The Backyard

The Backyard

Thursday, May 31, 2012


A little over a week ago, I was fretting I'd have few strawberries this year because of an early, warm spring followed by a couple freezing mornings.  Low and behold, berries are ripening and I've been picking.  I'm up to 3.5 quarts which I'm thrilled to have when I anticipated only a box or two would ripen.  We both love strawberries, and year's past I'd stop at every roadside "Strawberries for Sale" sign and buy them out.  This year was different when all the price tags said "$4.00 and even $4.50 a box.  Wow... that's a little salty for my pocketbook so we've been passing the strawberries by.  I may not have enough to freeze this year, but I'm planning to make up for the lost strawberry stock with wild black raspberries.  Time will allow me to peruse every fence line within a 2 mile radius of home for the luscious black berries this year, and I fully intend to do so.  When the strawberries are over, the patch will be getting an overhaul.  Runners are already started to feel their way to new territory through the fence and will need tamed.  Rick was already joking he'll just have to rototill more area for the runners (that's what we did last year).  That's ok with me Rick! Love the berries.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

An Oasis in Paradise

My husband and I joke about living in paradise as one visitor to our little corner of the world called it.  It prompted me to write a short blurb, "What's It Like To Live in Paradise?"  in my adventure blog.  While its not a tropical island paradise like the Happy Hippy lives in (it really is beautiful in St. Lucia), rural Pennsylvania is our paradise.  We have food for the picking, shelter, and peacefulness.  There are birds, bees, trees and butterflies. The sun rises everyday and sometimes its warm and calm enough to be in the garden at sunrise.  The garden is my personal paradise.  The smell of fresh compost and the site of food on a plant makes me smile.  Watching the bluebirds fly in their nest box warms my heart. Sipping coffee in our little oasis under the old oak tree is relaxing.  A friend of mine once told me I need to learn to relax.  Donna, I'm finally learning!  As my adventure blog mentions, paradise is what you believe it is... what makes you happy.  I really like's explanation:
4. a place of extreme beauty, delight, or happiness.
5. a state of supreme happiness; bliss.
 And life is about being happy and living each day to its fullest.   Now that we both can wake up every morning and do as we please, we're in paradise.  Retirement is very sweet.  What makes you happy??

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kale Recipe and Website

Kale is proclaimed to be a "super food" by doctors, dietitians, and nutrition specialists worldwide with the leafy green being packed with vitamins and minerals.  Diana Dyer, MS, RD, a cancer survivor, organic gardener/farmer, and registered dietitian in Michigan runs a blog dedicated solely to Kale, 365 Days of Kale.  Ms. Dyer pens some interesting scientific facts about the powers of food - her websites are worth a read, but especially 365 Days of Kale if you like the leafy green.  Kale is super-easy to grow and will be around all summer.  I typically have an overabundance of kale and am always looking for ways to use it.   My first recipe to try from this website was Kale and Apple muffins and they were fantastic.  The muffins were moist, spicy, and with refined sugar.  Hubby said they are "OK", but he has a refined sugar-addiction.  He says I have a sugar addiction too, which I agree with him, but I prefer natural sugars like maple syrup or honey, or even fruit sugar and just plain fruit.  Honey is the sugar in the muffins with shredded apple - yum.  This is a five-star recipe in my opinion.  Here's the link.  But here's the recipe also direct from Diana's website:


* 1-1/2 C organic whole wheat flour (I used white whole wheat flour)
* 1 tsp. each baking soda and baking powder
* ½ teaspoon salt
* ½ tsp. cinnamon
* ¼ tsp. nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon grated vanilla bean (or use ½ teaspoon vanilla extract)
* ⅓ C honey
* 1 egg
* ½ C sour milk or plain unflavored yogurt (I used the yogurt)
* ⅓ C canola oil
* ½ tsp. vanilla (see above)
* 1-½ C grated apples or carrots (used cored, unpeeled apples chopped in my food processor)
* 1 C finely chopped kale or raw leafy green vegetable (I took off the stems and then chopped the leaves fine in my food processor)
* ½ C each any dried fruit and chopped nuts (optional, but adds a crunch and is also nutritious and yummy enough for a dessert muffin, too!)

Preheat oven to 400.

In a mixing bowl, mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices.

In another bowl, mix honey, egg, yogurt, oil, vanilla, apples, kale, dried fruit and nuts.

Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients, stirring just till moistened. Fill 12 typical size greased muffin cups 2/3 full. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.

