Squirrel Rant for the Year

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Ah, yes. No garden season would be complete without a post detailing some of the unique and creative vandalism perpetrated by the darlings of the neighborhood this year. I freely admit, I hate them. I love them. Of all the pests I have to battle for the harvest…slugs, cabbage moths, earwigs and rolypolys, powdery mildew, hail, and Dane the mangy rescue mutt…squirrels are the only ones that make it personal. They could be French with their flagrant insults, chattering at me and biting their nails, throwing green apples down on my head and tossing perfect, beautiful peaches to the ground after a single bite only to stare at me from the branch in defiance, daring me to take offense. If they carried rapiers I’d fear them.

Mostly, they’re all the same to me, these garden rats. Furry. Cute. Rapacious. Infuriating. But twice now, one has been born that stands out from the rest. Six or seven years ago it was Hugo the Great, acrobat extraordinaire whom I swear could fly…fly I tell you. He sprang into this world either fearless or completely insane and his feats of leaping high overhead across impossible distances only to catch the merest twig tip and cling while it whipped him up and down in wild thirty-foot arcs left both me and every squirrel who chased him with mouths agape in awe and terror. I only saw him the one year of course. He was destined to die young. But oh, what a glorious season. I adored Hugo. He lived like a meteor…hot, fast, and brief.

But his memory faded over time and I was lulled into complacence. I eventually forgot that great ones, avatars, sometimes appear among this race…until late July when I discovered the first beautiful eggplant lying mangled in the pathway. Now I assure you, over time I’ve grown familiar with their favorites, these squirrels.  Fruit has always been their main target and I’ve adjusted my efforts accordingly.  The apple tree I gave them early, it’s always been theirs to plunder, and this year I finally surrendered both the peaches and my four espaliered pears as well. I still fight for the grapes as the muslin bags I tie on each individual cluster have so far foiled their best efforts but up until now they never thought to molest the vegetables.

So when I first spotted the eggplant I naturally thought it was Dane the mangy rescue mutt because Dane will eat anything…anything I tell you…but then I glimpsed the second eggplant lying beneath the spruce tree where they nest, and when I walked over to pick it up I found a hole the size of a golf ball with telltale teeth marks pocking the rest of the skin.  That was when I realized, with sinking heart, that a new squirrel god was nigh.

I’ve named him Ivan the Terrible and, unlike Hugo, his presence gives me no joy. He brings naught but destruction and waste and has so far vandalized not only my eggplants and tomatoes, he’s chewed holes in all the pumpkins, half the butternuts, and eaten about twenty percent of my Delicata squashes outright. Five weeks ago he started eating every new, young squash, regardless of variety.  The muslin bags on the grapes thwarted all his efforts but in his malice he chewed the clusters off the vines anyway and left them lying there on the ground for me to find and weep over.

I pray that, like Hugo, Ivan, too will die young, and that this season will be the only one in which the garden suffers such depredations. But secretly, I fear a darker destiny. I’m haunted by the idea that, like the Yosemite bears who learned to peel open cars for the Cheetos inside, he might teach the other squirrels his ways, that they might all look with fresh eyes on the true abundance of food available and give rise to a new breed that would finally consume everything…everything…I grow.

Sigh.

Perhaps it’s a sign.  Maybe I should think about finally downsizing the garden a bit to get out kayaking more.  I must admit, I’m getting older and farming the backyard is getting harder every year.  Could this squirrel actually be Ivan the Liberator? I’ve seen stranger messengers.

Hmm.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

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Squashland

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Bert

Bert is a Hubbard squash, the largest this year.  Missing are pictures of Bertha and Beatrix,

also large but harder to photograph as the girls are both shy and hiding under leaves.

Bert is the first Hubbard squash I’ve grown who is too big to fit in the oven.

(He’s deeply embarrassed and keeps apologizing.

Squash are actually quite tender on the inside.)

This means, of course, that he’ll have to be cooked in pieces,

a ticklish affair since the shell of a

seasoned Hubbard squash

is impervious to knives.

Hard.

So

Hammer?

Saw?

