Check-in: why am I doing this, again?

My gardening motives over the last 5 years:

Five years ago: Food Forest omg omg grow all the foods eat the plants!! And native plants, grow all the natives!!!1!

Four years ago: I’m not really sure I want to grow kiwis. Tomatoes are not very pretty plants. Oh well, have to grow em. Watering is hard; maybe I’ll set up rainwater catchment. Wow Rosa nutkana is 12′ tall already. Hm.

Three years ago: Jesus CHRIST this is a hell of a lot of work. I do NOT want to have to build a kiwi arbor. It’s hot out here. I need to plant some shade trees and I do not need any more pears. Damn, rainwater catchment really does not work in a dry summer climate unless you have 18,0000,00000 gallons of water storage volume. How little can I water the tomatoes?

Two years ago: Oh heyyyyy xeriscaping (bats eyelashes). God it’s hot out here. Ima plant me some more trees.

Last year: I want nothing but manzanitas, weird Australian shrubbery, anything silvery, and everything also must have microscopic leaves. Oh and if there are flowers in peach/orange/pink tones, bring it.

Also last year: I finally came to a realization that cannot stand all the rectangular garden beds (not really raised; more like edged with wood) that I’d built in years prior. I hated the right angle turns I was constantly making. I hated wrestling with the hose around corners and too-narrow paths. And I started to not like the extremely variable overall form of the garden – tall plants over here one year, over there the next; vines here then there… I was craving more consistency.

Typical raised beds with wide paths all perfectly graveled, vegetables growing way up off the ground and nowhere near native soil is NOT the direction I wanted to go. I have GREAT soil – it is deficient in nothing and beautifully textured Latourell loam. So ixnay on the idea of wider paths and taller beds; though that would certainly help with the hose struggle, I just don’t want to garden that way. What I really want is curving paths and organic shapes for beds; foliar screens and room dividers; deliberate and artistic contrasts in texture and form. Not ready to completely rip everything out and start from scratch, I set about removing all the 2×6 cedar edges as beds which I had been growing vegetables became available over the course of the season.

Paths have started to form; I’ve lined some with bricks and others with old hoses, which I prefer, but old hoses are in limited quantity while bricks are abundant. I started thinking even more in terms of water-use zones, and considered automatic irrigation in some key areas. At this point I have given up at least half of the space that was formerly allocated to vegetable gardening and I’m preparing to lose even more.

new garden path marked by hoses
Look, hoses AND bricks here

As one who sees herself as an avid vegetable grower, this is a big and somewhat challenging adjustment. I never thought I’d be one of those gardeners who says, “yeah, I used to grow tomatoes….” But here I am. Priorities change and I guess gardens change along with.

Now, lest you think I’m done yet, I assure you I am not. Under these lovely (ahem) covered wagons are a dozen tomatoes (most grafted), about 40 peppers and a whole bunch of melons of various types.

Irony.

It’s totally ironic that I’ve always disliked that white shed roof, and I’ve been pretty vocal in my complaints about it, but then I go and make all these ugly-ass hoop houses. Do I really want to look at this? The honest truth is that no, I don’t. But I still love growing the plants that are under them, and I’m not yet ready to say this is the last time I’ll do this.

On top of, and in the midst of all that, as of April I have a new housemate. I want to incorporate her ideas about gardening and what she wants to grow, and perhaps satisfy her ideas about aesthetics as well, even when they differ from mine.

This is all potentially a lot of pretty quick change for me, and I’ll be the first to admit that I can take a long time to adjust to change, especially the type that feels like it reshapes my trajectory, I guess because clear trajectory feels hard for me to come by in the first place!

That said, I DID manage a project along the lines of a trajectory that I’d already started playing with in the front yard: a dry garden area; in this case a bit of a berm. This was where I grew tomatoes last year:

ducks help dig a new garden bed
Debug team is helping. So helpful. And housemate’s foot (she IS helpful for real!).

We raked the wood chips off, broke up the clods, and into that went about 5 bags of pumice (1 cu. ft. each). These bags are about $5 each from Concentrates which is right down the road from me. Easy.

plant placement in garden
Almost all are treasures from plant swaps and friends

It doesn’t look very berm-y in the above photo, but the next one might give a better idea. I had amassed quite a collection of plants that like things on the dry side and love good drainage.

ducks in new garden bed
Almost done.
Another view, two weeks later. Lots of new growth on Bulbine frutescens (the green thing this side of the poppies).

