Grateful for Change

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A Thanksgiving vision for the future

Adapt or die – I see that phrase in many contexts. The business and financial realms are especially fond of it. This evolutionary imperative has been on my mind a lot lately. On the minds of many, of course, are the political earthquakes – not to mention the geological ones – shaking many parts of the world, leaving us slack-jawed by the pace of change. I’m more concerned about the impacts of rapid change on my beloved green world.

Around the globe, the natural world has been taking more hard hits to its stability than humanity has ever had to deal with before. Whole ecosystems are disappearing, species extinction rates are soaring, and of perhaps more immediate concern to humans, water availability and potable quality are no longer givens in parts of the world and even my own United States. Arable soils are becoming more rare, air quality more erratic. And increasingly unpredictable weather patterns are creating difficulties for humanity and the natural world.

Native amphibians are especially sensitive to declining water quality.

Native amphibians are especially sensitive to declining water quality.

One thing seems certain: we can’t go back. Humanity has irretrievably altered the blue-green jewel upon which all life depends. Our choices are clear: adapt or die. Thus, my Thanksgiving meditation this year is to try my best to be grateful for change.

No, this is not some Pollyanna pipedream. I am not suggesting we all don rose-colored glasses. I am suggesting that we recognize that change is almost always an opportunity for growth. New ideas can rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of chaos – ideas that can create doors to new worlds.

Installed Solar System

For the last several months, I’ve been reading a lot, and thinking hard about how I can contribute to a transformation that will permit much of my beloved green world to survive without any remaining wild lands on our planet. A number of good minds are working on this. You can see the evidence in a growing number of places around the world – green roofs that grow food, solar panels generating clean power, wind turbines that don’t kill birds but still generate energy, sustainable agricultural practices. These are exciting developments – and I am grateful for all of them.

A native long-horned bee visiting native Joe Pye Weed flowers

A native long-horned bee visiting native Joe Pye Weed flowers

But where does this leave native wildlife? Where do the native pollinators – without which our food chain breaks beyond repair – shelter, feed, and reproduce? Where do the native birds that eat pest insects shelter and raise their families? Where will the forests and prairies, the trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses be able to thrive when they are being increasingly displaced by bulldozers and concrete, invasive non-native plants and animals, and climate change?

Many experts believe the answer lies with the force that disrupted the Earth’s natural processes: humanity. But for this to work, all of humanity must agree to change old ingrained habits, replacing them with new adaptations that will improve the survival chances of the natural world – and the humans who rely on it.

If biological processes are disrupted, human food production will be problematic at best.

If biological processes are disrupted, human food production will be problematic at best.

“But,” I’ve been asking myself, “I am one plant-obsessed gardener in the southeastern piedmont region of the United States? What can I do?”

I am starting by doing my best to be grateful for change. I am endeavoring to embrace this new reality as an opportunity to advocate for the implementation of a new gardening paradigm that every suburban homeowner, urban condo-dweller, and farmer can adopt. In short, we must transform every speck of green space remaining into actively managed gardens. We can work to make them as self-sustaining as possible, but with the clear understanding that natural processes on this earth are now too disrupted to maintain themselves without at least occasional human intervention. These green spaces will never resemble the wild places of even fifty years ago. But they can serve as the critical refuges needed to maintain the insects and animals we need to put food on our tables, to clean our air and water, to keep Earth’s biological engines running.

The functions fulfilled by this vibrantly healthy wetland cannot be duplicated with non-native species.

The functions fulfilled by this vibrantly healthy wetland cannot be readily duplicated with non-native species.

In future posts, I will describe some of the changes I am planning to make to my five acres of southeastern piedmont. I am basing these plans on some of what I’ve been reading, but attempting to adapt it to work for small landowners. For this change to take hold and work, even suburban homeowners with quarter-acre lots will need to revise their thinking about their landscapes. And the real estate industry, home-owners associations, government regulators, and construction industry must join us in the 21st century, accepting that old practices cannot be sustained in the face of the rapid deterioration of the natural world upon which, ultimately, we all rely.