Drop him five feet onto concrete?

Other ideas anyone?

We’d be grateful.

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The Pumpkin clan are also doing well.

Fat Hamish in the lower left is a wild thing and recently confided

that when he turns orange

he wants to be shot out of a cannon.

Turns out he’d only ever heard about the flying part

and not the landing

so now he just wants to be carved to look like

Bob Marley.

Simple enough.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

The Garden That Got Me To Settle Down

Gardens are not static environments.  You can’t just plant a flower bed and a tree and then expect them to stay put like, say, an arrangement of furniture.

No.

Those lovely flowers will instead grow (hooray!), bloom (yowza!), get spindly (huh?), wilt (wait a second…), and die (ugh) before scattering their seeds to areas of your property you wouldn’t have thought possible (WTF?!!).  At the same time that tree you planted will also grow (and grow and grow) until it eventually shades out the flowers below and the seed scattering which seemed like such a problem in earlier years will no longer be the issue.  It’s now the bare dirt where nothing survives.

Even though I fell in love with growing green things in adolescence when my first, obliging houseplant survived, I didn’t discover this longer-term, dynamic garden relationship until my forties.  This is because, for the first 37 years of my life, I didn’t live in the same house for longer than three and a half years.  For the first seventeen, I was a Marine brat and that’s how often my father was transferred.  The next six years of migration were the result of my on again/off again college attendance.  And the last fourteen involved first one husband who bought and fixed up properties (our homes) for resale, and then a second husband who was adventurous and highly mobile.

Due to this nomadic lifestyle, I’d never had a long-term, committed relationship with a garden before.  Oh, sure, I’d dated quite a few, but always with the understanding that it wouldn’t last.  I was basically in it for the botanical sex; sticking my seeds of choice into the fresh, fertile soil and then devouring the resulting, delicious fruits of the tryst before cinching up my roots and moving on to the next plot.

I was a confirmed bachelorette of the garden world…and perfectly happy with the life.  So when the hubster (adventurous husband #2) and I made our fifth jump in five years and landed in Boise, I had no reason to think this garden would be any different.

I went ahead and sunk my heart and soul into tearing out all the old landscaping (i.e. roses and grass) and replacing it with something more eclectic, but mentally, I always kept myself ready for the next move.  For the first five years, I told myself I could still dig everything up and take it with me when we moved again.  Then, once it became clear that this plan was delusional, I resigned myself to taking a smaller collection of favorite things; a few large rocks, all the container plants, and the old bathtub I’d rigged up as a fountain.  (Basically anything that weighed more than a quarter ton.  The hubster usually fell silent during this part of the conversation.)

This lie survived for eight more years before transitioning into the final period of denial where the hubster and I no longer talked about moving at all, but didn’t realize we were no longer talking about moving.

And then, in 2008, I suddenly realized I was trapped.  I’d held still for too long.  My roots…which had been kept oh-so-carefully tucked up in the belt for decades…had slipped loose while I wasn’t paying attention, snaked their way down into the soil, and transformed this house and garden from temporary way station into permanent home. We’d accidentally and unintentionally created something I could no longer afford to lose.

I had no idea until that moment just how badly I’d needed a home that I wouldn’t have to leave behind.

So.  That’s the story of how, over the last sixteen years, the garden and I (I call her Redbud) have become intimately acquainted.  She’s the lady who landed me, the one who finally got me to settle down.

But, as with any good relationship, I’m always discovering something new, too.  Redbud’s microclimates are constantly shifting with the changes in tree cover and watering experiments.  (I do so love to tinker.)

One of our recent successes involves a narrow strip of side yard on the north side of the house which leads from the front yard to the back.  It’s barely eight feet wide and, for the first nine years we lived here, I mistakenly assumed that nothing would grow there but shade plants.

Upon closer study I realized about half this strip actually receives direct sunlight from May through early July, enough time for any seedlings planted to get a good head start.  So I began to think vertically.  I suspected that if I built a trellis tall enough, any vines started in May would be able to to chase the southward shifting sunlight high enough to escape the return of shade in mid-summer.

And lo and behold, I was right.

