AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: King Corn DATE: 7:00 AM ----- BODY:
The New York Times has a report today on shortages of chemical fertilizers which are, in their inimitable, worrying caption, causing Iowa farmers to "[fall] back on manure for soil nutrients." Reasons include rising oil prices and increased demand for fertilizers to grow nitrogen-hungry corn which is then processed into biofuels to be used as an alternative to oil. Quite a system!

Chemical fertilizers are the cause of significant environmental problems and are a chief factor in the success of industrialized agriculture. From the article:
Agriculture and development experts say the world has few alternatives to its growing dependence on fertilizer. As population increases and a rising global middle class demands more food, fertilizer is among the most effective strategies to increase crop yields.
"Putting fertilizer on the ground on a one-acre plot can, in typical cases, raise an extra ton of output," said Jeffrey D. Sachs, the Columbia University economist who has focused on eradicating poverty. "That's the difference between life and death." [Link]

The demand for fertilizer has been driven by a confluence of events, including population growth, shrinking world grain stocks and the appetite for corn and palm oil to make biofuel. But experts say the biggest factor has been the growing demand for food, especially meat, in the developing world.
We see chemical fertilizers as a buy-now, pay-later gambit, with waterway pollution, soil depletion, and the exhaustion of fossil fuels used during its production exchanged for increased yields today. What do you think? Check out the article, and log in as gardenaut/gardenaut if you don't have an account.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: A cheap waterwise garden DATE: 4:05 AM ----- BODY:
After two years of cursing at a roughly 15 x 15 foot scorched earth ugly zone that is right out my home office window, I decided to take action. Growing grass was futile with natural precipitation, the nearest spigot is far far away, and the effort I'd have to expend to maintain a lawn in that spot would be tremendous in the desert microclimate. Solution? I planted the beginnings of a waterwise garden. In other words, I freaked out one gorgeous fall day and dug up the surviving nasty patchy grasses, threw in some compost, and started planting very hardy, low-water, mostly native, perennials.

That's my office window at left. Because we usually have a wet spring followed by a blazing hot summer, I started by thinking about early springtime. I stuck in a bunch of tulips and scillas that I know will come up before the spring rains end. These I bought from Costco for a steal - they go on sale once the big fall planting crunch is over. You might not get the exact colors you wanted, but who cares? You'll love them anyway when they are the first bright happy flowers of spring.

Here's what the scillas and lupines looked like on April 20. Two inches of fresh snow!

Then I went to a locally-owned garden center that carries a lot of native plants and scoured their 99 cent table - it was October, and they were days away from closing for the season. I bought dozens of cute perennials for super cheap (these kinds of plants are typically about $6 each in the spring!) and planted them all with the knowledge that some wouldn't make it through the winter. Then I waited. That summer the new waterwise garden looked pretty nice, although sort of immature and patchy.

This year the scillas are already in bloom despite the fact that is has snowed nearly every day this week (late April! Geez!) and the tulips are nicely budding. My 99-cent sagebrushes, coreopsis, lupines, lavenders and penstemons are starting to leaf out, and their friends the yarrow and blanketflowers that I transplanted from other parts of my yard are looking fantastic. Because my husband has a soft spot for Lamb's ear mullein, a nonnative plant that has awesome architectural appeal, I whacked some seedheads against the ground two years ago in the hopes that they would sprout haphazardly and add some height to the garden. This spring they are finally coming up (maybe they are biennials? Not sure.) and I'm thrilled.

Check out the chunky hail on my lupines and scillas on April 25.

Last but not least, every year I use that crazy $20 gift certificate that Gurney's catalog sends me. I know they think I'll become a lifelong customer of theirs by bribing me with the coupon, but in reality I just carefully buy about $16-17 of plants and use the rest for shipping. This year, it's free yucca and redhot pokers! We'll see how they do.

One thing I failed to do last year, however, is mulch. That was dumb. ALWAYS mulch. This year we are going to put down weed barrier and mulch the heck out of it. Mulch keeps the soil moister in the heat of summer and prevents the obnoxious ultra hot loving weeds like knapweed and roman chamomile from taking over. And it looks tidy, which I appreciate. It is tough to focus on my "real" job when I look out the window onto the garden and think, "Ooooh, I could just yank a couple weeds..."

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Pressure-Treated Lumber: A Cautionary Guide DATE: 10:45 AM ----- BODY:
Gardeners often use pressure-treated lumber. I prefer to use untreated material and just let my project slowly deteriorate over ten years. But sometimes you need to build something out of wood that will really last - a trellis, or a tall raised bed over concrete.

If you do, the safest bet from a health perspective is to use the most benign chemicals you have access to that suit the purpose of your project. At any rate, it's as useful to know the chemicals in the wood you use in your garden as in the food you buy at the grocery store, because those chemicals can end up in the food you grow, and some of them are pretty noxious. Chemically-treated wood means exposing your family to large quantities of copper, at best, or arsenic, at worst.

