Thursday, April 29, 2010

Return of the Asian Lily Beetle

They didn't look so bad. Bright red or orange, they were small and glossy and harmless looking. Pretty, even.

Until our lilies began to look like Swiss cheese.

It didn't take long for us to figure out that these little insects were far from harmless. In fact, if we let them, they would decimate our entire lily population.

Uh oh. Now, I am not a bug squisher. I avoid spiders because I can't stand to be near them, let alone touch them - but things like ants, and harmless beetles and the like...I'll avoid stepping on them if I can. After all, they're just going on about their own business.

These red lily beetles, though, they need to be dealt with. At first, we went with the heavy-duty bug spray. But toxins and chemicals don't sit well with us, for a myriad of reasons. So my husband took matters into his own hands. He's become the official 'red-beetle squasher.' Whenever he's in the front, he'll take a moment to look for the little monsters. If he sees them, they get ground between his fingers.

It's worked quite well.

The other day, I was at the neighbor's. She pulled up a large weed in her front garden. Underneath was a whole colony of these invaders. They must have wintered under the roots.

Great.

Beetle eggs, anyone?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Finickety Squeaks

I cross my arms and shake my head in disbelief and exasperation, but he doesn't care. He simply looks up at me as if to say 'what?'

Well the 'what' is that I have just spent time preparing his own special food, complete with fresh organic ingredients, and he won't eat it.

About a year ago, Keani's bloodwork showed elevated ALT levels in his liver. Needless to say, I went on a panic blitz. After all, my little man is only just over a year old. Our vet presented us with a couple of options - things like putting him on pills for the rest of his life which, besides being expensive, would make for an unpleasant start to the day each morning. Keani greatly dislikes being forced to do anything. Admittedly it is sometimes necessary.

Our neighbor, however, suggested we put him on an organic homemade diet. That way we could lower the amount of protein intake and make sure that only the best ingredients were going into his food, in the hopes that it would help his liver recuperate.

So that's what I've been doing. At first it was great. He loved it. Our other dog, Icewind, got to share in the bounty for a time, but Ice is one hundred pounds and eats six cups a day. So he gets his raw treats, but not the whole shebang.

Once that started happening, the 'grass is greener' syndrome set in. Suddenly Icewind's dry dog kibble started looking so much better. It is, admittedly, top grade stuff. But when Keani himself was being fed the same food, he was definitely not so enthusiastic.

Now, though, whatever is in Ice's bowl is better than whatever is in his own, and he will stretch as high as he can, hook his paws over the top of Icewind's food stand, push his neck forward and filch the kibble bits.

Now comes the exasperation part. Worried that Keani wasn't eating enough, I made him a couple of boiled eggs. He loves eggs. This is a fact. So I shelled them, broke them apart, put in a bit of 'healthy powder' (also homemade) and put them in front of him. Instant bliss!

Ten minutes later, he came into the family room where I was and cried.

I have to admit, I am a sucker for his crying. I know, I know. It's bad, and he's spoiled. He really is, and I freely admit it. I am not as ashamed as I thought I would be, either. I've stopped guilt tripping myself over it (I will put the whys and wherefores in another post.)

Anyways, I went into the kitchen. The egg was all gone, oh, yes, except for pieces of egg white. No matter how much I cajoled, he wouldn't touch them. So I put them in Ice's food dish.

That's right. Five minutes later, there Keani was, stretching as high as he would go, to pilfer pieces of egg white that he wouldn't touch when they were in his own bowl.

Aaargh!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Food Charms

Aaah, the weekend. Time to sit back, put my feet up, and relax. NOT.

The weekend does, however, afford me a bit of extra time to play with our food. This last Saturday evening I decided on the following:

  • char siu (Chinese BBQ sauce) ribs,
  • cucumber, tomato, purple onion and feta cheese salad
  • tomato, fresh garden chives and mozzarella cracker dip
  • baby potatoes baked in an olive oil, garlic powder, garlic salt and dried oregano seasoning
I know, there was absolutely no theme going on there. It was more of a 'throw together what I felt like' mix.

The great thing about it was, not only was all this a cinch to throw together, but they were each very tasty.

The char siu ribs, for example...all that was needed was a jar of char siu (which can be found in most Chinese grocery stores) and a rack of ribs. Slather the sauce onto the ribs, throw them on the barbecue, and there you have it! Delicious.