You can see how the lower squash leaves die off from lack of light (on the right) while the vines on top flourish. This year has been good for butternut squash.  I have six vines and will probably get fifteen or sixteen squashes.  I try and alternate years between winter squash and pole beans.

To utilize growing space, I planted four shade-loving Schisandra vines on the shadier (left) side of the trellis.  (They require both a male and female for cross pollination so the more vines one plants, the better the odds of getting one of each.)  Schisandra berries are supposed to be a powerful herbal remedy but I wouldn’t know anything about that.  After four years I’ll finally harvest a single cluster of berries this fall, which is not enough to have an herbal effect on anything.

Since the fence that continues along the northern border of the backyard has the best southern exposure on the property, I’ve lined it with espaliered fruit trees.  There are two pears and two apples, which all failed to produce this year because the f—g squirrels bit off almost all the fruit buds in late April.  Here are the espaliered pears:

The two muslin bags in the lower right corner are protecting this years crop–two pears–from further depredation.  It’s working so far.

I’ve had better luck with the peaches; so much so in fact that, despite early fruit thinning, three branches have broken so far under the weight.

The squirrels are chewing off upwards of ten or fifteen fruits a day now, so I’ll probably revert to last year’s strategy and strip the tree early, allowing the green fruit to then ripen in a protected area.  While the taste is inferior that way, at least I win. Gardening, like any good, long-term, committed relationship, is full of compromises.

Redbud’s grape predators are threefold; squirrels, robins, and Dane the mangy rescue mutt. Muslin bags have been an effective deterrent for all three.

Occasionally, a frustrated squirrel will chew through the stem causing a grape cluster, bag intact, to fall to the ground.  Dane has discovered that if he picks these up and delicately mouths them, he gets a delicious shot of grape juice.  He therefore leaves the squirrels unmolested when they’re working around the vines.

Dane is the sole predator of garden tomatoes.  He stripped the bushes once this year.

We were forced to cut down a couple of beloved but badly misplaced trees this year.  We decided to create pedestals out of them.  The driftwood are pieces we’ve collected from various spots along the Pacific Northwest coastline.

 

 

Clearly, there is no tree stump involved in the last photo but I like the driftwood and figured I’d toss it in anyway.

And now, I apologize for the abrupt ending but Redbud calls and I must away.  Happy gardening to you all!

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

 

 

 

Going To Jail For Growing Veggies? What next?

Update 8/13/11:  Evidently, media attention and public opinion does have influence on a city’s prosecutorial discretion.  Following the international outcry stirred up by Ms. Bass’s blog and Facebook page, “Last month, City Prosecutor Eugene Lumberg dismissed the garden charges.”  Article from the Detroit News.  Good for the city of Oak Park.  I’m happy to see they could be reasonable. 

Bureaucracies are hardly famous for their flexibility and here’s a glowing example straight from the annals of the absurd:

Oak Park, Michigan Resident Julie Bass Faces 93 Days In Jail For Vegetable Garden

Evidently, Ms. Bass is being actively prosecuted for the crime of growing a vegetable patch in her front yard.  Not pot, mind you.  Not opium.  Not noxious weeds.  Her house isn’t sporting a dead lawn that she can’t afford to water.  She hasn’t piled up a rusting heap of garbage and she’s not parking her car in some rutted, dried mud just over the curb.  The woman is growing food, in attractive raised beds no less, but officials are digging in because veggies don’t conform to the city ordinance.  From The Huffington Post article;

“According to a local ABC affiliate, city code states that “all unpaved portions of the site shall be planted with grass or ground cover or shrubbery or other suitable live plant material.”

Now clearly, there’s a lot of wiggle room here.  “Suitable live plant material” is about as ambiguous as it gets but officials have nevertheless decided to take a hard line.  They want Ms. Bass’s yard to look like how other yards “commonly” (read traditionally) look.  They want grass, they want shrubs, and they want flowers.  Not this:

Julie Bass has taken her battle online, and now news outlets are picking up the story.  I’ve nosed around a little and am pretty sure that, with the widespread outrage brewing over the incident, the city of Oak Park has a PR nightmare on its hands.