Pressure-treated lumber is so-called because it has been infused with chemicals by being placed in a pressure chamber - the pressure forces the chemicals into the wood, often with help from slits cut in the surface of the wood. Chemicals typically contain an insecticide, a fungicide, and a UV protection. The chemical makeups are typically referred to using 3-letter acronymns, and while the labels may differ from the type shown at the top of this post, there are always labels.

Chemical Treatment Types

Safe and sustainable
Here's a list of the most commonly-used codes relating to the chemical treatment of lumber, what they mean, and which are preferable for use in the garden. The science behind the EPA guidelines is messy, but we've made these recommendations based on the data available.

ACQ: This stands for Alkaline Copper and Quaternary Ammonium compounds. This is currently the safest lumber treatment. It requires stainless steel connectors because the high levels of copper corrodes regular nails. Treats cut ends of all Western Species (recognized by their incisor or "track" marks). The reference in the above link to formaldehyde probably refers to the glue used in glu-laminated beams - nothing you'd see in the lumber you use for garden beds. It still contains a water pollutant though, so use sparingly.

CCA: Chromated Copper Arsenic. Avoid. Until 2003, it was allowed for general residential use, but at that time the EPA decided to re-rate it for "ground contact" applications only due to concerns about the arsenic the wood leaches. Always avoid wood rated for "ground contact," because that means the manufacturers can legally use the most potent chemicals.

CA-B: The "B" or second generation of Copper Azole treatment. Basically CBA-A without the Borate. "Wolmanized" lumber uses this chemical standard. Many experts consider it as safe as ACQ, but it's less available. If you have to use pressure-treated lumber, you could responsibly choose either ACQ or CA-B treatments. There may be carcinogens in this stuff, but they're only "possible carcinogens," not known or probable carcinogens. That's pretty reassuring, isn't it?

CC-B: Chromated Copper Boron. Don't use in the garden because borates leach out. They're intended for termite protection in sheltered areas. And the chrome is bad too. Similar to CBA-A (Copper Borate Azole).

Copper HDO: This new treatment method is currently under review by the EPA. Apparently even the most cutting-edge treatments cause slow growth rates among pregnant rats.

Creosote: A very old, tar-based treatment. Like an oil spill in your backyard! Avoid. Supposedly not sold to the public, but I see creosote-treated railroad ties at home-improvement chains all the time. It burns skin, poisons fish, and causes cancer. In our area the state department of natural resources is actively removing decaying creosote pilings from public beaches. Old railroad ties are a classic example of creosote-treated wood. I have a few in my backyard (nobody's perfect).

Thompson's Water Sealer: Not a pressure treated wood system - rather a sealer that is painted on the outside. Contains known carcinogens. Not to be confused with "Thompsonized Wood," which is really just ACQ pressure-treated wood sold under the licensed Thompson's name.

Alternatives to Chemically-Treated Wood

Linseed Oil: Popular in Australia, and used by fellow Gardenaut (and my brother) Jeremiah for his raised beds. With no fungicides or pesticides, this acts more as a water-repellent and drying agent. Paint it on the boards as you would a stain, with two coats being ideal.

Studies have shown that water sealers like Thompson's only work when the entire piece of wood is coated; I would assume the same holds true for linseed oil. Once the coat on the buried side of your wood degrades, the water will find a way into the wood. You'd probably be better off not putting on another coat. The wood will last longer if allowed to "breathe" out the moisture that gets through on the backside. Another coat on the frontside would just trap it inside and hasten rot. Apply linseed oil once, then leave the wood alone to decay at its own pace. You'll extend wood life by a year or two.

Western Red Cedar: This wood is naturally decay-resistant, but also very expensive. You can use it "straight" or as cladding for chemically-treated wood or less rot-resistant wood; this can help reduce exposure to chemicals in the former and help extend the lifespan of the latter.

Redwood: Like Western Red Cedar, redwood lumber is slow to decay, but it is simply not responsible to use it anymore, since there are so many pressures to log that beautiful California forest.

Plastic Lumber: Plastic lumber is typically recycled from other plastics, usually polypropylene, which happens to be among the most inert plastics and free of the potentially harmful chemical Bisphenol-A.

The plastic is sometimes reinforced with nylon fibers for increased strength, and comes in a variety of colors. This plastic can come from a variety of sources, ranging from milk jugs to special recyclable toothbrushes (the latter grinds up whole toothbrushes into the mix, blending PP and nylon fibers in one fell swoop). When it's warm out, though, the pressure from the soil in a raised bed can cause plastic lumber to bend, meaning that a bed constructed in winter can suddenly look like it's melting. For this reason, plastic lumber needs a lot more support than wood - design that takes this into consideration can make a big difference, and a steel-reinforced product presumably addresses this problem as well. Look first for local manufacturers in your area if you want to cut down on shipping costs.

