Archives for posts with tag: Mother Nature

Mother Nature continues to be a bit confused about what season it is.

After a glorious weekend when temperatures reached through the 70s and into the 80s, we awoke this morning to a one-inch-thick layer of snow and ice which fell overnight.

Like the winter storms before it, the snowfall cloaked the still-leafless trees in a shroud of white. It has been long enough since the last one that I can again appreciate the beauty.

Sadly, however, I could not escape the need to sweep the walk and scrape the cars, tasks made more difficult by the persistent cold temperatures. That I do not appreciate. Nonetheless, it is forecast that the day will warm to above freezing and the snow should soon melt.

The planters are also blanketed by snow but I’m not worried about the seeds we planted on Sunday (see April 13, 2014). Probably nothing much has happened beneath the soil’s surface. The seeds will pause whatever they were doing and will resume when the soil heats up again. In effect, it will be as if the seeds were planted today.

Advertisements

Starting plants from seed is an act of faith.

It is not at all like buying seedlings or fully-grown plants from a nursery or garden center.  There, one knows what one is getting (even when the previous history is not disclosed) and what happens from that point on is somewhat in the gardener’s control.

But when starting from scratch, once the gardener places the seeds into the soil, they are out of sight.  After that, it doesn’t matter whether or how often the seeds are watered or fertilized.  In fact, any action (or inaction) by the gardener is probably irrelevant.  No, what happens next is up to the seeds and Mother Nature.

And neither is very communicative about what is going on under the soil.  There is no indicator light, glowing green when all is well; a warning bell does not sound if something starts to go wrong.  There is nothing even to confirm that the seeds are still there.  One has to simply trust that the seeds know what they need to do and that they are actually doing it.

Faith is only rewarded when the seedlings finally push up through the soil and spread their tiny cotyledons to the light.  Until then, the gardener waits patiently.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  And of all vacuums, the one that Nature abhors most is an empty shelf.  If she encounters one, she seems to exhort (in her inaudible but distinctly perceptible and imperative way), “Don’t just stand there; store something!”

That’s my experience, anyway.  Every bookshelf in the house is full to overflowing; many shelves carry two or three rows of books.  In the kitchen, our cabinets are always groaning with everything from pantry staples to exotic ingredients.  Upstairs, I never have any shelf space in my closet despite the two or three trips to Goodwill I make each year.

And then there’s the basement.

We have several shelving units down there:  one for tools (and whatnot), one for paint (and the like), yet another for seasonal items (such as Christmas tree decorations and pool furniture cushions).  Whenever a space opens up (e.g., when we put the cushions outside in spring), it is soon filled with something else (e.g., a box of the previous year’s records that was sitting on the floor for lack of shelf space).  It’s a good example of what I might call the “Shelf of Dreams” Law which holds that if you build it (a shelf), they will come (items to be stored).

This law immediately became apparent when we began planning our indoor seed sowing for the coming growing season (believe it or not, we should be starting this month) and I made a trip to the basement to prepare.  Recall that last year, we constructed a simple seed-starting apparatus to facilitate indoor growing (see March 17, 2013, part 2, for details).  And what did we use as the basis of our apparatus?  That’s right, a shelving unit.

Shortly after we assembled the shelves, we filled them with seed trays.   A few weeks later, after we set out the seedlings in spring, the shelves became empty again.  That condition did not last long.

First, I started placing miscellaneous gardening supplies there:  spray bottles, sacks of soil amendments, plastic seedling pots.  Then, in mid-summer, we held a big party for our 25th anniversary.  We needed room elsewhere in the basement (for the caterers) and so anything that did not have anywhere better to live moved to the seed-starting apparatus.  By the end of the summer, the shelves were full.

Which was fine through the fall and into the start of winter.  But now it is time to make space for the seed trays again.  It will take some effort—there’s a lot of stuff to relocate—but I’m sure I can find an open shelf or two somewhere in the house.

