Friday, April 29, 2011

Take a walk with me...

Today is Friday, April 29, and it is gorgeous outside. Cloudless, windless and while not warm, it's sunny and that's half the battle... But it's too wet to work out in the garden. This morning I puttered with the plants under the lights, checked their germination rates (about 90% of the seeds I've planted have sprouted. I think that's pretty good) and watered them. That's about all I can do for now. The headlines in our local paper this morning was that we've officially broken the record for wettest April. Over 10" of rain has fallen on Charleston this month. Here, in Hutton, I've measured 11.5" of rain since April 1. It's rained at least a half an inch of rain a day for the past seven. I've never seen anything like this, coming from the arid country of Colorado as I do. The ground is saturated, and it can't hold any more water. We're supposed to get more rain Saturday night and Sunday, but hopefully it won't be too much. I'd like to get back out into the garden. 
Our road, looking east.
One of the problems with having satellite internet is that when it's raining, we have no internet signal. And with the constant rain of the past week, I haven't been able to get online to post. I hope you hadn't given up on me! (More post after the pictures...)

Some wild asparagus growing near the garden.

Our branch of Hurricane Creek, leaving our property.

...and coming out the other side of the road.

Almost to the end of the walk...

There are little creeks everywhere!

The field at the end of the road.

The gorgeous tree that marks the turn-around spot.

The thunderstorm on its way...
Wednesday morning, I took a walk with my camera down to the end of the road. The week before, while my friends, Tony & Annie, were visiting with their kids, Isabella & Bruno, we took all three dogs for a morning walk down our road. It's about a mile or so back and forth, up and down a number of hills, surrounded by woods and farmland, and dead-ending at a lovely field of yellow flowers. I thought I'd like to take ya'll on that same walk. The conditions were nearly the same as they were the week before: a little cool, sprinkling and just beginning to thunder... I hope you enjoy the pictures, and hopefully I'll be back in the garden planting (and looks like the weeds have really taken off!) next week. By the way, if you're in the area this Saturday, don't forget to check out Herb Fest in Mattoon. I'm pretty excited about it. There'll be master gardeners from the University of Illinois there, selling herbs and other gardening supplies, answering questions, and celebrating spring! Hope to see you there.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Progress, then Rain Delay

The garden's progress... April 17

So I haven't written in a while. It's not that I haven't wanted to, but here are a few excuses: Last week I spent a few solid days (really lovely, sunny & warm days) in the garden. I now have 9 plots dug & planted. Peas, beets, radishes, lettuces, spinach, purslane, broccoli, onions, cabbages, broccoli raab, spinach, bok choi, and some assorted herbs are all in the ground. The brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, collards, kale) are, for the most part, being grown underneath insect barriers. (In the picture, they are the two white plots.) Hopefully this way no detrimental insects will find their way to those plants. I know from growing collards last fall that the cabbage worms are plentiful in this area. It was two hard, but extremely rewarding days in the garden.

The few days after that, we had rain showers for much of the day, so I spent time planting even more seeds in potting soil indoors. Planted even more geraniums, marigolds, peppers, tomatoes, and basil.

Last Saturday, my friends Sherry, Andrea & Alex came over. Andrea & Alex (her son) just moved back to Charleston to start up an organic garden with Sherry. Before and after lunch, Andrea and I geeked out over our gardens. In the rain, we walked around the garden, bringing mud back in with us. And we traded seeds. I forgot to get pumpkin seeds, so now I have some, as well as some different types of parsley, tomatoes and peppers. It was fun, and felt ever-so-slightly subversive in this day and age of corporate seed ownership. Sitting at a kitchen table on a cold spring day, trading seeds.