Reclaimed Materials: Nothing built from new material is truly sustainable. Even fast-growing poplar wood, billed as a renewable resource, mines its fields of nutrients, which don't get recycled into that same field at the end of the product's life cycle. Nutrients have to be trucked in as fertilizers. From a sustainability perspective, the best thing is to reclaim old wood studs from old buildings. For gardening purposes, who cares if it's a little holey? Just remember you still want to avoid pressure-treated materials here, too.

A Sustainable Attitude: Wood isn't something that lasts forever. In its natural setting, it decays, slowly releasing its nutrients back into the soil. During that process, it provides homes for countless creatures. The only way to keep it from rotting is to pump it full of chemicals. The best philosophy is to build temporary things with wood, and to build more permanent things with sturdier materials like concrete or metal. My raised beds are only six inches tall. When they decay, I'll just rip them out and rebuild them with new (reclaimed) wood. Who knows, maybe by that time I'll be ready for a different garden layout.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: The Mile-High Club: Short-season gardening in Denver DATE: 4:30 AM ----- BODY:
For whatever reason, Denver maintains a reputation as an agriculture-centered cowtown set in the heights of the Rockies. The reality is that we're set just out of the mountains on the plains along the front range. It's quite a drive to ski, and any agriculture other than the oft-forgotten stockyards is way out of town. That said, we are at a mile elevation - the statehouse steps mark the 5280' point, meaning very dry air and for goodness sake, don't forget your sunscreen.

Our house is actually in the northwestern part of town so we're pretty close along the foothills, but Denver has any number of micro-climates which can be experiencing vastly different weather at any given moment.
What we all share is a short growing season: around four months long, with our last frost date around May 15, and the first frost of the winter expected mid-September. We've usually got good snow coming around October 1. Through the summer the thin, dry air brings temperatures regularly breaking the 100 degree mark and cooling off significantly at night; this makes for great flavor in tomatoes and, if you can manage it with the very short season, melons.

My husband and I both grew up gardening and have truly enjoyed sharing it with our little ones, now five, two and a half, and six months old. Our oldest daughter really became interested a few months ago when she planted a few pea seeds in a bare patch in the lawn. It quickly became her garden and was carefully mowed around. She ate all the peas straight off the plant and we spent hours watching the bugs and digging for worms in her tiny plot. Now the five of us share a good-sized vegetable plot - maybe 15' by 8', with an additional 15' by 2' patch along the brick wall of our garage where we grow melons on a trellis to take advantage of the heat from the wall to try and extend the season a bit. We also grow perennials and plant bulbs, but that's become a secondary interest since the children get so much enjoyment out of the vegetables.

This year I was ambitious and had most of our cool-weather vegetable seeds in the ground by late-February. I've been very pleased with how it's turned out, and maybe a bit surprised. So far we have sugar snap and snow peas, mesclun, 'heatwave' lettuce blend, beets (a family favorite), gai-lan/broccolini, rhubarb, and a chartreuse and purple flower mix.

We'll be adding haricots verts (filet beans, or french green beans), along with cantaloupe, pumpkins, mini yellow bell peppers, and alpine strawberries we've started inside. This is my first time starting seeds indoors and I didn't plan very well in that the pumpkins sprouted in about four days, the cantaloupe and peppers in five or six. But the alpine strawberries germinate in (get this) thirty days. I'm not sure how I'm going to work this out, but for now I've taken the cover off of my mini-greenhouse and am using cling film to keep the strawberries' cells moist. Oh, and fingers crossed!

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Gardening for the hungry DATE: 11:00 AM ----- BODY:
I've been chatting lately with Dawn Israel, a gardener in the Nashville, TN area involved in a program in her area to donate produce to her local food bank. We thought Dawn's story of her own group's efforts was worth sharing, and asked her to write about it for Gardenaut. What we think you'll find as intriguing as we do is the fact that they have created both a public service organization that has a real impact on their local community and a resource for themselves and others as gardeners.

My family and I live just sound of Nashville and are grateful to have the luxury of a huge yard in which we can garden. We have lived here almost 5 years and this year we are planting our third vegetable garden and it gets larger each year! Though my husband and I both have some faint recollections of gardens at our parents? homes, we are basically learning as we go.

In addition to gardening for our family, we also participate in a group called "Just Crumbs." This is a small group that grew from the heart of a local organic farmer, Freddie Haddox, and a handful of folks at a small church and their desire to share fresh, nutritious food with others in need. Originally, Freddie designated a portion of his farm to be worked by others with the fruits of the labor to be donated to a community ministry for distribution. We began participating by donating vegetables grown in our backyard about the same time we started really gardening.

As frequently happens, circumstances have changed over the past few years and so has this group of gardeners. Though the church that initially handled donations closed, the gardeners decided to continue meeting and growing veggies to share. For many of us, traveling to the farm to work was not easy, so now most of us do what we can in our own gardens and take our harvests by special arrangement to the food bank at GraceWorks for distribution. The leaders at GraceWorks have indicated that the people they serve truly appreciated the gift of fresh food. Sometimes, our donations were given directly to someone we knew that was going through a hard time and needed food.

