Monday, July 31, 2017

Tarantula Hawks: Gentle Giants of the Wasp World

You have probably encountered tarantula hawks on click-bait websites in a list of "most painful stings", "most bad-ass", or "biggest jerks of the animal world".  It's just fake news and sensationalism, except for the part about the painful sting. That's true.

Unless you annoy tarantula hawks sufficiently by grabbing them for research purposes or just because you are stupid, they ignore you and go about their business of feeding on nectar, and hunting spiders for wasp babies to eat. They don't just hunt tarantulas, any large spider will do.  I have had them run over my bare feet (it tickles) while they were searching my patio for black widows.

There were a dozen or more feeding on the flowers of a Vitex bush in my front yard so I grabbed the camera. These pictures were taken with a macro lens, my camera only a few inches from the wasp.  A couple of them bumped into me or the camera as they flew from flower to flower but I was just an inedible obstacle.
Female Pepsis grossa
The males find a good nectar source like the Vitex and hang out there in early June, waiting for females to show up. They might get lucky. 
Male

This species (Pepsis grossa) is amazing iridescent teal with rusty amber wings in New Mexico.  The Arizona variant is all black-teal iridescent, including the wings. The females have curled antennae, the antennae of the males are straight.

About that Sting

I have been stung once by a tarantula hawk, and yes it is intensely painful. It was a "could not move or talk" level of pain for the worst 5 minutes of my life, including the time I got a 600V jolt from a Nixie tube driver.  However painful, the sting didn't leave much of a trace once it was over. Compared to the hours of slightly less pain from a bark scorpion sting ... I'd take the wasp.

By briefly paralysing an attacker with pain, the wasp can often escape.  It's effective enough that very few insectivores are going to try to eat more than one.

See Also:

https://askentomologists.com/2015/09/27/please-stop-sharing-the-wasps-are-jerks-memes/   Read more!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Storm Damage, Mostly Hail

Along with three inches of rain in two weeks we had a few short hail showers.  The rain was welcome. The hail was not excessive, but the damage it caused might make a novice gardener think they had a mysterious disease or leaf-eating pests.

Here's the first example, a chile pepper with the typical irregular holes punched by hailstones.
Holes from Hailstones

And the second, which looks like some sort of a disease, but is just spots of freeze damage where a small hailstone landed on the tender tomatillo leaves, stayed there, and melted.
Freeze Damage from Hailstones
Read more!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Establishing Squash Bees in Your Garden

By the time honeybees get their lazy striped butts out of the hive and start their daily commute to my garden, squash bees have been at work for a couple of hours pollinating my squash.  There is so little pollen left that the honey bees seldom bother to visit the blossoms.
Squash Bee with pollen-covered legs

Squash Bee with distinctive narrow-striped abdomen
How do they do it?  Squash bees live where they work, and turn the blooms into a singles bar. The male bees hang around in the blossoms, waiting for unfertilized females to show up.  Towards noon the males and any unfertilized females enter a male blossom and let it close around them.  At dawn, when the next blossoms are opening, the bees chew through the walls of their overnight hostel and continue their search for a mate.
Withered male flowers are overnight refuges
Instead of a long commute back to a hive with the pollen, a fertilized female squash bee digs a nest close to the squash plants.  She stuffs one of the chambers with pollen, lays one egg on the pollen and seals that chamber.
Squash Bee with pollen-covered legs
The fertilized females spend the afternoons digging nest chambers to fill with pollen the next day. They live in a nest until the chambers are all complete, then make a new one.
Squash bee nest hole
So how do you attract these wonderful creatures to your garden?  Plant squash, of course, and have some bare, untilled dirt next to the squash for the nests.  Read more!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Watching Grass Grow: Buffalo 2.0 Is Now a Meadow

A meadow is grass with wildflowers ...and I have it!  At least in parts of the lawn, if you squint just right, I have fluffy clumps of grass with scattered flowers.
Jute mesh, new grass, and some wildflowers (Ratibida columnaris)
It's been slow to establish for several reasons:
  • We had a cooler spring than usual.
  • The summer rains have not come yet.
  • I did not till or amend the area before planting.
  • The seeds are not a select improved "turf" strain, it's just generic buffalo grass and blue grama grass. 
  • I fertilized very lightly and did not fertilize early.
  • Most of the wildflowers are perennials and will not bloom well this year. 
The erosion control mesh is doing exactly what I need it to do - when I water the mesh fills with water like waffles fill with syrup and it sinks in instead of running off.  I am watering daily to encourage the final grass seeds to sprout, with an occasional seep watering to get the roots to go deep.  I really need some rainstorms. Read more!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

DIY Sweat Bands for Sound Protection Ear Muffs

Sound protection while you are using power tools is important.  The whine of a power saw or the roar of a chipper-shredder can permanently damage your hearing, and almost always leaves you with a headache.

