Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Patio photos

As promised, here are the results.

But first, a shot from after I demolished the old deck (although I can't say this is a lot worse than what it looked like when the deck was there),

Here it is all done in the daylight.

And here it is all dressed up for prom at night (which is really the only time we'll be enjoying it much for about the next 4 months).

And here's a former resident of the old deck. He and two of his friends and relations were relocated to a new homestead behind the shed.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

SVB Update

The Squash Vine Borers, as expected, have done their damage.

The squash have been going downhill for about a week now, wilting easily during the day and not putting on as many blossoms. Saturday morning I pulled up the Peter Pan squash and tossed it in the compost pile after slitting it open and decapitating the inch-long larva inside (sorry, no photos).

Of the remaining three plants, one is still pretty strong, and the other two are looking decent, but small. Their stems all look something like this.

I've sliced into them lengthwise with a razor blade to see if I could catch the culprit, but there's no telling. I did find these in a spot by the fence where we grew tromboncino last year.

Those are the discarded cocoons (I probably saw a dozen of them) of the next brood, so I'm guessing they're not going to be done anytime soon.

Meanwhile, I've started seedlings for zucchini, butternut, and tromboncino. They grow extraordinarily fast, so I'm going to try to just keep a succession of squash going all summer. Screw those guys!

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Monday, May 26, 2008


Check it.

A fat, juicy Brandywine cut down in its youth. So nasty a squirrel wouldn't eat it. That, my friends, is the heartbreak of BER -- blossom-end rot.

Apparently, this is caused by a calcium deficiency within the fruit. That can mean that the soil needs more calcium, in the form of lime or bone meal. But more likely, it's that the calcium isn't moving into and through the plant efficiently, which can be caused, helpfully, by either too much water or too little water. Shallow cultivation, that is, dragging your hoe around the plants and breaking near-the-surface roots, can also cause that calcium disruption.

So what did I do wrong?

After getting on the bone meal train this year, along with my regular use of Rabbit Hill Farm Minerals Plus, I feel pretty good about my soil's calcium content.

I haven't gotten near the plants' roots since I planted them. They're all buried under several inches of mulch, which has also kept the soil moisture pretty consistent.

I want to say that it was the 3 or 4 big thunderstorms we've had that dumped a lot of water on the garden. That's a good scapegoat, since I can't do much about it. However, only tomatoes in my raised beds have been affected. You would think those growing in the ground in clay soil would have gotten more thoroughly soaked.

I guess I'll just take comfort in the fact that BER usually goes away after the first few tomatoes. The first few precious, precious tomatoes.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

First tomato!

No surprise, it was a Sungold.

I didn't get a chance to take a picture, but here's where it was ...

Sadly, I didn't get to pick it or eat it either. That honor went to junior gardener Bink ...

I've already threatened to send her to the pound if she does it again. I don't think that will stop her though. During the summer, she frequently comes inside smelling like tomato leaves with yellow streaks of pollen on her head. My wife built a fence around the East bed this year to keep the dogs out, but I think she was able to reach over for this particular low-hanging fruit.

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1015 onions, picked over the past week or two.

We planted these in November, I think. Wait until the tops die off and the necks get dry to pick them. Then, let them sit outside for a couple of days to make sure the outer papery skin gets nice and dry so they'll keep longer.

I've got another dozen or so still out in the garden.

Friday, May 23, 2008


This is totally garden-related. The whole point of growing tomatoes is so you can eat BLTs.

That particular hunk of pork is half of a piece (that cut is known as pork belly) that also yielded the aforementioned pancetta. it was similarly cured for a week, but then smoked in a friend's homemade smoker. No rolling up.

It's delicious -- a little more like country ham than the bacon you buy in the supermarket. Most of it is now in the freezer, awaiting the confluence of ripe tomatoes and a beach vacation.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Irrigation, that's what I need, some irrigation.

So, back to the gardening.