I invite my readers to join me in this challenging exercise of being grateful for change. You might want to add these two books to your winter reading list. I’ll be writing about both of them in future posts:

The green world has always been a refuge for me. It is where I have always turned to lift my spirits, nurturing me body and soul. It has never failed me. This blog has been part of my way of giving back some of the blessings I have received from my lifelong relationship with the natural word. But now I think perhaps it is time to try to do more, and pray that others will join me.

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This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for change, because it has given me the opportunity to do more than merely describe all the aspects of the natural world that I love. Now I have a chance to try to help preserve it. Of course, I may just be a dotty old woman tilting at windmills, but in this adapt-or-die world in which we all now live, I feel obliged to holler “Charge!” and see where this mission takes me.

I know I cannot stop change, nor do I wish to. But perhaps I can help steer the changes impacting the natural world toward less devastating directions. Random change can be terrifying, but metamorphosis is miraculous.

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May we all find ways to create positive transformations for ourselves — and our world.

3 Monarch on Lantana

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Supermoon Signals Winter’s Arrival

Last night's rising moon

Last night’s rising moon

During the wee hours this morning while the moon — one day short of officially full — silvered the landscape, our first killing freeze finally arrived. This morning’s low was 23 degrees Fahrenheit — low enough to dissuade even heartier perennials from further blooms. This is as it should be, of course. In fact, I’m grateful that we can all now turn to winter meditation tasks, while bees and butterflies, mosquitoes and gnats take a well-deserved break from their appointed tasks.

As the sun reluctantly rose this morning, evidence of last night’s moonlit chill was abundant. Sparkling white diamond frost coated every leaf, stem, flower, and garden bench. Where the sun’s rays touched the frost, it melted into submission. But the moon had already done her work, ending another growing season.

Last night's moon kisses the treetops as it climbs higher.

Last night’s moon kisses the treetops as it climbs higher.

I sleep poorly when the moon is near or at its fullness. I especially love to wander through my dark house in the wee hours of a winter full moon. I can walk without tripping, because moonlight streaming through windows allows me to see everything in its silvery glow. All is quiet, except perhaps for occasional howls from hungry coyotes, or in late winter, the pipe-organ calls of owls claiming territory and hooting about love.

This year more than most, I need this quiet, moonlit time to re-gather myself, to find my way forward. Always for me, of course, that will mean immersing myself in the green world — growing food, for humans and wildlife — and sharing my love of this world with others, in the hope that we will all enjoy centuries more of silver-touched, fertile landscapes.

I took the first two photos above with my little camera, sans tripod, standard lens. But I leave you with this moon portrait shot by the ever-amazing Wonder Spouse. He used my camera, but attached his fancy, longer lens, and attached it all to his tripod. After a little post-processing, the result is this shot here.

May we all find solace, and the strength to continue, beneath the silvery light of tonight's super moon.

May we all find solace, and the strength to continue, beneath the silvery light of tonight’s supermoon.

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Frost? What Frost?

Italian summer pepper varieties still going strong.

Italian summer pepper varieties still going strong.

The wacky, way-above-normal-temperatures weather continues in my piedmont garden. We live in a frost pocket. Our yard gets zapped by frost when nearby neighbors remain un-iced. So when I tell you that my house — on November 4 — still hasn’t seen a speck of frost, that is testimony to the strangeness of this year’s “autumn” weather pattern.

The weather forecasters have been promising cold any minute now for the last month or so. But every time a front approaches, it fizzles out, so that the cold air behind it never gets here. There’s talk of record snow in Siberia that will eventually mean deeply cold temperatures for much of the US, including my area, but I gather that weather is at least a month away. In the meantime, we continue to enjoy the best Italian sweet pepper crop we have ever grown.

Pepper plants falling all over themselves.

Pepper plants falling all over themselves.