I wear earmuffs.  But the foam ear pads produce sweaty ears!  I hate sweaty ears!  So I made these washable, cheap sweat-soakers out of cotton socks. They work well on my wireless headphones too, and don't block the movie sound. They lower the efficiency of noise cancelling headphones a bit, but it's still better than sweaty ears.

MATERIALS:
White cotton crew sock or socks, men's multi-size or large. Look for the highest cotton content as you can find in cheap socks.
Socks and Scissors

Read more!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Wasps for Caterpillar Control


Many people think the paper wasps and mud daubers are a dangerous garden pest that needs to be controlled.  In my view, they are excellent pest controllers, especially for caterpillars.  They catch insects and feed them to their larvae.
These cells will be filled with hungry baby wasps!
I was looking at my hollyhocks, looking for the insect that made web nests like this in leaves and ate the leaves.  Most of the webs were empty, because wasps were systematically locating the nests and eating the caterpillars. The wasps ignored me as they moved from leaf to leaf.
Caterpillars hiding in rolled leaf web.
One of the Painted Lady butterflies, Vanessa annabella West Coast lady
is the probably leaf muncher.  Mallows are one of their main host plants.

Wasps are also patrolling the Four O'Clocks, the tomatoes and the peppers, which have very little caterpillar damage this year.

When would I destroy a wasp nest? Nests in areas where they risk being bumped and bringing the wrath of the inhabitants on me are destroyed when I find them.  The first photo is of a nest that the wasp built in the garden shed, on my weed trimmer.  I destroyed it and hope she found a better place for her next effort. Read more!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Flowers! And Bugs!

Enough of construction and problem solving!  I have flowers to brag about ... Russian sage, hollyhocks, penstemons and gaillardia blooming between my patio and the fence in a gaudy mess.  
This is the traditional New Mexico style flower garden, where you plant a lot of things and let them fight for room. My long term plan is to extend this planting along the fence to the right, as time and available compost permit.

The Russian sage has dozens of bees, and an occasional butterfly.  These cream or white ones with spots are common.  An orange sherbet colored one taunts me and dodges the camera.
 

And on another wall, Zebra hollyhocks (Malva sylvestris) in a small planting area between patio and barbecue grill. There are also gaura and salvia for the hummingbirds.
 
Read more!

Monday, June 12, 2017

How to Grow your Own Ladybugs in 6 Easy Steps

A common question on gardening forums is "How do I attract ladybugs?".  It's easy. All you have to do is attract aphids.
  1. Have plants for the aphids. 
  2. Do nothing!
  3. Ladybugs will appear.
  4. Ladybugs lay eggs on the infested plants and eat aphids.
  5. Eggs hatch into aphid-eating larvae, grow up and make pupae.
  6. Adult ladybugs emerge from pupae and eat more aphids and lay more eggs.
Congratulations! You have grown ladybugs*.
Read more!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Climate, Micro-climates, and Nano-climates


This turned into an accidental demonstration of what micro-micro-climates are.  A micro-micro is a nano ... so maybe I'm showing nano-climates.  If you have a few plants that are unexpectedly struggling when the rest of the same variety are thriving, check for tiny differences in light and water.

EXAMPLE: Here are three young summer squash, looking quite water-stressed in the early afternoon.
Wilted
Less than 6 feet to the north, at the same moment, another three squash looking perky.
Unwilted
They were started and planted out at the same time, the seeds came from the same packet, the growing medium is the same home-made compost and silty sand, and they have the same length of drip tubing from the same manufacturer coiled around them.

The difference? The three to the north get light shade from a branch about 20 feet above them in the early afternoon. The stressed ones do not.

The solution? I added more drip tubing for the stressed ones.

