July 31, 2012

Grape Expectations: Protecting a Bumper Crop from the Birds & Squirrels

Based on the many plump bunches that are hanging from the branches of our Thompson Seedless vine right now, we're expecting a nice harvest of grapes this fall.

Thompson Seedless grapes

Normally, the squirrels and birds eat most of them and we get just a handful of half-full bunches, picked a bit before their prime so as not to lose the entire crop to the animals. This year we're taking action to protect the fruit.

Grapes covering the arbor

The grapes are growing up a freestanding arbor that is located within jumping distance from the squirrel highway, a.k.a. the back fence. Squirrels can also climb up the trellis supports from the ground, of course. And the birds--I love all the birds in my yard and don't want to do anything to drive them away, but I also don't want to sacrifice my family's snacks to them. We decided the only way to prevent both squirrels and birds was to loosely wrap the whole vine in bird netting, cutting off access from the air, ground and squirrel highway.

Grapes protected

We already had bird netting on hand for the purpose of keeping cats from pooping in my front yard raised beds. Stretching it over the top of a seven foot arbor with another couple of feet of vines on top is a two-person job for sure. Mr. English and I installed it together in about twenty minutes, including adding some well-placed screws to the arbor posts to secure the netting up and around the hanging fruit, making a sort of hammock for the bunches.

Bird netting stretched over arbor and grapes

It's not a perfect enclosure, and some of the fruit is sticking out through the wide holes in the netting, but we're hoping it gets the job done. I'm just glad we have only one grape vine to protect--if you have long rows of grapes, this is an impractical solution.

A few are still poking through the netting

I'm curious to know how others have protected their grapes from critters. Anyone tried shiny strips of mylar and does that work? (I'd think maybe that would keep birds at bay, but not squirrels.) Any other creative ideas?

July 26, 2012

Nibblin' on Nubbin Corn

One of my goals for the garden this year was to grow my own sweet corn and eat it within minutes of harvesting, something farmers famously do and something I wanted to experience. They say corn doesn't get any better than when it's fresh off the plant, and people who are experienced at growing their own will put a pot of water on to boil as they're walking out the door to harvest the ears.

Technically, I guess I can say I accomplished the goal, but I wouldn't call my first planting of corn a success. Instead of nice, fat ears we got mini, appetizer-sized ears suitable for nibbling. These are officially known as "nubbin ears" in the professional corn growing world, meaning underdeveloped.

Nubbin ear is barely longer than the corn holder

The plants looked great at the start of the season, but the growth kind of petered out in late June and early July. The stalks grew spindly and it appeared that some of the tassels were depositing their pollen when there weren't even any silks to pollinate. By the time the first ears were ready, the largest stalk in the bed measured about four feet tall, just over half the height the plants are supposed to be.

Corn plants at their tallest

Compared to the DCC Corn Growing Project ears we planted and harvested out at the field in Knight's Landing, my ears were laughably teeny. But, they were MY ears grown in MY garden! And, they actually tasted good. Not quite as sweet as the Corn Project ears, but that may have been related to the variety. I planted one called "Honey & Cream", a bicolor corn with "old-fashioned flavor".

DCC Corn Project ear on top, our nubbin ear on bottom

Since I've never grown corn before, I'm not totally sure what happened, but I have an idea. I visited the Ohio State University Extension web site, which has a great page about various corn growing problems and abnormalities, including photos, descriptions, and causes. That information, plus a conversation with a corn farmer, led me to believe my two problems were nitrogen deficiency and lack of water.

That surprised me, until I remembered that I planted this corn in my experimental hugelkultur bed. Thinking back to what I put in the bed, I realized there was a lot of brown matter and not a whole lot of nitrogen-rich material such as compost. I did add a very small amount of all-purpose vegetable fertilizer when the plants were very young, and maybe that accounts for their healthy appearance at the 4-week stage. Clearly I needed to add a lot more, or better yet, start with healthy and nutrient-rich soil.

The other problem that may have been related to the hugelkultur experiment was lack of water. Being planted in a raised bed--as opposed to directly in the Davis clay--increases the watering frequency even if there's high-quality soil in the bed. Add the fact that this soil consists mostly of leaf mold, dry grass and logs, and you have a super fast draining bed that obviously dried out more quickly than I realized in the root zone.

I don't think pollination was a problem, as the ears we got, while small, had mostly fully developed kernels. That's good news because it means a 4 x 8 block of corn is a sufficient size to ensure wind pollination, though I think I'll plant an even larger patch next year.

So, the lessons have been learned and next year I'll probably plant corn directly in the patch of Davis clay that currently houses the tomatoes, after adding a large amount of homemade compost to the mix. I've also discovered through this process that I prefer a pretty sweet ear of corn, so I'm planning to try a variety called Sugar Dots next summer, and maybe Silver Queen, too. In any case, I'm now hooked on the taste of ultra-fresh corn and will definitely set aside the space for it in future gardens.