It really doesn’t look like much, but such is the nature of new plantings. I don’t love the look of the pumice but I’m willing to put up with it while I figure out a mulch; I’m not ready to commit to gravel so it’s probably wood chips or nothing. I’ve added some bits of fencing and a big pot shard to protect little plants from the ravages of dogs and hoses.

Speaking of the ravages of dogs, do you have ANY idea how hard it is to establish new shrubs when you have two large-to-giant male dogs who get into pee wars? The damage is very real. After four or five outright deaths, I’m finally coming to grips with having to just fence around plants. I’ve been reluctant in the past because if I fence off one plant, the focus will simply shift to another. While that is true, it is also true that some plants can take more pee than others.

I finally did this, in addition to multiple other fences around individual plants:

garden fence to keep dogs out
Fenced off are a young Eucryphia (among native blackcaps) and a couple of Carpenterias. Yes those are potatoes from 2 years ago at front right. Shut up.

I know, it’s gross and it seems silly; why even let your dogs back there at all, you may wonder. I’ll tell you: I want to have my cake and eat it too in getting these shrubs established, while allowing the dogs their backyard pee breaks since apparently it’s too hard to take them on walks out front so they can pee on the neighbors’ shrubbery. Besides, even if we made that a habit, these dudes would still have to mark, and mark on top, and on top, ad nauseam. Even just marking, when the dogs are 70lbs and 100lbs, is significant.

Anyway. I’ll conclude with a list of what I put in that new bed, and a photo of my favorite of all of them.

  • Two Agaves maybe salmiana or havardiana
  • Three Sphaeralcea ‘Newleaze Coral’
  • Three Anaphalis margaritacea
  • Bulbine frutescens
  • Sinningia tubiflora
  • Hesperaloe parviflora
  • Eryngium ‘Neptune’s Gold’
  • Penstemon pinifolius
  • Dasylirion wheeleri from Cistus, couldn’t resist it at Hortlandia
  • Callistemon pallidus ‘Eleanor’ from The Desert Northwest (also a Hortlandia purchase)
  • Aquilegia chrysantha var chaplinii from Xera Plants – really cool blue-purple foliage, this one is from New Mexico/Texas.
  • Arctostaphylos pumila ‘Gray Form’ also from Xera.

Thank you to my crazy fun gardening friends for the unsourced plants listed above, and to our stalwart local nurseries as well. These are all plants I could look at for days, months, years. And yes, I’ve answered my own question, haven’t I? THIS is why I am doing this.

Sigh… here’s my favorite, the Arctostaphylos pumila naturally. I didn’t get a great photo so you’ll just have to trust me that this plant is incredibly charming and very, very pretty.

This. THIS is why I’m doing this.

Thanks for reading!

June Vegetable Garden Update + Blackcaps

OMG where does the time go!? I’ve acquired a staggering number of new plants in the last month, and I’ve been working to get them all planted.  And of course this is prime time for the vegetable garden and things are really going well.  Here’s an update on some of that.

I seeded carrots and parsnips in here but as seems to be typical of the Apiaceae family in my garden, I got shit for germination.  So I gave up on most of them and set these starts in, which I sowed sometime in maybe April.   Round 2 of lettuce (round 1 is gone, round 3 is just emerging in seed trays in the house).

Chinese cabbage, lettuces, mustard flowering

I sowed these cabbage family babies three weeks ago and they really need to get in the ground, like now. We just harvested all the garlic, so there’s an entire bed awaiting them.  I will have to fence it or the ducks will eat these.

Brassicaceae for winter

The super-hot peppers are coming along really well – some are starting to get tall and branch out.  Basil barely visible behind it suffered a chicken attack when I forgot to close the birds in one night, but it’s mostly surviving.

Super-hot Capsicum chinense hybrids (and the two pimientos)

Tomatoes are, as usual, insane.  I can’t wait to compare the grafted ones to the non-grafted ones – I hope there is a noticeable difference (to justify the effort, mostly).