I've seen nano-climates like this come from a window or wall reflecting light and heat, a septic tank's microbiological action warming the soil, or a change to a neighbor's landscaping giving more or less sunlight.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microclimate 







Read more!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Watching Grass Grow: Buffalo 2.0 Update

Just a quick update on establishing the buffalo and blue grama lawn. It looked like this in early February, right after I spread the jute mesh and scattered the seeds.
February 2, 2017
After way too much weeding and daily hand watering, by late May I had grass and an enthusiastic crop of native wildflowers.  Two annuals -  Tahoka daisy (Machaeranthera tanacetifolia) and sunflowers - are the main ones now. The perennial species are still very small.
May 27th
The daisies were not deliberately planted. They blew in from somewhere and I decided to keep them. They have a long bloom period, reseed easily, and attract a small white butterfly.
Tahoka Daisy
The native grasses don't grow very tall at first. They are establishing roots. When the summer rains come, I expect to see the buffalo grass sending out runners and the blue grama bunches get taller.
Tufts of grass
Read more!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Composting rules I break, and why I break them

There are lists of what could/should and should not be tossed into a compost pile. I disregard most of them, because they make no biological sense. However, local conditions and ingredients affect my decisions.

What I don't compost, and why:
  • Eggshells
    Our soil has plenty of calcium, and the grackles or ravens rummage through the compost for shells, then carry the shells a short distance and drop them. It's not worth the mess they cause.
  • Cactus pads
    The fleshy part decays quickly, but the spines last forever in the compost. It hurts.
  • Palm fronds
    They are too fibrous to run through a chipper shredder, and the fibers last a long time, making the compost hard to turn or sift. 
    If you want to prune your palm trees, do it in time for Palm Sunday in the spring or Sukkot in the fall.  People will love you for donating fronds to their ceremonies.
What I compost that I'm "not supposed" to:
  • Kitty litter
    We use locally produced pellet fuel - compressed sawdust - as litter. After removing the feces because ewww! the urine-soaked sawdust composts easily.  I'm not worried about pathogens because they are my cats. They live with me, sleep on my bed and wander through my house.
  • Meat and leftovers containing meat or grease
    If you can compost an entire dead elk by piling sawdust over it, a few scraps of stew meat aren't going to make your compost pile die. 
    If I lived where the meat could attract scavengers such as bears or raccoons, I would keep most food scraps out of the compost.
Read more!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Weed Control: Herbicides 101, What Plants They Kill


Herbicides are chemicals used to control unwanted plants. All conventional or "organic" herbicides work by somehow interfering with plant growth. They may block photosynthesis and protein production, dry out the leaves, or destroy or inhibit root formation. Because different plant groups have different biochemical pathways, some herbicides can kill only one group and leave other groups unaffected. Other herbicides will kill a wider range of plants.

This means that you might be able to get rid of some plants and not kill the plants you want to keep.  But it also means you have to take the time to find the right herbicide, read labels and apply the herbicide correctly.
WARNING: If something will kill "weeds", it might also kill "flowers", "lawns", "vegetables", "shrubs", "trees", "animals", and you.
Read the labels before you buy a product or open the container. Follow the instructions. What has been sprayed can't be unsprayed.

READ THE LABELS: Yes, that means YOU!

A typical herbicide label has several pages of cautions and warnings and instructions.  The label will tell you how to safely handle the product, what plants to use the product on, and just as important, what not to use it on. You can read the labels online while you are deciding which product you need.
Label from typical lawn weed killer.
They tell you what NOT to apply it to because it will kill those plants.

There is also a long list of weeds it has been tested against that it will kill
if you apply it according to the package directions.

What are you killing, and for how long do you want it dead?

Classified by results, herbicides can be thought of as soil sterilizers, broad spectrum herbicides, broad-leaf herbicides, grass herbicides, and pre-emergent herbicides.  So your first step is to decide what effects you need, and identify the plants you want to kill. Then you can select which product of that class will work best for you.

Soil Sterilizer
A soil sterilizer prevents seed sprouting and regrowth from roots for a long period, months to years.  It usually kills existing plants as well.  This is the equivalent of "nuke it from orbit" for a gardener, and should be very carefully researched.

This is not the product you want to apply to clear the weeds from where you plan to put a lawn or vegetable garden.

Broad Spectrum Herbicide
Affects almost every plant you spray, but will not prevent seeds from sprouting, or only has a short effect on seed sprouting. These are useful for killing off everything and replanting with the desired species. With care they can be used around established plants without harming them.