In normal years, my staking system for these peppers is entirely adequate. Usually they are long gone by early October, either due to drought or frost. But this year, the peppers just keep growing, and flowering, and pushing out gorgeous large, heavy fruits that drag down overlong branches to the point where I’m having trouble finding the ripe fruits lurking deep inside this pepper forest. Those blue flowers bumping into the peppers are Blue Brazilian Sage (Salvia guarantica) — a very frost-sensitive perennial that is usually long gone by now.

Four different pepper varieties are hopelessly tangled together at this point.

Four different pepper varieties are hopelessly tangled together at this point.

No ripe fruits appear in these photos, because I had already picked them before I took these shots. I picked every ripe fruit I saw, because the forecast called for a nighttime low that usually translates to frost at my house. And peppers are very frost-sensitive. But the chill didn’t materialize, and today I picked a dozen more beautifully ripe fruits, some red, some yellow, all tasting of summer sunshine and vitamin C.

Planted garlic bed

Planted garlic bed

Wonder Spouse only just planted the garlic he ordered, because the soil thermometer warned us that the soil was too warm until just a few days ago. Yes, that’s a potato in the foreground of the shot. A tiny spud somehow eluded Wonder Spouse during last spring’s harvest, and he didn’t have the heart to pull up such a healthy-looking plant.

Salad Season, Part II

Salad Season, Part II

About six weeks ago, I direct-sowed all the remaining seeds of the greens I had planted for this past spring’s crop. I sowed thickly, because the seeds of lettuce and other greens are not supposed to keep well. Mine had been sitting in a box in my study, so I guess the air-conditioned house kept them happier than I realized. I think I got 100% germination from all varieties, including the carrots. I thinned as much as I could, moving seedlings to adjacent beds. But eventually I ran out of room. And enthusiasm.

Salad Bed #2

Salad Bed #2

Those are Queen Sophia marigolds in the foreground of the shot of the second big greens bed. They’re usually done for the season by now too. Not this year. I couldn’t bear to pull them up to make room for more greens. They were there first, after all.

Protected from the frost that refuses to materialize.

Protected from the frost that refuses to materialize.

A couple of days ago, the weather forecasters began speaking excitedly of the imminent arrival of seasonal autumn temperatures, so I broke out my row covers and covered the salad greens. The big tent on the left is protecting broccoli. However, the crop is not happy; I think it’s just been too hot for the plants to thrive. Of course, now the forecasters have raised the predicted nighttime lows to temperatures well above freezing. But the weather is at least cooler now. The row covers will probably just encourage the lettuces, spinaches, carrots, beets, and dill to grow a little faster, meaning more fresh salads. We aren’t complaining.

Queen Sophia marigolds own otherwise empty summer beds.

Queen Sophia marigolds own otherwise empty summer beds.

The marigolds I tucked in beside squashes, tomatoes, beans, etc. months ago have grown to epoch dimensions, spreading out as dead summer crops were pulled out of their way. Local bees — and the few stray butterflies still flitting about — are delighted the Queen Sophias continue to reign with enthusiasm.

A closer look at the Queen Sophias.

A closer look at the Queen Sophias.

What a strange autumn. We had almost no fall color, because the nighttime temperatures were too warm. A cold front that blew in today denuded many of the canopy giants in my yard. Yet summer peppers, salad greens, and sunny marigolds continue to thrive. That’s why I’m still gardening after more than 50 years of playing in the dirt. Every year — and every season — is different.

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A Compost Comparison

compost-bag

I’ve been blogging about gardening in the piedmont region of North Carolina since 2011. Occasionally, companies that provide gardening-related products contact me asking me to try their product and write about my results. I’ve done this for a number of years for seeds from Renee’s Garden, because they send me a number of seed packets for free to try. You can find my reviews by searching on the company name in my blog.

