Mid-July State of the Garden

The cat wanders through my vegetable garden

Greetings from an early morning stroll through my garden!

The last two months have brought unusually cool weather ranging from the mid sixties to low seventies, and plant growth is lagging behind what it should be for this time of year. We did receive intermittent rain over the past two weeks, though, so everything is starting to fill out nicely in the combined veggie garden/dahlia patch.

So far I’ve spotted a handful of unripe cherry tomatoes, some snap peas, a couple paste tomatoes, an itty-bitty tromboncino squash, and a plethora of small yellow squash growing. Not a lot is happening yet; it’s just finally starting to warm up after weeks of cool weather. The below picture was taken last week, but everything seems to have doubled in size since then, so unfortunately this isn’t a true representation of the current state of the garden. Somehow I keep taking pictures of the cat instead…

Early morning in the vegetable garden and dahlia patch

The dinnerplate dahlias are averaging 3.5 feet tall, and the dahlia patch is starting to look a little jungly (just the way I like it). One dahlia that I purchased as a rooted cutting is already so top heavy with buds that it was lying on the ground, and I had to secure it to a bamboo stake — it felt pretty silly sinking 6-foot stakes into the ground when I planted the dahlias out months ago, but they’re already coming in handy. I didn’t expect much from the rooted cuttings this year while they develop tubers, so I’m quite happy about it.

Out of 40+ dahlias in my garden, only two have bloomed so far: Sonic Bloom and Fuzzy Wuzzy (which was mislabeled as Center Court — I’m curious what will bloom in the spot I thought I planted Fuzzy Wuzzy in).

Sonic Bloom dahlia flowerFuzzy Wuzzy dahlia flower

I’m glad I planted so many roses this spring because the anticipation of waiting for the rest of the dahlias is  k i l l i n g  me. It was so nice to have some roses to enjoy in the meantime. And the cosmos and sweet peas are just starting to flower here and there, so that’s also tiding me over now that the roses have just about finished for the season.

Double-click bicolor violet cosmo flower

I find myself not doing much in the garden these days other than wandering and observing and doing the occasional staking and watering — the wood chip mulch has been excellent for retaining moisture in the soil, and I really only need to water once a week now, and less than that if it rains.

I would like to mention the one downside I’ve discovered about the wood chip mulch, and that is that it’s created the perfect feeding ground for the moles, presumably because the soil is kept moist and attracts many worms and insects. I have to walk through the garden every morning and survey for any damage — i.e. fresh hills and pushed up plants. We’re trying to trap them but have been largely unsuccessful. They’re evasive fellows.

Other than doing battle with the moles, I’m trying to enjoy this downtime, because soon enough the canner will be at a rolling boil day in and day out as I rush to preserve the bounty of the garden. I’ve already spotted a whopping seven yellow summer squash growing on one plant. Yowza. I think I’ll have to look in my Pickled Pantry book and see what I can do with whatever excess we won’t eat fresh.

How grows your garden?

October in the Garden

Fall in the Pacific Northwest

I’ve been feeling a bit like a squirrel or a mouse lately, the way I’ve been hoarding things for fall and winter. Namely, newspapers, cardboard, leaves, grass clippings, etc., etc. for mulching and expanding the veggie plot — not to mention for creating compost as well!

I’m determined to have a mostly weed-free garden next year by using the wood chip method popularized by the sustainable gardening film “Back to Eden.” I’m not a religious person by any means, but I was able to overlook most of the religious aspects of the documentary in favor of gaining a lot of useful information about more sustainable, organic gardening practices. I borrowed a copy of the film from our library, but I believe it’s also available to watch on YouTube, if you’re interested in checking it out.

I’ve also found inspiration from the One Yard Revolution YouTube channel (Patrick offers loads of great frugal gardening advice, and his cat Oscar is adorable!) and the book Edible Landscaping, which shows you how to transform your available growing space with a permaculture approach.

So, over the last few weeks, I’ve been slowly putting into practice what I’ve learned as I prep the veggie plot for winter — first applying a layer of cardboard, then grass clippings, then autumn leaves, then a layer of newspaper, and finally the wood chips. Building soil is hard work! I’ve only managed one large section so far, but I’m aiming to have the whole veggie plot mulched by early November.