Shall we count all the ways that pressing charges in this case is stupid, if not outright offensive?

1)  With food costs soaring, home vegetable gardens are now very common.

2)  With a growing concern about food safety, home vegetable gardens are now very common.

3)  With the growing obesity epidemic, growing a home vegetable garden is being encouraged at the highest levels of government.

4)  The White House has a vegetable patch in the middle of it’s lawn for godsakes.

5)  At a time when cities, counties, states, and federal governments are shutting down essential services and affected citizens are experiencing genuine suffering, wasting taxpayer money on a frivolous prosecution like this is repugnant.

6)  This prosecution diverts desperately needed resources away from real criminal activity.

7)  It limits the amount of land a family hit by the recession can utilize for growing food.

8)  With food stamp use at it’s highest rate in history, (think escalating budget deficit) being willing to prosecute someone for growing their own food actually creates a skewed incentive favoring food stamps over food production.

9)  Fill in the blank with your own favorite: ___________________________________

Oak Park officials?  Please.  Cultivate a little openess here.  Home gardens as a national activity have returned, and you need to incorporate that reality into your system of governance.  I suspect the city code you’re working off of was originally intended to protect the property values of your homeowners and that’s certainly a worthy goal.  Nobody wants to drive around their city and have it look like shit.  But if you think outside the box, I’m sure you can find a way to adapt your ordinance that would ensure any home garden sited in a front yard still meets required aesthetic standards.  That would preserve the original purpose of the code while allowing for the changing needs of a community struggling through difficult and changing times.

In the meantime, if anyone is interested in helping Ms. Bass out with her mounting legal fees, you can make a donation here: https://bitly.com/pPsDbe

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Pictorial Display of The Garden Before It Started Turning Into A Farm

Over the last few years I’ve been transforming our small suburban lot from the relaxing, tranquil garden area (that I spent years of back-breaking labor developing) into a food-producing space.  I’ve torn out quite a bit during the conversion and have no regrets…it’s still beautiful, just in a different way…but some old photos recently turned up and I thought I’d throw them up here as a kind of memorial to the past.

I give you:  The Ghosts of Garden Past

Below: Rustic trellis built from old fence posts hauled down from the cabin in Stanley, and pruned water sprouts from a vining maple tree.  Today it supports an espaliered pear tree while the hosta bed behind is a vegetable patch.

Below:  Another trellis (at the end of the walkway) built from old fence posts.  This one now supports a grape vine which isn’t doing very well because the black elderberry shrub just to the left of it morphed into a black elderberry tree, shading said grape vine into a powdery mildew, non-producing, struggling state of sub-survival.  I love it anyway god help me and can’t bring myself to put it out of its misery.  I don’t know why.

And again, below (I think you probably get it by now):  Mint and oregano bed in the lower left hand corner. (I know, I know…they shouldn’t be together.  But I never told them so they’re not prejudiced or anything.)  Daylilies just beyond them removed to make room for more herbs.  Same hosta bed-now-vegetable patch to the right.  Same trellis.  (It’ll show up a few more times because a suburban lot is just that small, no matter how tricky your photographic angles.)

Pathway with trial of assorted ground covers…I planted three different kinds then waited to see which would grow most successfully in this spot.  In a contest between corsican mint, elfin thyme, and speedwell, the weeds eventually won (as any non-anal grower of ground covers…i.e. none…could have told me.)  Pathway is now pea gravel.

Let’s play “where’s that trellis?”  Daylilies on the far side also removed to make room for rhubarb and currants.  Garden shed to the right.

Herb bed with lemon balm and yarrow.  (I’ve never had to sow seed for either of these herbs again.  Quite the opposite in fact.  I now have an enjoyable spring/summer/fall pastime called weeding the f—–g lemon balm and yarrow sprouts that come up everywhere, every year.)  This bed now contains zucchini and tomato.