Not everyone participates by growing things - some of our members help by working in our garden, delivering the vegetables, saving bags or containers for the produce, encouraging us, and providing advice from decades of experience. Anyone in our community that is interested is welcome to participate. Though we are a small group and last year we battled incredible drought, high temperatures and more animals than usual, we donated several hundred pounds of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, melons, hot peppers, herbs, and lots of other fresh foods to those that might otherwise go without them.

As my husband recently said, Just Crumbs is a way to learn to grow food, ourselves, our family and relationships, as well an opportunity to give to others out of the abundance with which we are blessed. I would encourage anyone interested to investigate opportunities for sharing in their own community. There is likely a food bank, ministry, or soup kitchen that would welcome your donations and individuals that you may never meet who would be grateful. As most of you would probably agree, there is nothing like a meal with homegrown food.

I am happy to be able to contribute to Gardenauts and am looking forward to learn what others are doing in their own gardens. If you have any questions or if there's any way I can help you to begin something similar, please let me know and I will do my best.

Best wishes and happy gardening!

One way to get started providing similar assistance in your own area is by teaming up with Plant A Row for the Hungry, a group that can help you launch a local project coordinating local gardeners to contribute a portion of their harvest to your local food bank.


----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Basil and blackberries DATE: 4:15 AM ----- BODY:
Until about two hours ago, I thought I was going to have a dismal report on the basil seeds I mentioned last week. But I discovered that if I looked very closely (a magnifying glass would help) I can see the beginnings of green poking through the soil. Two little basil plants! My seeds are looking to be not a total failure as I had worried.

Then a little later I another surprise. As I did my almost daily rounds, assessing the status of my tomatoes (no red ones yet, but they're getting bigger!), I checked on our volunteer blackberries.

I had forgotten to mention the blackberries in earlier posts because we do nothing with them. They first sprouted up along the fence where we put the leftover lumber from building our house. We didn't plant them, we didn't tend them, and we forgot about them for a couple years. Last summer we remembered them just in time and enjoyed several handfuls of berries.

I suspect this year, all we will get again is a handful of berries. I have no idea what kind of blackberries they are and if they are truly wild. These are things I need to figure out. We have hopes of providing a better support for them to grow on and and would like to plant another couple of plants. In the limited reading we have done though, we learned that wild blackberry plants do not like cultivated blackberry plants and vice versa. So for the time being, we are doing nothing except picking the few blackberries we are blessed with. If anyone has any expertise or experience growing blackberries, we would love advice and suggestions!

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Thoughts from the bottom of the compost pile DATE: 12:00 PM ----- BODY:
When I was about 6 or 7, I received what was, I believe, my first pet: A toad. Not the most attractive or cuddly pet, but I liked him. Our family was driving home one rainy evening in rural Ohio, and there were toads all over the road. My dad stopped the truck, jumped out and put a toad in the pocket of his flannel shirt. My dad is just that kind of dad. He does extraordinary things like pull over for a toad. I can't tell you what kind of impression that leaves on a 7 year-old's imagination. We took the toad home, put him in a giant pickle jar, with some dirt and rocks, and I believe a water dish. My sister and I captured flies to feed him. We christened him, with a child's appreciation for rhyme, Road Toad.

I'm not sure how long we had Road Toad. But I do remember the day I had to release him. My dad explained that he had to go back to where he belonged, where he would be happy. I remember being a little sad, but I understood. I wanted Road Toad to be happy. So one weekend afternoon, my dad and I released him into the garden. Road Toad hopped away seeking the shade under some newly planted vegetables. I would look for him every now and again in the garden, but I don't recall if we ever saw each other again.

I bring this up because this morning, in my garden, some twenty-seven years later, my father once again gave me a toad. And I had to laugh at the excitement that little reptile elicited in me.

My parents drove down to Florida this past March to visit us, and with them they brought some compost for my new little garden. I know it was an Ohio toad because the bags were tied tightly shut, and it appeared in the wheelbarrow as I dumped the last of that bag into it this morning. I carefully scooped it up and placed it gently underneath my broccoli, hoping that it would eat the bugs that had been nibbling on it, my organic pest control.

As I continued gardening, I thought about the gifts the compost and its inhabitants - I later found an earthworm - were for my little garden. And I realized that it was an even greater gift than I first realized.

My father and I don't see eye-to-eye on much. He's conservative, I'm liberal, and this pertains to pretty much everything. Sometimes it's hard to have a conversation where you don't get your knickers in a twist or your feelings hurt. It often feels like we just don't speak the same language. But then I started gardening.

Gardening has become a neutral ground for us. We can talk about it without disagreement, at length and at ease. He knows a lot more about it than I do, and has great advice about how to make things better for me and my garden. And he likes what I'm doing because he's building some beds just like mine for my mom. I'm very thankful for all that - for my little toad, for my compost, for this spot in the garden where my father and I can put aside our different opinions and talk about staking tomatoes, or when to plant cucumbers.