Made 12 very full muffins.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Three Station Compost Rotation

I won't even begin to go into the details of composting with the gazillion already-existing articles, books, and brochures on the how-to of composting and the benefits of such. Some explain the process with technical preciseness; some build elaborate shelters and recommend barrels to turn the goods; while others, like myself, find the easiest, quickest, most useful method of composting.   Being a person who prefers to find my own methods through a combination of existing styles, my shelterless compost pile was always situated in an out-of-the-way corner of the property.  The area was always big enough for three piles: green, brown, and finished.  This gave me enough room to mix and turn.  There are three main components this year (I'll explain shortly why this year is a little different and the most successful): dehydrated manure, grass clippings/kitchen waste, and water. In a normal year, my dear old dad brings the manure spreader full of stall manure with a lot of straw mixed in. The straw takes longer to decompose. This year, Dad brought one load which I used early in the season straight from the stall as mulch, but I found the dehydrated, beat-down-by-the-horses-hooves manure to be the real McCoy. Gene Logdson talks about this manure being the best in his book, Holy Shit. Actually, for urban composters, dehydrated manure is readily available at garden centers.  So...I've developed the perfect three-station rotation composting process that keeps my three main gardens constantly supplied in fresh compost during the growing seasons. If the plants aren't ready to be fed, I use it as mulch  for weed control because this process requires me to move a pile every week to be ready for the next batch of grass clippings from the mower bag. Each week, I haul a garbage can and two tubs full of horse manure to a station. Each station is positioned next to a main bed. Rick mows the grass and dumps all the clippings next to the manure. I layer the two and any kitchen scraps into a neat little pile. It starts cooking within an hour. Every three days, I turn it and it's hot, hot, hot. If it seems dry (not normally because of the high water content in the fresh cut grass), I'll water it. Compost can be made in 14 days and the timing of this process I'm using works out perfectly for the three stations. By the time the first station is finished cooking, Rick is ready to start dumping grass clippings back at that station. This rotation will go as long as there are grass clippings. I haven't ever produced enough kitchen scraps or plant material from the garden to make the pile cook and I've heard other folks mention the same problem. Grass clippings were the only green material I found to get the piles hot.  Currently, that's nearly exclusively the green content in the pile. Plus its easy and already finely cut up. But only use grass clippings if your lawn is organically grown.   Last year, I used the same content in my compost and areas where I mulched with the compost had  rich, healthy soil and the plants are growing like crazy this year.  Here are the pictures of my three stations and finished compost.
Rose Garden Station

Only three days old, the green is already decomposed to brown.

The herb garden station.

Turning the 3rd time, this will be ready in about a week. You can tell it's near ready when the heat starts dying.

The main vegetable garden station.

Finished compost, cool to the touch and smells earthy.
Fresh compost fed to rows of bean and cucumber seedlings.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Season of Picking Dinner - How Times Have Changed

Today's society is spoiled rotten when it comes to food choices.  There's a fast food joint on nearly every corner and the grocery store is stocked full of quick and easy dinner solutions - all prepackaged and ready in a few minutes by using the microwave.  Heck, you can even serve the dinner in the nicely colored ready-to-serve dish.  From freezer shelf to table in 10 minutes or less. Oh, and there's no dish clean-up either - just toss the container in the garbage.  Post baby-boomer generations were handed a world of fast, easy, and convenience foods to match their lifestyles and make each day a little less-stressed for them.  I'm fortunate enough to have parents, aunts, and uncles who recall their up-bringing in the 30's and 40's - the prime years of the victory gardens - when nearly every household had their own garden.  Choices back then were limited mostly to your backyard.  The McDonald brothers were just starting to branch out and Supermarkets weren't quite super in Gratz.  Dad says they walked (no, they didn't jump in the car and run to the store for a few things) to the store for things like cereal, flour and sugar, crisco, a loaf of bread, and sometimes "canned" goods like beans or soup.  Root Beer soda pop was one of my dad's favorite things to buy at the store.   Everything else came from the garden.  Even chickens and the occasional pig would be butchered and brought to the table from "down back".  Economics was the primary reason they grew their own food and that certainly is part of my reasoning for the garden today.  Besides the money savings and being kind to the earth, the reward of heading "out back" and picking dinner is like getting a paycheck at the end of the week.  There's nothing that puts a bigger smile on my face then harvesting, preparing, and cooking what was grown a couple feet from doorstep.  To know our dinner didn't travel but a couple feet and has zilch chemicals in it, nor was it wrapped in anything but human hands, is a pretty good feeling.  So what's for dinner tonight?   

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Direct Sowing - It Works With a Little TLC

"I'd spend the dollar and not bother trying to start seeds."  That was dear old mother's comment at the greenhouse when I spied watermelon plants for a dollar a piece.  The frugal side of me won out and decided to take the chance and plant the heirloom seeds I had waiting at home.  Direct sowing has its moments and you often ponder why waste my precious time.  Prior attempts had seeds not sprouting and trying to figure out what was a seed or a weed.  The key to seed sprouting is warmth and water. Pay attention to the soil temps described on the seed packets.  Stick your meat thermometer in the ground to see if the soil is ready.  When ready, plant the seed following the instructions on depth and spacing on the packet.  And then water, water, water - everyday until they sprout and keep watering after they start growing if its dry.  You don't need to drench them, but give them enough of a drink to keep growing.  And why spend the time?   To save money of course.  For a $2-3 packet of organic seeds, you'll get a 10-100x return on investment.  It's worth the effort.  Here are the latest sprouts.
Butternut Squash