The salad was likewise easy to make. Dice up half a cucumber, slice up some tomato into chunks, cut up some thin layers of purple onion (not too much!) and crumble in some feta cheese.

The chives were the first herbs to make a reappearance in the garden this year. The cracker dip was the first time I've used them this season. As a lover of chives, I was quite excited about that. This dip pared very nicely with the Parmesan and rosemary flavored Triscuit crackers.

As for the baby potatoes, all they needed was a wash, and then I threw them into a bowl (about 1lb.) In a small bowl I combined garlic salt (to taste), garlic powder, dried oregano, black pepper (to taste) and about a quarter cup of olive oil. I mixed them all up, poured it onto the potatoes, and then used a spoon to roll the potatoes around so that they would each get an even coating. Then I stuck them into a baking dish and into the oven at 400 degrees. Baked them for about fifteen to twenty minutes.

Voila!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

'Baby' Proofing the Vegetable Garden

Ah, the joy of having dogs. They love unconditionally, they are quick to forgive. They stare at you with sad, limpid eyes when they sense that you're upset, and give enthusiastic, snuffling kisses. They cuddle, they play, they chew, they track mud all over the floor and then look up at you, trying to be convincing that they are innocent of any wrongdoing.

They also have no respect for garden boundaries, sometimes picking plants to 'do their business' over. Branches are perfectly acceptable chew toys in their opinion, whether the branches are smooth or have tiny thorns that can become embedded in their mouths. Plants and roots can become partners in a 'tug-o-war' contest.

At least, that's how it is with our dogs.

We have two - a 100 lb ivory, woolly-coated Hungarian Kuvasz, and a 14 lb sable and black-masked Tibetan Spaniel. The Kuvasz likes to use plants as a potty, and the Spaniel likes to chew and play tug-o-war.

Originally, we put up a white wire fence, thinking that it would be a deterrent. Icewind (the Kuvasz) greatly dislikes bumping into things like baby gates, etc...
We also enclosed our fruit bushes with a wooden support covered by a string mesh (although this was partially to keep the birds out, too.)

It took a couple of years, but eventually Ice learned that he could simply jump over the wire fence. And it only took him one season to barrel right through the mesh. Keani, not being able to clear the top of the wire, simply went through it, and lost no time in following his big brother through the gaping holes in the string net.

Well, this was a problem for many reasons. One, I didn't put all this work into growing my vegetables only to have them torn, trampled, or ripped. Two, we'd actually like our plants to be healthy, and not suffer burn from over-fertilization (which is what dog urine does), and three, our fruits include grapes, which can be poisonous to dogs, and raspberries, the canes of which are covered in the aforementioned tiny prickles.

Our solution? To build a second fence about five feet away from the main one, thereby enclosing the garden completely.

At first, my husband wanted to build a chain-linked one, but eventually we went with a simpler (and more 'natural' looking, I think) green wire that is tall enough to keep Icewind out. Using a sledgehammer, my husband drove nine spikes at intervals into the yard. The spikes were about a food and a half long, while the stuff underneath the grass is clay and rock, so you can imagine how much effort that took.

Afterward, he fitted rectangular posts into the holders at the tops of the spikes. The green wire came in a roll of 50'. This we stretched as taut as we could before using a staple gun to hold it in place on the posts. My husband also drove two metal pipes into the ground and hung a latch-gate between them.

Finally, a 'baby' proof garden!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Stubborn Weeds

The worst thing about gardening (to us, anyway) is definitely the weeds. Versatile, adaptable, insidious and stubborn, they are a nightmare to be contended with on a daily and yearly basis.

So this spring, at the beginning of April, we rolled up our sleeves, slathered on the suntan lotion (I did, anyway,) bent our backs and set to work cleaning out the garden beds. We spared no mercy. With a large, pointed shovel we dug into the soil, pushed the shovel deeper with the ball of our foot, and tore the weeds up by the roots. My husband, especially, was ruthless, going after the tendrils and the tips, trying to make sure that the entire plant would be eradicated once and for all.

We went a step further this year. Tired of expending all this energy and having to re-do it constantly throughout the growing season (and we have a large garden - the entire perimeter of our backyard, two additional plots by the house, two front flower beds and a small 'around-the-tree' plot) we invested in what I call a 'carpet' (although it's possible that that is in fact the actual term) Well, we invested in two.