It’s a bit of a mess at the moment, but I’m getting there. All that paper sticking out will soon be covered up.

As you can see, there’s not much left in the garden other than the tomatoes, a few pumpkins, the cosmos, gladiolus, and the dahlias. I have a small bank off to the right where some beets are growing as a bit of an experiment, so we’ll see what happens there! On our porch, I have a container with radishes and spinach growing, and in another planter I have kale that is doing really well.

The dahlias, naturally, are still going strong. They much prefer the 70-degree weather we’ve been having lately to the summer’s 90-degree days. My first-year cafe au lait dahlia finally has buds on it, and I’m crossing my fingers I’ll get a few blooms before the frost. Next year the tubers should be bigger and put out much more growth.

One out of 20-something dahlia plants currently growing in the garden

In other garden-related news, Jordan and I built a compost corral (inspired by a Geobin expandable compost bin) last weekend with some leftover hog-wire fencing I found tucked behind our shed. Hardware cloth probably would have been a better choice, but this is what we had on hand, and it cost us nothing to make. Leaves, grass clippings, pinecones, garden waste, etc. will all go into it this fall and will hopefully heat up nicely and decompose over the winter, providing us with some great compost for our raised beds come early summer.

I also recently ordered some persimmon and quince trees that I’ll be planting out in a few days. There are three quince (Angers, Provence, and Le Page) and three persimmon trees (one Japanese Fuyu and two American). They’re all little fellas right now, but I’m hoping in a few years we’ll get a handful of fruit!

Two little American persimmon trees

And last but not least, I picked up some conkers from a horse chestnut tree outside of Cle Elum last weekend. My mom said she grew some trees for my grandpa from conkers years ago, and I love a challenge (also free plants), so I’m going to give it a go. Though they sure do look pretty just sitting in a bowl or a vase as decor, don’t you think?

My fall to-do-in-the-garden list seems to have dwindled now to just a few tasks, and I’ve been finding myself restless in the evenings, not sure what to do with all my newfound time. What sorts of activities do you enjoy when the growing season comes to a close? I expect I’ll be doing quite a lot of baking and knitting…

Marge’s First Chip Drop

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Do you know about Chip Drop?

My master composter and recycler co-worker told me about it months ago, and it’s essentially a waitlist system for receiving wood chips from your local arborists. The chips need to go somewhere after trees are felled, trimmed, or pruned, and why not keep them out of landfills by giving them to people who will use them?

And the best part: It’s free, and “free” is my middle name! (Ok, not really. It’s Frances, but close enough.)

Once you make an account on Chip Drop’s website, you can request which kind of delivery you’d like: only wood chips, only logs, mostly wood chips with a few logs, or wood chips with a lot of logs. You can also specify any kind of chips you do not want. (Many people, myself included, don’t want black walnut chips, as the wood contains a toxic compound called juglone that can suppress the growth of plants.)

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I’d been on the waitlist for a chip delivery for what felt like forever — until Monday. I’d taken the day off to recuperate after my sister’s wedding last weekend, so I was at home on the couch when I heard a large truck backing up. I looked out the window, and there it was: a beautiful pile of chips, smack-dab in the middle of our driveway, all for me!

I requested wood chips with a few logs, since I’d heard that you’re more likely to get a delivery that way. We only ended up with one medium-sized log, which was just fine with me — it’ll make a nice spot to sit and rest when I’m working in the garden.

When you request wood chips, what you’re really getting is a mixture of chips, bark, leaves, branches, twigs, and evergreen needles. From this small handful, I can see that I likely received a mixture of maple and evergreen trees. Look at that beautiful wealth of organic matter just teeming with possibilities!

These chips will be used as mulch — around our raised beds, under trees, to make pathways in the veggie plot, to suppress regrowth of English ivy, in sheet mulch to make new garden beds, etc. They can even be added to compost. The possibilities are endless!

If you haven’t used Chip Drop before, I can’t encourage you enough to check it out. Not only is it free, but your garden will love it!