There's a certain irony that I found this little gift amidst a pile of compost, and before I started to garden I certainly, and sadly, would've missed it. But I did see it, this morning in my garden, that part of my father rooted there in the shade under some newly planted vegetables.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: The beginning of another year's garden DATE: 3:00 AM ----- BODY:
It doesn't look like much now but my 2008 vegetable garden is officially underway. Eighteen bell pepper transplants are in (Red Beauty), as are 18 tomato plants (Roma, German Johnson, and Beefmaster). I picked these up at our local farmer's market, which is only about 2 miles from my house. I'd love to grow my own seedlings but I actually don't have a great spot to do that in the house - maybe a small greenhouse is in our future?

We picked up seedlings of the crazy tomato varieties I described in my first post but they're still pretty tiny and will likely need to be grown out a bit before planting. But that's ok. One thing I've noticed with tomatoes in our area is that even plants that are supposed to be indeterminate tend to wither and fade out by mid-to-late August. September and October are still prime growing months in our area of NC so if a few plants get in the ground a little later it may just mean an extended harvest - that works for me.

In addition to transplants we've also done some direct sowing of cucumbers (two varieties, but I can't remember the names), beans, and some peas. It's probably way too late for the peas to do much but that's ok. If they work out, great; if not, so be it. We'll learn something either way.

One of the most satisfying things about putting in this year's garden is seeing how much our soil has improved over the years. After four years of dumping as much organic material as we could get our hands on into the garden we're starting to see a terrific payoff. Our garden soil is dark and easily workable, it seems to hold water just right - it stays moist but is never soggy. The best thing we ever did for our garden soil was to put in about 4-5 cubic yards of composted horse manure. Wow, this stuff is really fantastic - and cheap!

Still to do in the garden is plant zucchini and basil and run soaker hoses up and down each row of plants. Once the hoses are in by the tomatoes I'll set a tomato cage around each plant. I use farmer's wire field fencing to make cages. I had a big roll of the stuff left over from a fencing project and decided it would be perfect for cages. I cut the bottom-most horizontal strand of wire off each cage and that leaves 6 or 7 vertical pieces of wire to serve as stakes to keep the cages anchored in heavy winds. The cages were cheap to make and are effective and durable - this will be our third season using them. Wire from the same field fencing also makes great stakes for holding soaker hoses in place. Using these stakes allows me to keep the hose right on the ground and right next to my plants.

One of my favorite things about gardening, and something I look forward to every season, is the daily ritual of coming home from work and checking on my plants. I check on everyone's progress and note who's thriving and who needs some attention. I usually don't see much change from day to day but over a season's worth of daily tending I've witnessed the growth of another year's garden.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: One way to keep rabbits out of your lettuce DATE: 4:00 PM ----- BODY:
Last spring, while I was obsessing nearly daily about the evil bunnies and their salad green destroying ways, I happened to stroll through one of the local garden shop's racks of spring plants. Amidst the armada of pansies and their ilk, I spotted a four pack of lettuce seedlings. I was sure I was smart enough to thwart the bunnies. Hope does spring eternal.

My theory was that by putting it in pots on the steps in front of our house it might survive. As I've said before here, most Sylvilagus can't jump despite their reputation, plus they're rather shy creatures, so I figured coming up the walk toward a door and a light might exceed even their cheekiness. Happily, this theory turned out to hold water, and the lettuce was glorious. It's even rather pretty in a green sort of way. This is the 2008 version:

Of course, it all goes south once it gets hot, plus the porch light attracts hordes of evil insects whether I use a yellow bulb or not. By the beginning of June, I have to remove all of the edibles from the porch or they get decimated.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Preparing and assessing DATE: 12:00 PM ----- BODY:
I'm waiting anxiously for my safe-to-plant-in-the-ground date and wondering if there's something I'm supposed to be doing out there that I haven't been doing. My outdoor preparations have involved a lot of staring and trying to decide if things are weeds or plants, which I think I'm getting a little better at.

Indoors, I've planted seeds and I must admit I was a little surprised when they actually sprouted. It was like a small miracle on my back porch - tomatoes and cucumbers rising up into the world. I tend to them by talking to them softly and checking to see if the soil is light brown, which would mean it is time for me to add water to the tray.

I was surprised at how miniscule the foxglove seeds were and indeed, the foxglove sprouts are thin and wispy little things, almost invisible. The cucumbers, on the other hand, look strong and tenacious.

Outdoors, we've had two frosts since things have begun to sprout and grow. Both times, I covered my beds and that seemed to keep everything safe. There was one crinkly looking leaf on my butterfly bush, but a lot of new growth has sprouted since then, so she's fine.

I've noticed that something has been digging in the flower beds. The holes remind me of the time I planted tulip bulbs one morning and came back that afternoon to find them every one dug up and spirited away. This time, I don't know what the digger was looking for - no harm done, but I don't like the way this is starting out.

It's led me to consider building an ugly wire contraption around my tomatoes. I'd prefer not to do that, but the squirrels and I need to come to some sort of an agreement. I like them just fine and I realize they need to eat like everybody else, but I don't want them to think of me as the proprietress of their very own late-night, all-you-can-eat buffet.

The time is coming to figure it out because last weekend we built the raised vegetable beds. Tracy made some measurements and drew up a plan, but when we got to the store, they didn?t have lumber in the size we needed. We improvised and ended up with larger, squarer beds than we?d imagined, but I think that?s just fine, especially since I?m going to be growing melons.

After the building process which, I confess, involved a lot of me just standing there while Tracy swung the hammer, we set out to look for dirt. Last year, when I grew tomatoes in a planter, I filled it with a few bags of organic potting soil. Having no concept of the price of such things, we happily returned to the garden store to buy what we knew would be a large number of bags of the same soil to fill our beds.

"Wait," Tracy said as I reached for the first bag. He pulled out his handy calculator and informed me that enough soil to fill our beds would cost roughly $500.

Bags of organic topsoil were noticeably cheaper, so we agreed to do a little research and left without making a purchase. Fortunately, we have plenty of gravel at our construction project next door, so we can put that in the bottom of the beds for drainage, and a gardening neighbor is going to send us some information about soil mixes. We should have them filled by the end of this weekend.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Silicon Valley transplants DATE: 4:24 AM ----- BODY:
We seem to lead a nomadic life, pulling up roots every couple of years to transplant them elsewhere. We began as a couple with our first house in Houston, where I would hover over new azaleas with a water hose every afternoon and train rambling roses along a picket fence. We then moved to Tiburon, California, to discover the coastal bliss of the forevergreen, giddy with the explosion of dramatic ornamental varieties of everything. When we moved to Madison, Connecticut, we hauled three shelves of container plants from California to a trailer park on the beach, where most everything continued to grow - as far as I knew, because most of it slowly disappeared to theft!

A year later we brought the remnants to Lancaster, Texas, and took a backhoe to kaliche, growing a gimongous vegetable patch on an old farm. Then to Austin, where we focused on raising chickens, which reinforced lessons simultaneously taught by the deer: rarely should animals have free reign over the vegetables (duh!).

Finally, here in sunny Saratoga, California, we're turning our cheeks to the gophers, ignoring their subterranean network to grow strawberries and heirloom tomatoes in huge pots, fenced in from the deer for good measure.

Gardening here isn't an annual ritual, marked by an all-or-nothing planting spree; it is a marathon. I can visit the nursery in December and set an annual in the ground in January, in between weepy rainspells. In April, the rain ceases and the sun beams intense during the day, the air cold at night, and I can set a trowel in the ground and dig up a few worms to hand to my son. It is time to plant seeds, in earnest.

Summertime brings hot blasting winds upon the garden, but you can still set out a transplant in the shade, to flower and fruit in the fall. And fall may not be showy, but the produce keeps coming, armful after armful. Ideally, on any given parcel of land here, there is something always blooming, always keeping a few bees, always luring another bird or insect...

...but a few furry party crashers always pervade:

This month, we have created a space for the kids to plant new tomato varieties: Paul Robeson, Mamotoro, Mr. Stripey, Striped German and Ace. There are leeks, yellow chard, butter lettuce, blue kale and scallions growing in containers, too.

We're starting an assortment of herbs from seed: coriander, different basil varieties, parsley, thyme. Strawberries are setting fruit again, the grapefruit tree has dropped most of its yellow orbs and the bees are now hovering over its heady blooms. Nasturtium, alyssum, even a few tomatoes reseeded and new shoots are popping up throughout the garden. A pumpkin resurrected by thirty-odd sprouts at the base of the compost heap.

I still have a boxful of seeds to plant and the garden tools remain outside, poised for another day of work tomorrow. In fact, here, unlike any other place we've lived and gardened, the shovels and spades never see the darkness of the shed.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Paul Polak On Small-Scale Garden Solutions DATE: 4:19 AM ----- BODY:
I heard a great interview with Paul Polak on Fresh Air last night, relevant to home gardeners because he helps farmers in the developing world by focusing on those working "tiny" plots, who he says are the vast majority of the world's farmers.

Polak said that 90% of the world's engineers are developing farming tools for 10% of the world's farms, that modern drip irrigation supplies were designed for giant tracts of land, and that small farmers (and thus gardeners) need totally different solutions if they want their application of technology to be cost-efficient - foot-operated water pumps, cheaper hoses for low-pressure drip irrigation, and so on. This is something Wendell Berry talked about a lot in his wonderful book of essays The Gift of Good Land, but Polak seems to have more practical examples and solutions under his belt.

Polak runs a multi-million-dollar international development foundation and has a book out, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail.

You can listen to the podcast here.


----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Springtime in Alaska DATE: 3:33 AM ----- BODY:
It's finally springtime in Alaska. I know this because I saw my first mosquito last week. Oh, the injustice - there's still snow on the ground and the little buggers are already here.

This "little" guy tried to munch on the baby's head within 10 minutes of our going outside on a nice April afternoon in the Anchorage area. No need to Photoshop it - this is an Alaskan mosquito, after all.

I also know it's spring because people have started emerging from their homes like bears out of the den, HUNGRY! We're hungry for light, hungry for green, and anxious to make the most of our short summer.

This week, as larger and larger patches of earth begin to appear from under the snowmelt, we're all puttering about outside trying to make spring come even faster. It will be a few weeks before we can put anything in the ground, and in fact, we aren't really uncovering perennials yet due to low temperatures at night.

Of course, this is a repeat from a few weeks ago, when we were duped by a few sunny days and the appearance of all the usual spring displays at the grocery store. Then came a few more snowfalls and the only things growing in our yard were dinosaur snow sculptures.

Typically in this part of the state the rule of thumb is to begin planting the week of Memorial Day, or even as late as June 1. That leaves just a few short months before "fall" hits, but glorious months they are.

Where else can you be out so late communing with your greenery or checking out your neighbors' displays while on a midnight bike ride? We have so much light in summer that it's easy to lose track of time and begin mowing the yard at 10 or 10:30 p.m.

Summertime is also about reconnecting with community. In my neighborhood there are several gardeners with years of experience and I'm grateful for their knowledge. I would not call myself so much a gardener as a "hoper." I dig around, plant, and hope that something happens. I'm easily overwhelmed by the too-many variables that affect why and how something thrives.

However, this summer should bring about a little more growth on my part, as many of my posts will include highlights from our neighborhood master gardeners. I figure I'll learn a few things along the way, and we'll have fun sharing our unique experiences from the Land of the Midnight Sun.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Why Garden? DATE: 3:49 AM ----- BODY:
Michael Pollan has a great piece in the "Green Issue" of the New York Times Magazine called "Why Bother?" The answer, he says, is gardening.

"Years ago the cheap-energy mind discovered that more food could be produced with less effort by replacing sunlight with fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticides, with a result that the typical calorie of food energy in your diet now requires about 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce," he writes.
Yet the sun still shines down on your yard, and photosynthesis still works so abundantly that in a thoughtfully organized vegetable garden (one planted from seed, nourished by compost from the kitchen and involving not too many drives to the garden center), you can grow the proverbial free lunch ? CO2-free and dollar-free. This is the most-local food you can possibly eat (not to mention the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious), with a carbon footprint so faint that even the New Zealand lamb council dares not challenge it. And while we?re counting carbon, consider too your compost pile, which shrinks the heap of garbage your household needs trucked away even as it feeds your vegetables and sequesters carbon in your soil. What else? Well, you will probably notice that you're getting a pretty good workout there in your garden, burning calories without having to get into the car to drive to the gym. (It is one of the absurdities of the modern division of labor that, having replaced physical labor with fossil fuel, we now have to burn even more fossil fuel to keep our unemployed bodies in shape.) Also, by engaging both body and mind, time spent in the garden is time (and energy) subtracted from electronic forms of entertainment.

You begin to see that growing even a little of your own food is, as Wendell Berry pointed out 30 years ago, one of those solutions that, instead of begetting a new set of problems - the way "solutions" like ethanol or nuclear power inevitably do - actually beget other solutions, and not only of the kind that save carbon. Still more valuable are the habits of mind that growing a little of your own food can yield. You quickly learn that you need not be dependent on specialists to provide for yourself - that your body is still good for something and may actually be enlisted in its own support. If the experts are right, if both oil and time are running out, these are skills and habits of mind we're all very soon going to need. We may also need the food. Could gardens provide it? Well, during World War II, victory gardens supplied as much as 40 percent of the produce Americans ate. [Link]
We highly recommend the full article, which you can find here. If you are not a "member" of the New York Times and dislike meaningless website registrations, use ours - login Gardenaut, password Gardenaut - or find another login at


----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Things chickens will eat DATE: 1:30 PM ----- BODY:

What goes in one end, Comes out the other.

In the garden, thrift is everything. I hate to waste anything with organic content. Chickens help me repackage organic materials, like table scraps, into a form my garden can use: manure. I have to compost it with their straw (which I use as a bedding material), but it's worth the wait.

Here are just a few things chickens will eat.

Slightly spoiled produce, Cutworm Salad,
Old Easter Eggs, slugs in their native environment.

If you're interested in keeping chickens in an urban setting, check out the listing of cities which allow chickens that contributor Emily pointed to in a recent Gardenaut comment, or draw some inspiration from either of the chicken posts I wrote for ZRecs a while back:
Contributing blogger MissoulaChick (Gardenaut's Montana correspondent and Intermountain West representative) also runs a website with information and resources for chicken-raising.