Glyphosate is in this class, as is horticultural (20%) vinegar, and that stupid mix of salt, vinegar and dish soap. 

Broad-Leaf Herbicide
Affects most plants with two seed leaves, also known as broad-leaf plants, but does not affect plants with one seed leaf, such as grass and corn. This is what you get in the herbicides to kill weeds in lawns.


TIP: Not all plants with grass-like leaves are immune to this class of herbicide.  Some are not botanically a "grass" and others are just delicate varieties of a grass.

Grass Herbicide

This affect plants with one seed leaf or thin leaves, such as grass and corn, but does not affect plants with two seed leaves. These are useful for killing grass in your shrubbery and rose beds or an orchard.

Pre-Emergent Herbicide
This is often sold as a "weed preventer" because it sounds more appealing than "pre-emergent herbicide".  However it is labelled, it will prevent most seeds from germinating, so don't try to use it to keep weeds from sprouting in the vegetable bed or lawn you just seeded.


TIP:Timing is everything with pre-emergents. Applied too early or if there is too much rain and the herbicide might be washed below the level where the seeds are germinating. Applied too late and the weeds can be too mature to be affected.

On-Line References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbicide

http://extension.psu.edu/pests/weeds/control/introduction-to-weeds-and-herbicides/safe-herbicide-use 

http://extension.psu.edu/pests/weeds/control/introduction-to-weeds-and-herbicides/herbicides

http://www.ocregister.com/articles/plants-80501-weed-herbicides.html  Read more!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Using Compost Bins As Raised Beds

My composting method consists of tossing stuff into a wire bin and letting it decompose on its own schedule.  Because of the dry climate, things in a bin can sit there for years without decomposing much, so I ran a drip line onto the top to keep the ingredients moist and ensure compost within my lifetime.

Then we had the brainstorm!  Why not try growing stuff in the bin while it was decomposing? It has water and nutrients aplenty. It should be like a planter or extra-high raised bed.

The Construction:

Here's a new bin, made after yard cleanup, with layers of shredded branches, grass clippings,  and oleander leaves and blossoms.  The green thing is a bean plant that grew up the side between filling the bin and making the planter.
New Compost Bin

We made a depression in the middle of the material, lined it with newspaper and filled it with some garden dirt.
Layer of newspaper and dirt
Then we spiraled the drip line on the dirt and planted vegetables along the perimeter.
Drip line

Results

We had success with summer squash and tomatoes.  It's convenient to have tomatoes at a pickable height.
Matt's Wild Cherry Tomato, running wild

Problems

  • As the material decomposed, the plants needed to be adjusted for the lower height if they were draped over the edge.
  • The compost from the tomatoes was infested with tomato seeds from the fruits we didn't see that fell into the bin.
  • Tearing down the heap was a bit more difficult because of the massive root systems the plants developed, but not enough to make me stop using the heaps.
Read more!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

World-wide Naked Gardening Day

Protective Gear for Desert Gardeners 

I knew there was a drawback to desert landscaping. I can't participate in World Naked Gardening Day because it's too dangerous.

Mark Storey, the founder of WNDG writes of "the innocent joy of working with the earth as nature intended".  He may frolic through the English landscape nekkid as a jaybird, but nature in the desert does its best to leave gardeners blistered, dehydrated, punctured, and cooked medium rare.
Spiny things and tender flesh are not a good mix.

I have to protect myself from the plants, the tools I use, and nature. 
Read more!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Watching Grass Grow: What I Should Have Done for Buffalo 2.0

This is another "Oops, should have thought a bit longer" post. I realized too late that there was a slower but less work way to get the front yard growing.

I should have established the grass and wildflowers over 2 or 3 years, not just one spring, to make weed control easier.
  1. Water well, lure out and kill annual weeds by any means possible between November and May.  Flames, herbicides, tilling ... total war on weeds.
  2. Plant the buffalo and grama grass in May, with the jute erosion control mesh.  The seeds would sprout faster in the warmer weather.
  3. Get the grasses established the first summer, weeding and using herbicides as needed. Anything that is not a grass is the enemy at this time.
  4. If the weed pressure is low, plant wildflower seeds that fall and following spring. 
  5. If there are still a bazillion weeds, use a pre-emergent or  broad-leaf herbicide another year before planting wildflowers.
But, I was in a hurry, so I planted the buffalo and wildflower seeds in early spring, and the weeds took advantage of the water. They were well-sprouted before the grass even broke dormancy.