Last Spring, after having endured a year of wrangling a fussy drip irrigation system only to have my plants shrivel from thirst, I set out to build an ideal irrigation system. My goal was to build something that would keep all the growing medium in my raised beds moist, with a minimum of hose dragging, while allowing me to get in there to till and add new compost every year.

After having a plumber out one time to fix a frozen pipe outside our house, I discovered how totally easy and, dare I say, fun working with PVC plumbing can be. It's like a big Erector set. You should totally try it -- don't be skeered.

To start, I sketched out a plan, then broke it down to what kind of bends and connectors I needed to make it happen. Then I went over to Lowe's and stood in front of the PVC fittings aisle for about 3 hours, looking at my sketch and scratching my head. I came home with some lengths of 3/4 and 1/2 inch pipe and a bunch of connectors.

From there, it was just a matter of gluing it all together. The most complicated part was the connection to the garden hose, which looks like this ...

That's part of the header ...

Which I buried under a few inches of dirt and mulch.

Then for each bed, I built one of these ...

Those are PVC T-joints with threaded stems, which connect to brass flanges, which connect to sections of soaker hose, which I terminated by folding them over and cinching down with hose clamps. Easy!

Anyway, each bed looks like this ...

Now I just attach my hose (with a quick connector, of course) to the header, and I'm watering all three beds. I've got a valve at each bed, so I can cut one or two of them off if I want. And I didn't glue the connections between the buried header and the PVC in each bed, so I can remove them for tilling and topping off the beds each Spring. I'm still experimenting for the best way to keep those tight -- electrical tape or zip-ties have both worked OK. I feel like there's a rubber-band solution out there that will prove to be a winner though.

It's working pretty well -- especially after adding a programmable timer to my hose, so it waters automatically during the summer. One day I'll figure out how to hook PVC into my water supply and run a pipe underground from the house to the garden so I don't have to deal with a hose. Of course, now that I've added a fourth raised bed and dug up a whole new corner of the yard for peppers, squash and more tomatoes, I'm dragging the hose more than ever, but we'll deal with that eventually ...

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Closet meat=good

Yes, the patio got installed, and it's awesome. Pictures later. But while we're totally off the subject of gardening, check out what's been in our linen closet for the past two weeks:

It's homemade pancetta!

It started as a raw pork belly, which my mother-in-law gave me for my birthday. It then (why the passive voice? no idea.) got rubbed down with salt, sugar, pepper, and various herbs, and sat in the refrigerator for a week. Then after getting rolled into a tight log, it spent the past two weeks hanging in our linen closet, which brings you up to date. And then:

There is much Carbonara and Amatriciana, among other things, in our future.


Sunday, May 18, 2008


Check out our new patio!

Someone's coming tomorrow to install it, then it will be done.


Friday, May 16, 2008


You would have thought that running out of ground after planting 19 tomatoes would have been a sign that I should stop planting. Alas, the Internet made an appeal to my garden-nerd sensibilities and offered me a spot for one more tomato.

That spot is an on-the-cheap homemade version of a popular self-watering container that retails for 40 to 50 bucks. It's a planter that extends partially into a water reservoir so that water is constantly being wicked up to where the plant's roots can reach it.

There are plenty of fine tutorials online for this project, so I'll lay out the rudiments here and let you delve deeper elsewhere. Josh Mandel is the apparent originator of this thing -- and holy crap, I just found out, also the designer of Space Quest, a classic of computer adventure games. Also, if you wade into the Gardenweb tomatoes forum you'll find two guys who post under the names "rnewste" and "bingster" who are like a couple of tomato-planter mad scientists and have contributed some great innovations.

(update (6/16/2008) "rnewste" is Ray Newstead and he's teamed up with the TomatoFest folks to make his plans widely available as a public service. They've got a great guide online that will tell you everything you need to know and then some.)


Start with a pair of big plastic containers. The main problem with the commercial version is that it's not really large enough for a big robust indeterminate tomato growing anywhere south of Canada. I bought Rubbermaid 18-gallon bins for $6 each.

