Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Heat Wave and No Rain

It's not a pretty combination, and frankly there aren't enough rain barrels in the world to compensate for a long-term lack of rain.

We're at the pivotal growing point where lack of water can really impact the amount of produce that comes out of the garden. No rain = no blossoms = no tomatoes-no cukes - no squash - no peppers.

The container garden is doing somewhat better than the big garden in the yard, probably because I have the big water barrels up here and it's much easier to carry water for them.

The Scottish heather is just about to bloom -you know we had to have lots of Scottish heather.

The Monarda are just slightly past their peak - the butterflies have been stopping by and clustering on the flowers.

The bees are next door at the Provence Lavender. It seems to continously blossom. Not really enough to cut and dry, but enough to enjoy. Next year I may give up on vegetables and just grow herbs.

One yellow tomato is almost ready (Golden Jubilee), but you can see the effects of lack of moisture. The tomato leaves start to roll upward, sortof like a taco shell. And these have been watered, but the afternoon heat dries them out as fast as I can add water to them.

Still, the Roma's have blossoms coming, so maybe all is not lost.

But the Mr. Stripey's (my favorite), while loaded with fruit, are having a difficult time with the actual stalks and leaves. They may or may not make it. Tomatos are very sensitive to inconsistencies as far as water goes. They prefer being watered once or twice a week, and having lots of warm sun in between. Unfortunately, with no rain and intense 90 degree heat, they need some water almost daily, meaning the gardener has to find that fine line of water/heat that makes them happy.

Of course, the inedible coleus' are doing fine. Wonderful. Peachy. At the very top right, see those red/green leaves ? Those are the seedlings that were a couple inches tall a week or so ago.

The hanging coleus basket is doubling in size, and the new leaves are coming out brighter than the old ones, with a yellow patch at their center.

Nessie is still watching my boxwood basil (big afro of a plant on the right -just brush it and you smell like basil the rest of the day. Who needs perfume?). In the same pot, to the left, is lemon basil - the scent is exactly like cutting open a raw lemon. Green peppers further to the left, loving the hot sun, and their roots in that black pot.

The basic rule to remember with a container garden is: water. In the heat we're having here in Virginia (upper 80's and lower 90's and higher) and with no rain in sight, containers will need water everyday. Ignoring them for even a day can mean the loss of a plant (particularily vegetables).

Herbs of course are exempt from this rule. Herbs, after all, are beneficial weeds, and could care less what humans do.

Next year, I may plant only herbs. It's much less nervewracking.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Recycling Retro Office Furniture

One of my favorite "green" things to do is to recycle furniture. I'd rather repaint and recover furniture than buy it new any day.

Last week at the local thrift I found a vintage retro HEAVY AllSteel filing cabinet with the original brass handles and five drawers, as well as being an unusual 10" wide. This isn't my first -people that know me well recognize that gleam in my eye, and generally run in the other direction 'cause moving these babies is hard work.

All Steel is an American office furniture company located in Muscatine, Iowa since 1912. They've been selling the government office furniture almost since before there was a government. All those dark olive desks and filing cabinets you see in the Army movies from the 1940s and 1950s? Every one of them is an All Steel.

On their web site is the All Steel motto:

"Together, if we widen our view, we can make a difference."

I love that.

After googling AllSteel, I also found http://www.retrooffice.com/

Turns out there's a big collectible market for retro office furniture. Seems people prefer filing cabinets that can actually hold all the stuff you file in them (without warping or falling apart at the seams). And they'll even sandblast your choice, and paint it any color you want.

Meanwhile back to my five-drawer find. I'm really, seriously, trying to get the house to look a little less like a disaster, so I'm shooting for built-in book shelves all around the outside walls -first in my office, then the livingroom, then the diningroom (which is actually our TV room - we haven't eaten at an actual table in years -probably because it's covered in books).

While I've got thousands and thousands of books, I've also got pottery, and various collectible "stuff", so I'm planning on painting the bookcases black, as well as my office furniture, on the premise that if everything is one color, the eye glides over the area, and it makes the space look bigger, plus it'll make my pottery stand out.

