Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Starting seeds makes me feel a bit less like a garden slacker. I know, I should have been doing it all along, but actually doing it counts.

So today, I used my new Haws can

to water in:
Drunken Woman Frizzy Head lettuce
Tom Thumb lettuce
Merlot lettuce
Territorial Seed's Heirloom Blend lettuce
a romaine whose name escapes me
Lacinato kale
Red Russian kale
Breadseed poppy
Bloomsdale Long Standing spinach
Monstreux de Viroflay spinach
Hibiscus for tea
Italian flat-leaf parseley

Seems like a long list for only three flats. The pepper cuttings are hanging in there, so not obviously dead at least.

Before I start any more seeds, I'm going to have to either repair or replace the light fixtures and get new bulbs.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Perpetual Peppers

I love my Padron pepper. I love the way it yields loads of delicious peppers for frying; I love the way it overwintered so cheerfully, despite really cold weather; I love that every once in a while it throws a really hot little pepper, just to keep the eater on their toes.

Even though it did overwinter, I'm a little leery of assuming that everything is going to be hunky-dory again. We could have a harder freeze, or I could just want more peppers than one (admittedly champion) plant will produce. Friends could want in on the Padron-love.

So I decided to try making more of the very same plant through the magic of cuttings. When I worked as a garden helper on a posh estate, we took cuttings of things all the time. Sometimes they worked, sometimes not, but it was pretty fun all the same.

I tried to get tips that would be both woody enough for self-support and green enough to be sprouty, although it was guesswork on my part. I remembered to cut a diagonal end on the stem, causing more of the rooting layer to be exposed. Unless that only goes for trees. At any rate, these had a diagonal tip.

A simple jar of powdered rooting hormone is supposed to promote root growth. After dipping the cut end, I tapped off any extra powder. No sense wasting it, and there were as many dire warnings on the stuff as you'd imagine. No eye contact, skin contact, breathing it in, ingesting. . . I didn't want to see if I'd sprout roots, so I just didn't touch it or snuffle it up my nose.

I tried to keep as much of the powder on the stem as I put the cutting into its pot of soil. A pencil made holes that were just about the right size. Quite a few of the cuttings came from sideways branches, so they were leaning all akimbo. I figured if the cuttings take, it won't matter how they were leaning.

They're all resting under a plastic dome, for humidity. Because the cuttings don't have any roots (yet) to take up moisture, but have lots of leaves to expire moisture, they are a little sad looking today. I did trim many leaves off, and also cut off any buds. There were a surprising amount of them for cold December weather. Such a great plant! At any rate, if this works, I'll have a dozen new pepper plants, certainly enough to share.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Little houses, big problems

New house construction is really at a low these days. After acting as my own contractor, I'm thinking I can almost understand why. After my subs ate 1/3 of the building materials*, and we had to use inferior substitutions**, and we had to push back the closing by seven times, well, it's a wonder anything got built at all.

But they did.

And the patches held on the broken spots

So the trip to the home furnishing place means the whole village will soon erupt in seasonal colors.

Next year, we're thinking castles.

* And then threw up repeatedly, all night long. Yay. Not one grabbing and eating, but two.

** Lard, the cheap kind, instead of butter. I like butter too much to do this over and over. Besides, the dogs don't deserve it and I bought good candy for the kids. They have to just not eat the houses themselves.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Rain shadow, rain shadow

I've been singing since I came in from the garden.

Finally a bit of rain after so much cold, but dry weather. The garden needs it, and I need it since the breakdowns in the irrigation system mean watering isn't a hands-off experience. At least until I get the problems fixed.

I used to live somewhere where it rained almost every night most of the year, and was generally clear during the day. It was nice in that respect. From my current perspective, I didn't appreciate it enough. My sandy soil, even with amendments, drains quickly and the plants prefer consistent watering. So I am always happy to see our rainy season come along when things like carrots are much easier.

Even so, there are pockets of my garden that are not as fortunate as others.

This bed is in the middle of the yard, beside the apricot tree but not under anything. Nice and moist.

Then, there's the Acacia Tree of Doom.

If you were an onion plant or a volunteer Red Russian kale, this would be your skyward view. Personally, I wish this tree would go to the great beyond the way the one in our yard did years ago. I'm not in charge, however, so we content ourselves with cutting back what we can.

It's not quite enough, as you can possibly see:

Really dry under there. The rain has to be excessive or at a slant to get past the tree's umbrella.In addition, I bet some of the roots are underneath it, sucking water up even if it does get to the surface. So I water this bed by hand or carefully plant dry-tolerant crops there.

What kind of microclimates does your yard have?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

First Freeze

Rarely do really hard freezes hit our area. If they do, the citrus growers scramble with smudge pots and gardeners cover up delicate plants. A few years ago, it was easy to see which plants came from tropical places -- black, slimy heaps marked what had been Datura and other softies.

