Friday, August 30, 2013

Training tomatoes on a string

Seattle's summers are questionable for tomatoes.

Summer here is reliably dry, and almost generally sunny. But that weather often starts in late June or early July. And here it is, August 28th. The first rains have begun and the nights are closing in again.

Our growing season is short and our nights are almost always cool.

The typical tomato season is like this:

May 1: Plant tomatoes.

Tomatoes sit there for weeks.

Late June: Summer begins. Tomato plants take off.

July: Huge crop of green tomatoes on lush, sprawling plants. Gloat a bit.

August: first tomato ripens. Tomatoes begin shyly blushing red, one by one. I eat one, not quite ripe, pretending it is as rich and juicy as I want. Gloat a bit more.

Mid-August: real tomatoes. Never quite how David remembers them as a boy but plenty good enough.

End of August: first rain

Early September: all tomatoes succumb to late tomato blight.

I have taken to growing my tomatoes in a greenhouse. This year I planted them on red plastic mulch. This is supposed to reflect red light back into the plants and hasten ripening. It certainly helps suppress weeds.

Here are the plants when I poked them through the mulch, around mid-April.

The bricks are my path. They also absorb and release heat to help stablize the temperature from day to night.

Here is one of the plants poking up through the plastic.  

Very gently, I tie a piece of baling twine in a loose slip knot around the stem of each plant.

I use baling twine because it's abundant at Several Gardens Farm. I tie the twine loosely and in a slip knot because the plant will grow. I don't want the twine to choke it.

I tie the other end to the rafter of the greenhouse. 

If I didn't have a greenhouse I would build a support beam instead.

At some point the vines suddenly get energized and start growing. 

The vines put out many shoots in all directions, but if you follow the stem up from the ground you will see that it remains the principle 'trunk' all the way up and the other stems are side shoots.

If you let all the side shoots keep growing they will make lots of green tomatoes. Many will never ripen. 

If the plant is allowed to sprawl, many more will be eaten by slugs.

You must be brave and cut off all the side shoots. They are competing with the trunk for air and light. The plant will be fine and the tomatoes will be better without them. Really.

As summer progresses, gently wrap the stem around the twine. The stem is flexible but not very. Be careful not to break it. The goal is for the twine to support its weight so it can succeed in its upward journey.  

I think of the vine as leaning against the string. Every so often it would slip off if the string didn't keep wrapping around it.

You don't need to - and probably should avoid - elaborate topiary.

If the main stem happens to break, do not panic. The side shoot nearest the top will simply take over.

All summer, as the tomatoes grow, keep trimming off side shoots, gently wrapping the twine around the main stem, and checking to make sure the twine doesn't strangle the stem at any point. The tomatoes are heavy! Their weight could pull the stem till the twine cut into it, so you have to pay attention.

In mid-August, cut off the top of the main stem. After that, keep cutting any shoots that try to become the main stem. You don't want more tomatoes at this point. You want the ones you have to turn red.

Here is my row of tomatoes, like a chorus line, flaunting their ripening goodies.

I feel like I should offer some recipes, but most of mine are very simple.

Salted tomatoes:

Bring a salt shaker out to your tomato plant on a sunny day. Pick a warm tomato. Bite into it. Sprinkle each bite with salt. Eat the whole tomato, bite by bite, out in the sunshine.


Pizza soup:

Heat 1 T olive oil in a saucepan. 
Add 2 chopped garlic cloves. When they start to turn golden, add:
4 medium or 2 huge chopped tomatoes
Simmer till tomatoes are soft and juicy
Blend in blender till smooth
Add 1/8 tsp baking soda, 1/2 t oregano, 2 T chopped fresh basil and salt to taste
Blend another 60 seconds
Return to pot and heat to simmer
Just before serving, drizzle with 1 tsp additional olive oil and a light shredding of chopped basil

Serve with breadsticks and shredded cheese to sprinkle on the bowls. 

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Requiem for a baby crow

Act I

There was the strangest young crow in our orchard. It sat near the gate, and walked slowly away (not running) when I approached. There was no sign of pain or weakness in the walk; only a lack of fear.

Crows are usually excellent parents, and will caw, dive and swoop at anyone who threatens their young. But the parents appeared to be out of this one's life. 

