Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Snuggling down for Winter

We spent a good part of yesterday out getting the garden ready for winter. It seems we move in stages - removing old plants, desperately searching for that last potato, etc. - and we are closing in on the end, I think. It is always a struggle to remove plants that are doing well, and I often just don't have the heart to do it. That's another big reason for delaying or spreading out the process.

Our beds are lasagna gardens (see my review of the book in yesterday's post), and truly possess some of the best soil I've ever seen. I also practice companion planting (see yesterday's post again for the book that inspired it all), and so the garden tends to overflow from such intensive planting. This also helps me justify all those plants I can never resist in spring, including a perennial section of natives and non-natives. (More on that later.)

To make up for the intensive planting and offer next year's community members the best shot, we add thick layers of leaves (predominantly oak if Grandma's trees have dropped their leaves and we rake them up before a big wind) and composted manure courtesy of Bailey and Whitmore, Inc. It breaks down nicely over the winter, and we end up with a fresh set of nutrients for us all to enjoy one way or the other.

Still not sure what to do for winter? I know I spent a fair amount of time in my early gardening days staring at the soil and perusing books to see what I was meant to do. Here are a couple links that might offer some handy advice.

Moss in the City November 2007 E-Newsletter "Putting the Garden to Bed"
A nice article that gave me a few good reminders and some information I hadn't known before.

Organic Gardening Almanac
You can choose your region, and then get a handy list of things to do for the month. Some of it will feel like what you already know, but I often find things I hadn't heard about before.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Four Gardening Books - A Summary

I have a relatively small gardening library at home. Gardening books abound, and I've done my share of exploring and craving of them primarily through my local library. While I find the books full of great photographs, poems, and clever sayings delightful, there are only a handful I have found to be truly useful. These are the books that are pulled from the shelf year-round to answer a question, refresh the memory, and end up with dirty pages. Whether deciding on seeds for the new year, trying to remember what the larvae of the potato beetle look like, or how to know when the squash is ready these are the companions I rely on.

Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening
by Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara Ellis, Rodale Press, 1992.
A gift from my mother-in-law years ago, this is the book that launched my first garden (along with some help and advice from Uncle Bob), and that I pored over while sitting next to the beds. Alphabetical listings of not only plants (a handy list of common and Latin names in the back), but of techniques, concepts, and diagrams for cold frames and compost bins saw me through the first planting, tending, and harvesting. While some of the information doesn't jibe with other things I've learned since that first garden (purple loosestrife as an ornamental plant versus as a nasty invasive), it is still an "indispensable resource" whether one is experienced or a complete novice.

Great Garden Companions: A Contemporary Planting System for a Beautiful, Chemical-Free Vegetable Garden
by Sally Jean Cunningham, Rodale Press Inc., 1998.
A random search through my library's catalog introduced me to this book about three years ago. Cunningham presents a fascinating way of looking at and organizing the garden. An advocate of organic gardening, she also offers companion planting - combining herbs and flowers with vegetables in order to attract beneficial insects and repel pests - as an additional tool for a healthy, productive garden. Vegetables, herbs, and flowers are broken into families that can be rotated about the garden from year to year. Diagrams and drawings illustrate somewhat unconventional planting methods - there aren't many rows here - as well as photographs documenting her own inspirational garden. Great Garden Companions also offers suggestions for tool holders, a seasonal to-do list, plans for building raised beds, sketches and descriptions of beneficials as well as pests along with the plants that attract and ward them off. When I finally purchased the book (after realizing how much my library fines were and how often I was checking it out), it had been revised to also include use of perennials, trees, and shrubs. Certainly, this book has led me to some of the most beautiful gardens I've ever had, and made garden into an intellectual challenge as well as a physical one.

Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding!
by Patricia Lanza, Rodale Press, Inc., 1998.
This is the book that began my personal gardening revolution. An aunt shared this with me early in my gardening career. My husband and I had just finished expanding our little garden with some back-breaking sod removal, and we were bemoaning this fact over dinner one night. Aunt Mary began telling us about a friend of hers who had used a version of lasagna gardening to relandscape her front yard. We were a little skeptical (Sorry, Mary), but I borrowed the book at her urging. It sounded logical - a thick layer of newspapers for a weed barrier, then layers of composted manure, leaves, straw repeated until you get to a height you like and top it off with wood ash - and more fun than digging out sod. That fall we did two new beds, and in the spring I found some of the best, most beautiful soil I have ever seen. And my vegetables sprang forth in biblical abundance. We've never looked back.

The Encyclopedia of Country Living, 9th Edition
by Carla Emery, Sasquatch Books, 2003.
A gift from a friend who got tired of me asking her to remind me of its name whenever she shared some piece of great information about gardening (and chickens), this book spends a great deal of time at our side. The gardening section offers good suggestions for cold frames, recipes for the vegetables harvested, as well as storage tips for the winter. I'm still working my way through this one, but it is another excellent companion for working in the garden and around the yard. And even though my yard will most likely never include cows or a butchering block, we certainly feel prepared in the event either of these things come our way.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Popcorn Homestead

Why popcorn?

I'm pretty crazy about it, that's why.

Popcorn has been in my life one way or another for, well, ever.

When I was a kid we went to the local popcorn stand in my hometown as part of our summer activities. My mother grew it in our garden at home. In college one of my best friends had a popper and got me hooked for all time. I begged people to send it when my husband and I were in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. (At one point we had more than five pounds in our apartment. Bliss, I tell you, simple bliss. Those were the only weeks when I gained back some of my American fat.) I wrote my thesis on it in graduate school at Illinois State University, and loved every minute of it. (It's called The Place of Popcorn. A fascinating read on place and identity in a small town, if I do say so myself.) And now I grow it at home in my own garden.

After all that, what else could I call my blog?

The first kernel

My inspiration came yesterday while preparing our popcorn harvest for drying. My husband and I sat by the wood stove in the living room pulling back the husks on a basket of ears brought in from the garden. I'd planted three varieties this year in hopes of finding something more interesting than the Japanese Hulless usually available. I had found three - Tom Thumb - a short, yellow popcorn; Ruby Red - a tall, brilliantly red breed; and Thanksgiving - a brown heirloom variety from a local non-profit, Project Grow - and planted them all together. My spring thought was "Why not?"

I intermixed these seeds further with nasturtiums, squash, and beans. It got a little crowded and crazy as the season moved along, but I confess to delighting in the resulting green madness. Nothing makes me happier than having to carefully step around wandering vines and blossoms, forsaking the orderliness of my garden rows and paths to these green guests.

The popcorn we saw yesterday was worth the effort. Beautiful cobs of burgundy red kernels, caramel to dark brown, and a mix of colors - gold, burnt red/blue, and brown - that we also know will taste spectacular. The thrill of watching for the seedlings, the rush of adrenalin when I ran down to the garden to shoo away the mourning doves from the freshly planted rows, the continued joy and anxiety of daily checking to see their progress, the rustling of the leaves while I worked in the shade of my new tall friends are but a few of the things that flashed through my mind while we hung them on the porch. I'm grateful to have grown it, and I'll be even more grateful to eat it with friends over the course of the winter.