Waiting For The Lull

Some days in the spring, I find myself wanting the dead heat of a Georgian summer to

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It’s always a beautiful morning when the fog is left behind to burn off.

keep me locked up inside, not because I particularly enjoy having cause to take a shower after walking from the house to the car, or because I enjoy paying an obnoxiously higher electricity bill for powering the air conditioning units, but because there is a lull. During fall, we keep busy with the fall crops, give the lawn a final mow and try to enjoy the relatively cooler weather as we drift toward the winter solstice. Winter is a time for bucking firewood, amending the sleeping soil, digging holes for future fruit trees, and trying to harvest some venison before the whirlwind that is spring comes tornado-ing in.

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The sun wakes the bees, reminding them to get to work.

Once spring arrives, there is no slowing down, and this spring has been exceptionally busy. In part because we keep expanding the garden and trying to get more crops in, in part because there are more mouths to feed and more obligatory places to be, but mostly because of the rain. Don’t get me wrong, the rain is usually a good thing in Middle-Georgia,but where as I typically have to mow the lawn once every three weeks, it’s been an every other week ordeal (if not more than that), weeding the garden has been virtually non-stop, and the damp weather has kept the beans from germinating as healthily as they should, leaving them susceptible to aphids and cutworms and other unsavory pests. But we have prevailed. The rain may not be over, but it is slowing and the temperatures are climbing into the mid-90s during the days and evening temperatures hovering right around 70; it seems as if summer is here and the lull is beginning.

IMG_20180602_182429375_HDRWhen things start to slow down we have time to enjoy the sunrises bouncing off the clouds, waking up the bees, eliciting the edamame to show their dainty purple petals and enticing the big showy squash flowers to open for pollination. We have time to sit on the porch, lingering under the fans after dinner, watching the barn swallows swoop in and out of the corn patch as they catch the Lovebugs mating mid-flight. Summer brings the end of school and friends who can stay a little later.

IMG_20180602_182503123IMG_20180603_085014013Of course, just because there is a lull doesn’t mean all work cessates. There are still plenty of chores that need to be done outside in the heat. The lawn still needs the occasional mow, the crops harvested and the animals fed. You can do it in the cool of the morning, but it’s still 70 and muggy as anything you’ve ever experienced and as soon as the sun rises it’s width over the horizon, the temperature starts climbing. The trick is enjoying the time you have to appreciate it all.

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Seed Vocab and Thoughts on Saving

Seeds, seeds, seeds! I love seeds; I think it has to do with all the possibilities that a tiny dot the size of a pin head can hold (think brassicaes: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.). Or maybe I love them for all of their different shapes and sizes – beans with their beautiful patterning and a cool, smooth skin. Even Cucurbitaceae – squash – with their bland, brown, traditional tear drop shape have their differences from variety to variety that are simply awe inspiring when carefully examined. There’s also some bit of a thrill that comes with saving your own seed from year to year: you get to know the plants, know the heritage of the seed, and it’s one more step to self-sufficiency. But before you can just go saving seeds for next year, there are some things to consider.

Often times when we look at a seed catalog, or seed envelope, we will notice some verbiage that may or may not make sense. Typically this verbiage pertains to the seed and the plant that will develop from it.

Open Pollinated: A plant that is open pollinated means that when a female flower is pollinated by the male flower of the same variety, the seed produced thereafter will resemble the parent plant. When the pollination occurs between male and female parts of the same plant or even the same flower (tomatoes, beans), this is called self-fertilization. Plants that have individual flowers that are self-fertilizing are inherently open pollinated. Some varieties of plants will produce flowers that are specifically male or female. If you notice a squash vine, the first flowers to come out are typically male and later on down the vine, the female flowers start to come out. These are still considered to be open pollinated.

Heirloom: Seeds of an heirloom variety are also inherently open pollinated. The term heirloom simply implies that the seed-line has been kept true for a number of years. Heirloom varieties tend to be less friendly to the commercial market, but can come in many different color, size, taste, and other variations. (Essentially, heirloom is a subset within open pollinated.)