Photo: Mysterious baby crow in the orchard
Oh, baby crow
At least they made no effort to defend it from me when I first stumbled upon it. 

It was a sunny day and I had a lot of garden chores to catch up with. I did try to give it wide berth, but our paths crossed often, and always the crow stood calmly watching me. 

When it saw me with a ripe orange plum, it hopped toward me with a fierce, avid gleam of hunger in its eye. I let the plum fall and the crow pounced on it, stabbing into it with inexperienced, childlike movements. How it knew this huge creature holding the plum was apt to share I have no idea. I came back with a buffet of sprouts, cheese, berries and noodles. It broke the cheese into tiny bits and ate them, so slowly it felt like it could starve to death while eating. I've watched a lot of crows eating. Usually they rip their food apart and take in the biggest bites they can. This crow was so different, yet its dainty, almost surgical movements seemed natural to it.

It seemed incapable of flight but otherwise very advanced. It could feed itself, understood that the gate was a barrier that  could open or close, and seemed to have worked out a bunch of paths through the tangle of vegetation.

Usually a wild animal that tolerates humans as the crow did is either hand raised or close to death. But then, a bird in trouble usually shows some sign: a drooping posture, irregular movements, sunken eyes. Something. Perhaps this lonely crow was abandoned by the parents due to some health problem I couldn't detect. 

But it seemed alert and active, moved symmetrically and appeared less like a doomed animal stoically accepting the approach of a predator, and more like a cagey old soul judging a human to be relatively unlikely to do harm.

I've never been so tempted to catch an animal and bring it inside. I couldn't - the crow was too active to get near. And I was glad. I have worked in wildlife rescue shelters, and around urban wildlife. I know the rules. You leave baby wildlife where you find it. The best chance is for the parents to care for a baby. 

But it's a dangerous world out there and something about this bird engaged me, as if we knew each other in some other life (not that I believe those things but just saying).

Act II

Oh baby crow. Why?

Cat? Raccoon? Coyote? Owl?

Sad sad sad sad sad.


After three days of denial, I finally went out and buried the little remains of the baby crow. Usually adult crows pester people who bury their babies but none of them seemed to care. I think this one truly was abandoned when I saw it.

An inventory of what I found: 

  • Part of each wing, twisted backward from the body. 
  • A ribcage and some tail feathers. 
  • One feather on the path,a dozen steps away from the body
  • No feet. No muscle left anywhere. No beak. No flashing eye. No life.
  • After I buried the body, I found part of the skull - the top, back part of the cranium, clean and empty. Whatever ate it really did eat almost everything. 

I cut all the flowers I could find that were going to seed and made a huge mound over the grave so that next spring all kinds of pretty things will grow there.

I don't know why it's bothering me so much. I've had dead birds in the yard before. I think the area it was in is maybe too attractive. It has food, water, shelter - everything parent birds want for their young, but it's fenced in and becomes a trap. I have what I thought were good escape holes in the fence. I see the chickens use them but they are so much more worldly than a baby bird, even a baby crow.

Bringing baby wildlife inside violates my eleventh commandment, my prime directive, a powerful thou shalt not. Wildlife needs to be wild. Cultivating relationships with wild animals so often ends badly, with the animal growing up in a half-world, unable to fend fully on its own, but growing more and more into instincts that tell it to go out seeking. A wild animal is not a pet and deserves better - even if ironically, it gets less than nothing.

I guess I'm rebelling against this. Partly it's a parents cry of 'what if'. I know a parent crow has mechanisms to help her move on when her baby dies, but apparently I don't even have them for a baby bird.

And partly it's a child's cry of 'no fair'.I obeyed the rules. I left the baby animal with its parents. I want to be rewarded by having it live happily ever after - or at least living now. I know it doesn't work that way. I'm a grownup and I know the score.You do your best and you accept the outcome. The universe is not a vending machine. I can't put a quarter in and get a treat every time. I know that. But I'm still angry about it.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pollinators in a seasonal wet meadow

In high school, or perhaps even further back, I had to memorize a bunch of causes of the First World War. They were something like: Entangling Alliances, Growth of Nationalism, Militarization, and  the Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. I wrote this out from memory so I might have missed one or two.