Not until the dogs and I rounded the shady side of the dog park at 7:00 this morning did I realize that we were in for cold weather. Of course, I hadn't taken cuttings from the Padron pepper as I'd planned to. Fortunately, upon inspection it looked okay.

The strawberries should know that blooming in December is a bad idea. Maybe this will convince them?

Hardy parseley, kale, and the other cole crops just looked pretty but not overly put-upon. Garden stalwarts.

Everything else looked pretty okay, and today marked the first time I used warm bath water to water the seedling beds. It's so much easier on my hands than pumping cold rainwater from the barrels. Because of  the hole in the pipe, I'm going to be doing some hand watering until I get my act together to fix the irrigation!

Monday, December 5, 2011


I've been mulling this post over all day, which amuses me because it's all about not getting wrapped up in perfection.

Not me -- generally I'm free of this particular issue. I tend more toward the "half-cocked, half-assed" end of the spectrum. Naturally I have a family that in some respects is spectacularly on the other end.

I don't always deal with their issues gracefully. Working on this essay in my head made me feel a little more sympathetic. I jotted notes -- failure, persistence, easing pressure, impermanence, and none of them sang with the clarity I was reaching for. Finally I decided that for me, posted mattered more than perfect. (See Not A Perfectionist, above.)

We've been sitting down as part of our morning and doing a page of handwriting work every day. I know there are homeschoolers who see this as a terrible betrayal of the spirit of the thing -- none of my kids is avidly interested in being able to write legibly, at least not to the extent of wanting to practice. But I'm of the "No kid of mine is going to write like that" camp, and since it's a motor skill, it will get better by practice, just like any of the sports they do. Plus, it's not like our brand of learning is taking up much time -- or it's taking up all of their time, and either way, we win.

Also? Having four kids and homeschooling for years hasn't actually given me more answers than, say, someone who only has one child. Just because something worked on one doesn't mean it would work on another, and as I found out today, I don't even remember all of the tricks I learned in order to try them on another child.

Which brings me to this morning. I've learned that with Cat, I need to be careful about giving her tasks. She tends to dig in deeply, pursuing something like a terrier after a rat. This is a terrific inclination, in that she's going to be able to follow things she's interested in through challenges, but sometimes the challenges are internal. I hoped that by limiting her handwriting to only one page, she could get through it without frustrating herself to tears (and then yelling at me that I "don't understand!").

[Just a note, here. I don't do anything to make her feel as though perfection is the only goal in handwriting. She's not even supposed to be doing it. But you try to tell that to a child who has three older siblings.]

And the letter "r" was it today. "I can't do it!!" she wailed. I tried holding her hand and doing it together. I tried talking, and nothing was working. I was seeing my carefully-calibrated calm morning crumble before the jam was wiped up off of the table.

And then, whatever good angel helps out homeschooling parents whispered to me. "Remember?"

"Wait here!" I said, and rushed into the kitchen.

"Why? What are you doing?"

"Just wait!"

When I got back to the table, I shoved the paper and pencil away from her. "Look," I said, "You can use whatever you want -- the eraser end, your nose, your finger tip, just use this."

She quirked a smile at me. "Just in this?"

"Yes, now try." She tried. I shook to erase.

Over and over and over again, until she said, "I've got it! Look at my 'r'!"

Friday, December 2, 2011

I meant to do one of these

I still like the copper chicken sculpture. Maybe I should try to make more garden art.
Oddly enough, Tor, Ellie, and I aren't as good at archery as we hoped. The box with a turkey drawn on it remained mostly unscathed, but the irrigation pipe is a goner.
Cilantro can be picky for me -- won't germinate, bolts immediately, etc. But let a plant go to seed, and it's Salsa Pathway! Maybe I'll use the last of the tomatoes and make a batch, after harvesting with nail scissors.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


I had lots of ideas about posting today -- a story about the first time I rode a motor scooter, a pictorial tour of the vegetables Eric wishes I wouldn't grow, something cute the puppy or the kids did. . . But then I discovered something very cool that my new camera does. (Maybe I should read the manual, no?) And now I'm going to share it with you. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Quiet productivity

Yesterday afternoon quiet -- all three older kids at practice (have I mentioned how much I love Frisbee?) and dim light throughout the house. Someone had gotten up very early.

So had someone else.

I used the quiet moments and some of the things I had lying about the house and the instructions from Kendra and experimented with our own lotion.

For a little while I thought it wasn't going to work, as the pint jar I was using was terribly full, the water only came up to the middle of the jar, and therefore the wax kept hardening along the top of the jar, but it finally came together.