Last winter, I was contacted by a company called Super Sod. They have a local office in a nearby town, and I gather their main business is growing and selling sod. But they also sell a product called Soil3, which they describe as follows:

Soil3 is 100% organic compost comprised of grass clippings from our sod farm, wheat straw from our farm, and cow manure from a local dairy. We compost using a high heat method (160º) and add mycorrhizea. Beneficial microorganisms naturally colonize the compost as part of the process.

 You can learn more about this product here. Their representative offered me a free bag of this compost (thanks, Shannon!) if I would try it and write about it, and they would deliver it to my door.

Well what gardener turns down free organic compost? The folks at Super Sod, like all companies that ask me to review their products, understood that my review would be based only on my results, not on how nice I thought they were to offer me this opportunity.

On the agreed upon delivery date last March 8, I was surprised to discover a massive yellow semi parked on the road in front of my house.

I had not realized a giant truck would deliver my sample compost!

I had not realized a giant truck would deliver my sample compost!

I think this is the truck that is also used to deliver sod, which always comes in big sheets, so it made sense after I thought about it. It was certainly a happy bright yellow, just like the color of the bag of compost.

I don’t know what you call the machine hooked up to the back of the truck that is used to deliver the compost, but soon the driver had it zipping down my driveway holding the bag of compost on the front prongs that probably also hold sheets of sod. I had intended for the bag to be deposited just beside the gate to my vegetable garden, but the delivery machine was too wide to maneuver there. So we went with Plan B and had the driver deposit the bag at the end of our driveway beside the walk to my house. It wasn’t optimal, but it was the best we could do.

The bag is on the prongs in front of the machine, which he is maneuvering into place. I couldn't get too close for photos. He was moving fast, and the machine was too noisy for me to be heard, so I stayed out of the way.

The bag is on the prongs in front of the machine, which he is maneuvering into place. I couldn’t get too close for photos. He was moving fast, and the machine was too noisy for me to be heard, so I stayed out of the way.

As soon as he had dropped the bag, the driver zipped back down the driveway and drove off in the semi.

Heading back to the bright yellow semi.

Heading back to the bright yellow semi.

I was left with a bright yellow bag of compost — a cubic yard of it! The web site says it weighs about 1200 pounds, and I believe it. That  bag was not going anywhere, which meant we had to offload the compost shovelful by shovelful into our wheelbarrow, then move the loaded wheelbarrow to the garden. It would have been much easier if we had been able to deposit the bag by the gate as we had hoped. But, hey, it was free compost. And, truthfully, when we get a dump-truck load of compost delivered from a local supplier, the pile isn’t any closer to the garden.

I knew that this bag would not be enough for all my garden beds, so we ordered half a dump-truck load of compost from our local supplier too. I had always intended to do a side-by-side comparison of the Soil3 compost with that made and delivered by our usual supplier.

I encountered one problem as soon as I tried to use the Soil3 compost the first time. The bag is almost taller than I am. When I untied the inner green bag to get to the compost, the compost level  was about up to my elbows. I was not tall enough to maneuver my shovel into the bag, lift out a shovelful of compost, and deposit it into the wheelbarrow. My solution? Wonder Spouse, of course!

A taller, stronger gardening companion and all-around great guy -- Wonder Spouse!

A tall, strong gardening companion and all-around great guy — Wonder Spouse!

Our plan was to plant identical spring greens — lettuces, spinaches, and Asian greens — on two sides of one of our long vegetable beds. We mixed in Soil3 compost on one side, and the local compost on the other. Then I transplanted the greens, and we mulched them with a bit more of their respective composts.

Before tilling in. Soil3 compost is on the left side of the stake.

Before tilling in. Soil3 compost is on the left side of the stake.

It’s a little hard to see in the above photo, but the Soil3 compost was a bit darker, and it tended to clump into tiny balls. It was less friable than the local compost, possibly because it was quite soggy when it was delivered. Liquid oozed out of the bottom of the bag for weeks after delivery.

After tilling. Soil3 side is on the right side here.

After tilling. Soil3 side is on the right side here.

