Pulling the vines

Today I started pulling the sweet potato vines – the earliest ones have leaves that are turning yellow, and the nights are getting cooler, which means it’s time. We probably should have started digging them a couple of weeks ago, working from the earliest vines and moving toward the newer vines, which have taken over the rows on either side, but other things took priority. The end of the season is nigh, however, and the time has come.

CAM00443

 

The thing about sweet potatoes is that they can be invasive, for lack of a better word. As you pull the vines from the frames themselves, you’ll find the tips of potatoes where they’ve started to heave themselves out of the soil.

Heaving sweet potatoes

 

This is, incidentally, how to determine where to start digging for the sweet potato bonanza: the potatoes will create mounds in the soil as they grow and displace the dirt. They’ll grow elsewhere too, of course, but the mounds are like the ancient Indian burial grounds that people build houses over: you know there’s something there, only in this case, it’s much more benevolent and will not suck your entire neighborhood into the netherworld a la Poltergeist.

Bonanza!

Because the vines have run rampant – why not, since we really had nothing else in that area? – when the vines crawled out of the rows in which the slips had been planted, snaking into the walkways and then into the rows on either side, a slow but steady takeover, they rooted down into the walkways as well as the rows. Leave them there, and they produce tubers in the walkways just as well as they do in the rows, as sweet potatoes don’t seem to care all that much about where they grow. As I pulled vines, the lumps in the walkways revealed themselves to be potatoes, grown right through the mulch and the plastic barrier. Some of them came up with the tugs on the vines.

Walkway potatoes

 

Some had to be cut out from the plastic barrier, as they’d grown too fat after the neck of the potato to come out easily.

Walkway rescue potatoes

 

Still others wound up growing sideways under the plastic, requiring a complete excavation.

Excavation potatoes

 

Keep in mind, this is just the beginning of the preliminary vine pull, and all of these potatoes were pulled from the walkway only, not the frames. In fact, these all came from the walkway two rows over from where the sweet potatoes were originally planted. Before it started raining, I’d pulled a pile of vines and came away from about 10 pounds of potatoes that were useless – they’d heaved out of the walkway and were scalded by the sun, rained on then dried, or eaten into by critters – and sixteen pounds of usable potatoes just from one area of one part of one walkway.

CAM00460

 

This is going to be a banner year for the sweet potato haul, and that’s saying something as they’ve always done well here, even in poorer soil than this.

Progress on the asparagus front

Progress: three blocks cleared of asparagus and replanted in the new long row. There are two more 4x4s that need to be cleared – one is full of plants, the other sparsely populated, but between the two of them, they’ll likely fill a lot more of this row. The other asparagus bed, to the right of this one, is a 16×2, and I’ve decided instead of digging all that up, I’ll build a frame around it and year by year add more soil to it as it grows and we harvest, so the plants will force their way to the top and use the middle layers for rooting instead of the dense bottom where they’re punching through to the clay-like soil underneath (as that has no nutrients to speak of). Yes, that will be a bit of a long process, but farming teaches patience in a lot of ways. Once the remaining two 4x4s are cleared, I can finish off the first new N-S row, get it filled, then start on the next two in the same way.

I also decided that if I am crazy enough to expand again – if the CSA idea takes off, for instance – and we run more raised beds, we will not be hauling all the soil by hand. We’ll build out a row, and either with our own tractor (one day!) or a rented one, fill that row, then back out, build the next, fill it, etc., until it’s done. There is something to be said for the manual work of hauling all that soil, but it also takes quite a bit of time that could be spent on other things.

Asparagus!

Disappointing!

Every season, there is some kind of disappointment at the ranch. Sometimes, it is the entire season, like 2010, lost to cancer and surgery. Other times, it is low output, like 2012. This year, it was the tomatoes being flattened, although we still had a fairly good harvest, all things considered. This year’s major disappointment, however, is the bees: two swarms that were captured but did not stay, one swarm that was seen far too late to do anything about, one hive completely absconding without a trace of anything left. This afternoon, heading out to feed the bees, I tapped on the sides of the hives, and once again, it sound completely hollow on one and nearly so on another, so my fear is another hive absconded, and possibly two. I cannot for the life of me figure out why this would be. The state apiary inspector was here two months ago, and all four hives were just fine, and buzzing (no pun intended) with activity. Today, there is next to nothing in two of the hives. Tomorrow, if it’s slightly warmer and a lot less windy than today, I’ll go into the hives and see what’s left in each one. Hopefully, they’re all still home, just bundled into a ball against the chill. Otherwise, it will be yet another package order from a supplier – although perhaps it’s time to find another supplier, given the history of bees from this particular supplier.