Days of Wonder & Delight

It seems there is always something to marvel at these days. My regular walks along our fence line calm my anxiety and provide delightful discoveries of plants and trees I wasn’t aware were there. Just when I think our flat, empty field has shown me all it has to offer, I discover a pear tree growing along the fence.

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Yes, a pear tree — and an old one at that, and covered in some sort of rust or blight, but it’s got to be at least 20 feet tall. Nothing grew on it last year, and when I saw fruit forming on it this last spring, I assumed (wrongly) it was just another apple tree. When I checked on the tree again a few weeks ago, it was clear the fruit was not apples. And oh how glad I am to be wrong. I adore pears. Now we have two pear trees — this newly discovered mature one and the semi-dwarf bosc I planted in the spring. Perfect.

Another recent and equally delightful discovery is a neglected rose bush in a shocking shade of neon pink! I saw it glowing in the distance as the evening settled around the garden, and I thought, “What the hell is that?!” It was a fun little discovery, especially since it’s a color I probably wouldn’t have picked out. I’ve since dug it up and am trying to nurse it back to health — I intend to eventually transplant it to a spot where I can enjoy it more and keep an eye on any root suckers that pop up. (Tentative identification of this rose is “Perfume Delight” — what do you think?)

One of the parts I enjoy most about these discoveries is the opportunity to expand my knowledge in caring for something new — in this case, I’ll be reading up on successfully pruning fruit trees this winter and researching what can be done for whatever seems to be afflicting it. And though I already transplanted the rose, it proved to be much trickier than I thought. (I’m not sure I did a great job, to be honest. Only time will tell.)

“Forever a student” has been my mantra this year and will be for years to come. I’m so looking forward to my next surprise — I’m sure it’s just around the corner, waiting patiently.

Mid-August Garden Tour

The mornings are feeling darker and cooler these days, and I know fall is swiftly making her way toward us. I catch sight of the massive spider nests wound in the black walnut trees and am reminded of “The Ash-Tree,” a spooky short story about spiders from one of my favorite horror writers, M.R. James. I’m feeling about ready to curl up with a copy of his stories and a cup of tea, but there is lots to do before fall arrives.

And speaking of fall, remember in my last garden tour I mentioned one of the failures for this year was the pumpkins? Well, color me surprised — I now have four little pumpkins growing! These were seeds we’d saved from the decorative pumpkins and gourds at our wedding, and I’m so delighted we’ll have a few little guys to display on our front porch. The wedding pumpkins legacy continues!

Though the days are feeling shorter and the mornings and nights colder, we are still reaching temps in the high 80s during the day. The cucumbers and peas are really putting out, but the green beans and burgundy beans are slowing. Next year I will plant twice the amount and possibly plan for a second sowing around midsummer.

The tomatoes are finally ripening now that daytime temperatures have dropped slightly, and I’ve now got quite an abundance of tomatoes growing on one single plant, all thanks to a trick I saw on Instagram for pollinating them — just give the flowers a little jiggle for a few seconds to help them along, and they’re much more likely to pollinate. Works like a charm!

My roses have also responded to the slight temperature change and have resumed blooming. I don’t talk about my roses too much because they were kind of a pain for the first few months after I planted them — too many problems with aphids and blackspot, but it all vanished once I started piling compost/manure around them. (Who would have thought?) I’m now determined to transform the overgrown backyard patch into a thriving rose garden and will be planting a few more varieties this fall. (Currently on my wishlist are “Koko Loko” and “Lady of Shalott”)

The cabbages, in stark contrast, have been munched to bits. There will be no sauerkraut in my future, unfortunately. Next year I’ll do some companion planting and give them a little more attention.

The dahlias continue to bloom, and I’ve spotted the first buds on one of my late-sown Swan Island dahlias — “Sonic Bloom,” though I think it will still be a while before she unfurls in all her raspberry-mauve glory. Some will not bloom this year, as a few of the plants are still small and in a slightly shaded location, which is good information to tuck away for the coming spring. But I’m not giving up hope, as I had dahlias blooming last November — you just never know!