After tilling, the little balls of Soil3 compost broke up, so the soil on that side ended up being of a slightly finer texture that the side with local compost. And it was just a shade darker.

We added metal hoops to support the garden cloth fabric we use to protect the greens from spring frosts, and the bed was ready for planting.

We added metal hoops to support the garden cloth fabric we use to protect the greens from spring frosts, and the bed was ready for planting. The Soil3 side is on the right.

As usual, I started my greens in my little greenhouse. I transplanted them into their compost-enhanced bed just after the middle of March. Here they are on March 28 after about a week in the bed.

As you can see, at this stage, both sides (Soil3 in left photo) — which were planted with exactly the same varieties — looked indistinguishable. I got busy with all the other vegetables — and my new pollinator garden — and didn’t take any more side-by-side shots until the greens bolted in May, but I did pay close attention when I harvested and ate the greens.

Neither Wonder Spouse nor I could discern any differences in growth rate or flavor, and both sides bolted from early summer heat at the same time. I’ve always used local compost to mulch my vegetables, and it has worked wonderfully, suppressing weeds, and continuously but slowly adding nutrients to the soil throughout the growing season. But the Soil3 compost didn’t work well that way. It created a hard crust that actually would create cracks as it dried out.

Bolted greens on the Soil3 side.

Bolted greens on the Soil3 side.

Bolted greens on the local compost side.

Bolted greens on the local compost side.

By May 15, the spring greens on both sides of the bed were bolted and bitter. Plant sizes were indistinguishable by my admittedly unscientific analysis.

We also created comparison beds for tomatoes and peppers. One bed of each vegetable type was mulched with one of the two composts. Again, we discerned no differences in productivity, disease resistance, flavor, etc. And as with the greens, the Soil3 compost tended to clump and crack to the point of reducing its usability.

Eventually, Wonder Spouse had used enough of the bag so that I could now reach down with a shovel and fill my own wheelbarrow with loads of Soil3 compost. The closer to the bottom of the bag we got, the wetter was the compost, even though we diligently retied the top of the bag after every use. We even tried putting a plastic sheet over the bag to keep out more rain, but the Soil3 compost at the bottom of the bag never dried out, eventually become rather cement-like.

We still have several inches of it in the bottom of the bag. We plan to move it somewhere and dump it out, hoping that if it is out of the bag, it might break down into something usable again.

When the delivery man dropped off my bright yellow bag, he told me that many of their customers apply it as lawn fertilizer. I can see how that might work, if you have some mechanism for applying it evenly. But a 1200-pound bag of compost requires heavy machinery to manage. I kind of doubt typical homeowners like me would be able to devise any better way of dealing with this than I did.

To summarize my test results, I would say that Soil3 is no better or worse than the local compost I usually buy, in terms of vegetable productivity. In terms of usability, the Soil3 compost is more difficult to use than the local product in two ways. First, just getting the compost out of the bag and into the wheelbarrow is remarkably difficult for anyone under 5’10”. And second, the texture of Soil3 is much harder to work with, tending to become cement-like when exposed to drying.

My conclusion: Soil3 is expensive — at least by my modest standards. Given that the product was harder to use and we could discern no differences in crop productivity between it and our local compost, I would not buy this product for my garden. For larger horticultural operations with access to heavy machinery, it is possible that this product would be worth the investment.

Thanks again to Super Sod, maker of Soil3, for the opportunity to try this product.

Thanks, Super Sod!

Thanks, Super Sod!

 

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For Late-Season Blooms, Think Ironweed

Blooming started getting enthusiastic in late August.

Blooming became enthusiastic in late August.

New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) has always been a volunteer wildflower on my floodplain. That’s the native habitat for this passionately purple wildflower. This year when we built a new pollinator flower bed, I had an excuse to plant more ironweed. New York Ironweed tops out between five to eight feet, but I decided to try a taller species to plant behind some of the other flowers I added. I chose Vernonia gigantea ‘Purple Pillar.’