Yes, it is a bit of food snobbery

There are lists with which I agree and those with which I don’t. I’m pretty much on the agree train with this one. A lot of the things on this list – corn pudding, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green bean casserole – are inherently Southern, and people around these parts would be peeved if they didn’t make an appearance. That said: as much as I love marshmallows, and as much as I like sweet potatoes, I do not like them together (especially since someone insists on putting raisins in the potatoes before warming the dish, which makes it even worse, since raisins are for fresh eating and Raisin Bran cereal, and have no place in buns, cookies, or mashed sweet potatoes regardless of whether they will be topped with marshmallows or not). The green bean casserole thing is also intensely Southern, but I’ve never liked it. Maybe it would be different with fresh beans and onions, but I’m at the point in life that I’d rather relearn my eating on stuff I actually like and not stuff that brings up bad notions about food. The canned cranberry sauce that glops out on a plate when you open it is an abomination, IMO. That’s why I make my own from fresh cranberries and other ingredients. And my own gravy, because the instant stuff is loaded with salt, making it unpalatable.

I realize it may come across as snobbish, and I know people who love all of these things. But that’s the beauty of something like food: as many things there are to eat in this world – including weird things that some people could never imagine being food – you can probably find someone who absolutely loves eating it. Especially if that someone is Andrew Zimmern.

Weeding and meditation

It seems like they are odd bedfellows, weeding and meditating. They aren’t really, and it’s just the sort of mindless chore that lends itself well to allowing your mind to drift, to let it seek out whatever might be puzzling you. In my case, a couple of plot points and if the sequence of events that I believe to be the right ones to go from chapter one to the end in the book I am not working enough on is correct – or at least workable.

Beyond that, it’s a good chance to see deep down and closely what’s happening in the garden. This season, now, we are heading into the couple of months where we will have a winter and the cover crops will kill off, while the leeks and carrots will soldier through and be ready to complete their growth by the time the soil and air warm enough to begin planting peas. It’s also easy to let yourself get ahead, to spring, making mental notes about what will be planted where, and when. But today, my friends…today the primary thought on my mind while pulling weeds was dingleberries.

People with pets (or certain livestock) know what dingleberries are: those are the pieces of poo stuck to the fur around the animal’s butt, which has to either be plucked off by hand or the area shaved. Why then, you ask, if I was pulling weeds, did I think of dingleberries?

The weeds seemed to have segregated themselves: plain old grass there, purslane hither, pigweed yon, and garden spurge and gripeweed – both of which I personally think should be renamed to “what the hell is this pain in the ass, invasive crap that can seemingly grow anywhere, even when other weeds cannot”, but that’s probably too long and would not translate into Latin well – everywhere. One row in particular, where the cukes had been, but where nothing had taken their place when they had exhausted themselves, was overrun with purslane, pigweed, spurge, and gripeweed. Despite that row not having been intentionally watered, the weeds were growing rather vigorously. I suspect these are weeds the Republicans would approve on, given their bootstrappy nature of overcoming poor situations and making their presence known. The simplest way to get them out was to trowel under them and lift with one hand – to make sure the root system would be plucked out as well – while pulling a bunch off them with the other hand. There is a great deal of cow poop in the soil mixture of the rows. It’s great stuff. But just like the plants I intentionally grew, the weeds love it too. And they show their love by rooting right into poop clumps, so when the weeds are extracted, roots and all, clinging to the roots: dingleberries. Like this:

Dingleberries
Dingleberries

Since we need to keep as much of the poop in the rows as possible, weeding then becomes a multistep process: trowel under them, pull them, then knock off as many of the dingleberries as possible. Toss the weeds into the bucket and move on. Repeat until the bucket is full and needs to be emptied in the bag. When the bag is full, tie it closed and smile, because you are keeping yard waste pickup crews employed. Prepare a new bag. Repeat the entire process.

In the end, what you have is a good day’s work, and progress on getting more rows prepped to hold cover crop seed – hopefully completing the rest of the rear garden by tomorrow, as we are expecting rain on Saturday if the forecast holds. The first row in this picture is the cover crop coming in.

The middle row in this picture is not weeds, as it happens. Those are the late planted tomatoes and peppers. Unfortunately, it appears I either lost that page of my notes or forgot to write down exactly what kind of one pepper was transplanted. They are robust, sturdy, thriving plants, heavy with fruit. I don’t have any earthly idea what type they may be (not bells, that much I know), but they’re beautiful.