Tuesday, May 22, 2012

When Frost Bites Your Berries

In a perfect spring, these pictures would be filled with juicy, ripe strawberries. Most area farms are busy harvesting their strawberries - even with the unusually warm, dry, then cold spring we've had in central Pennsylvania. Mother nature decided spring was here in early March and many plants, including the strawberries, came out of dormancy too early.  Later in April, the temperatures plummeted to below freezing and fruit farmers worried about losing crops.  My berry patch was a victim.  The ground was unseasonably warm from March and with no snow cover this winter, I thought it wouldn't get cold enough to ruin the crops.  The weathermen teased us a couple times and said "freeze warning" yet the temperatures stayed in the 40's. How could we really know what the temp would be in the morning if the weathermen couldn't predict it?   I toyed with trying to cover the rows when the cold spells were predicted, but the old farmer in me thought it'll never get that cold.  I was mistaken.   I found an excellent technical article from the Ontario government on freeze protection for crops with information on how many degrees below freezing until the plant is threatened.  Just 1.1 Celsius ruins a bloom.  It was about 4 degrees below freezing on at least two of the mornings.  The majority of growers set up irrigation to actually coat the plants in ice to protect them from the freeze.  I recall seeing this method in Florida one year when visiting relatives.  There were fields and fields of ice-covered plants and water spraying everywhere.   I'm guessing that's what the farms in the area did judging by the beautiful berries they have for sale.  It's also possible their fields didn't get as cold as it did here.  Frosty morning temperatures vary greatly from farm to farm. I have a lot to learn on protecting berries from a freeze.   But not all is lost, after the initial flush of blooms, additional blossoms followed.  Those blooms did not freeze and we'll still have a partial crop in a couple weeks.  It'll be later than most, but berries nonetheless.

Also affected by the early warmth and late freezing are the wild black raspberries. We had a dry spell right after the warmth, so it's possible some of the damage here on these bushes is from dryness; but, comparing the buds to the strawberries, it appears the wild berries also were affected by the freeze.  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Welcome Back and Hello Growing Season

It's time to start writing again.   Changes were made to my blog settings to eliminate spammers so I can be up and running again. Please have patience when posting comments as I'm not on a smart phone and only access the computer twice daily.  Your comment will show up the next day or possibly in the same day. 

May is my favorite month of the year.  I often wondered what it would be like to take vacation the whole month of May.  As a retiree, that month vacation is officially happening this year and there's only one word to describe it:  paradise.  Each morning now that it's daylight by 5:30, I'm in the backyard puttering around.  No written agenda - just doing what I please.  It's a no-stress delight to know what doesn't get done today in the garden can be done tomorrow, or the next day, or next week.  Years past, I'd stress every weekend trying to do the planting and also my playing (kayaking, mountain biking, and trail running/hiking), not to mention trying to get house work, cooking and preserving the harvests done.  That's all in the past and paradise awaits in my backyard.

A quick update on what's been planted:
  • First 3 rows of sweet corn - about 8 dozen ears. Two more succesive plantings to follow in the next month.
  • 60 sweet potato slips - 10 were started from last year's crop as an experiment.  Hoping to start all my own slips next year.
  • Red potatoes
  • White potatoes
  • Sugar peas and snap peas
  • Cucumbers
  • Several varieties of heirloom tomatoes
  • Three varieties of peppers
  • Eggplant
  • 6 Blueberry bushes
  • Two plantings of carrots
  • Three plantings of swiss chard
  • Three plantings of red beets
  • Two plantings of broccoli (I thought the first crop froze out - but it came back)
  • Black Beans, Cannelli beans, kidney beans, soy beans, and lima beans
  • Pole green beans
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Butternut squash
  • Spaghetti squash
  • Watermelon
  • Cantelope
  • Two plantings of kale
  • Onions
  • Two plantings of radishes
  • Radicchio
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Two plantings of mesclun lettuces
  • Tatsoi
  • Zinnia seeds to attract butterflies
  • Three plantings of spinach
  • Bulb Fennel
  • Millet
  • Borage
  • Dill
  • Mint
  • Sunflowers everywhere (they came up themselves from last year's plantings)
  • Sweet Annie
What been harvested so far:
  • Spinach (first crop is finished and pulled already - moving onto 2nd planting)
  • Kale
  • Radishes
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Mesclun lettuces
  • Broccoli
  • Tatsoi (starting to bolt... planning to pull it all)
  • Pak choi (bolting - pulling it all)
  • Asparagus
  • Dandelion
  • Rhubarb
  • Parsley
  • Oregano
My strawberries were victim to a late heavy freeze.  They appeared to be alright after the freeze, but the berries never developed after the blooms.  The plants seemed to regenerate themselves and started blooming a 2nd time and there are now berries forming but won't be ready for another two -three weeks which is later than most.   My raspberries are also having a tough time.  There was a dry spell just when they were coming out of dormancy this year, and many new shoots dried up.  I was a little too late with the water to save them.  I believe they will be ok if rains are consistent. 

Part of the plan of retirement was to grow as much of my own food as possible and I'm proceeding as planned.  It doesn't even seem like work now that time is on my side.   There's no doubt, retirement is a sweet, sweet deal.