July 23, 2012

DIY Solar Oven: Autoshade, Bucket & Cooling Rack Cooker

Hot enough out there for you yet? If you're here in the Central Valley like me, I suspect the answer is a resounding YES, followed by, "that's enough, thank you very much!" I actually don't mind the summer heat, but even I'm ready for a return to the low 90s.

When it comes to dinner preparation, the only reasonable response to a triple digit forecast like we've got today is to abandon indoor oven and stovetop cooking in favor of other options, such as: grilling (but then you have to stand out in the heat); sandwiches, salad or another meal that doesn't require heating up the house; going out to eat (but that requires money); or my favorite, solar cooking.

DIY autoshade & bucket solar cooker

When the sun is pumping out that much warmth and energy, why not harness it and use it to make dinner? Well, one reason why might be that you don't have a fancy solar cooker or you're not sure how to make one yourself. Good new is, it's easy! I put one together last summer using things that are probably already in your garage, kitchen or garden shed.

Solar cooker storage box

I call it the A-B-C solar cooker, because all you need for this contraption are the following:
  • Autoshade--air bubble or foam mylar
  • Bucket--black, five-gallon is best
  • Cooling rack--like the type used to cool cookies after baking

Oven bags are nice if you want to increase the temperature in the cooking dish, and a thermometer is handy if you want to know exactly how hot it is in there. Attach some velcro to the edges of the autoshade to make it easier to bend into shape if you want to get fancy. Otherwise pin it together with safety pins. You can see in the photo above that I've attached some basic string to each outside top corner. That's so I can secure it when there's a North wind to go along with our yucky heat. Finally, don't forget the sunglasses! You wouldn't look directly at this oven anymore than you would look directly at the sun.

To make the oven, just bend the autoshade into a funnel shape and rest it in the bucket, set the cooling rack at the base of the shade so that it rests on the rim of the bucket, and orient it to face the sun. Done!

Roasting pan on the rack, on the autoshade, in the bucket

Even when I cook from say 2:45 p.m. to 5 p.m. (instead of a couple of hours earlier to take full advantage of the hottest time of the day), the oven bag interior still gets to about 225 degrees, which is plenty for slow roasting root veggies and cooking lots of other things. One of our favorite things to solar cook is roasted garlic. Set it out in the early afternoon and it's ready just in time for appetizers.

Oven bag interior nearing 225 degrees

Yesterday I harvested a colander full of heirloom tomatoes in the morning, but didn't want to turn on the stovetop to deal with them. Solution? Solar cooker! Rachel at Dog Island Farms posted a recipe for Oven-Baked Heirloom Tomato Sauce last week that was the inspiration for my solar cooked version. I had slightly different ingredients--white onion from my yard instead of yellow, and leftover red wine instead of white--but no matter. A couple of hours after throwing this on the rack, I had a gorgeous pan of almost-sauce that only needed a quick whirl in the blender.

Ingredients for slow solar-cooked tomato sauce

I foresee lots of solar cooking throughout the rest of summer, especially if these super hot days stick around. I'm probably not going to cook a chicken in this thing, but it works beautifully for lots of other foods. Recently someone suggested I might be able to use it to dehydrate and dry foods, which is an intriguing idea worth pursuing. Actually, I think the possibilities are kind of endless!

July 19, 2012

Tidy Tool Wall

One of my favorite organization projects around the homestead is something we did just after we bought the house almost ten years ago. We created a labeled tool wall to store garden tools, and it has made keeping track of shovels, rakes, outdoor brooms, etc. super easy.

Tidy tools

Labeled tool wall

Before the tool wall, there was either a jumbled mess of spades, hoes and forks in some corner of the garage, or the tools were scattered throughout the yard and we had to go on a treasure hunt before we could start on a particular garden project. A classic scene in our yard was the digging shovel parked deep in a pile of dirt and left there, looking like some kind of unplanned garden art, until the next time we needed it. That's not only frustrating for the gardener, but it's also not good for the tools.

Tool "storage"

Making a tool wall was as easy as cutting a redwood 1 x 2 from a leftover project into about ten small pieces, and then applying some leftover exterior trim paint to the pieces with a small paint brush. No fancy lettering here--just the basics. We picked up a bunch of bulk hooks from the hardware store, installed them just underneath or above the labels, and we were done.

Label using redwood 1 x 2 and exterior wall paint

I've found it's especially handy to have a labeled tool wall when you've got little helpers in the garden. More than once I've been out in the farthest corner of the yard in the middle of a project and found myself needing a different tool. Asking Charlie to grab the long-handled cultivator from "somewhere in the garage" would be an exercise in futility. Now, he can go to the wall and look for the tool that has the "cultivator" sign and bring it to me in a matter of minutes.