So my reclaimed file cabinet was ivory when I found it (originally olive green, but painted by the previous owner), and just like the Stones - I want it painted black.

Any normal person would take the hardware off, the drawers out, then have the frame sandblasted and then sprayed black. First - I can't afford that, and second - I'd never get it back together properly.

So I used painters tape to mask all the hardware, as well as the steel glides on each side of each drawer.

Then I used a coarse grit sandpaper to lightly sand down every surface I wanted painted (in this case, all of them). This isn't a "sand it off" job - it's a light, circular sanding - took maybe 10 minutes top.

After sanding, the first coat goes on with foam brushes. At this point it looks very Gothic - sortof like a Halloween prop - and for a minute there, it's almost stays that way (we are huge lovers of Halloween). But, no, I stay on track and apply a second coat.

And a third coat, and then finally, yesterday, a fourth coat.

Today, we moved it inside, took the tape off, and here it is. I'm hoping to get my office bookshelves built in during August, and then put the office back together, so for the moment, my spiffy new filing cabinet is stored next to all the packed away books.

And the open boxes of books, and the books on the table, and the ones stacked on the floor.....

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Forty Square Feet of Mint

I decided to try Damsel's recipe for making peppermint oil.

In the process I discovered what I thought was peppermint in my garden is actually spearmint. At least I'm think it is.

After googling both, and finding they both basically can be stored and used for the same ailments (including relieving asthma), I decided to use Damsel's recipe with only one change: I used olive oil instead of vegetable oil, only because that's all I had, and it saved me a trip to the evil that is Walmart.

Going on the belief that any harvest should be done in the morning, to get the strongest and freshest produce, I pulled up approximately a 1 foot by 1 foot area of my mint bed. That only leaves me with another 10 foot by 4 foot patch. What will I ever do with only 40 square feet of mint?

This photo is for no other reason than I like it: this is my favorite harvest basket. I picked it up several years ago at some rummage sale, and even though it's seen better days, it's still perfect for cutting long stemmed herbs, and easy to carry even when loaded. (The reader can imagine some bucolic Hudson School painting with earthy, full-figured harvest women balancing baskets full of wheat shafts on their womanly hips, the sunlight falling softly on the fields behind them - at least that's what always pops into my mind.)

See - it's fairly shallow but you'd be amazed at how much holds.

Holds a lot huh?

The basket is sitting on top of a bucket filled with cold water. After the photo, the entire bundle of plants was placed in the water stems down, to keep them fresh until this afternoon when I could work with them.

And you know mint loves water. Not only did it stay fresh, but I think they almost started growing again right there in the bucket.

Just like Damsel instructed, strip the leaves from the stems. I too have an overabundance of mint, and no need to use the stems.

The entire bucket stripped down (watch that phrase get caught up in the search engines) to a pile of leaves about this size.

Chop into smaller pieces, again and again. (Note: the whole chopping event will clear up any symptoms of asthma, as well as clearing out your sinuses really, really well. It may have actually removed my sinuses. Plus the kitchen smells really good. )

Then pack the leaves into these classy little jars (picked up at the-mother-of-all-church-sales a couple weeks ago; read my other blog http://365daysinmoonshinecapitol.blogspot.com/ if that interests you).

Meanwhile I heat some olive oil to approximately 160 degrees (turns out you can use a meat thermometer to test the temp of liquids - who knew?). On my electric burners this means leaving it on the burner for approximately 10 minutes, with the heat set at a bit less than "3". It also turned out this was not enough oil, so I had to heat a little less than the same amount again to top the jars off.

Here's what the mint-and-oil-filled jars look like.

Aren't they pretty?
Apparently I have enough mint to make thousands of jars just like this.
We'll see what they look like after a month in the dark.
Thanks again, Damsel!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Chewy Recommends New Old School Blog

My last post had a visitor -a Damsel in Dis Dress -
and I just checked out her blog:


It's well worth the click and read, and I signed up for the feed.