My mind is already scheming about next year’s garden, and I’m having a hard time reigning it in — there is still plenty to do before I feel I can hermit myself away with notes and seed catalogs for next year. Such is life, I suppose. I’m determined to enjoy every minute of it.

Putting Up Peaches

There’s a convenience store about a mile down the road from our house where a family from Yakima sells peaches for a few weekends every August. I’ve been impatiently waiting for them to show up this year, and yesterday on my drive home from work I was finally rewarded with the sight of hand-painted “Yakima Peaches!” signs perched on the side of the road, pointing me in the right direction.

This afternoon I drove over to get a box of peaches. The family had their stand set up in the parking lot, and a young boy behind the table helped me pick out exactly what I was looking for: canning peaches. The eldest daughter carried the box to my car after I paid, and I mentioned how glad I was to see them this year, how a few days ago I’d thought maybe they’d decided not to sell at the Lewisville One Stop this summer. She smiled and told me her parents had been selling here for 13 years, and there weren’t any plans of stopping.

I can’t help but think that my grandfather would have been one of their loyal customers, returning year after year for a box of plump, dusky peaches. He was my gateway to canning and preserving, and it all started with two boxes of Green Bluff peaches on an August afternoon in 2014.

I’ve had an interest in food preservation and self-sufficiency for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t know how to can fruits and vegetables at that time. My mother grew up on a nearly 100-year-old family homestead, and my grandfather often told us tales of “the good old days” when we’d visit the farm, which often included boyhood stories of harvesting fruit from the orchard and canning marathons in the small kitchen. I loved hearing those stories and hung on to every word, fascinated by a skill that was once so common but has since fallen by the wayside.

I suppose my mom must have heard me lament my lack of practical canning knowledge at some point, because the next thing I remember is bumping down dusty Buck Flats Road with two boxes of peaches filling the car with their syrupy scent, a box of lids and rings rattling in the back seat, and the promise of learning to put up peaches with Grandpa Buck.

The afternoon was a whirlwind of blanching, slicing, and packing peaches. There were more than a few trips down the cellar steps to bring up more jars. My grandpa, in his standard blue and white striped overalls, would hand me the curling cookbook we were referencing and ask me what the next step was. He was brisk and confident in the kitchen, traits I soon picked up

By the end of the day we’d canned 31 quarts of peaches and I smelled like a goat, thanks to Bear, the billy goat who enthusiastically rubbed his head on me every time I went out to the barnyard between breaks. I couldn’t stop admiring the beautiful jars lined up on the counter and the way the sun shone through them. I was hooked, and I’ve never looked back.

My grandpa has been gone for two years now. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s been so long. When I look at the bowls of peaches on our kitchen table, glowing orbs in the light slanting in, I’m reminded of him and all he taught me – not just about food preservation, but about animals, and nature, and our family.

Tomorrow Jordan and I will spend the morning putting up peaches using the very same cookbook my grandpa taught me from, and I’ll think of him with every peach pit I drop to the bottom of each jar – just like he told me to do so many Augusts ago, even if I still don’t know why. And I’ll mark my calendar for next summer’s Yakima peach stand, because that’s what my grandpa would have done.

Canning Season & Summer Slowdown

Summer is chugging right along, and yet again I found myself frantically canning something late at night before leaving town last weekend — those cucumbers weren’t going to pickle themselves! The garden has been bountiful, and nothing will go to waste.

This last weekend we headed to Bellingham for a wedding, and while I sorely missed my little veggie plot and fussing about with my dahlias, I admit it was nice to get away for a little bit. The weather was much cooler there than it’s been in our neck of the woods, and it was good to see more of my family.

I took solace in the fact that I picked and preserved everything I possibly could before heading out, which always makes leaving for the weekend much easier on the mind. (It may seem extreme, but a lot can happen in the garden in two days’ time! You neglect picking one cucumber, and when you return, it’s monstrously swollen and won’t make a good pickle.)

My mind was so at ease, in fact, that on the way back we took a little detour to stop by Snoqualmie Falls and grab lunch at Twede’s Cafe — the infamous filming location of the RR Diner in Twin Peaks. It was fun to play tourist for an afternoon — something we don’t do nearly as much anymore after buying our house. It was a much needed mini vacation.