Labels make it easy for kids to identify tools

It's also nice for the kids to have a special place just for their own tools, and to know exactly where to get them and return them when they're finished with their garden chores.

I've seen lots of other neat ways of storing garden tools, and we might need to implement one of them, since we've accumulated additional tools since making the wall. What do you do to keep track of your tools in the garden?

July 17, 2012

Big Green Eating Machine

Plucked any of these bad boys off your tomato plants yet this summer?

Tomato hornworm

This is a tomato hornworm, a fat caterpillar that can be thicker than a Sharpie and up to four inches long, and that favors plants in the nightshade family, especially tomatoes. The hornworms we get in the garden this time of year are so big and colorful that they even intimidate the chickens, who squawk loudly, back up and refuse to eat them when they're tossed into the coop. I've tried several times. I kind of expected the chickens to be like kids, who will eventually try a food if you put it in front of them enough times, but no, they want nothing to do with these things. Must be that "horn" on the rear end.

Tomato hornworm

If you notice that the tender tips of new growth on your tomato plants are missing, a tomato hornworm is the likely culprit. Here's what the damage to one of my plants looked like this morning:

Hornworm damage on a cherry tomato plant

The tricky thing is that tomato hornworms are incredibly hard to spot on the branches of a tomato plant. They are exactly the same color, and are a similar thickness to the stems, and their slightly fuzzy bodies even mimic the fuzzy roots that cover tomato stalks. They can be almost impossible to see even if you're looking right at them. We have resorted to paying the kids 50 cents for each caterpillar they find, but sometimes even the kids get frustrated and give up after looking for just five minutes. Maybe we'll have to up the pay.

If you can't find the actual caterpillar, the other way to know you've got tomato hornworms on your plants is to look for their poop. A telltale sign of the caterpillars are the little piles of round, black excrement you'll find on the leaves. The caterpillar that left the goodies in the picture below must be relatively small; a big caterpillar leaves surprisingly big poop!

Evidence of tomato hornworms

If you don't find and eliminate the caterpillars, they eventually drop off the plants, burrow into the soil, and transform into a pupae, which emerges the following spring as a large, brown moth. The moth lays its eggs on your new tomato plants and the cycle starts all over again. And there you have yet another reason why I plant so many tomatoes! If the hornworms diminish the crop a bit, no big deal.

Like other garden pests, tomato hornworms are actually kind of pretty and I wouldn't mind having them around if it weren't for the fact that they're destroying my food source.

So, have you seen any of these in your garden yet this season? Do you have a laissez faire attitude about the caterpillars, or do you take quick action to find and get rid of them?

July 13, 2012

Organic Corn to Help End World Hunger

Since April, I've been working with a group of people at my church--Davis Community Church in downtown Davis (DCC)--to grow a quarter acre of organic, sweet corn on a field outside Knight's Landing.

Our corn near Knight's Landing

We're growing the corn as a fundraiser to help end world hunger, and proceeds will be donated to the Colombia-Chocó project of the Foods Resource Bank (FRB). The Foods Resource Bank emphasizes agriculture as the foundation for alleviating poverty and hunger, as opposed to emergency food aid, and has programs in 30 countries. The Colombia-Chocó project is one of those programs and is helping communities re-establish agricultural practices and local food production in an area of Colombia that has been torn apart by the illicit drug trade.

DCC's Corn Project is the brainchild of Fritz Durst, a member of the church and a Yolo County farmer whose family has been farming in this region for many generations. Fritz knew about FRB's model of engaging volunteers in the United States in order to fund agricultural education and food production in the poorest areas of the world, and he was inspired to create a growing project here. Fritz has provided the vision and leadership for our project, which has been made possible by the helping hands of many DCC volunteers from Davis and the surrounding areas.

Angela Boss of FRB and farmer Fritz Durst

DCC volunteers planting the field by hand in April

For me, this growing project has provided the opportunity to use my time and energy to contribute to the very worthy cause of helping establish food security for others around the world. It's also given me the chance to work with a "real" farmer and experience "real" farming up close. Charlie got to come, too, and get his hands dirty in the Yolo soil. We've both learned a lot about corn in just a few months!

Charlie & I on planting day

Charlie getting a ride in Farmer Fritz's tractor

So maybe you're wondering if there's a way you can help, too. Yes, there is! The corn is ready and will be picked Saturday morning and sold Sunday morning on the patio outside Davis Community Church, across from Central Park in Davis. All are welcome to come buy some corn--no need to be affiliated with the church--and there will be plenty of ears for all! So grab a friend, come on by and pick up a couple of bags for yourself, your freezer, your neighbors, etc., and support a good cause in the process. Bring a cloth or brown bag with you, to help reduce project costs.