Just when you think you’ve had everything dealt to you and just when you think you’ve dealt with it all; just when you think there couldn’t possibly be another plant disease or chomping insect or marauding animal that you haven’t seen; just when you think that maybe, just maybe, you’ve got a few things figured out and maybe, just maybe, you have everything under control; well, that’s when Mother Nature serves you up something new and unexpected.

I’m exaggerating a bit, of course, and we have had a successful and relatively uneventful year in the garden.  But after morning inspection and a nice swim, I looked over to the east planter and saw a pile of what looked like sawdust at one corner, clear evidence of carpenter ants.  These guys aren’t after our vegetables or even the leaves or soil.  No, it is the planter itself that they are eating.  Well, strictly speaking they don’t eat the wood but they do tunnel through it.  If left unchecked, the ants’ nesting will weaken the boards, accelerate their natural decay and eventually lead to their crumbling (structural engineers these ants are not).

When carpenter ants appear around the house, I sprinkle a few teaspoons of poison in their path which, if I am lucky, they take back to the nest and share with their siblings.  With further luck (and so far, so good), the colony dies.  This is one of the few occasions where I will resort to nasty chemicals—potentially, the integrity of the house depends on it.  I have never needed much nor needed it very often and our accumulated exposure has been relatively low.

Unfortunately, I can’t use any poison in the planter.  Granted, the carpenter ant infestation appears to be well below the vegetables (at the bottom of the planter) but it is very possible that the plants’ roots have extended that deeply.  Even if not, I do not want any dangerous chemicals that close to our food.  After all, I chose to use untreated lumber to build the planters; using a chemical pesticide would not be consistent with that philosophy.

So, what to do?  It’s not like I can ask them to leave.

On the other hand, maybe I can give them a reason to leave.

I brought the hose over to the nest’s entrance and set the sprayer to “jet”.  Then I placed the nozzle directly against the side of the planter—point blank range—and turned the water on full.  Any tunnels, caverns or shafts that the ants had created should have been instantly flooded, and possibly collapsed.  At least, I certainly hope so.

Problem solved?  We shall see.

It has formally been summer since last Friday (June 21) but if I had to base my assessment of the season solely on the weather, I’m not sure I’d agree that it is summer.  With the exception of a few days at the beginning of the month, it has been as cool as it was back in April and May.  And then there’s the rain:  Almost five inches so far this month.

Weather aside, not everyone would agree that summer started on the summer solstice, especially those living in the southern hemisphere where the seasons are the opposite of ours on the north half of the planet.  I was reminded of this by a recent post (from Australia) by BetR2 (see “Am I Learning or Just Confused??? When is the first day of the season again?”).  For her, the start of winter was the source of her confusion.  It seems that there is no consensus as to what officially starts (or ends) a season.

Growing up, I was taught that summer occurred during June, July and August; fall spanned September, October and November; the winter months included December, January and February; leaving March, April and May for spring (although spring almost never lasts three months, even in the northeast US!).  BetR2 was similarly instructed, it appears, although of course, the seasons—and not the calendar—are reversed where she lives.

Others (such as the folks at Google) base the seasons on the astronomical milestones:  the summer and winter solstices and the autumnal and vernal equinoxes.  Followers of this philosophy tend to be staunch despite the irony that summer begins with the days getting shorter and winter with the days getting longer.  I think there is some meteorological basis for this, however, due to heat lag.  In summer, the nights are not long enough for the day’s heat to dissipate and as a result, it continues to accumulate after the shortest night occurs.  The temperature gets hotter even as the days grow shorter.  Eventually, though, the conditions reverse and we start heading back towards cooler days and, eventually, winter.

Another practical approach is to use holidays as the demarcation points.  In the US for example, summer “officially” begins with Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) and ends on Labor Day (the first Monday in September).  Christmas often considered a good time for winter to start (although some would argue for Black Friday, which follows Thanksgiving and opens the holiday shopping season).  To round out the seasons, Easter makes a nice transition from winter to spring, with its obvious connotations of rebirth.  Naturally, there are strong cultural, ethnic, and religious influences on this practice.