Now that we’re back, I’ve been picking wild blackberries almost daily, filling my basket to the brim in preparation for canning some blackberry jam this week. I’m aiming to double the amount I put up last summer, plus some extra jars for gift giving. (My mom has become my biggest blackberry jam fan, and her birthday is coming up.)

I’d also like to make some blueberry or raspberry jam, but I’m running out of room on my dedicated “larder” shelf rather quickly, and there’s still applesauce to put up. I suppose freezer jam would be an appropriate answer to that, but I quite enjoy seeing all my hard work lined up on the shelves.

Right now I’m feeling very content — sure, the weeds are invading the garden and there’s a haze of wildfire smoke smothering the entirety of the west coast, but I can feel the season slowing, and I’m so happy with all I’ve accomplished in the last few months. They’ve sure flown by, and I think I’ve earned some much needed hibernation and hermitage.

August in the Garden

 

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My garden really exploded toward the end of July, much to my surprise. We’ve had a few weeks now of steady 90-degree days, and everything is relishing in the heat — even me, if you can believe it. Sure, I do most of my yard/garden work in the cooler parts of the morning or evening, but I haven’t relied on my vitamin D supplements much in the past month, which has been great. (I assume, also, that I’m not wilting in this heat due to growing up in Eastern Washington desert-like summers. I’m acclimated to it at this point, while my co-workers all seem to complain once the thermometer reads 80 degrees…)

Anyway, enough of my passive-aggressive grumbling — you’re here for the garden update!

My cucumbers and green beans have really come on strong in the past few weeks. I’ve been canning jars of dilly beans and pickles here and there and am already dreaming of the day I can sample them. If you’re looking for a good pickling book with single-jar recipes — because let’s be real, it’s not often you find yourself with 7 pounds of a fresh veggie at a given moment — I highly recommend The Pickled Pantrywhich has a section devoted to single-pint recipes. It’s been my go-to recipe book this summer, and I can’t speak highly enough about it.

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The tomatoes and snap peas are growing, but nothing is ripe for picking yet. The cabbages continue to get larger and larger, but most of them have been munched — all except for one growing near the catnip, which I assume has to do with some unintentional companion planting. I’ll be taking note of that for next year.

I started some kale last month after my co-worker told me she and her husband continued to harvest theirs through the winter, and it’s coming along nicely — still on the small side, but I have high hopes!

The peppers are also growing well. I’ve been able to harvest a couple so far! I’m thinking peppers are now a necessity, and I’ll be putting in more plants next year. Next year I will also be relocating my strawberry plants, which are doing remarkably well in this heat. They’re third-year plants, and this is the first harvest I’ve gotten from them. The berries are all rather oddly shaped, but they’re delicious nonetheless. I read somewhere once that strawberry plants are really only productive for about five years, so we’ll see how they do next year.

The onions have all been pulled out — all were small and wilted after not enough water and being trampled by the dog. I’ll be putting some beets in their place soon for a fall harvest. Another semi “failure” is the pumpkins — the plants continue to grow, but there’s only one small dime-sized pumpkin growing. I’m trying not to be too hard on myself about it; it’s all a learning experience.

On the other hand, the dahlias are making my heart swell with pride — I’ve only had four blooms so far, but they’ve all been breathtaking, and there are plenty more on the way. The second (late) sowing of dahlia tubers from my Swan Island shopping spree has put on steady growth in the past few weeks, and though there are no buds on any of the plants yet, I have no doubt they’ll put on a spectacular show early this fall.

How’s your garden doing?

Autumn on the Horizon

She’s looming in the distance — when I’m watering the garden after work, when the sky is just starting to darken and a breeze sighs through the cherry trees, I can feel autumn singing her seductive song, begging me to slow down and sit a spell, to watch the leaves tumble-twirl to to ground. I pause, listening to the tall grasses sway, and I know she’s on her way.