Hybrids: A hybrid is a seed that comes from two different varieties of parents: it has been cross-pollinated. Often times hybrids are produced to create faster growing plants, larger yields, or to create a plant that is less susceptible to certain diseases. A hybrid is the first generation of a new lineage and is considered “F1” in nomenclature and all plants in the F1 generation will look and produce the same. However, if you save seeds from a hybridization – accidentally or on purpose – the following generation (F2) will have a large number of physical differences if the seed from the F1 is even viable.

Saving seeds helps us save money, and it gives us further insight into our individual plants. In a sense, by selecting plants that are growing well in our gardens, we’re doing our own genetic modification by selecting plants that are amiable to our soil, temperature, water and light conditions. The problem with saving seed is that it needs to be precise. The easiest way to be precise is only grow one variety of each type of vegetable. There are many books out there that deal with seed saving methods (my favorite is Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed), and can give you statistics on cross-pollination. For example, corn pollen is very light and can travel by wind up to two miles! It is also important to save seed from a number of different plants as inbreeding depression – a lack of genetic diversity – can occur. Some plants are more susceptible to this than others.

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Squash on the top, beans on the bottom.

In short, if you want to save seed, get a good book, stick with one variety of each species, and go for the open-pollinated varieties. If you don’t care about saving seeds, plant whatever.

Push the Little Daises!

While some parts of the country are still locked into frigid temperatures and snow, the south has managed to climb it’s way to spring. The nights have warmed into the 40-50°F range. The skies have turned gray and the waters have started to fall. Some of the field grasses have started are beginning to pick up a slight green hue. The dock is unfurling fans of worship. Undoubtedly, we will still have a haunting of the ghost of winter-past, but spring is here. And with spring comes seedlings.

It wasn’t long ago we received our package of seeds from Baker Seeds and some new seed trays from Amazon. They sat for a few days on the foldable tables in the guest room we use for as a make shift greenhouse, longing for some soil and a bit of life. They got their wish last week. It’s still early, but it’s not too early. When I lived in Upstate, NY, I would plant tomatoes and peppers at the end of February and by the end of May, I would have sturdy little seedlings, ready to go as soon as they got in the ground. If we followed the same schedule here, our season would no doubt be cut short as the heat sets in and causes the flowers to abort. Solanaceae – tomatoes, peppers, eggplants – like it warm, but extended periods of daytime temps in the upper 80°F’s and nighttime temps in the 70°F’s will cause flowers to abort, and in the south, those temps come by June. In truth, we may have been able to get some of our pepper and tomato seeds in a little earlier, but too long inside and they start to get spindly, and really need to be repotted more than once. As it is, we submit to transplanting once, twice doesn’t seem worth it.

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Empty tubes.

Over the years we’ve saved our plastic six pack seed planters, many are split down the side and crumpled miserably from poor storage and abusive removal. I was planning on reusing them this year, but not two days before I was about to start planting, my son filled all but a handful with chives he dug up from the yard and is now attempting to sell at the end of the driveway, and while I should have quashed his dreams and taken back my six-packs, I didn’t. I had to find something else.

I had seen on Instagram – not sure where – that someone cut and used paper towel tubes. So that’s what I did. I cut a bunch of paper towel, toilet paper, and wrapping paper tubes (we collect them for home school crafts) into 2-3” pieces, stuffed a square of brown paper grocery bag into the bottom and filled them with dirt. They paper bag holds the dirt in, and the cardboard acts like a peat pot and wicks water up from tray keeping seeds and soil moist without soaking them from the top. When it comes time to transplant, we should be able to just drop the tubes into new pots and not have to disturb the seedling roots at all. (As a side note, it seems like the toilet paper tubes kind of unroll

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Paper towel tubes can be difficult to separate when you have different varieties, but there are ways.

when they get wet – not so much with the wrapping paper and towel tubes.)

