grass out of the tomato planters – perhaps it is sweeter and better fertilized?  Whatever his doggy logic may be, I am quite impressed and hope one day to have a weed-eating dog of my own.

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Container Gardening – Potatoes and More

A few weeks ago, Will checked out a book for me from the library called the “Bountiful Container: Gardening in Small Spaces”. Unfortunately, I got sucked into some other books and only managed to read a couple chapters before it was due back. (I would have renewed but there was a waiting list; it’s obviously a popular topic.) From what I read, it’s a great book and it definitely fanned the flames of my gardening urges even higher.

Chinese take-out container with plantsSo far I have just a few plants going – peas and basil outside on the porch, tiny tomato seedlings safe in the kitchen, and two trays of seedlings ready to be transplanted to Maggie & Nathan’s garden next week. I tried to get creative and plant some herbs in little take-out Chinese containers but most of the seeds didn’t sprout. I suspect the problem is that I didn’t poke drainage holes, although I did put a bunch of peanuts in the shell at the bottom to provide some drainage (I didn’t have any rocks handy), and some of seeds sprouted quite well. So perhaps the other seeds were nonviable or there wasn’t quite enough light for some of the containers.pot with tomato plants

My next project will be potatoes. The main thing with potatoes is that you want to keep adding soil on top of the plant as it grows so that it will produce lots of potatoes. Normally this is done with a trench-and-mound system in the garden where you dig a trench, plant the potatoes, and then add more soil every week or so until it’s mounded up above ground level. I have seen two container versions and am not sure which to use. Both involve our arch-nemesis, plastic.

Maggie holding potatoFor the first method, you start with a heavy duty garbage back and fold over the top to make a really short bag – kinda like cuffing your jeans instead of hemming them. There need to be some holes in the back and some rocks (peanuts?) for drainage. Plant the potatoes in a few inches of dirt to start and as they grow, you unroll part of the bag and add more dirt or leaves or straw. By the end, you have a bag full of dirt and hopefully potatoes.

The other method is basically the same thing except you use a big trash can with drainage holes and just keep filling it with dirt as the potatoes grow. The possible advantage to this method is that my parents donated an old trash can with wheels to my cause, which might make a nice transportable planter for future projects.

I need to make up my mind pretty soon, as I have a pound of organic seed potatoes waiting patiently in my living room. On the other hand, they’ve been pretty patient so far…

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Weekend Project – Starting Seeds

watering seed tray‘Tis the season for getting those garden plants started.  Many classic garden plants like tomatoes and peppers suggest starting indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost so I’m actually a little bit late.  (Last frost here is about May 15th, I think.)  My friend Maggie and I are growing flowers for our weddings as well as planting a big veggie patch this year. As usual, I pulled out my seed collection and decided I didn’t need to buy any new seeds but then after I had my hands in the dirt I realized I was missing some of the plants I wanted. Ah, well.

This is another project that gets a little messy but it was cold out so I did it on our dining room floor. Will only teased me slightly for getting dirt everywhere. (I swept it up later.) I bought a small bag of potting soil at our local farmers co-op. They also sell bulk seeds by the scoop, which I find absolutely fascinating. It’s like a candy shop for gardeners!

Anyway, I still had some seed trays from last year so I filled them up with potting soil.  I was a little worried about how to water them until I remembered that our kitchen sink has one of those handy spray nozzles.  It worked like a charm!

I planted echinacea, brussel sprouts, cabbages, blue fescue (ornamental grass), liatris, St. John’s wort, forget-me-not, lavender, two kinds of decorative sage, larkspur, and basil.  My planting tip o’ the week: bury seeds approximately twice as deep as they are wide.  These seeds were pretty tiny so I just kinda poked them into the soil and sprinkled a little extra on top.  A few of them have sprouted but they’re not super impressive yet so I’ll wait to post more photos.  For now, my two trays are sitting in the sun by our glass back door and have their little plastic domes in place to keep in the moisture.  Maggie has an awesome set up with grow lights and heating blankets so she’ll probably win the sprouting competition but as long as mine come up, I’ll be happy.

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Lazy Friday links: convertible furniture, an expensive drought, and community gardens

I haven’t been reading my blogs regularly this week, so now that I’m back home, there was a bunch of interest stuff waiting for me.

From Treehugger (a new read for me) comes mention of convertible furniture. Dwell, a British company, sells a coffee table that becomes a dinner table and a coffee table that becomes a laptop table. As Maggie and I have been looking at houses, I’ve been thinking about how much space I really need. It seems like a lot of the space we’ve got is only used part of the time. I don’t really want to do anything but sleep in the bedroom, but I hardly ever use the dining room and the living room at the same time. If there were some way to combine rooms, I could probably be comfortable with a place that’s 10% smaller. I don’t know if this table is a good way to do it, but it’s a nice possibility.

I try to keep track of my hometown news and ran across some in an unexpected place today. North Carolina has had a terrible drought for the past year, so everyone has been conserving water. My parents got a rain barrel and now use the old bucket in the shower trick. According to Freakonomics, because NC residents have cut their water usage by a third, the water utility company in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is raising prices! I know that most of the cost of water production is constant, but it’s still a weird disincentive for conservation. It makes the free rider problem even worse. Why bother saving water if it not only doesn’t help you personally, it hurts you.