On the bright side, I have acquired excellent experience in hand-weeding large areas and recognizing weed versus wildflower seedlings.
Read more!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Starting Seeds Under Grow Lights

The mortality rate of seeds that I plant directly into the garden is high. I blame it on the arid climate, because it is difficult to keep the soil moist for the time it takes to get the seeds well-sprouted.  The solution is to start seeds inside in soil blocks and plant them out when they have a couple of good leaves and some roots.

LED grow lights are fabulous for this. They are low-power and don't produce much heat so they don't cook the plants.


Don't let articles about basements full of reflectors and lights scare you off. There is a difference between growing plants all the way to flowering and fruiting and just getting seedlings started.  My setup won't get tomatoes from seed to harvest.  It will get them from seeds to seedlings and do it inexpensively.

This was the first "OMG, I need LIGHT, and I need it NOW" setup.  Two inexpensive grow lights are dangling from some steel tubing over my workbench. They have a timer set to provide about 14 hours of high intensity light every day.
Temporary Grow Light Area
You can see the mini greenhouses of salvaged transparent pastry and salad green boxes labelled with painters tape and permanent marker pens. The seedlings are in the boxes, protected from drying out.

The next version will have two more lights and more space, but will not be any fancier.  
WARNING and update: The air inside the plastic boxes CAN reach temperatures too high for successful seed germination.  I did not have problems when the workshop was a chilly 55 degrees, so I assumed that the set-up was working.  Later I started having entire boxes fail to germinate.  I was puzzled, then realized that I was not monitoring the temperature inside the boxes.  It was NINETY-TWO degrees in the box I measured.  That explains it.

I need to figure out how to keep the soil blocks moist and the temperature down.  There will be an update.

Why I don't use a sunny window

Sunny windows are for cats, not seedlings.
Read more!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Starting Seeds in Soil Blocks: Part 3, After They Sprout

They sprouted!  Now what? 

Unless you want the seedlings to die from lack of space for their roots, you have to do something with them.  You have three choices:
  • Direct planting out to your garden
  • Moving the sprouts to a larger soil block to grow larger
  • Moving the sprouts to a pot, either permanently or to grow larger
Read more!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Starting Seeds in Soil Blocks Part 2, Making and Planting the Blocks

Collect your trays for the soil blocks.  I use salvaged  clear plastic containers that salad greens or pastries are sold in. I also use small freezer containers to hold a 20-block set of seeds.  If you will be making large quantities of blocks, cafeteria style trays or nursery trays would be convenient if you have some way to retain moisture in the blocks.

You will also need a sturdy trowel, a drywall mudding blade, and a pair of tongs with flat 1-inch tips.
The tools: drywall knife, mason's trowel and salad tongs

Read more!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Starting Seeds in Soil Blocks Part 1, Making the Mix

Soil blocks - just a cube of compressed dirt - have advantages for gardeners who grow their vegetables and flowers from seed.
40 lettuce seedlings in 3/4" soil blocks
in a scavenged plastic deli tray
There is no plastic except for the reusable, perhaps scavenged, trays for the blocks.  The micro blocks shown here take a very small amount of space compared to other seed starting methods. If a seed fails to sprout, the block can be tossed into the garden or compost bin. When well-sprouted, after a couple of true leaves have developed, the seedlings are ready for planting out or moving into a larger soil block or a pot.
Read more!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Raised Bed: REV 2.0 Bigger and Better

The first raised bed was done in a hurry because it was already October and I needed to get something finished for winter vegetables.  It was about 6x9 feet, occupying the available space between a fence, shed, and compost bins.
Six feet is as deep as it can be without getting in the way of traffic through the side yard. However, six feet is too big to weed in the middle without crawling into the growing area. Four feet wide would have been much better, because a comfortable reach for me is 2 feet.

Geometry to the rescue! The new bed is a fat E-shape, 6x16 feet, with two indented areas to keep the entire growing area in my reach distance. It is, however, no longer "tool-free".
Old (top) and new (lower) bed outline

Read more!

Monday, April 10, 2017

My Father was a Passover Goy. Was Yours?

What do an atheist family's children do for Passover? If the children are lucky, there will be a nearby observant Jewish family with "chametz" that is also in need of a "Passover goy".