Garden shed again and twin compost pins tucked away in the back.  There are two big, furtive locust trees–out of the picture to the left, on the other side of the fence just behind the compost–who think that we’re just the greatest neighbors since sliced bread.  They are to the compost what the squirrels are to the fruit trees.  It’s a relentless battle to keep their sneaky roots from completely taking over inside the bins.

A young, slender trunk-ed, western catalpa tree (the one in the middle with the big elephant-ear type leaves) planted from seed that I stole from a tree in the downtown arboretum.  Why?  Because nurseries around here don’t sell these young trees anymore.  In spite of the fact that they were immensely popular with the Victorian set at the turn of the last century because of their dramatic leaves, stunning early-summer display of unbelievably fragrant white blossoms, and fascinating, rattling, foot-long seed pods, nowadays they’re considered messy.  God forbid a tree should ever drop anything on the ground.   (BTW, did you notice one of the aforementioned big locust trees trying to hide just behind it?  They’re always doing that.)

The lamb’s ears in the container (bottom left) is now lemon thyme, the golden juniper just above it is now a lavender shrub.  But somehow I can’t bring myself to cut out the bigger golden juniper on the right, even though it currently occupies some of the best growing real estate on the property.  It’s like an old, quiet, pleasant, low-maintenance tenant that’s been there forever in a rent-controlled apartment building.  I don’t have the heart to kick it out…so will just have to wait until it dies before I can move somebody else in.  Sigh.

And one last time, “where’s the trellis?”

 This spot next to the front door hasn’t actually changed but I love it so much I’m sticking the photo in here anyway.

One of the two patches of grass left on the property that the hubster has somehow managed to protect from me.  (So far.  It’s still on the endangered list.) 

 And lastly a perennial flower bed next to the driveway, which is slated for mowing so I can slap up a bean trellis instead.

Thanks for joining me on this walk down memory lane!

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Surprise Worms On The Trash Can…a.m.

I walked into the kitchen this morning to discover a batch of small, white, maggoty-looking worms crawling across the stainless steel lid of the trash can and rolling their plump, fleshy, little way down the sides and across the kitchen floor.  It was disturbing.  Especially coming straight out of a deep sleep.  From my initial fog, I wildly wondered how the stripped carcass of a cooked chicken I’d thrown away last night could possibly decompose that fast.

However, upon reluctantly opening the lid with my latex-glove-protected-hands, instead of the fetid stench I feared my quivering nostrils met an almost minty fresh aroma.  I realized with dawning relief that these were not maggots after all, but a type of garden pest that is usually invisible, hidden within the cell walls of a leaf.  I’ve been battling an infestation of these tiny creatures among my spinach and swiss chard crops, and these ones must have hatched off a bunch of infected leaves I threw in the trash a couple of days ago.

My friends, I give you a rare (low-video quality…sorry!…) glimpse of the leaf miner adult worm stage.

Right Up There With the Discovery of Fire

And now, a brief break from dying to tell you about a discovery I made last year that, in my humble opinion, was nothing less than a huge leap forward for mankind.  (Or at least for the part of mankind that gardens or cooks.)  But first a couple of garden-related shots:

I spent a glorious afternoon yesterday planting garlic, spreading compost, pulling up the bedraggled remains of marigolds and pepper plants, laying in some straw, and harvesting my first-ever crop of Brussels sprouts.  There were eight plants and this is what I got.

It wouldn’t feed a duck.

There should have been a bumper crop of carrots as well but Dane the mangy rescue mutt discovered where they were planted and that, as they say, was that.  He pretended to be sorry as I dragged him over to the scene of the crime, pointed at the ravaged soil, and yelled No!  Dammit, no!! but he wasn’t really.

Dane’s long established motto is, “Better to ask forgiveness than permission”, and secretly he was feeling smug.  He also showed great interest in the garlic I planted yesterday so that bed now has a top dressing of wire mesh across the top.

The cold frames are full of lettuce in readiness for colder weather and now all I have left to do is build a compost pile from the autumn debris.

There.  Enough of that.  Now for the meat.

What I really wanted to share here is no less than one of the greatest discoveries of my lifetime:

Powdered vegetables in baked goods.

That’s right, my friends.  I’ve found something that could change the world.  It may well rival the discovery of fire or the invention of the wheel.  You know all those baskets of extra cucumbers every year that you don’t know what to do with?  Or the zucchinis that get away from you and morph into baseball bats over night?  Well, I’ve discovered a way to turn them into something that’s not only edible and nutritious, it’s scrumptious.

Impossible, you say?  Too good to be true, you exclaim?  But au contraire, I waggle my finger in front of your face.  Please read on first, then decide.

I figured it out last year when I was struggling with the biblical flood of pickling cucumbers coming off the six (six!) vines I’d planted.  (Please, please, in the name of all that’s good and holy, don’t ever, ever plant six cucumber vines for two people.) Their yield thrilled me in the first month, daunted me in the second, and swept me out to sea by the third.  I had north of fifty jars of pickled products by the end of the summer and the little abominations were still coming on.  The neighbors refused to take anymore.  Even Dane wouldn’t eat them.  So I began desperately combing the internet searching for new ideas.

I came across a backpacker’s forum of all places, with numerous testimonials swearing to the edibility of cucumber chips.  Simply slice and dehydrate them for a light weight, refreshing, nutritious snack on the trail, they said.  Delicious! one backpacker claimed.  Better than potato chips! sang another.

A day’s effort later and I stood looking down at a large, plastic bowl full of the nasty little things.  One bite and I realized too late that these were backpackers for godsakes; hungry, dirty, tired people with no access to real food.

However, I was desperate.  While I had no idea what I’d eventually do with the things, dehydration at least preserved them.  It bought me time until I could figure out something else.  So dry them I did until the first freeze finally, finally! came and killed off the mother ships.  Then later, because the bags of dried chips took up so much frigging room, I decided to put them through a coffee grinder (beware of cucumber dust!) and store the resulting powder in jars for the sake of efficiency.  At the time I had vague thoughts of making salad dressing with the stuff, or flavoring vegetable dips or cold soups.  It actually took another month for the lightning bolt to strike.

It came to me on a night that I’d made soup for dinner and needed a fast bread.  I was too tired to make biscuits or cornbread, didn’t have time for muffins or a real loaf.  So I opened the cupboard searching for another option and there they were; a jar of freshly ground cucumber powder and a package of whole wheat pancake mix, sitting side by side.  Suddenly, a brilliant light shone down from above, angels burst into song, and I heard the voice of God:

Yo, He boomed.  Check it out…a flour alternative.

And that was that.  History officially began.  I made my first batch of pancakes substituting cucumber powder for a third of the mix.  I fried the batter in olive oil, we dipped the patties in our bowls of lentil soup, and they were…I kid you not…out of this world, drop dead, fantastic.

A year later and I’ve expanded the vegetable repertoire to include zucchini, yellow squash, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, winter squash, and what would have been a lot more carrot powder had Dane not been such a successful root predator.  I’ve used the powders in pancakes, muffins, cornbread, the bread machine, biscuits, and I plan to try it out in pretzels, crackers, cake, and cookies as well.  (Cucumber and zucchini are quite sweet.)  The finished products are a little more dense than usual, and additional liquids are required as the powder sucks up moisture like a sponge, but the nutritional value is superior to canned goods and, for those seeking regularity, the fiber content is off the charts.  (Just sayin’.)

Final note:  I actually discovered a few months ago that I’m not the first human being to figure this out after all.  Bummer.  Long before coffee grinders were invented people used mortars and pestles to grind stuff.  In a fascinating book called The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide by Linda Runyan, she describes how during her years of homesteading she used to regularly grind up dried, wild plants and use the powder in breads and other dishes.  However, my disappointment in learning I was not the first was mitigated by the knowledge that there’s a whole helluva lot more edible stuff out there than just the fruit and veggies I grow in my garden.  You wouldn’t believe it!   The weeds growing in the lawn alone are a veritable buffet; clover, dandelions, crabgrass, and more are all edible. (Only those you haven’t first tried to kill with chemicals of course.)  So there’s plenty more experimentation available in the years ahead.

Bon apetit.


copyright Dia Osborn 2010