It's firm, more like a cream than a lotion, but it smells wonderfully of honey. I may try to make more for gifts, although I had hoped to dip candles with the rendered wax. If I go through the rest of the comb carefully over the next couple of weeks, and use Lisa's method of wax rendering, maybe there will be enough for both.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Both coming and going

 It's never "done" outside, right? Not only that I could make things look a little better or work a little more efficiently, it's just that with a living system, there is no "done." One thing could come to an end, but the circle of life rolls right on, over and over and over. Bane and boon to me, and a good thing to remember when I have an overdeveloped sense of my own importance. Some day, I'm going to be compost, too.

Lettuce seeds are finally, finally poking up. This is terribly blurry, but it's repeating all over a bed. The lettuces I planted from transplants are ready enough to eat tonight, once I figure out what to have for dinner.


The nursery-planted onions are also looking pretty nice, despite being used as a bed by Taz on sunny days. Will the dogs never cease their garden depredations? I hope someday to start enough cipollini from seed to grow jars of pickled baby onions. A girl (or future compost) has to dream, right?

From what I read, asparagus is supposed to be cut back when it dies for the winter. It's my great hope that that yellowing is presaging the winter die-back, because our seasons sometimes trick plants into acting strangely. The Anna apple behind the asparagus, for instance, is putting out a last two or so apples.

Even though it was chilly and overcast when I was out there, a few intrepid bees were flying. I couldn't catch enough with the still camera and didn't even think to use the video! I counted four distinct pollen colors -- bright white (one bee was almost completely covered with white pollen, in addition to her pollen baskets), red, and pale and strong yellow. I hope things are okay in the hives. Unless I see drastic and obvious problems, they're pretty much on their own until spring.

If this predator had been inside the hive, for instance, it would have indicated a weakening of the defense system. I watched for a good while and didn't see anything to lead to the conclusion that the yellow jacket was not scavenging among the dead bees out front. Every hive has some, and it's easy meat. Yellow jackets, the jackals of the skies. . .

Elsewhere, everywhere I looked, seeds I had not planted were leaping into growth. Some were welcomed, like this ruby chard. I don't like it enough really to plant it -- but it's nice enough, and edible, and I'll eat small leaves in salads and stuff the big ones, so up it grows, right by a snow pea.


I'm beginning to believe that some of the missed Italian shelling beans will actually get to produce a green bean or two before it gets too cold. I'd never, ever plant beans in September, but here you go!


Volunteer tomatoes, on the other hand, are going to be pulled no matter what the season.The little kale next to the onion gets to live until I want to eat it.


We're still enjoying the fruits of some of the volunteers. A Kubocha squash I didn't plant under the apple tree nevertheless just came out of the oven, soft and ready to puree for soup (yay for bacon trimmings to fry up) and the heavily cut-back kale is still roaring along. Since the tiny volunteer Red Russians among the onions are yet babies, these make a nice stopgap.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dealing with sprawl

 One of the things I'm vowing to do differently next year is deal with the tomatoes in a neater, more contained way. I've done the 6x6" wire fencing approach, and that works okay. I tried to stake them this year, and that apparently takes much more effort than I put in. I don't know which approach I'll use next year -- maybe a combination, depending on the type of tomato and whether I mean to pick them a bunch at a time (like paste tomatoes) or singly (like slicing).

No matter which support system I choose, it's going to succeed or not depending on how much effort I put into it, I suspect. Things like proper spacing, clipping blighted leaves, and nipping back overwhelming growth for better air circulation actually count if healthy tomatoes with a neater aspect are desired.

I do know I won't allow any volunteers next year, as they turned out to be mostly uninspired cherry tomatoes. I'm not certain I'll grow cherries, at all. Sungolds are nice, but a little goes a long way, for me. I'm really a cooked tomato kind of gal, caprese salad notwithstanding.

As I was searching for those links, I was surprised to see that I'd put these tomatoes out in April. Can it really be that we have over seven months of tomato growth? Wild. I do grow, however, heartily sick of them, especially when they look as neglected as mine did.

So yesterday was the last day for tomatoes. Ellie and I pulled all the vines (she pulled when my elbow began complaining) and picked through the plants for any leftover tomatoes.

There were a lot:

They got divided into three piles: green, to go to my friend Vera to make into pickles (we ate this year's jar at Thanksgiving and maybe I ate a lot last night while I was doing dishes); a pile of red-maybe-will-ripen-on-the-window for sauce; and a pile of "yuck!" for the chickens.

This guy made me yell out loud, but the chickens will appreciate a tasty snack.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Getting ready

 Don't know about you, but lists rule my life. They help me and hopefully the rest of my family know what's expected. Of course, I can't resist joking on public lists.

Sarafina was so agog at my bad jokes that she took a picture, which launched today's post.