With the arrival of out foster kids, we were unable to get our fall garden going on time, and with a couple of really prolonged cold snaps, everything but the carrots, brussel sprouts and cabbage died. That included all of our cauliflower! So along with our tomatoes and peppers, we have a few cauliflower six-packs. The literature says we started them too late and they won’t mature before it gets too hot, but we’re going to try. If nothing else, we’ll be able to eat the greens like collards.

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Thought not a lot, this room gets the best light.

It’s an exciting time. Everyone loves the turning of winter to spring; the cliched rebirth of the world, but for me it’s the planting of the seeds that gets me excited. All winter the ground has been too cold to work and sometimes buried under snow. Planting seeds gives a reconnection. It lets me get my hands dirty. It fills the room with the smell of dirt. And it reminds me to get going and plan out the garden.

Summer Pop ‘N Play Review

When we started getting back into gardening – there was a lull when the kids were really little – we had time to pick out seeds, to weed the garden, to water it and cultivate all the little seedlings. Our children were also a little older and a little more self-sufficient than they had been. They were old enough and mature enough to have their own crop(s) to tend to. This worked out well as gardening time also doubled as family time and no one was left out. Instead of going for a family walk together, we’d all go out in the garden and work together.

Last August, we had two foster children – aged 3 and 1.5 years old – arrive. Part of it was the chaos of a life that suddenly found itself with two more kids and probably some of it was their age, but sadly the garden was allowed to slip. We missed a number of later summer harvest crops; we picked some, but had nearly no time to process and preserve some. The weeds proliferated and some where even allowed to reseed. Our fall/winter garden was put in late and has scarcely produced anything. The three year old foster child can handle sitting in the garden and can play with the older two when she get’s bored, but still requires a fair bit of redirection. All in all, we can handle her behavior fairly easily, unfortunately, the one year old is a little harder to handle in the garden, after all, the only thing a one year old can really do in a garden is destroy! This meant one of us had to babysit the baby while the other tried to multitask in the garden – directing the youngers while still preparing the garden for vegetables.

We have a Baby Ergo from our kids and it works wonders, but it isn’t total freedom. Your range of motion is almost 100%, but you still can’t do everything, and this is all assuming that the child wants to be in the pack, or has fallen asleep. If a child doesn’t want to sit in the Ergo and proceeds to flail around and scream, you can forget about it. We really needed a pack-and-play. I’m not sure if we actually had a pack-and-play when my kids were little. We may have, but if we did, it was seldom used. Thankfully, when the foster kids arrived, we were gifted a nice used one from someone who’s last child had just moved beyond pack-and-play age. It was nice, but as pack-and-plays are, it was heavy and burdensome to move it from anywhere but room-to-room within the house, let alone outside. We needed something that could go outside; a kiddie-corral if you will.

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Happy as a 1970’s smiley face!

We looked around online at a few different options and finally settled on the Summer Pop ‘n Play Portable Playard. Essentially it’s just a juiced up pack-and-play. (And it was pretty darn cheap all things considered!) There are two main differences, the first is that it is larger, quite a bit larger and is octagonal. The second difference is that it rests directly on the ground. A typical pack-and-play utilizes a platform that sits up some framing, the Pop ‘n Play rests directly on the ground. I’m not entirely sure why it rests directly on the ground, but I have my suspicions: the floor is a flexible fabric and is much lighter than a hard foldable floor that many pack-and-plays utilize, but being flexible, it needs something to keep it sturdy, and that’s the ground. They have also used some lightweight tubular metal to keep this thing extra light and easy to carry around.

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Move the strap over the apex.

In terms of set-up and take-down, this is one of the easiest I’ve ever experienced. (I’ve set up a number of pack-and-plays and they always seem to be a hassle.) The Pop ‘n Play is octagonal and folds almost like an accordion or one of those portable canvas camp chairs. It then goes into a bag that has a shoulder strap that makes it exceptionally easy for carrying.

The first few times we set it up, we did have a little hiccup – we didn’t read the directions. Honestly, it didn’t seem like anything that needed directions to read, but it did and we skipped over them. On the bottom of each point where the Pop ‘n Play touches the ground, there is a strap. We left those alone in the beginning, but what you’re supposed to do is pull the straps over the bottom points into a groove. This tightens the Pop ‘n Play and locks the sides from moving in or out. Not a necessity, but definitely helpful.