However defined, it is now summer (in the northern hemisphere) by any calendar.  All we need now is for Mother Nature to catch up.

Well, we did our best to find homes for all of the seedlings—plants we started from seed, raised indoors under fluorescent lights, nurturing them with gentle watering and periodic doses of fertilizer until they grew large and strong enough to be set outside to take their chances with Mother Nature and other gardeners—and we were reasonably successful.  Of the eight or so people we reached out to, four accepted our offer.  And while one took only a few seedlings (her gardening space is small), three left here with one or two of each.

We started with six trays of seedlings which potted-up to six trays full of fledgling vegetable plants; today, only about 20 remained.  It is late in the planting season and the seedlings have almost used up the nutrients that remain in their small pots of soil; their leaves have all turned yellow.  We can’t think of anyone else to offer them to so…we let them go.  We said some words of thanks and tossed them onto the refuse pile.  They were a good bunch of plants and I’m sure their energy will return to our garden, somehow, in a future year.

The lettuce seedlings in the last three spots I planted (in the third go ‘round) have vanished, lost to overwatering (by Mother Nature, not to point a finger or anything) or, perhaps, too much sun (ironic, given how cool it has been lately).  This late in the lettuce’s season, I will say “uncle” and not try (again) to reseed.  On the other hand, the lettuces from the first sowing that I replanted last week (see June 14, 2013) are doing quite well.

And luckily, we still have excess heads of both types of lettuce from that first planting; enough, in fact, to transplant one to each of the bare spots.  After doing just that this morning, we now have 16 lettuce plants safely on their way to maturation.  Some of them are almost ready for partial harvest and, soon, we’ll start clipping leaves (the cut-and-come-back method of harvesting) for as long as the cool weather lasts.

It’s early for a season recap but even so, I will have to start thinking about what might work better next year.  My initial thought is that we might want to start the lettuce indoors next year.  We chose not to do so this season based on the belief that transplanting the seedlings would be problematic.  I have found, however, that once they reach a modest size (three or four leaves), the lettuce plants can be replanted easily and effectively.  The compartmentalized seed trays we use will further facilitate the process.

Alternatively, it is possible that the lettuces would do well in containers.  The pots would have to be large enough for several heads to fit but small enough to be easily moved out of the pounding rain or beating sun.  Translucent covers might also be a good idea and more manageable with a smaller container.  Further, with this approach we might be able to grow the lettuce in warmer conditions.  If so, we could start experimenting later this year.

Ideally, we would have mature lettuce at the same time the tomatoes are ripe.  That’s right:  I’m thinking BLTs.

The garden is not a place for instant gratification.

Advance planning is recommended (if not, strictly speaking, required).  Depending on the scope and extent of a garden’s design, much work must be done to construct it and make it ready for planting.  And once the seeds are sown or the seedlings set out, the plants take time to grow, mature and produce fruit.  If one wants a ripe cherry tomato—right now!—planting a cherry tomato vine is not the way to get it.

And although many people do demand instant gratification (as my mother recently observed, it used to be only children; now it’s everyone), there are obvious benefits to waiting.  Like the study that offered children one piece of candy immediately or two pieces if they agreed to wait for an hour, a garden promises a prolonged bounty of vegetables (nature willing, of course) to those who take the time to nurture it.  As an added bonus, the produce is usually of much higher quality than anything that can be procured in a market, especially when out of season.

Also, it is my experience that instant gratification often leads to deferred aggravation.

For instance, if I put off making a minor household repair (and here, the instant gratification is putting my feet up and watching television instead), that leaky faucet or loose floorboard may develop into something requiring more extensive—and expensive—work to remedy.  And whenever I go too long without weeding, Mother Nature teaches me a lesson by allowing them to overrun the garden.