In its first year, Purple Pillar topped out right around five feet.

In its first year, Purple Pillar topped out right around five feet.

Purple Pillar is supposed to reach heights of nine to ten feet, but in its first year for me, it achieved about half that — not bad at all for a late-spring-planted newbie in a new flower bed. I planted two specimens; both bloomed profusely, attracting a wide array of native pollinators, including these:

Ironweed species native to my region of the southeastern US piedmont all bloom in late summer/early fall. Purple Pillars can theoretically bloom through October, but mine shifted to seed production by late September. I’m hoping that next year the plants will be larger and bloom even longer.

Tightly closed flower buds in late June.

Tightly closed flower buds in late June.

I didn’t do any formal record-keeping, but from my photos and my observations, it seemed to me that my ironweeds attracted a wider diversity of insects/arachnids than my enormously floriferous Joe Pye Weeds. Between these two species, I think just about every butterfly in my neighborhood found my new pollinator bed.

Top of Purple Pillars in late August.

Top of Purple Pillars in late August.

Although this wildflower naturally occurs in moist places, it is highly adaptable both in its moisture and light requirements. It will thrive in a typical flower bed. I pampered all my plants in my new pollinator bed with extra water this year, because they were just getting established. Next year, I’m hoping they will grow larger with no additional water from me — unless we are plagued with significant drought, of course. I’m certainly not going to let these beauties die from extreme weather conditions if I can prevent it.

A close view of an ironweed bloom in late August.

A close view of an ironweed bloom in late August.

At a distance or up close, covered in butterflies or standing solo, ironweeds are a native perennial wildflower that every piedmont gardener should grow. If you don’t have this species in your garden yet, plan on adding some next spring. You — and your local pollinators — will be glad you did.

 

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2016: Our Best Onion Yield Ever

We ate one of our last home-grown onions of the season last night. It was a Candy onion — a softball-sized, sweet mild white onion known for its good storage quality. After curing our harvested onions in our garage for a few weeks, we stored them in our cool basement. The handful of remaining bulbs down there have mostly now gone soft and will be composted. But all in all, it was without a doubt our best onion season ever. How did we do it? I think it was a combination of nearly perfect onion-growing weather and the application of a new strategy to combat a lesson learned the hard way.

In the 2015 growing season, voles ate about two-thirds of our Yellow Granex onion crop.

In the 2015 growing season, voles ate about two-thirds of our Yellow Granex onion crop.

Voles are everywhere in my vegetable garden. The sturdy deer fence that repels those hoofed beasts along with raccoons and even all but the most persistent squirrels merely protects the voles. Dense plantings of vegetables provide ample cover for these voracious rodents when they venture above ground, so hawks and owls aren’t’ any better able to catch them than the wandering cats or coyotes thwarted by the fence. We’ve tried vole traps. I’ve reached the conclusion that the voles are amused by the contraptions. They build tunnels around them, and yes sometimes I’m certain I hear snickering down the ubiquitous holes I find in every vegetable bed. But this past spring, I tried a new strategy that I think is likely responsible for the abundance of beautiful bulbs we harvested, all with no evidence of rodent nibbling.

The latest weapon in my vole-fighting arsenal.

The latest weapon in my vole-fighting arsenal.

Swedish growers developed the above product; the name translates as “plant-protection.” It is essentially super-concentrated blood meal combined with a vegetable oil that ensures the product sticks to the plants upon which it is applied. The Swedes developed it to protect tender trees from gnawing critters during their long, snowy winters. It is USDA approved for organic gardening operations. But I suspected that if I merely sprinkled the product above ground around the onions, the voles would tunnel in and devour the bulbs again. So I went underground, where they operate.

Onion plants freshly planted in their bed on Feb. 22, 2016.

Onion plants freshly planted in their bed on Feb. 22, 2016.

I took the above photo just after I finished planting the onion starts in their bed full of compost and supplemented with an organic root crop fertilizer. Onions like two things: plenty of nutrients, and a steady supply of water. Mine got both this year.