Ananas Noire

These melons look really good.  They really like the wood chip mulch!

Moon & Stars watermelon, other melons

I started several Tagetes lucida plants from seed last year and set them out here and there to trial them and see how they grow in different settings.  I didn’t expect them to make it through the winter, but OMG they all came through.  The “un-scientific” name is Mexican tarragon or Spanish tarragon, and it’s definitely easier to grow than French tarragon.  Of course it’s a completely different plant (same fam, tho), so the flavor is a bit different.  I would say sweeter and more anise-esque.  Mountain Valley Growers did some culinary comparisons you can read about here.

Tagetes lucida.  The owl was a gift from my brother

Now we’re in the front yard, where I have relegated eggplant because of verticillium in the back.  So far, they don’t get it at all out here.  If they do eventually, I’ll have to start grafting them (I got bigger grafting clips, too, because I’m probably going to do it next year regardless).

Leeks, eggplants, Tropaeolum because I object to using another genus as a common name, damn it

The taller eggplants in the back are Millionaire and the shorter ones in front should be Prosperosa.  And yeah, that’s Geranium ‘Rozanne’ doing her thing in the upper right.

I should probably make this next bit its own post but I’ve already done all this so, whatever.  Behold:

Rubus leucodermis

No sane gardener would ever grow our native blackcap in their backyard on purpose.  I swear.  What the hell am I thinking? Well, if you’re not familiar with it, let me tell you about this absolutely wonderful western native plant.  Bullet points for you speed-readers.

  • Doesn’t get those damned fruit flies (spotted-wing drosophila)
  • Fruits start ripening in early June and continue well into July
  • Fruits on old wood (floricane-fruiting)
  • Thorns are recurved, so they grab you a bit, not horribly
  • Gorgeous white bark, really cool looking in winter
  • Spreads by tip-layering, not by runners
  • Supremely climate-adapted and needs no supplemental water, ever
  • Vigorous to the point of OMGWTF if you don’t watch it
  • Fruit flavor is less tart. less bright, more complex, maybe sweeter? And they’re a bit seedier which I don’t mind.

So what I do, is I treat the thing just like a normal raspberry, except for the tip-layering bit (do not permit unless someone wants a plant).  And the watering (none).  When the floricanes are done, I’ll cut them out at ground level, and at the same time I’ll prune the primocanes back by about half – if I don’t do that they will eat things like my neighbor’s house, and pruning them encourages them to branch a lot, so then I get a more compact-shrubby plant instead of a 20′ long bramble.  Like any raspberry you absolutely cannot leave this plant alone and expect it to behave.  But aside from that, in my book it scores well above normal raspberries (which, as previously mentioned, are all coming out this year).

Here’s the whole plant – see the tall primocanes with the glorious white “skin”? On left, lower, are the floricanes which looked just like these primocanes last year at this time until I shortened them by about half. I’ll have to reduce the number of them this year, too.  Eventually this plant will get some form of support structure.

Evidence of house-eating potential

When/if these primocanes touch ground, they will root.  Right through grass and mulch and everything.  I’m helping this one so my friends Kate and Katie can have a plant.

tip-layering, with assistance (totally unnecessary but speeds the process)

Blackcaps are delicious

I don’t remember when I discovered these, as a kid, or who (Mom? probably, native Oregon kid that she is) turned me onto them.  But I do remember, every summer, going up into the woods and finding them at the edges of forests, and in clearings.  I had two particularly good patches and if I ended up encountering them unintentionally I’d have to use my shirt, or my hat, or whatever I could find (Acer macrophyllum leaf?) to hold them, because neither patch was particularly close to the house and, being a lazy-ass Taurus, I wasn’t about to actually go back and get some kind of bucket.  We made freezer jam with them whenever sis TJ and I would pick enough.  Rarely straight blackcap jam, though – the best was to mix them 50/50 with red raspberries from the garden. – that was everyone’s favorite.