It’s almost officially spring and the weather is definitely spring-like, which means it’s time to really think about gardens. Maggie has already started planning and digging with some friends. Planet Green has a short blurb about community gardening connected to a Natural Home article that I can’t find (I left Planet Green a post about it, so maybe they’ll fix it before you read this). Community gardening is a good way to get some gardening in even when you’re in an urban area. I was able to set aside a 1’x1′ plot at my last place, but don’t want to dig things up at our current place. Maggie still needs her gardening fix, so she’s helping her friends with their gardens.

There are also some actual community gardens in Bloomington, where you can sign up to use a small part of a larger plot on unused land. I love the concept because it encourages community and give novice gardeners like myself a good place to get advice. There isn’t one within walking distance but there might be if we move downtown. That’s good, because most of the houses we’ve been looking at are too shady for good gardens.

I’ll end with a mention of blog style. I really like the way that JD at Get Rich Slowly emphasizes a couple of key phrases within his articles. I’m going to try and do the same (when I remember). If I’m lucky, that might help me focus on no more than a couple of key points too!

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A book for Engineers as well as Gardeners

Better Off and Animal, Vegetable, MiracleI hope this is coherent. It’s been a long week after a long weekend and it’s not over yet. Nevertheless, I managed to finish Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle today. The book is about Kingsolver and her family as they move to Appalachia (from Arizona) and attempt to eat local food for a year.

Although the concept is interesting, the book didn’t interest me until the end (when Kingsolver talks about the difficulty of getting people to change the world and turkey procreation), which was too little too late. I was surprised because I’ve heard great things about it from at least three people.

I’ve decided that the people who love Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are Gardeners. You know the type. They swoon over winter seed catalogs, talk about soil pH, and give away hundreds of squash in the fall. To me, though, lettuce all tastes the same, a zucchini and a cucumber are basically identical, and I like to watch Japanese beetles. I will never be a Gardener, even if I do occasionally garden. Luckily, I have Maggie around to handle that sort of thing. I’m much more of an Engineer. I like building things instead of growing them and solving problems that involve short bursts of creativity rather than marathon efforts over a season.

I must not be the only one, since Eric Brende took on a similar challenge but faced it much differently. Instead of focusing on food, Brende looked at technology and decided that it was too difficult to determine what was good and bad about it while he was so reliant on it. He took his wife to a small Amish-like community and they attempted to determine how little technology was necessary to live a happy life. The result is Brende’s book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.

I think my favorite part about Better Off is that Brende starts off thinking about technology and ends up realizing that it has very little to do with technology and a lot to do with him and his wife. There’s no universal answer to the question “is this gadget a good addition to my life?” This sort of introspective evaluation of a lifestyle is very attractive to me.

Since reading the book, I find myself wondering what I can do without rather than assuming that because the technology is there, I should use it. When it comes down to it, dishwashers are kind of annoying. Cars are even worse. I might not be willing to give them up, but I can figure out when it makes sense to use them and when it doesn’t.

I think even Gardeners will appreciate this type of message, although they might apply it to different things than I do. I definitely recommend picking up Better Off… if you can tear yourself away from your seed catalogs.

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Preparing for the Gardening Season

Working in the GardenWill believes that some folks just aren’t gardeners and he may be right but I’m pretty sure I’m a gardener. I’m a little behind; January is the peak season for snuggling up with some great seed catalogs and sketching out the awesomest garden layout ever. But I have a HUGE stockpile of seeds already and it looks like I’ll be playing the supporting role in three gardens this year rather than running a garden of my own so it’s probably just as well that I’m not looking at the catalogs. (My favorites are Seeds of Change and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. For those who are not gardeners, there’s always the Murray McMurray poultry catalog or the ever-popular Heifer International catalog of gift animals for families in third world countries.)

I just find gardening really fulfilling. It is a pleasant form of exercise, it’s an excuse (and motivation) to get outdoors, I feel like I’m contributing to something worthwhile, and in the end I get to eat something yummy! Usually, anyway. There have been a few unpleasant surprises like the melons that smelled deliciously sweet and tasted like dirt and a few times that my lovingly tended crop was eaten by voracious wild animals but usually there’s something good to eat.

Alas, it is snowing here so I will not be headed outdoors soon. This week I am practicing my sprouting skills. I just got a sprouting jar and some alfalfa seeds and I also recently learned that it’s possible to sprout most beans so I have a batch of adzuki beans going. I am also going to coordinate with a friend who is starting seeds indoors for the Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard garden that I’ll be helping with this spring. And I’ll probably break down and check out a few seed catalogs so I can advise my mom on what to include in her garden, which I helped install a couple years ago.

Some green tips for seed selection:

1. Heirloom varieties are awesome and help preserve biodiversity, as well as frequently providing superior flavor and nutrition. Baker Creek is a great source and here in Bloomington I love to get seeds from Wiley House, a museum with a historical garden.

2. Even if they’re not heirlooms, it’s great to get open-pollinated vegetable seeds so you can save your own seeds for the next year. If you save your own seeds you can develop a variety that is perfectly suited to your neighborhood. Pretty cool!

3. Buy organic seeds when you can. Besides being free of the fungicides and other chemicals sometimes applied to conventional seeds, organic seeds were grown by farms that are using environmentally sustainable methods. I think it’s important to support them.

4. Share seeds with friends and neighbors. One seed packet generally contains a lot more seeds than you will actually need (you don’t need fifty tomato plants, I promise) so share the wealth. I hear there are stores where you can buy seeds in bulk by the teaspoon but I haven’t found those stores yet.

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