The next phase is growing.
The front yard after 3.5" of rain
Since then, we've had pretty frequent thunderstorms. So far this week, I've measured over 4" of rain, with much more than that predicted over the next five days. The ground is far too wet to work. Even walking the dogs across the grass, I leave wet puddles in the shape of my shoes behind me. This is my first spring in the Midwest and I am still getting used to these thunderstorms. (I lived in Chicago for almost six years, but can only recall one two-day period that really scared me.) Monday morning the weather radio went off twice before 10 a.m., announcing imminent severe thunderstorms. During the second one, I huddled in the pantry with the dogs, all of us terrified by the frequent and close lightning. Monday night, the Weather Service had been predicting even more severe severe weather. During the afternoon, I re-checked our weather radio and discovered that our station was not broadcasting. I called the weather service who confirmed that their tower'd been hit by lightning and they were hoping to repair it before evening. They suggested I listen to the broadcast from the counties to our Southwest, and take cover when they do. As the day went on, the temperature rose dramatically, peaking at 81 late in the afternoon, on hazy winds. I took the dogs out for walks, as a reward and diversion. The creek was flowing fast. In fact, you could hear the rushing water hundreds of yards away from it. The dogs were glad to be out in the sunshine, and so was I. As the night came on, Rich was making us dinner and although the clouds had returned, it didn't look so scary. The weather radio, though, tuned to the counties to our southwest, was telling a different story. Tornado warning after tornado warning was announced. Just before the severe weather hit our area, our weather station got back online. Just in time to hear her voice tell us our county was in a tornado warning for the next hour. Still, though, from our house, things didn't look too bad. Just a general dark gray to the west. But things suddenly turned black, and very scary. A friend in town texted to say the sirens were going off, and Sherry texted to say that at her house, about a mile southwest of us, things had gotten bad. So I grabbed the dogs and some wine, Rich turned off our now-complete dinner, and we headed into the basement. Among spiders (including one black widow) in their webs, we sat with the dogs as suddenly the house was pummeled by winds. The general roar was intense and even the foundation was shaking. I think that for both of us, we thought this is really bad. We stayed down in the cellar for about 45 minutes. It wasn't too bad, really. And once the storm abated a bit, we headed upstairs. The house, and in fact, our yard, were completely undamaged. In the end, a tornado hadn't touched down anywhere in our area (although several touched down elsewhere in central Illinois). I know that won't be the last time we head down to our cellar this spring.

This afternoon, friends arrive from Chicago. They're coming down for a spring break farm visit. Unfortunately with all the rain, I'll barely be able to show them the garden. But we can walk through the woods, perhaps mushroom hunt or look for wild asparagus. And it will be great to have visitors. Especially folks who have only known me as a city boy! Here's to a good visit, and to the rain abating enough to do more work in the garden...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spring Fever in Spring

Through the pear tree...

Today I am suffering from spring fever. The day is gorgeous: sunny skies, light breeze, temperatures in the 60's. But with the inch and a half of rain we've had since Saturday, the ground is too wet to work. Even standing on my tramped-down pathway left a wet puddled footprint. I'm hoping for the ground to dry out enough for me to at least build some twine trellises for the peas. This afternoon I will be starting more tomatoes, peppers, herbs and flowers. Some of this next round of plants will go in the garden, but some of them will be for other people. I've had a few folks ask for tomatoes and herbs, so I'll get them started. This way they'll be able to grow varieties they wouldn't otherwise be able to if they were buying them from a garden store.
One week old arugula.

Today, the tomatoes I started by seed last week are going to go under the lights. All but a handful have germinated, and those that haven't probably won't be too adversely affected by the supply of light. The flowers and herbs I planted (marigolds, geraniums, basil, tansy) had already germinated by the time we returned from Milwaukee on Saturday night. It amazes me how quickly some things pop up out of the ground. In the actual garden, the arugula is proving to be the most vigorous grower, as the entire plot of arugula, about three square feet, is up and growing. Radishes, lettuces, and a few beets are also already up in the garden, and this morning I spied the first pea sprouts poking out of the wet soil.

