Friday, June 25, 2010

Pulling the chicks and other babes...

Just when you think you have your day nicely planned, Mother Nature sees fit to throw a spanner in the works.  Monday, I was all geared up for a day at the computer, setting my world to rights - well, the world I've created in my novel, to be precise, when what should appear in my driveway but the cutest duckling.
We just couldn't figure out where he'd come from.  We are a couple of miles from any lakes, and there are some pretty dried-up creeks near by, but it was hard to believe that a Moma Duck would take her brood all that way.  So, while he settled down in the yard, I began to dream of the wonderful relationship we'd have. 

He'd eat my slugs and snails and turn them into fertilizer for the garden.  My conscience would be salved as I retired the squishing stick and all would be happy in the garden.  But there were a few major problems with this plan.  First, I was having trouble negoiating this deal with the fretful abandonned duckling.  He wasn't too keen on staying still, and I worried that he'd stray into the neighboring yards with their dogs and cats etc.
And when he wasn't in the neighbors yards, he was out on the road. 

I used to volunteer at the Silicon Valley Wildlife Center when I first moved to California.  I know that many animals are "over rescued" and I didn't want that to happen here.  He wasn't injured, and Moma Duck may still be around, so Karla and I followed from a distance while he went looking for Moma Duck.
After a while it was obvious that the little guy did not have a plan in mind.  It was getting too late to take him to the wildlife center, and we were worried about him getting eating during the night by any one of a list of other beasties, so we caught him in a cardboard box while Al went and found the makings of a pen for him.  I checked out duckiling care online and chopped up so fruit and veg for him.  Moma might still come back...but it was looking unlikely.

We decided to place the pen by the compost bin - why not get the benefits of the duck eating slugs for one night? It had to be secure enough to prevent cats and raccoons  getting in.  The pen is the white thing on the left!

The next morning it was off to the Wildlife Center for the duckling.  Even if it wasn't illegal to keep wild birds as pets, it would not sit well with me to keep a duckling by itself in a garden with no pond.  Maybe some day I'll get myself a couple of duck eggs and hatch me some domestic ones.  All things considered, they are a much more sustainable pet than a dog - and they quack loudly at intruders, I'm told. 

I asked my husband could I have a duck for Christmas, and he replied, "Do you want it roasted, baked or barbecued?"  - Nuff said!

Mother Nature in her kindness, did not leave me totally bereft.  We have the pleasure of a baby bird, in a nest conviently situated at eye level.  I reckon it is a Mocking Bird and his parents may even be the ones I photographed making eyes at each other in The Birds and The Bees post!  He is one demanding baby, squawking all day for food, which is how I found him - I followed the noise.

Though the nest is low, it is very well hidden, and I don't want to disturb it, so getting pitures is tricky but I persevered.  Here is, quite literally, a birds eye view.
When I first looked in, it was hard to see anything other than a jumble of feathers.
And one more view:

After the duckling left, I had to dismantle his wee pen, wash down the components and in the process decided it was time to water the compost bin.  I have been remiss about this so I put the hose pipe to work.  Minutes later a micro drama began to unfold.  Ants had set up home here and they were now the victims of a flood.  Colonies of them streamed out from the bin in all directions resembling refugees fleeing thier homes.  Many of them carried bundles, which looked as of they were trying to save their possessions, but on closer inspection you could see that some where carrying pupae and others, bundles of what looked like, eggs.

I could imagine them yelling to each other "Save the Children!"

Ants fascinate me.  They look out for each other and work together for their common good in much the same ways that bees do (being social insects). Here, they seem to be rescuing each other from a mere drop of water to us - a deluge to them...

Much as I hate the idea of aphids on my plants, I hold a begrudging admiration for their aphid farming - I mean, seriously, micro-farms, cute and clever!

Ants work so hard too.  You never see them at rest - which accounts for why my photos are a little fuzzy!
This one seems to be thinking about throwing the "baby" to safety!

And it looks like this bigger one is the Queen, with her entourage!

It seems that if you look closely enough there is always a drama going on in my garden!


Friday, June 18, 2010

We have lift off!

It is with great irony that I submit the following photo to June's Picture This Photo Contest over at Gardening Gone Wild.  Though this guy is our sworn enemy, I submitted this shot, from The Peas Treaty post because I like a photo that "speaks" to me, and this one says "Who? Me?"

Doesn't it look like this snail is pole dancing?  Or is that just me?  I'm not really expecting great things with this months competition - the theme is "Best Frame You Have Ever Created" and some of the other entries are amazing.  Besides, most gardeners will see this and shudder, so no, I don't think this is a winning shot, but as usual, I'm aiming to make people smile - the winning isn't that important to me.  Well...I try to tell myself that!

So, back at the ranch...

We found the snail mother-ship and have deployed the "squishing stick" to destroy the enemy .  They were all huddled along the outside of my compost bin - I had put them inside it, in line with the terms of the Peas Treaty.  Now, that they have broken the treaty, it is all out war (they were put in the compost bin to eat the stuff there in return for their lives being spared!) - no snail or slug shall be spared (not even the photogenic ones!)
Is it any wonder I lost so much vegetation to these guys - look how many there are! Even with all these dead, I still lost a seedling last night...