What is "chametz"? When I was a child, I thought chametz was Yiddish slang for cookies, rye bread, and bagels. It's really almost any product that contains one or more of these five grains - wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye. Chametz includes not only bread and bagels, but the flour they are made from.

According to their religion, Jews may not own, eat or benefit from chametz during Passover. They must consume it, destroy it, or sell it before Passover starts. Not a single crumb can remain in a house (except for a few that are hidden for Jewish children to find and bring to be destroyed), or a warehouse, or a business.

What or who is the Passover goy? There is a loophole in Jewish ritual law big enough to fit wagonloads of chametz through. The Passover goy is a reliable non-Jewish person who takes posession of chametz for the duration of Passover.

Why would my father, a well-known atheist, choose to be a Passover goy? Why not? Helping neighbors is a mitzvah. Looking back, he was also the only person in the community who was not a member of a church that actively sought converts. If you want a no-hassle, no sermons Passover goy, atheists and pagans are probably better choices than someone from the high-pressure Christian religions.

I also realize now why there were fresh-made cookies, challah, and rye bread in the boxes the Jewish families brought to him. It's not as though the families were unaware that Passover was coming and accidentally made bread. It was an unspoken "thank you" for respecting their beliefs.

What are the duties of the Passover goy? Every year, my father made room in our house and garage for the chametz, and did the following:
  • Bought and stored their flour and leavening agents. 
  • Bought their baked goods. 
  • Bought and stored any other goods that had chametz in the ingredient list, such as the wheat noodles in canned ravioli, or the wheat starch in a condiment.
  • Bought and stored any wheat-based liquor and beer. 
  • Stored their dishes and cooking utensils that were used during the year, because the Jewish family was using their special Passover set. 
  • Sold it all back after Passover ... minus the baked goods. We ate those.
He had to buy the chametz? Yes. The payment was a tiny amount, but it ritually passed ownership from the Jewish owner to my father. As I recall, a dollar bill changed hands for each family. Read more!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Weed Control Methods: Herbicides Series

I will be publishing a series of posts on herbicides for weed control, explaining in a non-technical manner how to select the correct one for your problem and use it effectively.

It's a bit more complicated than grabbing a bottle of "weed killer" and spraying the yard.
WARNING: If something will kill "weeds", it might also kill "flowers", "lawns", "vegetables", "shrubs", "trees", "animals", and you.
Read the labels before you buy a product or open the container. Follow the instructions. What has been sprayed can't be unsprayed.
As I complete the posts, I'll update this, or click on the tag "herbicide" to see them and any other posts on herbicides. Read more!

Friday, April 7, 2017

PRO and CON: Expanding Pot-Pellets for Seed Starting

I sometimes start seeds in expanding starter pots. The most widely available brand is Park Seed Company "Jiffy-7" pots. The Jiffy pots are widely available in garden centers, the garden section of large retailers and hardware stores. They don't work for all seeds, but it's a product that is worth considering for starting some of your seeds.

The poker-chip size disks inflate into seed starting pots when you soak the discs in warm water. After the disk has soaked up water and is about 1 1/2 inches tall, drop a couple of seeds into the hole in the pot and wait for something to grow. I haven't had this much fun since I was a kid and had those flat animal sponges that puffed up into horsies.
Expanding Pots: as purchased on the left, after soaking on the right

Read more!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Why you need a garden journal

I know what date I took a picture, because the camera dates them for me, but when did I plant those things? That's why I need to start a garden journal - if I'm going to make garden experiments, I need to document my projects better.
Nice lettuce on February 20, but when did I plant them?
Here's where I should wax rhapsodic over the joys of using a hand-bound journal with a vintage nib pen for my botanical musings, or launch a discussion of which garden journalling software works best for Mac, Windows and Linux or my smart phone. Or maybe discuss my search for an app that keeps my gardening data in the cloud, whatever and wherever that is.

But I'm not going there.

My main computer lives in my office and my gardening all happens outside or in the workshop. I have a not-so-SmartPhone and I don't want to risk my laptop in the garden.  I already have the property dimensions on graph paper, and the Weather Underground keeps track of weather history for me. I don't need to track every weed I pull, just a few significant dates like when I plant seeds and when I need to do certain tasks, such as check on the seeds I have chilling in the refrigerator.