When I read about the plight of the honeybee now, I feel a similar sense of overwhelming circumstance. Friends send me every article citing some virus, pesticide, fungicide or herbicide, some genetic weakness or substandard feeding practice, with the comment 'now we know the real cause', as if everything were hunky -dory until BLAM - that one thing upset the apple cart. In reality, it's more like blam blam blam blam blam for honeybees, and in fact for many of their pollinator comrades.

I think we are reaching for a single cause because the number of practices that contribute are vast. Changing all of them would alter much that we take for granted. If we changed just one, would it help? Is it even conceivable to change them all? I don't have the answers and actually that's not what today's story is about.

I'm taking a break from farming for people, and thinking about growing some crops for many other creatures who visit Several Gardens Farm.

We are enjoying a long and productive blueberry season. Someone who owned the property before us loved their blueberries, and left us the wonderful gift of sixteen large bushes, all ripening at different times. 

Every year we prune them hard, and every year they come back more productive than ever. Pies, smoothies, frozen berries with cream, muffins - there's no end to what we will do. The berries are pollinated by a variety of early spring bees. The weeks when they are in bloom, any time it's not raining the whole back corner buzzes, and the air is bright with the delicate fragrance.

In a perfect permaculture world, the berries would be near the house. We would step outside every morning and pick them into our bowls of grape nuts and Greek yogurt. Unfortunately, the berries are at the very back end of the lot, with two fences and a lot of wistful looking animals in between.

The bushes were probably situated there because it is a seasonal wetland, and they seem to tolerate six months of wet roots better than most other plants.

In fact they seem to thrive all summer without needing water till late August if at all. The berry bushes and the ducks love it.

Because it endures a winter covered in six or eight inches of cold, sticky mud, the remnant of a lawn that lived there was seriously troubled with buttercups a problem weed that spread fast, takes over good ground, and that goats can't eat. 

A seasonal wet meadow sounds enchanting, doesn't it? A place for plants to send down deep roots that could tap the hidden moisture all summer. A place for informal flowers to grow, attracting pollinators that desperately need a bit of encouragement.  Sounds much nicer than a duck poopy lawn that's underwater half the year. Once I changed my point of view, I was ready to start encouraging the garden I wanted.

Before I could plant my dream meadow, I needed to get rid of the tired, mucky lawn that fought its way back every spring after a winter spent under mud.Since it is so far from the house, I don't want to be weeding or fussing with it every day.

The grass was too ragged to remove as rolled sod.

So last summer I carried back all the waste organic material I could - cardboard, apple pomace from cider making, bales of waste hay, barn waste  - and covered all the grass and weeds with a layer of mulch.

The house in the background it not ours but our neighbor behind. Our house is nowhere near that close to this remote part of our yard.

In the spring I seeded it with cover crops - radish and buckwheat, mixed with seeds of as many flowers as I could get my hands on from my own yard, the neighborhood, and a few purchase.

Every time I deadheaded something pretty, I tossed the spent flowers onto a pile in the meadow. Enough of the seeds germinate to help add to the diversity.

Here it is. As you can see, some areas started to take off, others are still bare.

In some places the grass has pushed through the mulch layer. I pulled out some grass and left others to hold the soil together with its roots.

My goal here is to turn the garden into the kind of place pollinators would like to hang out, and possibly raise a family.

I have a place in my heart for all the pollinators. I work with butterflies in my job, and of course, I think they're gorgeous. But I love all kinds of bees, wasps, beetles and flies that eat nectar and spread pollen around.

Here is a western tiger swallowtail who nectars in the flowery part of the meadow and who can lay her eggs on the willows I've planted around the edges. If you want butterflies to visit and to stay, it's imperative to learn what kinds live in your area and plant host plants for their caterpillars. Baby butterflies have very particular food needs, and if you don't provide them the butterfly will have to move on when it's time to lay her eggs.

The baby robin crouching in the background here, half hidden by leaves and shadow, is not a pollinator, but when baby birds started hiding in the meadow I knew it was gaining the wild, tangled character that will invite shy animals in.