Here are the details:

WHAT:  Organic Sweet Corn Fundraiser

WHEN:  Sunday, July 15, 10am - 12pm

WHERE:  "C" Street Patio of Davis Community Church, 412 C Street, between 4th and 5th Streets

WHY:  To raise money for the Colombia-Chocó project of the Foods Resource Bank.

COST:  Corn will be offered on a donation basis. Pay what you can, whether it's one cent or $100-- whatever you can afford and wish to donate to the project.

See you there!

July 12, 2012

Meet the Chickens: Bellatrix the Black Australorp

All of us in the family are huge fans of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, so it was only natural to go with a Harry Potter naming theme for our chickens when we got them as day-old chicks in April of 2011. This is Bellatrix, our Black Australorp.

Bellatrix the Black Australorp

And this is Bellatrix, evil witch of the Harry Potter world. She's nasty, but still one of our favorite characters in the series.

Bellatrix the Witch (photo courtesy)

We love Bellatrix the chicken, but she can in fact be mean, just like her namesake. She used to love to be snuggled as a chick, but recently she started giving me a hard peck when I tried to pick her up. Mr. English has no problem picking her up, though--maybe she's just decided I'm underneath her in the pecking order. That will have to change!

Snuggling with me as a little chick

Happy to be held by Mr. English

Bellatrix is a very striking chicken, with feathers that have a beautiful iridescence when she's standing in the sun. She's big, too. In the early days I worried she might be a rooster, since she was so much taller than the other chicks.

Baby Bellatrix towered above her same-age sisters

Australorps are considered to be a dual-purpose heritage breed and are known to be good layers. It was a Black Australorp that set the world record for laying in an official test in Australia when she laid 364 eggs in 365 consecutive days. She was a bit of an overachiever; generally Australorps lay more like 250 eggs a year. Bellatrix lays pretty, bullet-shaped, dark eggs reliably, but not on that kind of record-breaking pace.

Bellatrix has been the easiest of our chickens to care for, with the fewest issues in terms of temperament or laying. When we add more chickens to the flock someday, we'll definitely consider adding another Black Australorp.

July 6, 2012

Persimmon Branch Trellis for Beans or Peas

Beans are growing all over the yard right now, in various beds and containers and with a number of different types of supports. A picture I saw in Fine Gardening magazine this spring inspired this bean trellis, which I put together in April using a pile of long branches trimmed from our Persimmon tree.

Beans climbing Persimmon branches

It was very easy to make. I picked relatively straight branches about five feet long and pushed them all the way to the bottom of a large clay pot filled with soil, to form a circle of branches around the rim of the pot. Then I bent the thin tops of the branches together gently at the top and used twine to secure the trellis.

Twine secures the top

Here's what it looked like in May a few weeks after the beans sprouted:

Trellis in a pot

Now the beans are nearly to the top of the branches:

Beans reaching skyward

Of course the branch trellis pictured in the magazine was perfectly shaped, in a beautifully painted pot, and situated in a lush, manicured garden, but I think this one turned out pretty well. Easy, quick, sturdy and free--that's my kind of bean trellis! I'll probably be able to use it again in the fall for peas.

July 4, 2012

Seed Lending Libraries

Wouldn't it be great if we could check out more than just books at the Davis Public Library? I learned recently that a handful of libraries around the state host seed lending libraries, usually in partnership with local gardening organizations. The libraries allow people to "check out" seeds and then return them in the form of the seeds they save at the end of the season. That is so cool!

SF Seed Library Poster

Turns out there are a bunch of seed libraries in Northern California. The San Francisco Seed Library is a partnership between the SF Public Library and the Permaculture Guild. San Mateo County Library's East Palo Alto Branch partners with Collective Roots to lend seeds (there's a video here where library staff explain how it works). In Berkeley, the Ecology Center hosts the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library, known as BASIL. At Richmond's seed library there's a weekly "Crop Swap" where people can get rid of extra produce in exchange for picking some veggies from another gardener's abundance. And closer to home, the Sacramento County Library's Colonial Heights branch has a seed library. A Girl and Her Fork has a great blog post showing exactly how that library works.

(Courtesy, SF Seed Library)

In Southern California, a group of people got together to create the Seed Library of Los Angeles, which is independent and which you can join for $10 for a lifetime.

It makes me wonder if anyone has ever approached the Yolo County Library about creating a seed lending library in our area and whether they would be willing to host one. What a great public service it would be to make seeds available for free to people who are trying to grow more of their own food. Any local readers out there who are interested in starting something like this in Davis? Let me know!