Freezer jam is the best because, since it’s uncooked, the flavor is much more true to the berry.  I asked Mom about her recipe and what she said is that she generally followed whatever was on the Sure-Jell pectin box.  Pectin and pectin-type products vary a bit in terms of what’s in them, and how they recommend going about it, so the things to remember are (god I love bullet points):

  • Don’t use a sugar substitute, or try to use less sugar than the directions call for. This will invariably lead to disappointment.  If you want to preserve fruit but not with sugar, just freeze the fruit whole and you can make a simple compote in January with the frozen berries and little to no sugar.
  • If the recipe says to strain some or all of the fruit to reduce the seeds, it’s optional, and you should experiment to see what you like.  I would definitely strain a straight blackcap jam, but I might not strain it at all (or just strain the blackcaps) if it’s half and half.
  • Do not skimp or cut any corners with whatever the recipe says with regard to stirring and/or letting the fruit stand.  You want to make damn sure all the sugar gets dissolved completely and all the pectin does whatever it’s supposed to do.
  • If the recipe calls for lemon juice, know that it’s not like adding lemon juice or citric acid to a low-acid fruit for shelf-stable canning.  In other words, lemon juice is mostly for flavor, and may help with the jelling process, but it’s not needed for preservation.
  • Use whatever containers you want but again, since you’re just freezing, you don’t need actual canning jar lids and rings.  A good seal helps prevent freezer burn.  I like actual freezer jam jars with the colored plastic lids the best.

All right, now I feel weird because I’ve strayed dangerously close to the food-blog corner, so just to assure myself and you all that this is still really about plants, here’s another plant picture – The stems of R. leucodermis, as mentioned, look absolutely ghostly and really cool in winter.

 

Peppers, this year and last year.

Last year was a fantastic year for peppers and I think this year will be even better.  I got almost all the plants I am going to grow into the ground yesterday:

34 plants in this 4′ x 10′ bed

The one plant I overwintered went in as well.  This is a sweet pepper called ‘Yum Yum Gold’ from Territorial Seed.  It wasn’t my favorite variety of all we grew last year; it was just the one plant that was easiest to get at to dig out of the ground and transfer to a pot for the overwintering experiment.  It continued to flower and fruit throughout the winter.

Yum Yum Gold

It tended to go in batches.  Just finishing one up now:

Ripens brilliant orange.

Of GREAT INTEREST to me is that when I first set pepper plants out, ostensibly to harden off to both direct sun and cold, I usually have to be quite careful especially with direct sun or leaves will get sunscald.  The ONLY plant that experienced any scald at all was this one I overwintered.  And you know what? I barely protected them.  Their first day out was a mostly sunny day and all I did was throw some shade cloths (okay burlap sacks and old patio mats) over the hoop house for a few hours midday.  Their second day was all-out sun.  No scald.  Remarkable? I think so!

Eggplants, and peppers for distribution

The plants above are all 10 of my eggplants and all the peppers I’m hoping to find homes for.  Look, NO sunscald! I attribute this to my new T5 light in the garage. That thing is clearly as bright as the sun! Or damn close.  Also, when the light goes off in the garage at night it gets cold – almost as cold as outside.  So this year’s hardening off process was made much, much easier by that setup. The same thing happened with the tomatoes, by the way; I just didn’t document it.  I’m thrilled.

The one plant that did get sunscald is the overwintered one – it was in my office grow-closet under a (much further away and smaller) T5 and a red/blue LED.  That apparently didn’t prepare it as adequately for direct sun – here’s the result:

It’ll be fine – it’s a big plant and can afford to lose some leaf.  Those little guys just don’t possess the photosynthetic real estate for this.

Another fun happening is that ALL the peppers from the garage are flowering, and some are already fruiting.

BIG flowers on ‘La Bomba’ Jalapeño

Flowers and a tiny fruit! This is ‘Alma’ paprika – new one this year and I’m excited about it.

Unbelievably early fruit on ‘Sarit Gat’ which is one of my favorites. Ripens brilliant yellow and hot as hell.

Here’s where I was last year with this lovely family of plants – as you can see, things are ahead this year.  I sowed earlier this year and they grew much better under the garage T5.  On the far right, top, all those little peppers are the super-hots (Carolina Reapers and such).  I gave all those to my pepper-fiend friend shortly after this and he said he didn’t have much luck with them.  So this year, I’m growing them out…

Solanaceae and some melons, May 3 2017

And here are the super-hots this year:

L-R: Carolina Reaper, Trinidad Scorpion, Chocolate Bhutlah

Here’s what they looked like on April 9, less than a month ago; I was just up-potting them:

Lookit this gorgeous thing.  The leaves of these plants smell like Habanero pepper fruit!  Capsicum chinense hybrids are very different plants than the standard C. annuum we’re all familiar with.  This the first time I’ll be growing them all the way to fruiting…

Chocolate Bhutlah

I may grow the super-hot peppers in pots – or maybe some in pots and some in the ground.  If you caught my “almost all the plants” at the beginning of this post, these are what I was talking about.  Oh and these pimientos, most of which are for another friend.  I’ll give him the six big ones and keep the two smaller ones.

‘Ashe County Pimiento’, seed from Baker Creek

Peppers are almost entirely pest-free for me but interestingly, I have had to deal with aphids and slugs(!) already! These little green aphids have been increasingly problematic in the indoor grow areas.  A new one to me in the last couple years, these are foxglove aphids AKA glasshouse potato aphid. Here they are on this eggplant, which they really love. I’ve been simply washing the plants with water repeatedly, and hand-squishing.

They seem to appear in conjunction with some leaf curling and “savoy-ing” on peppers.  You can really see it here – savoyed/curled on left, mostly normal on right.

I expect the plants will grow out of this because these are foxglove aphids and high temps will kill them, HAHAHAAA! I’ll get this hoop house up to 100F easily and fry their asses.

After leaving the peppers in their pots over two or three nights, when I went to plant them in the ground yesterday I was surprised to find slug damage on ONLY Habanero plants!  What’s up with that? All the Habaneros had lots of slug damage while there was next to no damage on any other pepper.

WHAT.

As you can see I put some sluggo down just around these.  And these girls will help, too.

Ramona and Carmen on slug patrol right after I planted the peppers.

This week we have such fantastic weather, and I am so relieved because that means a) plants will finally actually grow and b) we can finish painting the house!  The house painting project has stalled out a lot of gardening plans, because I don’t want to plant things anywhere near where they would get power-washed or trampled or painted.  Bigger plants are easy enough to tie up and/or wrap in plastic, but new little plants are much harder to watch out for!  And I really can’t wait to get the patio finished so I can get all the patio furniture out of the dang garden where it’s sitting around being an obstacle course, and back to the patio.  And my patio plants, of course, which are all over on the north side of the house for the time being.

A list of all the pepper varieties for 2018:

  • Ashe County Pimiento – a small, heart-shaped pimiento (yeah like for stuffing olives)
  • Alma Paprika – round, thick-walled, no heat
  • Feher Ozon Paprika – longer tapered and ripens from sticky-note yellow to brilliant vermilion
  • Yum Yum Gold – small orange sweet pepper
  • Gatherer’s Gold – sweet banana type, ripens orange
  • Mellow Star Shisito – thin-walled, no heat, for frying
  • Carnival Bell – old seed from Burpee and they ALL came up!
  • Padron – thin-walled, definitely heat, for frying
  • Habanero – slug magnets apparently
  • Habanada – zero heat Habanero, also slug magnets
  • Early Jalapeño – small Jalapeño supposedly earlier than others, this is the only one I’ve grown until this year
  • Purple Jalapeño – which ripens red and has purple leaves, very pretty!
  • La Bomba Jalapeño – I hear it’s a taste-test winner among Jalapeños
  • Sarit Gat – bright yellow scimitars of pain
  • Hatch Valley Red – standard med-hot New Mexico type, seed from my friend in NM!
  • Guajillo – also from same friend, I’m not sure he labeled this right, we’ll see
  • Ancho/Poblano – yey rellenos!
  • Golden Ghost – brilliant yellow ghost pepper do NOT confuse this with shisito they look the EXACT SAME when green (ask me how I know this is a problem)

And from the inedible department:

  • Carolina Reaper
  • Trinidad Scorpion x Trinidad Douglah
  • Chocolate Bhutlah

We’ve decided we like to prioritize a wide variety over an abundance of a single type, so I’m really interested in trying even more new ones for next year. I’d love to hear what are your favorite pepper varieties!!