One is thick and light gray. It's porous, to allow water to go through. The other is lighter and black. In both cases, slits, or holes, are cut into the carpet to allow the desired plants to poke through. The idea is that weeds will have a harder time self-propagating, and, hopefully, growing, since there is obviously much less sun underneath.

Although the light gray one has a lifetime guarantee, I must admit that I like the black much more. It's lighter, so it's easier to work with. Plus, being black, it more closely resembles the 'color' of soil. I can only hope that when the plants get larger, they will cover up the gray nicely, because the alternative looks extremely bizarre in my mind's eye.

It wasn't a good beginning. The gray carpet, being so thick, broke some of my cool-weather seedlings when it got blown around by the wind. I wasn't incredibly thrilled by that. However, we have resolved the problem by weighing it (and the black one) with rocks.

Did I mention that weeds are insidious? Of course, they manage to spawn their seeds even with the carpet in place but, hopefully, it will be much less than it otherwise would have been.

I will let you know as the season progresses.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Perennials Versus Annuals

That exciting year when we planted our first flower garden, we started with digging out a small strip right in front of the house. Into this plot went a climbing rose, a regular rose and a bleeding heart. Being very green newbies, we didn't know much (if anything) about these plants that we had just put in, other than the fact that they were perennial, and were expected to return the following year.

Thankfully, the plants forgave us our ignorance and, despite initial soil deficiencies etc...have continued to grow year after year. The regular rose, who appeared to have died at some point, has stubbornly reincarnated itself even after having been 'dug up.' (Don't ask me how, I have absolutely no idea.)

In subsequent years we've added a soft purple clematis and a row of brilliant heliopsis and zebrina along the side, as well as a gaggle of gorgeous Asian lilies.

The result is a spectacular display of blooms that range from mid-spring to frost. The upside? I don't have to germinate, buy or replant them year after year, and they continue to expand both in width and height (this could also be a downside, depending on individual preference.) This aspect is especially wonderful in the climbing rose because it is now reaching towards the roof, and when it blooms the flowers are absolutely show-stopping (I will add pics later in the season.)

The downside is that perennials usually have one bloom period during the season before calling it quits for the year. Mind you, the bloom period is often quite a long one, but once it's done, it's done. The exception to this are roses. Our climbing rose blooms twice, and the ordinary one blooms throughout the summer. The heliopsis flower in July and last until mid to late August. But plants like the bleeding heart will only flower during the cooler months of spring, and the clematis and lilies also have a short, albeit beautiful, bloom period.
And this is where the annuals come in.
If (like me) the preference is for the garden to be a riot of color all growing season long, then it's a good idea to have both perennials and annuals in a mixed bed.
The downside of annuals is that they need to be regrown and/ or re-bought, and replanted every year, since, as the term 'annual' implies, they only last for one. I personally germinate approximately two hundred in my indoor greenhouses starting in March. Some annuals such as petunias start flowering as early as June and continue on right until the fall. Others begin in July until frost.
Besides the much longer flowering time, one of the upsides of annuals is the sheer variety. There is definitely something for everyone.

So, if an 'easy keeper' garden is the desire, go with some hardy perennials. They look great and come back every year.
If, on the other hand, a color riot is wanted, mix it up with some annuals and bask in continuous blooms.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Spring, and the Beginning of the Gardening Season

All seasons are sensory, but spring, for me, is the one that strikes the deepest chord. The sight of the first tiny tendrils of green on the bare branches gives me an indescribable thrill. I love the feeling of waking up to a room that is streaming with sunshine, and opening the window to a chorus of birdsong. Although I am not a huge fan of rain, knowing how important it is for the growing things (and for avoiding a droughty summer and a hefty water ban) I've learned to welcome it, too. The smell of rain, the smell of earthworms, seeing that first bumblebee hovering around my bleeding hearts, the excitement of thunderstorms - all part of the rich experience that is spring.

Gardening Time

And with spring comes...The Gardening Season! This is a joy I had looked forward to for years. When we bought our house, besides the excitement of simply having a house, the thing I looked forward to the most was being able to create our own gardens.