I always order onion plants, because in my part of North Carolina, the plants need to be in the ground as early in the spring growing season as you can manage. Companies that sell onion starts, as these skinny baby plants are called, contract with growers in the deep south, where their climate allows them to get seedlings going in late winter. The starts are shipped to customers when the growing season for onions is about to begin for a given area. My starts showed up on Feb. 20, and I was able to plant them on Feb. 22.

They don't look like much when you first plant them.

They don’t look like much when you first plant them.

February in my area was mild and relatively dry this year. I was thus able to clear and prepare my spring vegetable beds much earlier than usual. I cleared the onion bed first, because I knew I would need it first, so it was ready to go when my starts arrived, except for the implementation of my new anti-vole strategy. I decided to dig a trench outside the entire perimeter of the bed — about 6-8 inches deep — the level where I usually encounter the vole subway system. Inside the trench, I liberally sprinkled Plantskydd. The strong odor of dried (bovine) blood is supposed to repel rodents — and even deer. My results indicate that this is true.

It would be interesting to conduct an experiment that compared this product to the less expensive blood meal product you can buy from organic suppliers. I didn’t, because I didn’t want to take a chance on losing some of my crop. My suspicion is that Plantskydd is superior because it is super-concentrated, and because the vegetable oil mixed with it allows the dried blood to persist longer in the soil than regular blood meal. All I know for certain is that when we harvested our onions, we did not find a single vole tunnel in that bed. I am sold on the efficacy of Plantskydd.

The onion bed on April 30, 2016.

The onion bed on April 30, 2016.

We grew two varieties of onions this year:

  • Yellow Granex Hybrid — These are short-day-length Vidalia-type onions; this is the go-to onion variety for my region. They are sweet, large and slightly flattened, with light yellow skin and flesh. They do not store well.
  • Candy Hybrid — This intermediate-day-length onion was a bit of a gamble. Theoretically, it is less sensitive to the day-length issues that limit folks in my region to a few onion varieties. When I read they stored well, produced softball-sized bulbs, and were extra sweet with mild, white flesh, I decided they were worth the risk.
The onion bed on April 30 with an adjacent bed of young salad greens.

The onion bed on April 30 with an adjacent bed of young salad greens behind it. Candy onions are on the left end; Yellow Granex plants are on the right end.

Spring rains came fairly regularly this year, which hasn’t happened in quite a few seasons. It had also rained enough during the winter to fill the shallow well that I use to water the vegetables; this has not often been the case in recent springs. My onion bed received about an inch of water every week from late February through the end of May. I’m fairly certain this was the other reason our harvest was so successful.

Onion bed just before first harvest on May 25.

Onion bed just before first harvest on May 25.

Onions are ready to harvest when the green stem at the base of the leaves where it attaches to the bulb flops over. The Yellow Granex plants (left end in the above photo) flopped over before the Candy plants surrendered to Summer’s impending arrival.

We hung the harvested Yellow Granex bulbs -- leaves still attached -- to anything handy in the garage. In this case, our push mower was drafted into onion-curing duty.

We hung the harvested Yellow Granex bulbs — leaves still attached — to anything handy in the garage. In this case, our push mower was drafted into onion-curing duty.

The heat of early summer, perhaps combined with the disturbance created by harvesting the Yellow Granex end of the bed, seemed to push the Candy bulbs into accelerating their production cycle.

By May 31, some of the Candy plants were flopping over, ready to be harvested.

By May 31, some of the Candy plants were flopping over, ready to be harvested.

I kept watering as needed, trying to encourage the last of the Candy plants to push just a few more bits of goodness into the maturing bulbs. But by June 19, we had pulled up the last of this variety.

The last of the Candy onion harvest on June 19.

The last of the Candy onion harvest on June 19.