Then we had a swarm of bees in the garden.  This, I don't mind.  In fact, I even invited Karla and Al over to watch it.
This is the long distance shot before I plucked up the courage to get closer - bees don't want to sting me - or so I've been told.

Al pointed out that there were no bees in his yard. "I use Miracle Gro!" he said, "This is what happens when you go all organic!"  We had a good laugh about that - he is funny!

Nonetheless, staying true to organic gardening has paid off.  The mulching has done the job, and my veggies are taking off. I now have giant onions.  The bees love visiting these flowers and I've begun collecting seeds from them - I'm not sure if they'll germinate.  I can but try...
I replanted some zucchini and butternut squash seeds when the slugs and snails ate the plants I cried about in the last post.  They have germinated in double quick time.  As an experiment, I planted one seed inside an empty toilet roll for protection from our slimy enemies - let's see does that work!

The most recently planted potatoes are looking great.  I planted them over the top of an old tree stump to stop it from sending out suckers.

I put newspaper around these seedlings to stop privet and heavenly bamboo from regrowing, and they are doing really nicely - I think they are either melons or squashes or one of each- my labels got lost!

But my biggest achievement to date are my parsnips!  My mum told me they are very hard to grow and I probably wouldn't even get them to germinate.  It is a rare occasion when I prove my mother wrong. 

Now my problem is figuring out when to harvest them.  Does winter still mean winter in California?  Won't they be massive by then - the foliage is nearly a foot tall.  Maybe the root doesn't start to develop till fall (autumn).  Can anyone advise me on the peculiarities of parsnips in California?

No problem knowing when to harvest these cherry tomatoes though.  And boy, do they taste good!
And just look at what my corn did!  It reminds me of a sea anemone...

And finally, I'll leave you with one last organic success story from my garden - the Crepe Myrtle came down with a heavy infestation of powdery mildew.  Al offered me some stuff to spray it, but I declined and after some online research, came across a recipe for a spray to treat the problem as follows:

To control powdery mildew on plants, mix together:
  • 3 tablespoons of baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon of liquid soap
  • 1 gallon of water
Lots of the recipes say one tablespoon of baking soda, the recipe I used called for three.  It says not to store the unused mixture though I did, and I used it on a similar looking fungal infestation on my pea plants - I think it has worked, but it may need another application...

In the meantime, the Crepe Myrtle was so happy it blossomed! 

Byddi Lee

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Going Potty for Bloom Day!

I just couldn’t resist it!  I wanted flowers like I would have in Ireland – I used to keep containers on the window sills of my apartment there – the closest thing I had to a garden for a while back then.  

As my front yard turns to desert where I’m not watering the lawn and the ivy is gone, and the blossoms from my sweet pea crisp up and fade in the large container I had for them in the back yard, I decided that it was time for some bedding plants.

What better time to showcase them than for June’s Bloom day.

I planted the pot in the back yard with a combination of lilies, petunias and lobelia – going for a red, white and blue theme that would be good for 4th July (and 12th July too! Sure, we might as well keep everyone happy…)

I do think that the thrillers could be a little less thrilling and the spillers a bit more spilling, but I think I achieved a better balance in my next creation.

The birdbath is cracked and won’t hold water.  This means it drains well as a pot, so I planted this one up in orange and white in honor of my hometown of Armagh.  We call this arrangement “The Sam Maguire”!

When buying the plants, I have to say that my eyes were bigger than my pots.  I had loads of petunias left over.  Fortunately, I found room in the pot at the front of the house for the other plants.

There was even one left over for the milk urn

It is a year since we bought our house and to celebrate our neighbors, Karla and Al, bought us a gorgeous ceramic pot for the garden.

Unable to decide between jasmine and potato vine, we bought one of each and are taking bets as to which one will win the race to the top of the trellis and eventually smother the other one out. 

It felt totally decedent to be buying plants without thinking “Can I eat these?” or “Are they native?” and have rationalized it by having them in pots which means I can control them better.  Next year I've vowed to grow the annuals from seed.  Well, by then I'll be an expert in vegetables and the native garden in front will be practically growing itself - wouldn't do to go getting bored now, would it?

Good job I got them too.  Nothing else is blooming now in the garden.  It’s coming into summer and Californian plants are getting set to take a snooze!

Happy Bloom Day!

Byddi Lee

Friday, June 11, 2010

Mulch ado about nothing

I had to laugh when I read through my usual blogs this morning.  So many posts seemed to tie in with what I was going to write about today.  I’ve been completely obsessing about the garden this week – I mean waking up in the middle of the night worrying, bursting into tears at the dinner table, type stressing!  So when the Obsessive Neurotic Gardener  posted today to say that he did not care today,  I reckoned that I was doing his share of obsessing for him.

So what’s it all about?

Last month, in my post The birds and the bees  I had a photo of a zucchini flower that I was very proud of.  Everyone had advised me not to plant too many zucchini as I would be buried in them come harvest time, so I planted two seeds which both grew into nice seedlings which I later transplanted into the ground.  They grew well, until one one was totally annihilated by slugs.