Now I know what I can do with all that peppermint I have out there, and
how to make my own sour cream.

It's perfect for people like me, who love knowing "how to", versus just where to buy.

I suspect Damsel and I had the same Old School Grandma, but she listened to hers better than I did.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Getting Around To Re-Potting

Takes me forever. Re-potting is my least favorite gardening chore, probably because I have nowhere to do it that I don't end up either kneeling or bending over at a 45-degree angle.

I really need a potting bench.

At any rate - after finding all these clearance plants, it is inevitable that they will need to be re-potted. If you (or I) don't get it done in time, the plants become rootbound, and begin to strangle themselves.

It's not a pretty sight.

This is a partial look at my tray of victims - by the time I remembered the camera, I had already re-potted the geraniums and planted the memorial pink astilbe out with Miss Millie next to the butterfly bush.

First things first: size up the plants, and try to visualize them as grownups. If you know your root systems well-enough, you can use shallow containers for those plants that don't need a lot of room (for example cucumbers will work really well in hanging baskets). If you're not sure, give them lots of room. No plant dies because it has too much expansion space.

(Also, when you bring plants home from the greenhouse, save the pots - if you run out to buy a special pot for every plant, it will cost you a fortune, not to mention this is recycling at its best -plastic pots last forever - they may as well spend part of eternity working in your garden).

This was not meant to be a commercial for Miracle Gro, but I guess it will be, because this is all I use for container gardening. I've used Miracle Gro for years -it works, I like it - other people use other blends (my dad, for instance - he's convinced a local greenhouse to blend his special potting soil according to his secret recipe). I just buy the giant Miracle Gro bags at Lowe's. I also rarely fertilize after planting - it's already in the soil. I hate working with liquid or powder chemicals, so this is a great solution for me.

Gather your high-tech tools. I found this trowel a couple years ago at a yard sale, and the old silver spoon is wonderful for gently digging around fragile roots. No idea what pattern it is - it's probably some valuable antique that should be on Antique Roadshow.

I use a old small plastic pot to scoop out the dirt and fill the pot - what you missed just before this is the drainage materials. The plants need drainage space at the bottom, something to hold their roots up out of the wet dirt - so I usually add a few smallish rocks in the bottom, or if you have enough extra small plastic seedling pots (like the black one above), you can turn one upside down, and set it in the bottom of the larger pot, then fill with dirt. (Again, plastic lasts forever. It may as well do something useful with its time). I've also used small chunks of old brick, used aquarium gravel and styrofoam packing peanuts (not the recyclable kind that dissolve). Never use old concrete - it leaches chemicals into your soil (which means it will either poison your flowers, or you, if it's in a vegetable pot).

Wouldn't you like to be a pepper too? This one should have plenty of room to grow now. Green pepper have a dense root system, but it rarely extends much more than 6-7". This dark-colored pot offers plenty of room, plus the sun will keep the soil warm - peppers love having their feet toasty. (FYI - one way to "push" your peppers along in the spring is to plant your rows, then lay down black plastic as mulch (or black weed fabric) - it will keep the soil warm and the peppers will grow by leaps and bounds).

A good way to judge size of plant vs. size of pot: plant should be at least a third smaller than the pot (and you can always go larger with the pot size).

Here's the happy geraniums. These are the scrawny clearance plants I bought last weekend at Lowe's - 50 cents each, and then I grouped 5 into each large pot.

We'll check back on them in a couple weeks.

Remember the clean-up, wash off the tools, and voila, we're done.

But I still want that potting bench.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The First Basil Harvest

Early this morning I was out cutting the first basil harvest of the year.

Thanks to all the rain, the plants had exploded from 8-9" to almost 18", in less than four days.

My dad sells fresh local veggies to a nearby restaurant, but for some reason he has no luck growing basil. I, on the other hand, can throw it in anything, anywhere, and it will grow almost without a second thought (Dad got the apples, peaches, strawberries, blackberries and raspberry gene - I got the basil gene).