The simplest solution is a calendar page with enough room to make notes, in a clipboard that hangs in the workshop. At the end of a month, the loose page will be archived into the big binder that has all my house notes.

Here's the journal page I picked, from a wonderful group I know nothing about except that they provide free calendar templates for Linux, Mac and Windows.  Download what you need and print them out.  If I need more room for notes in any month, I will staple a piece of lined paper to that month's calendar.
Monthly calendar with note area
2017 Calendar Template Download 
And here it is, in front of my extremely sophisticated grow light system. The upcycled lettuce and pastry containers have soil blocks and seedlings in them.  ("Upcycled" sounds so much better than scavenged.)
Garden journal at work, collecting notes.
Read more!

Monday, March 27, 2017

DIY Pet Pill Pusher for Cats

Dogs are easy to give pills to - toss them a few treats and then the pill wrapped in a bit of lunch meat ... snarf, and it's gone.
Cats are different. When one of our cats, a muscular 9-pound adult, needed medication  twice a day for 10 days we quickly realized that we needed tools as well as hands.
They'll be too busy on Facebook to find me here!

So I made a pill pusher to make the process easier for us and her.

Read more!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Using a Seed Starting Heating Pad


Many seeds require a warmer soil temperature for germination than the seedling needs to grow after germination.  This ensures that the seeds germinate when the weather is warm enough for the plants to survive.
Frost on my lettuce seedlings.
For most seeds, directly planting the seeds in the garden is the preferred method, but many gardeners start some of their plants indoors with "bottom heat" to provoke germination and get an early start on the season.
  • They want to harvest as soon as possible, whether for market stalls or just bragging rights.
  • Their growing season is too short for this plant.
  • By the time the soil is warm enough, the remaining growing season is too short to get any harvest.
  • Their soil never warms up enough to germinate the seeds, but transplants will grow.
  • Their area for starting seeds indoors is too cool for germinating.
  • They need to get the plants germinated and seedlings established before hot weather arrives.
  • They want to get their garden work done before hot weather arrives.
I'm gardening in several of those categories, especially the last two.  I want to get the chili peppers and tomatoes in the ground to avoid the coming hot weather, and my workshop is too cool.
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Monday, March 13, 2017

Improved Frost Cover Support


The frost cloth was working, but rain made it sag and I was afraid the weight of the wet cloth would rip itself.  I added support lines between stakes to support the cloth in more places. It worked well after a moderate rain and a light snowstorm.
Support lines shown in yellow

It's easier to put on and off, and the cloth doesn't snag around the support posts.

The lines use clove hitches around the base of the mushroom cap on each support - it's an easy knot to make and unmake, easy to adjust in the middle of the line, and one of the few that can be made in the middle of a line without untying one end.
Supports with the added guy lines (orange garden twine)

 Possible Variations and Improvements

I don't have time to try these, but they would work.
  • Alternate supports ... use PVC pipe with end caps.  PVC pipe can be cut at home, is not as rough and is less likely to snag the frost cloth than rebar.
  • For a removable but convenient support system, pound in pipe big enough to hold the supports so you can drop them in quickly. Plug the pipe holes with something between uses to keep dirt, dead leaves, and critters out.

Read more!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Watching Grass Grow: Sprouting the Buffalo Grass Seeds

Instead of waiting until nights are reliably above 60 before seeding, I'm pretending that the grass seed is in Kansas and experiencing a nice wet spring.  I'm watering it every few days, and letting the jute mesh keep it moist.  Nights here are starting to be above freezing with days in the 50s and 60s and even 70s, so it should be happy to sprout.

(Feb 21)  3+ weeks after scattering seed and upholstering the lawn, a few days of rain, a couple days of snow, and temps ranging from highs of 45-75 and lows of 25-45 I have grass sprouting. 
 Tiny little shoots, but it's grass.
I don't know if this is buffalo grass or blue grama.
I also have weeds and perhaps some of the wild flower seeds are sprouting.  This area will take some time to sort out. Read more!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Curb Appeal #1: Getting From Curb to Door

Your first thought about your house's curb appeal should not be what color to paint the front door, where to hang hand-crafted wreaths, or what to plant under the windows.
Neglected house

Having the cutest front door on the block doesn't matter if it's hard to get from the curb to the front door.  I'll expand these bullet points later into posts with examples, explaining why they are important, but for now, here's some things to think about.
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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Jute Erosion Mesh As a Seed Cover

Lawn Upholstering? 