I pulled the onions in the early morning, then left them on their beds for an hour or so, allowing the skins to toughen up a bit before I moved them to the garage. We found that the Candy onions actually tasted sweeter after we let them rest in our cool basement for a month or so. In the meantime, we devoured the Yellow Granex bulbs, since we knew they wouldn’t store as well.

One of Wonder Spouse’s favorite ways to cook our onions is to marinate them briefly with other summer veggies — such as squash, tomatoes, and fat portobello mushrooms — and then grill them just long enough to heat them up and give them a bit of yummy charred goodness.  Whatever meat he added to the mix played a distant second fiddle to those sweetly zingy grilled onions. My mouth is watering from that tasty memory as I type this.

I will definitely be employing my Plantskydd methodology for next spring’s onion crop. It will be interesting to see if I can repeat — or even better — my results. I used this product in a couple of other ways in my vegetable garden this year. I’ll tell you about those techniques soon, as I continue to review this year’s growing season.

Young pepper transplants in front of maturing onions on May 25. These peppers are still producing, thanks to   an unusually prolonged, frost-free fall.

Young pepper transplants in front of maturing onions on May 25. These peppers are still producing, thanks to an unusually prolonged, frost-free fall.

 

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Writing about my favorite subjects

What lies within the fold of this spicebush leaf?

What lies within the fold of this spicebush leaf?

After writing this blog for over 5.5 years, my obsession should be apparent to everyone: I am endlessly fascinated by the natural world, especially the inhabitants of my five acres of green chaos in the piedmont region of North Carolina. Case in point? I’ve been unfolding folded leaves like the one above for years and years. Until a week or so ago, every time I unfolded the leaf, it was empty inside. But I persevered, stopping at every spicebush growing in my yard (a dozen or so), searching for curled leaves, and uncoiling them in the hopes of finding treasure within. Finally, last week, I scored.

Rear end of a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

Rear end of a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

Isn’t it amazing? I think it’s so clever of Mother Nature to have had this caterpillar evolve large spots on its hind end. Most entomologists believe the coloration is supposed to make hungry birds think “Snake!” when they find it, and fly away. The caterpillars hide within coiled leaves by day and emerge to feed at night. I knew the caterpillars were there, because I’ve seen many Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies in my yard this year — and many eaten spicebush leaves. But the caterpillars eluded me until now.

When I wasn’t hunting elusive caterpillars or admiring and photographing the numerous pollinators in my garden this summer, I’ve been writing a couple of articles for publication. The editor of the NC Native Plant Society Newsletter asked me to write a piece on native deciduous azaleas for the fall edition. I was happy to oblige.

First page of my article in the NCNPS fall newsletter

First page of my article in the NCNPS fall newsletter

And the editor of the NC Botanical Garden’s magazine, Conservation Gardener, invited me to write an article for its second edition.  The magazine is a benefit of membership, and I think the second edition is even better than the first one.

Cover of the second edition of Conservation Gardener

Cover of the second edition of Conservation Gardener

This time, I was asked to write about winterizing our yards and gardens sustainably. I really enjoyed putting this one together, especially because I was able to interview several staff members at the NC Botanical Garden so I could share their ideas.

First two pages of my article in Conservation Gardener

First two pages of my article in Conservation Gardener

If you click on the photos in this entry, you’ll get a larger version that will show a few more details. But I hope this may encourage gardeners in the southeastern US who are not yet members of the NC Botanical Garden to join. The new magazine is relevant to gardeners in the Southeast, even if you aren’t close enough to visit often. And membership rates include discounts for seniors, students, and volunteers.

If you are close enough to visit, I hope I’ll see you this Friday, September 23, for Members’ Night of the NC Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. If you click on this link, you’ll see a link to a printable list of all the plants that will be for sale that evening. I’ll be stationed at a table handing out lists of suggested natives for various situations/growing conditions. All the plants on these lists will be for sale that evening. And don’t forget that as a member, you get a 10% discount on all your purchases.

If you come to the sale, please stop by and say hello.

I hope I'll see you there!

I hope I’ll see you there!

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