Add caption

 In a neighborhood like ours, there are plenty of empty lots, older trees, unmanaged road margins and neglected ravines - great spots for pollinators to live.

Over-managing yards breaks up the nests of ground dwelling bees, like bumblebees. It cuts down the weedy plants that caterpillars like to eat.

It knocks tree dwelling bugs out of trees and disrupts the mating of beetles. A robust and diverse population of pollinators needs a little chaos. All I had to do was keep that diversity going, and pollinators from wild spots would find my yard, and hopefully choose to stay.

Even if all you want is to have pollinators when and where you need them - to help your fruit trees in spring, perhaps, or to spread pollen from male to female cucumber blossoms in summer, they need habitat all year.

In order to fly when we need them, pollinators need somewhere to lay eggs, a safe place to overwinter, and in some cases a food source for the months when you aren't growing those choice people foods.

Most pollinators are flying insects.  Some like to flit from flower to flower, others can fly but don't like to, and prefer crawling around on one big, open faced group of flowers for extended periods of time.

The bumblebee on this full blown artichoke was there for at least ten minutes, wallowing inbetween the petals in her search for pollen. Flying is hard for such a big insect. Walking, or just hanging out, is preferred.

Bumblebees live in holes in the ground - empty nests left behind by larger, burrowing animals like mice. All summer they build their population, store food, care for babies. In the fall, all the worker bees die. Only the young queens and the male bees live - the males only surviving long enough to mate. The mated queens then hide all winter, and start new homes in the spring. The big, clumsy spring bumble bees are queens, working all day in the field, then going home to tend their babies. Hardly the luxurious life we associate with a queen bee!

Other kinds of bees live in holes higher up, in trees or artificial holes made just for them. One day I saw an orchard mason bee crawling into a hole in a piece of salvaged mable we had propped up on the side of the house. This was a female, preparing the hollow for her babies. She fills the far end of the tunnel with nectar and pollen, then lays an egg. She will provide for a number of eggs in each tube, all in Spring before most bugs are even active. Then she dies, and the babies spend the next ten months growing inside the tube. It's not till next year that she comes out!


Flower beetles don't plan ahead. They walk around on plants, sometimes eating aphids, other times sipping nectar and spreading pollen around.

Or mating as these ones are, in twos or threes (!). Their personal lives are right out there for all to see.

While wasps and soldier beetles aren't always listed as pollinators, I often find them on flowers, in some cases as the primary visitor.

If I provide good habitat and the pollinators do a good job, lots of the meadow flowers should form seeds. Their seeds will push up out of the wetness next spring, and the garden will be bigger and more floral than ever.

Here is a partial list of the flowers and host plants we are growing this year. They were chosen for popularity with insects, and for ability to do OK in seasonal wet ground but not need much summer watering:

  • Milkweed
  • Echinacea
  • Black eyed Susan
  • Shasta daisy
  • Borage
  • Teasel
  • Willow
  • Violet
  • Fried egg flower
  • Phacilia
  • Nasturtium
  • Queen Anne's lace (make sure you can tell this from hemlock)
  • Pumpkin
  • Creeping knotweed
  • Mallows of several kinds
  • Fireweed - grew there whether I wanted it to or not
  • Clovers of several kinds
  • Joe Pye weed (a butterfly magnet)
  • Goldenrod
  • Cammas lily
  • Dandelion (I didn't actually plant them, nor the dock and plantain, but I don't try hard to remove them either)
  • Lots of cover crops - especially buckwheat and daikon radish. I just let them bloom instead of cutting them down.
Right now the plants don't form any kind of coherent whole. The colors don't harmonize, the glorious tapestry effect hasn't happened just yet.

But though they may not attract us, they don't have to. Wildlife is already moving in. Not rare, exotic stuff, but not just bugs, either.It is a nesting place for baby birds, a path for chipmunks, and some evidence suggests a coyote has been here.

I hope some of the perennial plants take hold and start forming clumps. When one big patch of black eyed Susan is all in bloom, or all the purple clover wafts its fragrance, it will be a thing of joy. Right now they are pretty skinny little things, with a lot of rank, weedy grass growing between.

But compared to the mucky, smelly duck wasteland it was 12 months ago, this garden is pretty sweet.

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