Jute erosion control mesh is not burlap - it's a fabric woven with extremely coarse yarn and large holes.  The mesh is commonly used for erosion control along new road construction while grasses and shrubs are being established. It is biodegradable, and within a couple of years, maybe more in a dry area, will decay and turn into organic material in the soil.

I'm using it like a mulch to protect newly scattered buffalo and blue grama grass seed and native wildflower mix. It should prevent my seeds from blowing away, discourage seed-eating birds and hold moisture.  It is definitely weed-free, which my compost is not.  It supposedly decomposes in a couple of years, so I will write more than this post about how it works.
Upholstered Lawn

It does look like I carpeted the lawn, and the neighbors are looking at me funny.
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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Watching Grass Grow: The Return of the Buffalo

We had heat-tolerant buffalo grass in Phoenix and loved the low maintenance and toughness of it.  The landscape plan in New Mexico includes a xeriscape "meadow" of grasses and wildflowers.  Instead of the plugs, I'm using seeds of a buffalo grass variety better adapted for high desert, mixed with blue grama grass and a small number of other native grasses for accents.
Buffalo cow and calf enjoying a stroll in Yellowstone National Park

The front yard was mostly neglected bare dirt. After the visible weeds were killed off, the seeds were scattered over the bare dirt and covered with jute erosion control mesh as a mulch to keep the seed from blowing all the way to El Paso. When the weather warms up, I'll be watering every few days until the grass is established. I'll also be pulling weeds.

Seed Sources

Western Native Seed of Coaldale Colorado
Xeriscape Lawn Mix, 70% buffalo grass/30% blue grama grass
Because the grama grass seeds are smaller than the buffalo grass, it's probably equal quantities of each seed.
Xeriscape Wildflower Mix  A whole bunch of stuff in this.

Prairie Moon Nursery was the source for some of the accent grasses and wildflowers. I'll be writing about them later.  I put about half of the grasses from prairie Moon into the main lawn mix and the rest will be planted as drifts or specimens

Also, I had grass and flower seed collected from along the roads here that I blended into the grass or flower seeds before scattering them. It will be interesting to see what grows. Read more!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

4 Weekends = Improved Curb Appeal

No matter how great the interior of your house may be, first you have to convince buyers that it's worth it to get out of the car and into the house. That's what "curb appeal" is.  I'm assuming you have a short time to get ready to sell your house, so this advice concentrates on removing negative curb appeal quickly and cheaply, not adding positives.
This would take more than four weekends.

The typical suburban house will take about 4 weekends dedicated to yard work to remove the negatives from the curb appeal before the listing date. That gives the shrubs time to recover from pruning, and the lawn time to green up. If your landscape is exceptionally large or neglected, some steps might take more than one weekend. Evaluate what you can do for yourself and hire professionals for the rest.

Remember:
  • Dead plants don't sell houses.
  • If potential buyers can't see the house behind trees and bushes, they won't want to buy it.
  • Clean and tidy is appealing.
  • Well-maintained is appealing.
  • Closely mowed green weeds have more curb appeal than overgrown or dead lawns.

Read more!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Late winter planting to avoid the spring rush?

The experiment - I'm exploring the possibility of starting leafy greens in late fall and "storing" them in the garden under a frost cloth during the winter so they are out of my way when I need the seed starting space for chiles (we have our priorities in this state).
If it works, I can have a three-planting rotation for leafy greens: Late fall for harvest in early spring, late spring for harvest in spring/summer, late summer for harvesting into the winter.

I planted out seedling butterhead lettuce in soil blocks December 3. Earlier plantings of chard, kale, bok choy and leaf lettuce - set out in beginning in early November - are looking happy and putting out leaves.  I've been harvesting since mid-January.  They are under a frost cloth tent, but it's not heated.
Bok Choi, planted as seedlings in December
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Sunday, January 29, 2017

The problem with USDA Plant Hardiness Zones

Any system that puts Phoenix, Arizona and Orlando, Florida together has a serious flaw.  But they are both USDA Hardiness Zone 10.
"USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones."
What it really means:  The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map helps determine which plants are unlikely to die of cold weather at a location, not thrive.   There are many other reasons your location will kill unsuitable plants.  The picture below shows part of the problem.
Both city parks are in USDA Hardiness Zone 10


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