The front yard wasn't a problem. We simply dug a garden bed right in front of the house and planted a climbing rose bush, a regular rose bush, a bleeding heart, and a clematis. Of course, this has expanded year by year to include a large plot of annuals (which I start indoors every year), a strip on the other side of the garage with heliopsis, and a circle bed under the tree with zebrinas and more annuals.

The back garden, however, was a different story because, of course, we couldn't put a garden in until a fence was up.

We wanted a fence for two reasons; one, as lovers of dogs, a fence is pretty important. Two, we wanted a large vegetable and fruit garden. It took two years for us and our neighbors to finally collaborate and get a fence up. Before the posts even went in, I was on my hands and knees digging up turf. We realized that it would be much easier to dig up grass before having an obstruction like a wooden board in the way.

We dug up the entire perimeter of our yard, three feet deep.

Those first years were definitely a lesson in progress. I began by planting my vegetables and flowers way early in February. My husband (who is always on the lookout for things I might like or need) discovered these wonderful wooden mini greenhouses that move on wheels, have a plastic zippered cover, and can be folded up when not in use.

So, armed with greenhouses, I set to work by planting hundreds upon hundreds of seeds, and growing hundreds upon hundreds of plants.

It's been a few years since that initial one, and here's what I've learned in the interim:

1. There's no need to germinate the entire seed packet at one go.
Not sure why, but when I first started I felt that it was somehow necessary for me to use up the entire package of seeds. Needless to say, I ended up with way, way, way too many plants.

2. Start germinating seeds early, but not as early as February.
We live in a cooler climate area, where winter truly sets in at around the middle of December and releases its grip very reluctantly in the spring. For that reason, it isn't safe to plant seedlings outdoors until mid June or so.
I now start my flower at the beginning of March, so that by the time I set them out in June, some will have already begun to bud. Vegetables are started in April, so that they don't get too big for the greenhouse before it's time to transplant.

3. Don't waste money buying tons and tons of pots
This doesn't matter as much if it's only a few pots, but if, like me, it's hundreds of plants being grown, then buying pots is just a method of throwing money away.
Styrofoam cups are much more time and cost efficient. They have the downside of being non-recyclable in terms of the blue bin, but they can be reused year after year. Easy to label, easy to poke holes in the bottom to allow water to drain. And easy to get.
Plastic picnic cups are also great, especially if the plants need a bigger pot. Empty yogurt and cottage cheese containers, plastic ice cream and whipped topping boxes are also wonderful indoor plant homes.
Empty egg cartons are great for starting seed, and are fully recyclable. Their downside is that, being so small, the plants will need to be transplanted to a larger pot fairly quickly.

4. Label the containers
This I knew right from the get-go also. It is extremely important to label each plant, at least until such time as the ability to recognize each individual seedling develops. I had a mishap this year while transferring seedlings from Styrofoam cups to larger plastic ones. I was doing this outside, and a huge gust of wind blew in and knocked down my greenhouse and everything in it. I was three quarters of the way down, and over two hundred flowers were on those shelves. Needless to say, plants got knocked out of their carefully labeled containers. I felt (on a very, very small and much less important scale) like I was searching for earthquake survivors as I sifted through the debris to try to recover as many seedlings as possible. I think I lost about twenty. Thankfully, since I've been gardening for quite a few years now, I've developed the ability to recognize my seedlings on sight, including the ones that are new for the year.

5. Keep the seed packets
Even if they're empty, the seed packets can come in very useful. Most of them have information on the back like when to plant, where to plant, how far apart to plant and how high the plant will grow. When planning out a flower bed, especially, height is crucial. It wouldn't do to have a plant that is two feet tall in front of a ground cover one, for example.

6. Stagger
If planting an entire flower and vegetable garden (which is what I do each year), the process if definitely a long and involved one. Since most of us have crazy hectic schedules, it's best not to do everything at one go. This year I designated one day out of the week as my official gardening day, and it's the day we've done most of our garden clean-up, weeding, carpeting etc... When I started planting my seeds this year, I spent a couple of hours each day until all the seedlings had been sown. It beats sitting down and labeling, filling and sowing hundreds of containers and seeds at one go. As long as there's a schedule and it's stuck to, things will be done in short order.

7. Enjoy!
This is important one. Gardening is a lot of work, but the results can be spectacular. Enjoy the journey, and enjoy the destination!

Keani, Tibetan Spaniel

Icewind and Keani - New Beginnings