winding down

The end of summer isn’t a time, it’s a process. Plants die off slowly, leaving harvest to stretch out over a period of weeks.

Although I’ve pulled two tomato plants and have a couple more on their last legs, there are still three or four producing. We’ve canned two batches of salsa, some whole tomatoes, and made tomato sauce. Now the shelf space is all used up, and the freezer is getting difficult to navigate.

yet another weirdly big Amish Paste tomato to be used for next year's seed

Another weirdly big Amish Paste tomato to be used for next year’s seed

But I have trouble not putting produce to good use, so yesterday I made a final (?) batch of salsa for freezing, just for me, with plenty of hot peppers. Since the pantry wasn’t an option, I decided to freeze the salsa, first in ice cube trays, then putting the hot salsa cubes into freezer bags. Makes it simple to take out just the amount I need at supper time.

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I just hope there’s still room in there for ice cream.

With gardening winding down, it seemed like a good time to take care of another project that’s been on the to-do list; a couple of drying rods in my grow closet.

In the past, our drying produce has hung in the barn, which isn’t ideal. It’s damp in there, and I always feel like I’m luring rodents to a feast.

With a couple of lengths of PVC left over from the chicken tractor build and a couple of pieces of scrap wood, it was done.

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It’ll be easy to remove the rods if they get in the way, and there’s plenty of rack space for my needs. The only possible hitch might be the lack of air movement, but we’ll see.

paths and beds

There was a time when I would wait for all of my crops to be spent, till the garden and call it a season. Now it’s more of a piecemeal proposition.

With my garden’s size, I never have enough compost to fertilize the whole caboodle. Even starting with three bins full of waste materials, it cooks down by half or more.

I had enough compost to generously cover 4 1/2 beds, which are now a uniform 21′ x 3′. I tilled in the compost and then planted a winter cover crop mix in those beds. The rest of the beds will each get 7 to 8 gallons of fresh chicken manure before winter (I clean off the pop board every morning and store it in a covered 5 gallon bucket). Then they’ll be covered with shredded leaves.

In the piecemeal spirit, I’ve also started improving paths. It’s an uncomfortably big job to gather and spread wood chips on all of the paths at once, so I pick them off one at a time.

This year I had a big pile of willow chips from the ground-up stump of a huge willow tree that came down earlier. To keep weeds from getting a head start, I first laid down cardboard boxes or newspapers. These were actually from a stack of discarded voter guides that my wife picked up. The perfect place for politics…

IMG_5310…and done.  Not a permanent solution, but good for a couple of years.IMG_5311

These chip paths just make it nicer to walk and kneel in the garden in the mornings and after rains.  Here’s a path that I’d completed earlier, with the winter cover crop doing its thing…

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decision

It’s interesting to watch a pond progress from infancy into pondhood. Ours was dug 13 years ago in sandy soil that had been leased out to neighboring farmers for growing corn and soybeans.

Every year we notice changes, from the arrival of frogs and turtles to the growth of willows, reeds and cattails. After watching for this long, it’s clear that the tendency is for nature to try to fill a pond up with life, much like soil left bare tends to eventually fill up with weeds and grasses.

So far I’ve been successful at lightly managing the cattails. They tend to spread quickly unless they receive some guidance.

But this year there’s been a sudden explosion of another species: ten-foot tall reeds called phragmites in the cattail sanctuary. Phragmites are an extremely invasive species that can quickly get out of control, smothering out native pond plant life and nuking creature habitats.

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phragmites aren’t actually bad looking…

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…but they are pond-hungry

So I made the tough (and very politically incorrect) decision to use a chemical control containing glyphosate, the newest environmental bogeyman.

In my decades of gardening I’ve never used any form of chemical in my vegetable gardens. It’s a badge of pride with me. So this was a tough but (in my view) necessary decision.

The only effective non-chemical control for phragmites is burning, and the pond is too dangerously close to the woods for that. Pulling them by hand only causes them to spread. It was the only option short of surrendering the pond and its associated life to a foreign invader.

The other, way more fun pond project was dragging the beach with the 4 wheeler. The best excuse ever for a grown man to do wheelies in the sand.

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those months

Suddenly they’re almost over. Those months, May, June, July, August…do they really occupy the same amount of time as December, January, February, March? It’s got to be a trick.

Last night we had the last ears of sweet corn. So good, and not to be tasted until those months have worked their way around again. Each year I appreciate more what real freshness is, how it’s an impossibility except in those months, and how special that makes a garden.

But do I ever wish that it could be summer all the time? Not on your life. It’s the renewal, the freshness, that makes life good. Moving through the season changes makes things endlessly interesting. Brand new but familiar.

My life has been a lot like those months; the freshness and work of raising children, the satisfaction of watching them grow and mature, and the ultimate delight of seeing that freshness renewed in the eyes of a grandchild.

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watermelons

I feel like a watermelon virgin. Oh I’ve been around the block a few times over the years, and even made it to home base on occasion. But I don’t feel confident around watermelon vines.  They don’t naturally love Michigan weather, and honestly…I don’t really have a good understanding of what keeps them thriving.

This year I dropped the ball again. I figured I’d just plant whatever they had in stock at the local nursery instead of planning ahead and starting seeds of my own choosing. The vines grew fine for a while, but then got hit with something that caused patches of the leaves to wilt. In the end there were two melons.

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The truth is that if I’m growing something the takes up as much space as watermelon vines, I want a seedless end product.

Seedless watermelons require planting a pollinating variety nearby, or else no fruit. A couple of years ago I bought a pack of seedless watermelon seeds from Burpee that came with seeds of a pollinating variety.

Unfortunately all of the seeds were in the same package, and I couldn’t distinguish for certain which were which. There wasn’t room to plant the whole pack in my garden, and I evidently picked the wrong seeds. No melons.  And kind of a rip (in my view) by Burpee.

Next year (isn’t that a wonderful gardening phrase?) I plan to order seedless watermelon seeds and pollinating seeds separately.   But first a long winter.  Plenty of time to hunker down and focus on watermelon growing and culture.  And hopefully to come out the other side a little bit better gardener.

a start to garden reorganization

Since last winter I’ve been preparing to permanently reorganize my garden beds into uniform 3′ widths. Until now there was no real system, other than trying to make sure not to plant the same vegetables in the same area in back to back years.

The 3′ beds will hopefully bring a host of benefits. My three stackable compost bins are 3′ wide, so they can be freely moved to the next new spot in the garden, giving me 9 fresh feet of super-fertile bed space each year.

My new favorite toy, the chicken tractor, is also 3′ wide, so it can ride along the beds fertilizing, cultivating and removing bugs while keeping life interesting and healthy for the girls.

The uniformly sized beds will also help with quickly planning crop rotations and make it easier to judge what crops need to be increased or reduced to meet our needs. Any cold frames or covers that work on one bed will work on any bed. And I won’t be walking on next year’s beds.

So a few weeks ago I drove in 12″ lengths of PVC pipe to mark each of the four corners of the new beds. They should be sturdy enough to last forever, and deep enough to survive a misdirected tiller.

That’s the plan anyway.  My plans always work out.

(are they laughing?…)

With that said, yesterday it was finally time to start putting the plan into action, plant a few of the beds with winter cover crops, move the compost bins and spread the joy.

This years compost bins stacked to heaven

This years compost bins stacked to heaven.  Next year I won’t be squandering the special spot on a zucchini plant.

Cooked and ready to serve

Cooked and ready to serve

In their new home

In their new home