By this time, the other one had blossomed and was on its way to producing four fruit and more blossoms.  I had begun to look up recipes for zucchini dishes online!

Last Monday, disaster struck. This is all that was left of my lemon cucumbers - it is a sight that can make a grown woman weep!

Something had nibbled at the fruit of the zucchini plant too.
I can live with some teeth marks, but I had cause for concern when I saw that the rest of the plant was drooping.
Something had eaten all the way through the stem at the base of the plant.

Distraught, I threw the plant in the compost and went to seek advice from my friend, neighbor and ace garden mentor, Al.  My husband and I thought it was too big to be slugs, thinking that it might be squirrels, but Al said "Definitely slugs - come look at what they did to my potatoes!"

Expecting to see devastation in his garden, I climbed over the fence for a look.  All I coluld say was "What are you putting on your garden?"  Everything Al grows is huge compared to mine!  Yes, a couple of his potato plants look a bit slug chewed, but wow, the rest of his garden made me green with envy!

For example, here is Al's corn:
And here is mine:

Al's potatoes

My potatoes (and me being Irish too - oh the shame!)
Al's tomatoes
My tomatoes
Al's basil
My basil
Al's oregano
My oregano
Can anyone see a pattern emerging here?

Al says he uses Miracle Grow, but I'd been told in my gardening class that it wasn't organic.  Nevertheless, I wanted to run out and buy some - right away! But I wanted to be an organic gardener, and if I used the miracle grow would that rule out the "organicness" of my gardening?

Al also mentioned that he mulched his vegetables.  This is something I have not done, I've never done it before and I just never got around to doing it.  In my head I couldn't see how it would make much difference - I figured it was just to keep the weeds down.  Since I tend to weed a little every day, did I really need to do this?  Also, if the mulch spilled over the green living plants would it hurt them?  It seemed a hassle to me...

Bottom line, Al is a talented gardener with lots of experience and a real knack for growing stuff.  I'm not going to even try to compete with him, but I do think that my veggies could do better, and so does he.

Next day, after fretting all night about should I go with miracle grow or not, then deciding that I wanted to stay in the organic camp, I went to the store to get more fertilizer.  I usually go to a smaller independent store but it was closed, so I went to Orchard Supply Hardware instead and totally interrogated the staff about which liquid fertilizers were organic, nearly afraid to believe them when they said the fish emulsion - the cheapest one on the shelf.  Coincidentally, today happens to be "Fertilizer Friday" with Tootsie Time.

I'd never come across this before and thought it was kind of ironic after the mental torture I put myself through on  the fertilizer front this week!

In the end I decided to call the Master Gardeners hot-line to ask them two questions.
  1. Why are Al's veggies bigger than mine?  
  2. Why can't I use Miracle Grow?
I have to say that the Master Gardeners  is a great resource.  The nice woman said that she didn't think that the different fertilizers would cause such a difference in growth.  Then she asked me if I mulched?  When I told her I didn't, she said that was it.  I should try mulching with compost. 

She said Miracle Grow wasn't organic and the Master Gardeners didn't recommend it.  She couldn't quite tell me why.  After further research, I found out that Miracle Grow is made from chemicals designed to dissolve quickly in the soil.  By no means is it poisonous, but it should be used in moderation as it can cause algal blooms in water supplies.  If you want to garden organically "by the book" then don't use it.

So, I opened up the bottom of my compost heap to get some mulch.  All those slugs and snails that I sent to "jail" there blinked their eyes at the invasion of the harsh sunlight - these were the culprits who ate my plants.  No more Mrs Nice Gal, I squashed every one I saw and came back last night with a torch to finish the job.  I suppose you could say I broke the Peas Treaty.

With only enough home made compost for one plot, Al took me to get more organic compost.  Bless him - he's the best neighbor a gal could have!  He even lent me his wheel barrow, and I set to with the mulching.
The plot in the background has been mulched with the compost we made, the left with the shop bought stuff and the one on the right has yet to be done.  It makes the plants look really nice!
Growing in this plot, from the back forward are, tomatoes, pickling cucumber (from Judy in the gardening club), tiny eggplants, two potato plants, one left over turnip, carrots and spinach from last fall that is only now beginning to bolt!

Whilst my garden is sparse looking, I need to remind myself that it is the first year of gardening in the Californian climate, and as my husband pointed out, (as he tried to console me when I cried at dinner the other night about my veggies not growing! What a saddo!) we are eating from the garden on a continual basis, getting a dinner at least every second night.

As I dug up potatoes last night, I wondered if Katie Scarlette O Hara saw my garden would she be very convinced that she'd "never go hungry again" were she depending on it?  Still, we had ample for the two of us for last nights dinner.
 And we were treated to a dramatic sunset that turned the sky pink.  Que "Tara's Theme" - the sound track to "Gone with the Wind" - Da daaa da daaa.... da da daaaaa da da....da daaaaaa da da da....da da da daaaaaaaa!
 Byddi Lee