----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Ants on a Log DATE: 8:40 AM ----- BODY:
I'm on a personal mission to familiarize G with garden bugs. It's spring, and Seattle's harmless black ants have emerged looking for food. I placed a drop of honey on the perimeter of the garden so G and his friend could watch them swarm around it.

The most annoying habit these ants have is "farming" aphids. They place them on the stalks of tender plants and then "milk" the bugs, squeezing them until a drop of "honeydew" emerges. This can stunt plant growth and transmit viruses.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Getting organized DATE: 3:00 AM ----- BODY:
There are a few things in the garden that truly require crop rotation, or at least the books and websites say they do. As I understand it, all the members of the pea family as well as potatoes benefit greatly from moving around from year to year. Carrots, too, are prone to bugs that can be escaped via smart rotation.

Along with that consideration, the sun in Montana is kind of fickle and thus sunlight needs to be planned around. The angle of the sun, our surrounding mountain tops, and the height of the mature plant all come together in a vegetable trigonometry which I take into account each year.

The first year we owned the house I planted willy-nilly in regard to height vs. sun direction. Corn grew tall and stunted the basil that struggled in its formidable eastern shadow, the squashes shaded themselves and only grew well in the first row, and the snow peas prevented the tomatoes from getting any sun in June. It wasn't a disaster, but it was utterly preventable and a very amateur mistake. I started a garden journal that year that has proven really helpful. It contains comments like, "The short blonde girl at the farmer's market had the best tomato starts. Buy at least two Sungolds next year" "Zucchini EAST of herbs, not west!" as well as "Corn; never again. Leave it to people in Kansas to grow that stuff."

Every year I sketch out a tentative plan in the notebook that puts the taller plants to the east, and the shorter ones to the west. I also carefully study the previous year's final garden drawing to make sure that my peas are living in new real estate to prevent some kind of pea rot that I don't even want to know about. And my husband (of Polish ancestry) always insists we plant more potatoes then last year, so I plot out a new stretch of garden for tubers. This year we might try purple Peruvians!

Then, I start planting. Rarely does my sketch directly correspond to the reality come August, but it is close. You can plant carrots to the east of tomatoes, it just does not seems like a terrific idea. And this year, I will do so, and we'll see how it goes. Maybe they will like some shading? I'll find out.

Also, I like to mark my rows with tidy little labels. Here is a tip for my fellow gardeners; cut little garden labels out of a sturdy plastic yogurt container, then use a sharpie marker to write on them. The marker will fade a bit with direct sunlight, but in general it is a great reuse for those yogurt containers that I know everyone has around the kitchen.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Listen to your climate DATE: 3:00 AM ----- BODY:
Like I said last week, I am a transplant to Austin. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, a fertile place with four distinct, but not too extreme seasons. When I started gardening here three years ago, I expected the same results here as in Virginia.

My mom and my daughter picking peas in Virginia.

I started with sugar snap peas. I planted earlier than I would have in Virginia, early-mid March. I asked my gardening neighbor and she said I'd planted way too late. I just couldn't believe it, I had helped with peas for years (in Virginia). This timing had to be just right.

Imagine that--my neighbor who had been selling produce from her organic garden for years at the Farmer's Market was right. I got a handful of peas, mostly small, pathetic looking things with half empty shells.

Next was green beans and lima beans. The harvest was dismal for the limas. The green beans probably would have been okay if I would have watered them every day. I didn't, so I picked squishy shelled green beans.

The next year was different. I gave up the traditional crops I longed for and opted for more of what is thriving in my garden now - tomatoes, squash, and peppers in the summer and broccoli, lettuce, and spinach in the winter. I've learned to listen to those who have been gardening in this extreme climate (at least summers are pretty extreme) instead of thinking that I knew what I was doing because I helped in a garden 1,500 miles Northeast of here.

I finally got my tomatoes in at a reasonable time this year, the end of February. I transplanted those, peppers and a basil plant. I am still hesitant about starting tomatoes from seed. This year, I did take a little risk. Yesterday my daughter and planted a bunch of Genovese Basil plants from seed. In places North, I may be worried about cutting the growing season too short by planting seeds now. Here, I am not worried. I transplanted a small basil plant last August and it produced until our first freeze in November or December last year.

I am counting on my former skill with seeds to hold true; I don't know what we'll do with 10 basil plants otherwise. Hostess gifts? We went to Home Depot and bought peat moss seed flats and organic potting soil. My daughter had a great time filling the flat with dirt, poking little holes for the seed, and then very carefully putting a couple of seeds in each hole. We covered them up and she proceeded to flood the poor little seeds.

My daughter carefully filling the flat with potting soil.

I am not sure if they will come up. I thought I'd try though. Transplants are good, but sometimes I need something I've started (and learned) myself instead of something started by someone else. I am aiming for one or two basil plants. It's a learning experience and my daughter thought it was great to help plant something a little differently than we usually do. After her nap today she asked if we could garden again. I need to find some more seeds to start!

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