You also need a rigid basket-like container of some sort. I used a plant basket, which is meant for planting aquatic plants in a pond, although I've seen people use coffee cans punched full of holes. It has to retain soil, but let water in. And you need a piece of pipe, at least an inch-and-a-half wide and taller than your bin.

That's it for required materials. Everything else is optional.

Start by hacking off the bottom of one of the containers at a height equal to the height of your basket. Flip the bottom piece over and cut out a hole slightly smaller than the mouth of your basket, then attach the mouth of the basket to the hole so that the basket is inside the bin piece. I drilled holes and used zip ties.

Drill a bunch of little holes all over the top of the bin piece and one big hole at one end wide enough to fit your pipe.

In that photo, you can see that I lined my basket with a paint strainer for added soil retention, but it's probably not necessary.

Drop that whole assembly into the bottom of your other bin and you're mostly done. I cut some row cover cloth to seal the crack between the pieces to keep soil from dropping down into the bottom compartment, some people have used styrofoam peanuts for that, but again, it probably isn't necessary. Drill a couple of holes in the side of the outside bin slightly below the height of the other piece -- this is to drain excess water.

Now, put your pipe into the hole and fill the container with soil mix, starting with the basket, and wetting it down as you go. Your soil mix is kind of important. Since all of your watering will be done from the bottom, the mix has to have enough wicking capacity to pull the water up to near the top of the planter. The gold standard for this is apparently Miracle Gro Moisture Control Potting Mix. But if you're going organic, you'll need to be sure to have plenty of absorbent content like peat, vermiculite, or perlite. Sadly, I didn't really write down what I used, but I think it was something like this:

2 parts peat
2 parts commercial compost
1 part peat humus,
1/2 part each vermiculite and perlite
a few handfuls of my cottonseed/kelp/bone meal mix

Fill it up to overflowing, then dig a shallow trench near one side and fill it with a strip of your preferred fertilizer. The idea is that the wet soil will gradually dissolve the fertilizer and keep the plant fed over time. I'm not sure if I buy it, particularly using organic fertilizer, but that's what They say to do.

Cover the whole thing with a layer of plastic (I finally found a use for that red plastic tomato mulch I've had laying around) then put on one of the bin lids, after cutting out holes for your fill pipe and your plant in the lid and the plastic. The covering serves to retain moisture, but also to keep rain from getting in -- you mainly want the plant's water coming from below so that the fertilizer doesn't get washed out.

And there it is. Just keep the reservoir full (I've got a stick stuck to a wine cork to test my water level) and play the waiting game.

So is it worth it? Dunno. The tomato I planted in mine, Mortgage Lifter is doing quite well, so I think my soil mix is getting the water to the plant. It is nice to not have to worry about whether it needs watering or not, and I've only had to fill it once so far, although we haven't had real heat yet. I am also desperately needing to set up some supports for the plant, which has blown over in storms twice now.

I'll let you know how it goes.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Be it ever so humble

Hey, I should post a picture of this garden I keep going on about -- like a picture of the whole thing.

I can't lie -- that idea came from my friend Martha. She just posted a shot of her garden on her blog yesterday ...

I seem to have misplaced Charles' phone number, so I can't borrow the helicopter for my shoot. We'll have to make do with an unwieldy photo panorama ...

(Be sure to click the image to get the whole huge thing, with labels even.)

And it's a good thing I took those photos when I did. Here's what's going on back there right now -- another hailstorm -- hopefully there'll be something left tomorrow.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Costoluto Genovese

I hate to commit the sin of pride, but I think the tomatoes are doing really well this year.

Blossoms have been generally prolific all around, and fruit is setting left and right. But none seem to be doing as well as the Costoluto Genovese. This variety doesn't get very good reviews as a slicing tomato, but there's always drying and saucing.

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Saturday, May 3, 2008

It starts ...

We got our first summer harvest last night -- these three Sunburst squash. They got sliced, soaked in orange juice and soy sauce, and seared on the grill. Tasty.

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