Of course, having a list and expecting everyone to help doesn't magically make children into cooperative little beings. I went downstairs to see how the basement picking up was going. There were some items picked up, but not necessarily in a way to make the room cleaner.

They insisted he wanted to do this. I assume it's true.+
The last bits of Halloween decoration were just hanging around. I certainly couldn't reach them, but that's why we have tall family members. One, two, three, and she did a wonderful job.

With a lot of help from Kevin, Eric, and eventually the children, the list went red. There were even jobs not on the original list which got done (I'm looking at you, front edges of mulch!)

Finally, an overview of the garden. Previous winters actually looked almost as bad, which is reassuring to me. At least a lot of the trash and failing plants are out now, after the work-fest of this week. It's time to pull the tomatoes, and hope that the seeded beds will sprout, rather than be eaten all by birds. And Taz -- well, she's still finding her way in and thinks the back left onion bed is a Very Good place to rest. We may have to up the fence security.


Right now, though, the turkey is in the oven, the last of the morning's four pies is resting on a rack (apple is going in as we're eating today), and I'm taking a quiet moment to sit with Eric in front of a football game. I woke the three younger ones up this morning, asking, "What are you thankful for?" and in a quick rat-a-tat-tat, got "Food!" "Family" "Shelter!"

Those seemed like wonderful places to start, indeed. I am truly grateful.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Maybe I could get a cow with these

The Fagioli Pavoni ("Peacock beans") grew from a handful of seed beans brought back from a burlap sack in Lucca to a couple of quart jars. Each bean is well over an inch long, and they are pretty tasty. Next year, I'm going to plant the whole bunch that I have left, if I don't eat everything I haven't set aside. And then I'll keep better records of pounds per square foot.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Slow food, slow puppies

This is for those who don't want to see an endless stream of gardening posts.

The dogs spend lots of time romping around, there are slow moments. But even in sleepy mode, these two play. Taz now weighs 30 pounds and is coming along nicely, although still very much a puppy. I love both the lazy ear nibbles and the cackling cameraperson.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Still kicking

Can we all just agree that I think about blogging more than I actually blog? On the rare moments I'm in the yard (panic-stricken, lately, generally-speaking), I think about blogging. And why I don't have my camera with me. When I'm doing something with the kids, I think about blogging -- even if I have my camera. When I'm cooking or making shopping lists, I think about blogging.

I think about friends whose blogs have better pictures or nicer layouts than mine. I think about people who post more frequently. I think about all the blogs I wish I were reading and commenting on.

Think, think, think.

But precious little, you know, blogging. Mostly, if I sit down at the computer lately, I feel as though I should be working. This current crop of students is a challenge, and I'm just pleased that I'm halfway through a course.

And generally, this bloglessness is a good barometer of my entire approach to life for the past. . . fourteen months? I'm just not running as smoothly as I am wont to. Feels like sugar in my gas tank, a stuck cylinder, or jogging, veeeery slowly, through cold molasses.

But every once in a while things kind of get better. And I have faith that this is merely a transformative, sort of chrysalid, phase, rather than the New, 100% More Sluglike Me!

One thing that might be still going well, or at least keeping the whole enterprise from tanking, is that I retain some competencies. I may not have the mental energy to accomplish much, but my hands still remember how to do some things. And for that, along with some other things, I'm really grateful.

Competence, even in only a few areas, is still competence. As my children have all suddenly increased their eating - winter? Simultaneous growth spurts? Innate evil? - I'm reacting by baking twice a week, and paying more attention to filling meals.

So I don't only make challah and bread on Tuesday,

I make foccacia and bread on Monday too. Dinners are. . . bigger.

And tonight, after a day that saw me up early, fishing with Tor and Cat, driving Tor to a practice for his Parkour performance, taking the dogs for a walk with the oldest girl, racing back to watch the performance, then taking all the kids out for a photo shoot, I made calzone to use the rest of the lovely sausage I got from our local butcher. Assembly-line style made it easy for Tor to be enticed in to put them together. As we rolled dough and heaped-up filling, then took turns pleating the edges together, I realized that my hands were perfectly at home.

Roll, pat, fill, tweak, over and over. I could stand back and let him do it and give pointers, but only because I knew that I was in the groove with it. I may not make the money I wish I did or have the impact on the world that I'd like to, but I can throw together some serious handmade baking. That has to count for something, no?

That one was one of the "low-filling" ones, with too much dough to filling. Sarafina's (below) was hot, although I don't remember why she was laughing so hard.

By tomorrow I have more work to finish and I never did get that yearbook schedule worked out to email to the parents who are just as overwhelmed with it as I am, but I will, or at least I will do some of it. And tonight Eric will read to me and I'll fall asleep listening to the rain and then it will start again. I'll try to focus harder on the areas that I'm really good at (easy with a food-centric holiday coming up) and overlook the areas that make me feel inept.