Overall, we’re super pleased with this product, we use it in the garden, we use it when we have camp fires, we use it for pic-nics. There are plenty of times we can let the one year old off his leash and he roams about doing as he will, but that requires a parent to escort him, and that isn’t always possible. The Summer Pop ‘n Play has allowed us to do things we couldn’t do before because of a “young child.” In fact, we’ve already been in the garden prepping for spring planting a number of times while the baby naps in the Pop ‘n Play. It has truly been a game changer, and in all honesty, could probably double as a pack-and-play for inside use. Win!

Addendum: I just saw on Amazon that you can also purchase a canopy to keep sun and water off the wild ones inside!

Picking a Bean

There is something oddly soothing about seeds. You’ll know the feeling if you’ve ever dug your hands into a garbage can size box of loose seeds at the local nursery or if you’ve managed to be able to keep and harvest your own seeds. (If you’ve never been able to do so, I suggest going to the bulk section of the grocery store and shoving your hands in the unpopped popcorn bin. Just don’t let anyone see you…). I can’t place if it’s the actual texture and feel of hundreds of cool seeds gently caressing your skin, or if it’s the growth and food potential packed into all those seeds, but something about hundreds of tiny seeds is just awe inspiring.

And beans are further spectacular for all their intricate patterns and designs. I can’t be sure, but I’m willing to bet that like a snowflake, no two non-single color beans are patterned the exact same way. They may have a general pattern, but when you actually study each beans seed coat, the differences are amazing.

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Just like snowflakes, but so much cooler!

The main staple bean we have chosen to grow is a Potawatomi Lima bean. It’s of the pole variety, easily climbing an eight foot pole, while continuing to look for somewhere higher to grow. Originally, the Potawatomi Limas came from the Potawatomi Indians in Southern Michigan. Our choosing the Potawatomi Lima wasn’t random but a calculated choice with multiple factors:

  1. Their location of origin was key. While we are in Georgia now, we were living in Vermont when we purchased these seeds. If you’re familiar with Vermont, you’ll know that the summer is fleeting and the weather is cool and damp. Without a greenhouse, there are some definite constraints when it comes time for growing. So a Lima – which otherwise has a very hard time growing in New England – needed to be cold weather friendly, and it seemed like Southern Michigan was a good bet.
  2. Pole variety! We really wanted a pole bean as it would get off the ground and clear some space up for other crops – like potatoes. We were on 1/5th of an acre at the time.
  3. These limas provide two types of food. The beans could be eaten green as shelled beans or dried and used as a dry bean.
  4. It’s a lima bean! By growing a lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus), it meant that we could grow a common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) for green beans, and we wouldn’t have to worry about cross pollination.

In Vermont these beans worked out great. We didn’t have huge pulls of beans, but we had plenty to keep us happy and they made a great supplement to our CSA. It was also evident that while they don’t like the cold, they weren’t’ as fragile as some other beans I’ve grown when it came to cold nights.

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Soaked, sprouted, and ready to cook.

The Potawatomi Limas have done just as well, if not better, in Georgia. We’re able to get them in the ground early and we end up having two crops of dried beans. (We only save seed from the first crop.) We are also able to get a good number of green beans for shelling. And of course, because of the dry lima pods ability to pop open and shoot seeds everywhere, we always find random volunteers germinating some place we didn’t plant them. More often than not we let them grow, but even when we have to kill them, they make an excellent cover crop/green fertilizer.

Overall, we are very impressed with this variety. Over the last ten years, we’ve been saving seeds from pods with four beans. In the beginning, we had mostly two and three beans per pod with the occasional four-bean-pod. We still don’t have a plant with only four-bean-pods (that won’t be for another 20 years down the road, maybe…), but their prevalence is much higher and the number of two-bean-pods is significantly lower. We’ve tried a variety of beans in the garden, and while I never thought I’d fall in love with a lima bean, so it has become. Do you have a favorite vegetable variety you go back to every year?