In fact, a garden is a good tool for overcoming procrastination.  The procrastinator’s motto (attributed to Mark Twain) is, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do day after tomorrow just as well.”   It’s a useful phrase and nicely turned from Thomas Jefferson’s, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today” but as an approach to gardening, it is not very effective.  In the middle of summer, if you put off watering till the day after tomorrow, there may be nothing alive left to water.  (This might help explain why Jefferson is known for his garden while Twain is not.)

Unless, of course, that is the ultimate goal.  Yet another variation of the anti-proverb states, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can avoid all together”.

The seeds we planted indoors a little over a week ago (see March 24, 2013) are showing no signs of life.  My thinking had been that with the seed trays in the direct (but diffused) light of a window, there would be enough heat during the day to initiate germination.  Mother Nature has not been cooperating, however, and the daily temperatures have been very cold, more like winter than spring.

It is probably no warmer anywhere else in the basement (with the possible exception of immediately adjacent to the furnace) and if we set the thermostat to a sufficiently high temperature, the entire basement would be heated (which would be wasteful).  Keeping the seed growing apparatus by the window still seems like the best location.

Therefore, we will try heating pads under the seed trays.  We have two of them—one large, one small—but neither is as big as a tray.  That means that at any given moment, only a part of two trays is sitting over a heating pad.  We will have to move the trays (or the heating pads) around so that all of the seeds get some direct heat.

Also, our heating pads are meant for humans, not seeds.  They are intended for short-term, attended operation and, in fact, one of them has an automatic shut-off feature which may need to be reset manually.  Using them will require active participation on my part.

And until the seeds sprout, neither Rachel nor I can do anything that might result in sore muscles.

This weekend is the first time this spring that is has been both warm and free of snow.  Finally, we can start our outdoor planting.

But first, a little planning.  I mean, it’s not like we can just throw some seeds in the ground, right?  Well, I suppose we could (and many people do, successfully) but then there would be less to write about.

Our main consideration is crop rotation and making sure that we do not plant anything in the same place we grew it last year.  Because we are doing the same vegetables again this year and have two raised beds, this simply means swapping everything from west to east and vice versa.

Our secondary consideration is expansion.  At the end of last season (see September 25, 2012 and January 16, 2013), we concluded that the zucchini and the cucumbers need more space than the raised beds can provide while still accommodating other vegetables.  Therefore, we will move them elsewhere (posts will follow).

So, without further ado, here are the planting layouts for the raised beds:

East planter:  Tomatoes in the north half; lettuces in the southwest sextant; eggplant and bell peppers in the south central sextant; and basil in the southeast sextant.  We have already started the tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers and basil from seed indoors (see March 24, 2013) and will direct sow the lettuces in a week or two.

West planter:  Sugar Snap peas in the north half; turnips and carrots in the southwest quadrant; and radishes and beets in the southeast quadrant.  Starting all of these from seed—sowing them directly into the soil—was today’s activity.

The Sugar Snap Peas will expand to a row the full width of the planter which will, hopefully, increase our yield proportionally.  The duration of the harvest should not change—we planted the entire row today—but each day’s crop should be greater.

Last year, we alternated rows of radishes and beets and this year we did the same.  Unlike last year, however, we planted the seeds in longitudinal rows.  It might not be the most efficient use of the available space (we could fit a slightly larger total length of rows if arranged transversely) but it will be much easier to water.  We took the same approach with the carrots and turnips, sowing their seeds in parallel rows.

By moving the peas farther back in the planter (and strictly speaking, they will occupy less than half of the bed), we can fit five rows of the root crops.  We planted one row of carrots and radishes (half of each) and one row of turnips and beets (again, half of each).  We will follow this in a week or two with another row of carrots and radishes and of turnips and beets and wrap up with a final row of carrots and radishes a week or two after that.  Our harvest will be staggered and should last well into summer.

We measured the rows and marked them by removing the mulch.  The seeds went in quickly—even the teeny-tiny carrot seeds—and we brushed a thin layer of soil onto them for cover.  Rain is expected later today so we will let Mother Nature do the watering.