Last night, as I was preparing dinner, I gasped when suddenly a bright red light came through the kitchen window. It was the setting sun. And it was surprising because the day had been cloudy and wet, and I didn't expect much of a sunset. Instead, we were granted the most beautiful sunset I've seen in a long while. The sun, exaggerated and red, appeared whole through the only gap in the clouds: just above the horizon. The light seemed to be coming from six feet off the ground, and was a steady, bright reddish pink. The kitchen walls were splashed with red, and when I stepped outside, the effect was even more widespread. Our entire eastern horizon is trees, as the woods begin right at the end of the yard, perhaps 100 feet from the house. These trees, most of which are slightly swollen with buds and some visibly softer-looking with their light green leaves, were all equally spray-painted with a rosy pink light across their midsections. The pear blossoms, normally white, were an almost luminescent pink color. And the grass seemed even greener. The brown soil in the garden seemed even more teeming with life. The frogs were croaking louder, the birds singing closer, the air smelling greener. All in all, it was a spectacular sunset. And as I stood outside, hearing nothing but nature, watching nothing but nature, I once again felt grateful to be given the chance to live here, and to try and eke a living out of this very vibrant nature.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

In The Ground!

The first plot.

It is official! The gardens at Three Persimmon Farms have begun.  I dug out and planted three plots of the garden yesterday afternoon, a sunny and cool day, perfect for some hard labor in the field. I planted three types of peas, some carrots, some lettuce, arugula, one kind of beet and assorted radishes. In the herb garden, I planted some thyme seeds, and in one of the raised beds, I cast a mixture of short, squat carrots, radishes and lettuce. (I'd read about this method in a cookbook Rich gave me for Christmas. You just toss the seeds, rake and water, and let them come up where they want, since you're going to be eating them pretty quickly anyway. Sounds good to me. The three beds in the garden are in the most northwest corner of the garden, closest to the house. I will work my way east and south through the garden. In many ways, despite all the reading and planning, I feel like I am at a new job. Still getting used to my surroundings (trees, dirt, wind and sun) and my new coworkers (that rat snake hung out for quite a while yesterday, as well as some wooly spiders, a tiny bright red spider, a centipede, lots of earthworms and some hibernating bugs). For the most part, these new coworkers left me alone, and I let them do their business. Hopefully we'll all be working toward the same goal...
My new office mate.

The second and third plots.
I spent this morning (a warm and very windy one) getting seeds into a variety of peat pots and cell trays. I planted at least 265 seeds. (The tansy seed was so tiny, I lost track of how many I put down.) Ten types of tomatoes and peppers (hot and sweet), basil, huckleberries, ground cherries, lavender, marigolds, and geraniums. Hopefully they'll all germinate, and then under the lights for six weeks... I am sore but unbelievably happy with the work. And I know these pictures look a little gray and drab, but there's not much out there right now. I learned a few things about the soil yesterday. It has a lot of clay in it. I soaked the plot for beets, expecting to be able to just poke the seeds down, but met basically thick mud. So I had to abandon that plan and spread soil on top of the seeds. For some of the root vegetables I am really going to have to add some matter to lighten the soil. I was going to wait one more week to plant the peas, but was afraid that would be too long of a delay. And yesterday was perfect planting weather, with warm and rainy conditions forecast for the remainder of the week, I just had to do it then. We're going out of town this afternoon (hello, Milwaukee!) so next week I'll go about working the soil more and getting more beets, some onions, and many other things into the ground.

I drove into town yesterday and was surprised to see so many trees flowering. Out here in the country things are progressing more slowly, with more caution almost. Perhaps it's cooler out here, or the wind blows stronger (it certainly seems to blow constantly). In town, it seems as if every daffodil is in bloom. Here, ours just got the bulb heads. The crocus even seem tentative outside. But they are little bright spots in the yard. The grass, though, is green, and many of the trees and shrubs have that thicker, slightly green look to them just before they leaf out. This is such an exciting time. I'm reluctant to leave the garden, even for a few days, but am looking forward to being in a city, seeing some dear friends, and taking the train back to town. Stay well, think spring, and thank you for reading!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Burning to make it happen.