I’m typically a fall gal through and through, but this was the first summer I truly sunk my hands into the earth — my first very own garden plot — and felt something hungry stir inside me. This was much better than growing in pots on a patio, and I’m reluctant to let it go; summer has flown by too fast, and there’s so much more I want to try growing.

In my heart I know I’m ready for autumn — we had a lovely overcast, drizzly day last week, the first in months, that truly felt like a proper moody Pacific Northwest fall day — but all I could think about was all the dahlias that have yet to bloom, and the pickling and jam-making still to do, and I’m wishing it would all slow down so I can savor every last bit of it. Soon enough I’ll be trodding out to the veggie plot in rain boots rather than sandals, and the hobbit feet I’ve developed will soften and fade. In my bones I can feel the world slowing and preparing for hibernation.

Of course, hibernation and recuperation from the galloping pace of summer is never a bad thing, and there’s much to look forward to in fall. There are spring bulbs to sow, dahlias and gladiolus to dig and divide, fruit trees and garlic to plant, and popping open those jeweled jars of preserves we steadily stockpiled over the summer. And, my favorite part, eagerly waiting  for each tree to explode in a flame of color.

And also… the anticipation of doing it all over again — and more — next year. There’s always such a lot to look forward to, even as summer is nearing its end. I’m already making mental lists for next year — call me an overachiever, or maybe a dreamer, but it might just make those dark, miserable days of winter a little more bearable.

Weekly Roundup #4: Peony Madness

Over the course of the last week I developed a peony passion. It’s nuts. I haven’t even gotten my newest dahlia tubers in the ground yet, and here I am planning out a peony garden. Last week I spent my lunch breaks driving all over town in search of one particular variety of peony that I saw at a store but was sold out. It’s like my white whale. I’m not really embarrassed because it’s SO PRETTY. I eventually caved and ordered one online.

I also picked up a few other varieties of peony to plant because I was so jazzed that the root I planted last year is coming up again. And where will this peony garden go?

I’m glad you asked, because it brings me to my next high point from last week:

Last Tuesday we came home from work to see that our neighbor had brought his tractor over and cleared some tall grass for us that our lawnmower couldn’t handle. And that’s where my peony garden will go. It’s my favorite part of our acreage because it was never cleared like the rest of our land — it still has some ancient oak and hawthorn trees, and it’s just such a serene spot to sit and listen. I have visions of a perennial garden with beds spilling over with flowers.

It was so thoughtful of our neighbor to come over and do that for us, and we are so appreciative. He’d been offering for a while and we just hadn’t found the time to go over to his place and ask him. He’s even offered to till up some ground for garden beds!

My parents came to visit last weekend, and my dad really put Jordan to work. My dad is the kind of guy who likes to take a week of vacation time to work on projects around the home, and a weekend getaway to our place was no exception.

In two days he and Jordan installed a new water heater, fixed our toilet, and configured some new plumbing/a spigot off our well pump so I can water my garden easier. AND he brought us a chainsaw and showed Jordan how to use it — that tree that fell way back when is finally gone!

My dad also brought me a rhubarb “root” — more like a whole plant! This came from his rhubarb at home, which came from his dad’s garden. A family legacy!

The seeds I sowed last week sprouted, and so I planted more after my parents left. And made more newspaper seed pots. They’re working quite well, and I usually make 20+ at a time while binging Call the Midwife (my new obsession). This batch I sowed eggplant, more onions, and two varieties of beans — green “Crockett” bush beans and burgundy beans.

Used Popsicle sticks make great markers — waste not, want not, and whatnot!

I also added perennial violas and two bare-root raspberries to our plant arsenal, which have yet to be planted. I’m trying to decide if we should build a raspberry trellis from scratch… or use these three ugly flagpoles in our front yard as a starting point.

We are not patriotic people in the least, and I’d like to put them to some sort of use that doesn’t involve flying a flag (we are definitely the young riffraff who moved into the rural-retiree neighborhood). We have some hog wire we could stretch between them, and I think it would work well. This is the most probable trellis solution since we don’t have a post driver and still don’t totally know for sure where it’s safe for us to dig… but that’s a story for next week. 😉

Have a good weekend, everyone!