Late season garden
Late season garden

 

 

Covering up

Cover crops? In frames, you say? Yes. Cover crops have been used for eons, to keep the soil friable for the next planting, to prevent soil erosion, to add organic material back into the soil, to act as a natural mulch, and as weed suppression – for no-till farmers, an essential part of maintaining and caring for the soil. Some no-till large scale farmers even plant their corn directly through the debris of the cover crops as they are cut down at the roots. For us, on a smaller scale, we are of course no-till – that would involve backbreaking turning of the the soil in each frame by the shovelful, and that prospect is not terribly exciting. We also have a huge weed problem here, because it is rarely cold enough for long enough to put the weed seeds out of commission. Plus, I’d prefer not to have to truck in loads of dirt and poop.

So, as we head into fall, I’m putting in cover crops in the frames, and they’ll get a foothold before the lower temps slow their growth. I’ve done two so far in the past few days, clearing the weeds, breaking up the soil, spreading the seed, scuffling up the soil a little to partially cover the seed so the birds don’t eat all of it, then relaying the irrigation lines in the frame. At the end, it’s nice and neat and looks like the photo.

Clean frame

In a few days, some of the mix will start germinating, and by the end of a week, all the the various seeds in the mix should be popping up. The only trick will be to make sure that none of it gets to the seed stage, as we don’t want it to reseed itself: just stay there long enough to grow into something that can be sheared off and left as mulch through which to put the transplants when they are ready to go (and hopefully to keep the weeds down). The mulch will eventually decompose, and be taken back into the soil to help get nutrients back into the mix.

Gardening: dangerous business

Who says gardening isn’t dangerous? In today’s episode, your intrepid farmer is on weed-pulling duties. While attempting to get a particularly large-based, firmly rooted stand of grass pulled, I was pulling back with both hand and all my weight (although, as my brother says, “all my weight” means something entirely different for me than for some other people) when the roots suddenly gave way with a giant rrrriiippp from the soil, sending me falling backwards. I wound up bracing myself with one hand, straining my wrist in the process. Luckily, it’s minor, with no swelling and just a bit of pain when I move it or grip in a certain way. I forged ahead, and today’s haul: four bags of weeds to go to the yard waste guys. So far. Those guys need to earn their paychecks!

Project weekend at the ranch

First thing this morning after the fog lifted, I headed out to the bees to check them and take some frames. In two of the new hives, I found the queen pretty quickly, and they are motoring along just fine. In the third new hive, there were a LOT of bees. And they were not happy when I disturbed them by popping off the inner cover. Unfortunately, I could not keep my smoker lit for some reason, and all the pine needles out there were wet from yesterday’s rain – I’m going to have to keep a bucket of pine needles in the shed just for that. In any case, I did not spot the queen on my short trip into that hive, but there are more bees now than the last time, so I figure she’s there. I popped open established hive #2, and they were also not very happy, but I took three frames from them anyway and replaced them with empty frames. Then I dragged all my equipment on the wagon from the orchard to the garage. I can see a golf cart sort of vehicle in our future here. People may ask, why not use the tractor? It’s very loud, and the vibrations from it would disturb the bees, making them even more difficult to deal with when the hive is open.

After bringing in the frames, we had to let those wait until the afternoon, since Gabs and the monkeyboy would not be available to test out our new equipment in the morning. So, I got started on the first framing for a compost tumbler.

Cutting wood for frames

Make the Ts for the sides.

Crossing the T

Stand it up, measure 17″ from the top to drill a hole to slide the rod through.

A standing T

Drill the holes in each side T, the drill out a hole on either side of the barrel. Slide the rod through, adding the PVC bushing (outside the barrel), locknut and threaded PVC connector (inside the barrel) on either side, and slide the rod through the other T stand. Put the lid on, and presto! Tumbling composter.

Tumbling composter

I added a bracing board at the bottom to connect the two uprights for stability and strength, and trimmed the conduit on either side. The rod holes in the barrel are slightly above center, to make sure that the top part is always upright when the spinning stops. I also drilled a series of small air holes on either side of the barrel: three evenly spaced holes in each of the rings you see there on the barrel. It’s high enough on the frame that when the compost is ready to come out, a wheelbarrow will fit nicely under it so it can be dumped and shoveled out very easily.

Tumbling

 

It’s not terrifically heavy, but it’s heavy enough to withstand the types of storms we get around here. This was the first one, and it took less than an hour. The second one, however, took forever, and involved much cursing: the board that formed the uprights was, for whatever reason, one of those boards that seems to be impervious to drilling. I wound up with half screws and half nails in that one, because it was such a massive pain in the ass. But that is done as well, and now we have one, and Gabs can take one home. Then I’ll have to build another one or two for us here at the ranch, as we have plenty of stuff that needs to be composted.