The initial burn
The spreading fire
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I can still smell the smoke. It's emanating from my clothes and my hair. I've got ashes on my face, and my lungs may have inhaled a bit too much smoke. But, boy am I thrilled! This morning (even before I had my coffee) our neighbor, Alvin, came over with his propane torch and set fire to the garden. It'd been mowed Wednesday afternoon, so the tall weeds were lying on the ground like hay. Alvin wanted to burn the field before he disced it to make it easier to break apart and to kill some of the seeds, especially the millet and alfalfa that grew over much of the garden last summer. We were going to burn the garden yesterday afternoon, but the wind was far too strong, ushering in a series of showers and then thunderstorms in the evening. This morning, bright & sunny morning with a growing breeze out of the west, Alvin returned and we set fire to the garden. It only took lighting a small area for the flames to catch, and with the help of the wind, they rolled slowly but steadily eastward across the field. Now to a Colorado boy like myself, the idea of purposefully setting fire to the land is frightening, as there
 these things tend to turn into infernos. But Alvin was confident the conditions were perfect: a steady, but not too gusty breeze combined with last night's rainfall meant perfect controlled burning conditions. And he was right. We stood by and watched as the fire spread smoke (filling the woods and the creek beds, blowing over his mom's house and down toward our other neighbors... what a nice way for them to wake up on an otherwise beautiful Saturday morning), with our rakes at the ready to put out any eager licks of flame. Alvin showed me how to brush the fire back onto itself and I was surprised that it worked so easily to suppress the fire. It took about ninety minutes to burn the majority of the field, and the flames never got out of control. (Although I worried when the weeds at the base of the telephone pole caught fire.) While we were tending the fire, Alvin told me stories about the neighbors and the guy who used to farm this place. All the neighbors get along now, but things were not always so civil. I guess there was a time when the folks at the end of the road wanted to be on city water, but someone on our end of the road didn't want the pipes going

The field after burning
Alvin discing
through his fields during which, Alvin said, some things were said and some voices were raised. Things have calmed down since then, though, and Alvin echoed a thought we've had more than once: this road may have some of the nicest folks around. While the field burned, I was also thinking about some of the books I have read recently. How humans have always burned

 prior to planting. Once it was forests, and then it was grasses. And here I was, standing where the woods meet the grasslands, burning to make agriculture... Glad to be doing such ancient work. Once the flames were out, Alvin went to fetch his tractor and I went inside to make some coffee. When we met up again, the wind had really picked up, which means that we had the timing just perfect. Alvin said he wanted to get the first discing (turning the soil with a tractor) done real quick, so we could both be indoors while the farmer on the field directly west of our property fertilized. That farmer has a big red tractor that today was pulling two tanks of ammonia fertilizer that is worked directly into the soil. Alvin said he might also be spreading some weed killer. But whatever, the fumes are toxic and if they caught the wind, they'd blow right to where we were working. As Alvin disced the garden, in ever-tightening circles, I was thinking about how this is likely to be the only time this growing season a big piece of machinery is going to be working on my garden. After this point, it'll all be Joe-power. My job while Alvin disced was to pick up wooden poles (broom handles) and metal poles that we'd missed from the ground. The guy who farmed here before really did put a lot of poles into the ground. Alvin said he never could work out what they were all for, but said that he couldn't always understand the whys and hows of what the previous tenant did. I know that I'm grateful to have Alvin's help. He refused any sort of payment, saying he's glad to see the garden worked again, and said to call on him whenever I need help. Right now, as the sun shines and the wind blows in the next storm system, I am about to get serious about figuring out what will go where and when. It's just over an acre of garden I've got out there... And for the first time, it really looks like a garden I can work!