Knowing I'd be seeing him today, I went out and cut each spire of basil, about 9-10" long, thereby trimming off roughly 2/3 of the plant, so he could take this batch and sell it to the restaurant.

This photo above is what's left. A week from now, this plant will be at least half again as tall, and very bushy.

Here's the cut basil - huge, bright green, crisp leaves, and the fragrance is just *heavenly*.

A pound of fresh basil roughly fills the proverbial Walmart or Kroger's plastic bag.

Considering how easy it is to grow (except for my dad), and the new interest of restaurants to buy locally, try growing some basil - you never know when you'll find yourself with a new cash crop.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Laying of the Carpet

Remember this rummage sale purchase from last weekend?

Remember this grassy gourd area?

Today we mowed and weedwhacked the grass, and cut it especially low in the gourd area.

Then I pulled the rolls of carpet into the back yard and laid them out flat. If you do this, always lay the carpet out upside down - it's a bazillion times easier to cut, and when it's in place in the garden, you want the backing side up. (This works out great when your neighbor gives you their old aqua carpet, 'cause it doesn't matter what color it is - plus the tight woven backing guarantees the rain will be funneled off onto the plants, instead of being absorbed into the path itself).

Get yourself a utility knife cutter - put a fresh blade in - and the carpet will cut like butter.

I promise.

See? Piece of cake.

I laid down an extra wide piece between the gourds and their plastic racks, and the straw-mulched blueberry patch.

Here's the carpet fully laid, with rocks to weight it until the rain/sun/traffic helps it settle onto the ground. The carpet will not only kill the grass underneath it, but it will keep our pesky wiregrass from spreading, and give the gourds a clean place to spread out on and myself a clean path to walk on no matter how much rain falls.

I'm still on the lookout for a little more carpet, to fit around the tomatos and peppers.

Between the gourds and the carpet, this area will be bare dirt next spring, ready for putting down some sort of floor (gravel or possibly even a low deck, maybe) underneath a gazebo I have my eye on.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Old King Coleus

Burgundy Wedding Train

My daughter has developed an obsession for coleus. We are now overrun with them, and every trip to the greenhouse results in at least two more. Since there are currently 1400 different named varieties, I'm thinking we're going to need more room.

Notice I said "named" varieties. Coleus is the king of the inbred plant families -having made a 180-year long pastime of hybridizing with its cousins.

Also known as the flame nettle (a much more saucy name than 'coleus' don't you think), these colorful plants were native to Java, until a botanist named Karl Blume introduced them to Europe, just in time for the Victorian era (think 1840-1900 more or less).

Remember the Victorians? Paisley carpets, heavy velvet curtains, big Boston ferns, ornately decorated furniture.....and......huge pots of coleus.

Kingwood Torch

Turns out the coleus was the big Victorian equalizer. Greenhouses and elaborate gardens had been only for the wealthy, until the easily-propagated coleus came along. Middle-class citizens could not only afford a plant on the front stoop, but they could share with their neighbor, just by breaking off a spire, and placing it in water.

The coleus proved to be easily hybridized (cross-bred) with itself, over and over again, literally to the point that no one is sure what the original coleus looked like.

Orange King
On the other hand, the 1400 varieties are fascinating, with no two being alike. Colors range from green, red/green, purple/green, yellow, golden, red/pink, orange, pink/green, and thousands of other variations.

Sometimes it feels as if we have 1399 of those varieties on our back porch.

Including this pot of babies - the seedlings come up pure green, and then they get their color spots.

In the front is Alabama, with Rustic Orange Improved behind it (this one is so beautiful, it should have had a much prettier name - maybe "Copper Glow" - that's what I'm going to call it from now on).

Have a little Pink Chaos (to go with all the other chaos out there).

This red and green mix is just like Sousaphones and polka bands: Oompah!

But this one is my absolute favorite with ruffled leaves that almost glow and a name to match its deep color: Tilt A Whirl.

For more coleus (some 1390 to be exact), you can visit: