First Frost and October Snow

The sun is out this morning and, already, most of the snow that fell yesterday has melted. Last night’s low was 23 F, but in a few days we’ll see 70 again. Yup, that’s Western weather. I scrambled Sunday afternoon to glean everything I could from the frost tender vegetable plants before the season came to a hard stop with 5 inches of snowfall. I ended up harvesting about 18 lbs of green and partially ripe tomatoes. Several of the plants yielded more green tomatoes than I had harvested ripe during the season. The two San Marzano plants were the biggest culprit. I harvested 8 lbs of green tomatoes to just 6 lbs of ripe tomatoes over the past two months. I love San Marzano tomatoes. For a paste type of tomato, they are surprisingly sweet and tasty when eaten fresh. I like to slice them in half and sear them on the cast iron griddle, English breakfast style. However, I may need to experiment with some other tomato varieties more suited to the cool nights and short growing season here. One tomato variety that will remain will be the Brandywine OTV.  I purchased the seed last year hoping it would be more disease resistant than the other varieties I had been growing. The tomato lived up to its reputation. I was able to harvest about 7 lbs of ripe tomatoes and 3 lbs of green tomatoes from one plant. The plant continued to look healthy while several of its neighbors  were clearly suffering from various issues, and it produced beautiful, unblemished, tomatoes when most of my other large tomatoes were cat-faced and cracked. Oh, and it tastes pretty good too.

All-in-all, considering the late start and less than ideal soil conditions, I’m quite pleased with my harvest so far this year. My records indicate I’ve harvested about 125 lbs of produce since mid July. For the past month or so, the only vegetables I’ve purchased have been potatoes, onions, garlic and mushrooms, and next year I should have all of that growing. Yes, even some mushrooms.

The big performer in the garden was the single Tender Gray zucchini plant which produced over 20 lbs of squash (as compared to the Golden Scallop squash which produced only 2 lbs). The big disappointment was the beans, all of them. Even though I applied inoculant to the beans prior to planting, none of the plants produced anything more than a token harvest of a few bean pods. One bed of snap and dried bean plants was clearly suffering from Mosaic Virus and did not produce at all. I suspect I introduced the virus via saved seed, although several of my tomato plants also seemed to be afflicted. I think I will purchase all new beans seed next year to see if that helps. I’m already anticipating poring over all those pretty pictures in the online seed catalogs!

For now, there’s plenty to keep me busy. I have one last batch of ripe tomatoes and tomatillos to roast and freeze. When the ground dries out a bit, I’ll start clearing out the rotting plant debris and plant the garlic and cover crops. My cool weather vegetables still need to be tended – there’s always plenty of weeding to do, even when the days are short and cold. Right now, the Fall garden is tucked in, all cozy under row cover, and I should be able to get another month or so of growth before everything goes dormant during the shortest days. I’m looking forward to the new autumn menu full of roasted turnips, leeks, beets and tasty salads.

And just like that

it’s Autumn.

I went out of town for a week. When I departed, it was still unseasonably hot and dry here. By the way, I think unseasonable is an adjective that I probably need to stop using, because unseasonable is the new climate change norm, right? Anyway, I returned to full-on gloom. We’re in the middle of an entire week of cold drizzle. I’m trying to embrace the change – we certainly need the rain, and the fall roots and greens are drinking it up and growing like mad.

 

However, no matter how many cold-hardy greens I plant, I get anxious when I contemplate the long cold season ahead. I figure we’re about two or so weeks from the first frost, and then it will be mid-May until I can set out the 2018 batch of summer annuals. Seven months. Eeek. I also become nervous when I think about the effect of the long winter on the honeybees. There’s not much in bloom right now, and they’ll need to rely on their stored honey for food, and for hive thermal mass, until March. I’m thinking each colony needs to occupy 18-20 bars going into Winter. My youngest colony was only half that size a month ago, so I gave them two bars of honey from another hive, and I started feeding them sugar water. Additionally, I participated in the Mite-a-thon a few weeks ago and conducted the sugar shake test on my two oldest hives. My mite count came in at 6 and 9 mites/100 bees. Very concerning, but I have not yet decided if I will treat. Most of the treatments seem to succeed primarily in creating treatment-resistant mites. Ideally, I’d really like to work on creating a mite-resistant apiary, which may mean rebuilding with hygienic honeybee genetics through re-queening or capturing new feral survivor swarms. My current colonies seem to contain some Russian honeybee genetics due to their dark coloring, tendency to build up quickly and love of swarming. I’m hoping at least a couple of colonies will successfully overwinter, despite the mites, due to the winter-efficiency of Russian honeybees, and that the long break in the brood cycle (all the colonies but the youngest have already dramatically decreased the amount of brood they are raising) will help lower the mite load. I guess that’s one benefit of the long winter nectar dearth. I’m also considering adding some screened bottoms to the hives to give the bees a hand at eliminating the mites if they already have some grooming instincts. If I do treat, it will be within the next two weeks while it’s still warm enough to open the hives. With very little capped brood in the comb, most of the mites will at least be vulnerable to treatment if I decide to go that route. Decisions, decisions.

Meanwhile, I’m scrambling to catch up on post-vacation garden chores, and to keep up with preserving giant harvest coming in from the garden right now. I came home to plants laden with ripe tomatoes, tomatillos, chiles and squash.

 

Also, another reminder that soon I will be clearing out my summer vegetable beds: my planting garlic order arrived yesterday. Since I left all my garlic in the ground in Albuquerque, I’m starting from scratch with new varieties this year. I selected a mix of hardneck and softneck varieties that seemed likely to put up with both wet/cold and hot/dry. It will be fun to see which do well here.

 

Terror on the Ground


I had 12 tons of breeze a.k.a. crusher fines delivered yesterday. I know, I never thought I’d be tackling that particular project again. I started installing the stone on the walkway outside the chicken run since that gets the most foot traffic, and with the recent rain, we’ve been tracking mud everywhere. I noticed while I was putting it down, the hens showed no interest in scratching around in it, and instead would give it a wide berth when going to and fro. Now that it goes right up to the door, they’re trapped in the run. They refuse to walk on it. Not even popcorn or watermelon will lure them out. Yes, this is almost the same exact stuff that was on the entire yard in Albuquerque. And yes,  I have carried them out and placed them on the new gravel to show them that it won’t hurt them. Yet, each one has immediately fled back into the safety of the run. At first I was amused, but their terror is so complete I’m starting to feel bad. And also, do they know something that I don’t? Meanwhile, two days ago a hawk swooped down on them, causing them to squawk and scurry under the shrubbery, but within 5 minutes they were roaming again, without a care in the world. I don’t get it.

Flora, Fauna and Fences

Apparently, despite my best intentions, I’m on the once per month posting schedule. Ooops. Fortunately, I have a steady stream of phone photos I can use to catch us up.

Since the last time I checked in, the new vegetable garden has grown by leaps and bounds.

Thanks to several cool (cold?) misty days, the Fall roots and greens are actually looking pretty lush right now. For the first time ever,  I’ve had success getting rutabaga and Daikon radish established mid-summer for Fall harvest.

I’ve already been pulling the Daikon thinnings as super peppery salad radishes. I guess that’s the trade-off for tomatoes that don’t ripen until mid-August. Speaking of tomatoes, I’ve harvested one Glacier tomato so far, with another one ready today. That’s it, but it looks like within the next week, several more varieties should start to ripen.

I finally have all the vegetable beds prepped. The ones that won’t be planted until the Spring get a cover of compost, paper and grass clippings, but the beds that are planted now, I dig in the compost. I have found that I don’t have a deep enough layer of compost on top for the no-dig method to work here when I want to plant immediately. Anyway, the last bed I prepped received the asparagus transplants I started from seed this Spring. They’ve been hanging around in nursery pots, and I wanted to get them into their permanent home in time to get established before the tops are frost killed. They look so fragile, but I’ve found they are surprisingly resilient.

I managed to get 11 plants into the ground which seems to be the right number for us, but I’ll probably start a few more from seed this winter in case I lose some plants over the winter.

Since I’m finally caught up on the most pressing vegetable garden tasks, I’ve been able to tackle the garden infrastructure. Living in a less densely developed area, with water nearby, means there’s a wide variety of critters that visit the garden. Many of them, like this gorgeous toad that passed through the other day,

or the awesome mantis,

 

are always welcome. However, other creatures are welcome on a more provisional basis.

For instance, this super-cute scampering friend, nicknamed Bunz,

 

was starting to make a habit out of helping me weed the vegetable garden every morning. This was the incentive I needed to finally find the time to install the rabbit fencing. Fortunately I had help, so I was able to get all the lodgepole pine posts set and the welded wire rabbit fence installed, in about 2 days worth of work. I trenched along the perimeter so we were able to set the bottom of the fence about three inches below grade. That won’t stop determined digging, but should deter casual attempts at tunneling under.

I sealed all the posts prior to setting them. Also, we used an auxiliary metal post, ratchet strap and two 2×4 scraps bolted together to tension the fencing before attaching it to the posts. That worked pretty well and I’m quite pleased with the results.
I still need to secure the chain link perimeter and build a couple of gates, but for now, Bunz and all the other rabbit friends, have been staying out of the vegetable garden.

With the fencing installed, I began to pay attention to the inner voice nagging me about how quickly Autumn is approaching. Given that the first Fall frost is probably not too far off, I’ve started installing low tunnel hoops.

I was never very fond of the pvc hoops I used in Albuquerque, so this time around, I’m using 1/2″ EMT. I ordered a 4′ pipe bender, as well as some plastic clips, greenhouse plastic and two weights of fabric row cover to get started. Right now, I have hoops and some old shade cloth over the greens that will be under plastic this winter. I will put fabric row cover over the hardier fall greens and roots, and I will also cover the tomatoes and peppers in a few weeks to provide a bit of season extension. I’ve noticed on my walks around the neighborhood, some folks grow the warm weather crops under cover all summer. Even though we have plenty of searing hot summer days, I think the cool nights slow everything down. I might give that a try next year. Also, next year I will also get a lightweight row cover up over all the Brassicas before they get nibbled to a nub by cabbage moth larva. That’s the other benefit to segregating crop families in the new garden. I will be able to cover the leaf crops without worrying about hindering the pollination of fruiting crops. There are so many new experiments to try – I’m already looking forward to next Spring.

 

“I love it when a plan comes together”

Twelve weeks ago, when we were running around trying to find the box that contained our coffee mugs, it seemed complete folly for me to insist on a summer garden this year. However, thanks to my stubbornness and some seriously tired muscles, we are actually on the cusp of eating from the yard. Hallelujah! My first summer squash plant has started blooming, which means we’re only a few days away from a wave of squash.

There are also some heads of lettuce ready to be harvested, and pretty much all of the tomatoes have started to set tiny green tomatoes. I still have a few vegetable garden beds to build, but, in the meantime, I’ve started sowing the fall crops: beets, carrots, rutabagas, etc.

Its kind of crazy the amount of area I’m able to plant: 12 sf of carrots, 6 sf of beets… Did I mention I planted 14 tomato plants this year? In total, I’ve laid out 768 sf of beds for annual vegetables, and I am planning an additional area for perennials.

In contrast to the inter-planted chaos I preferred in Albuquerque, this time around, I’m planning on a more structured and segregated system. I’d like to be able to rotate crops to ensure that there are two years between repeats of crop families to (hopefully) keep pests and disease from taking hold. I’ve laid out 6 pairs of 4′ x 16′ beds and each year the planting plan will move up one pair of beds, so plants in Pair 1 will move up Pair 2, and so on. Of course, it will take a few years for me to dial in how much of each vegetable I should grow, and of course there are always last minute impulse purchases to be tucked in here or there, but for the most part, I’m actually looking forward to having a predetermined plan each year. I based the rotation around the nightshade plants, since what we’ll be growing in the greatest quantity. This year, the tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers and eggplant are in Pair 1, and if I had gotten an earlier start, potatoes and more peppers would be in Pair 4. I did some reading on which crops seemed to do better after others, and put pencil to paper until I seemed to have a workable sequence:

Oh, and as an aside, do you see all that corn?

 

Microcosm

One of my favorite ways to procrastinate is to grab my camera and walk around the yard looking for interesting stuff to photograph. These photographic yard expeditions are a lot more about poking around in the garden and seeing than producing any sort of outcome with merit, however, I think one of the main reasons I started Less is More was to justify the exercise by creating a place to post the resulting images. Unfortunately, while I’ve been spending tons of time outside recently, I haven’t been spending much time hunkered down, looking closely. Its a shame, because there’s always so much to see. Today, I finally took advantage of a cool, cloudy morning, hunted down my macro lens, and started wandering. After checking out the vegetable garden, the beehives and the front flower garden, I spotted the first flower on the self-sown sunflowers along the driveway, and decided to investigate. No bees had found the new bloom yet, but there was an entire world of insect activity on this one small plant. I must have spent 10 minutes watching all the tiny creatures. I tried to snap a photo of each type I spotted:

Insects are so cool. I never understand why folks are so eager to kill all of them.

Almost 10 Weeks

I can’t believe a month has passed (already?) since I last checked in. The weeks are flying by. Most days my schedule devolves into chaos as I bounce between items on my “to do” list:  establish a vegetable garden, build a predator proof chicken run, unpack all the boxes, build new hives for the expanding apiary, and maintain the gardens and pasture that are already here . . .

However, I think I have finally gotten the upper hand (if we ignore the 18″ tall dandelion patch gone to seed in the front pasture/meadow), and can take a bit of a breather before diving in again.

The vegetable garden is planted with the summer vegetables (minus the giant beds of potatoes and New Mexico chiles that I’ll hopefully grow in future years),

so now I can spend some time working on the rest of the yard before prepping the beds that will be planted with the fall crops.  I still have lots of perennials and shrubs looking for a permanent dirt home, so as soon as the record-setting heat wave is over, I plant to start weeding and expanding the ornamental garden beds.

The 8′ x 16′ chicken run is pretty much complete, although I believe someone was talking about tricking it out with some additional roosts, and a dust bathing area.

The next improvement in Chickenland will be a new coop. I’m planning on building a 6′ x 8′ shed, half for chickens, half for supplies and garden tools. My plan is to start building at the end of August, with the goal of completing it by mid/late September (before the first snowstorm).

In the meantime, I’ve been busy in the workshop building new beehives. I thought I was off the hook for the year, as I ended up combining the colony temporarily housed in a nuc box with my other swarm that lost their queen. However, a few weeks ago, the colony that cast off those swarms back in April started building queen cells again. Before I was able to do a divide, they sent out two swarms. The first swarm was a giant swarm with the existing queen, and the second was a much smaller swarm with a virgin queen.

Fortunately I was able to capture both swarms, so now I have 5 colonies on site.

The large swarm is housed in a new hive I hastily built. They’ve already built comb on 12 bars and have filled much of those with brood. The small swarm is rapidly filling the nuc box which holds 7 bars. No signs of egg laying yet, but there is partial comb on all the bars. I’m debating between building another horizontal topbar hive or trying to super the nuc box with a small top bar box. I have about a week to decide and build.

Plants in the Ground!

Work is progressing on operation Lawn Be Gone. With the assistance of chickens, of course. Earlier this week, I had 5 cubic yards of compost delivered, and I’m gradually prepping planting beds. The soil is even finer, denser clay than that in Albuquerque. I didn’t know that was even possible. The soil has been so wet, I haven’t been working it other than removing the grass. However, we finally had a few sunny days in a row, so yesterday I was able to work some of the compost in (right now it’s mostly serving as mulch) and get my first few edible plants in the ground. I transplanted a small patch of greens: and most of the herb garden: There’s a lot more to go,but today I’m going to take a break from digging to work on getting some temporary fencing in place to protect the vegetables from the chicken scratching and ravenous bunnies.

Four Egg Days

For the past three weeks, several times per week, I find three eggs in the hens’ nest box and one up in the coop. Yes, six year old, “Bigfoot” Ezzie is laying eggs regularly. Since becoming sick, she has occasionally laid an egg or two, but never like this. Despite the less-than-ideal living quarters they’re currently inhabiting, all the hens seem to enjoy the new spread, but especially Ezzie. Whenever I open the coop doors, she leaps into my arms to receive an airlift down onto the grass. I’m a little nervous about a hawk snagging her (the hawks here are impressively large) so she doesn’t get out as much as she’d like, but she does get out most days to peck the dirt, nibble on the grass and take a sunbath. This is a fairly common pose:

Since I don’t have a very good setup for the hens right now, against my better judgement, I’ve been allowing them to free range within the fenced backyard when I’m at home. I will say, their feed consumption has decreased dramatically with all the worms and grubs they are able to scratch up. However, three different neighbors have told me stories of losing their entire flock to coyotes or foxes, so I’m working on building a large, secure run to keep them safe.

Its been slow going, as I’ve been trying to fit the work in between other commitments. Digging to bury the perimeter hardware cloth was the slowest part of the construction, but now that I’ve completed that portion, attaching the framing and wire fencing is going more quickly. When the run is complete, I will move the current mobile coop inside, to keep them safer at night, while I work on building a proper, winter-worthy coop. You know, something that keeps out horizontal snow.

Flash Forward . . .

. . . and it is snowing again. Although, in the intervening two weeks, we’ve had all the various iterations of weather: hot and sunny, cold and windy, rain, thunder, lightening, sleet and hail. Lots of hail. It’s been a fairly comprehensive introduction to Front Range weather. When the sky allows, I’ve been outside, wrangling with the dirt. I have zero patience to take it slow. I want instant garden. I admit, that’s not really a practical approach. Normally, I advise design clients to take their time, live in a house and yard for a while to get a feel for the new place. But, I’ve never been good at following my own advice. Plus, I missed most of last year’s summer garden due to the various disruptions, and I don’t want to forgo another year. So, I’ve started digging.

Actually, I broke down and rented a power tool for a day; I tackled a significant portion of the back yard with a gas powered sod cutter. Yes, it was loud, polluting and stinky; a crazy shaking beast to steer; and I was just barely strong enough to set it up and wrestle it from one spot to the next. The end result is not a tidy row of rolled sod as you would see on a professional job. Instead I’m left with lots of missed strips and some areas not cut at all due to the uneven ground and grass length I was working with. Most of the cut sod is still laying where it was cut because I just didn’t have the strength and stamina to move it as it was cut. Also, the belt on the cutter slipped with about an hour of cutting to go, so I returned it before completing the job and just couldn’t bring myself to schlep another one home to finish the work. However, even with all that, it was worth it to get as much sod removed as possible in the shortest amount of time. I’m still well ahead of where I’d be if I were removing the grass by hand. Yeah, ideally I would have sheet mulched over the grass for a year to build great soil for future gardens, but please refer to my earlier statement regarding lack of patience. However, all of the cut sod is staying on site. I’m flipping some of it over and using the strips to raise grade where appropriate. The rest of it will be relocated to my compost piles.

Now that the sod is cut, I’m starting to delineate planting beds, fence lines and future patio areas. There’s a ton of work ahead, but I’m tackling the most critical areas first: I’ve edged and dug the herb garden (the half-circle area in the above photo), and started on the vegetable beds. I’m hoping to bring in a couple of loads of compost and manure next week, so, you know, if it stops snowing, I can start transplanting my stockpile of plants. I have a considerable collection of plants waiting for a home. I have several batches of vegetable seedlings I started prior to the move and drove up here. There are all the herbs, perennials and shrubs I mined from the Albuquerque garden. There are also the plants I purchased here. I took a day off last week to attend the Denver Botanic Garden plant sale. There was a great variety of plants for sale, and I was able to procure a good selection of both perennials and annuals. There were a few things that I didn’t find at the sale, of course, so I took a field trip to Boulder over the weekend to check out Harlequin’s Garden – a great small nursery that smells like dirt and flowers, not that chemical odor prevalent at so many garden centers. It is a bit of a drive, but worth it. Ok, well, there’s a lot more to catch up on, but don’t worry, with another snow day in the forecast for tomorrow (sigh), I might actually have some time at my desk again.