Greengirls Helen Yarmoska, Nicole Hvidsten, Martha Buns, Connie Nelson, Kim Palmer and Mary Jane Smetanka are dishin' the dirt from the back-yard garden and beyond. Whether you're a greenthumb or greenhorn, they're eager to learn from your mishaps, mistakes - and most importantly, your sweet successes - all growing season long.
Each spring nesting birds claim their territory, often in the same yard as the year before, even after months away on migration. I feel like I’m the same way with the garden, each year having to reclaim it after months of hibernation when the only back-yard forays were to tromp through crusty snow to the composter.
With the delayed spring, it seems even longer since the yard was “ours,” and the other denizens of our space behave like they have squatter’s rights for having braved out the winter there. Squirrels act as though they’ve secured drilling rights and are trying to dig for oil under every single coral bell. Rabbits clearly found plenty to eat in our yard, sampling anything that wasn’t cordoned off. On the plus side, they saved me the task of trimming back a wayward spirea (which might make it easier to dig up and bring to the May 18 plant swap...) . On the down side, the rabbits treated our raised beds and brick pathways as a latrine. Not my favorite spring cleanup job.
It isn’t just the year-round wildlife that looks at us as though we’ve crashed their pad. I caught a brief glint of red in a trellis not far from our garage door a few weeks ago and realized it was a female cardinal, giving me the stink-eye from her nest in the tangle of last year’s clematis leaves. Since that clematis is the kind that comes back on old growth, I hadn’t bothered to remove the leaves last fall, leaving an attractive nuisance for our returning cardinals. We traveled the long way around the house for a week, trying to avoid disturbing Mama cardinal any more than necessary. Luckily, they apparently fledge in just a few weeks, and it will take me at least that long to clean up other garden areas.
Fauna isn't the only thing trying to take over our yard; green grass shoots are thriving in garden plots, blurring the lines of what's yard and what's not. So far I’ve pulled enough leaves and debris off the garden that I’m starting to reclaim its shape. The pathways look like they go somewhere again.
Now to reclaim our raised beds from the bunnies. Even the area protected by netting has turned into bunny heaven, since late last fall a tiny rabbit found it could chew a hole just big enough to give him access to a prime salad bar. Over the winter, the hole was enlarged enough to be the equivalent of a rabbit freeway entrance, so reinforcements need to be deployed. I'm now searching for the best way to do something attractive with chicken wire.
What's your favorite way to protect plants? Or do you just decide to share and share alike with the wildlife in your yard? That's why I plant twice as many tomato plants as I should need, so when the squirrels take half, we get the rest.
This year, I've learned: That fancy-pants small animal barrier I bought isn't rabbit-proof. It did last until late August before the baby bunny chewed an entrance and exit hole on opposite sides of the netting surrounding the raised bed. The upshot: Better barriers are on the drawing board for next year, the trick being to devise something strong enough to ward off sharp rabbit teeth but attractive enough to not detract from the looks of the back yard.
This year, I've relearned: You only need one kale plant to feed two people, even if you freeze lots of it. Actually you only need half a kale plant to feed two people it it's the four-foot monster out back, but they don't come in halves. The upshot: I'll make sure to pass along three of the four-pack at next year's plant sale.
This year, I've learned: Watering systems aren't forever. Rascally rodents have done a number on parts of our labyrinth of soaker hoses. The upshot: A trip to the garden supply store is in order for replacement parts. No idea how to deter the pests from trying again, but I'll ponder that in the off season while I'm devising ways to keep them out of my raised beds.
This year I've relearned: The names of some of my plants. I've had a bad habit of planting something obscure and then obscuring (or losing) the ID tag. This year I went back through my receipts and mapped out where the unknown plants were, consolidating my records so I can refer to them again. The upshot: A little bit of inside organization can help you outside.
This year I've relearned: Standard tomato cages just don't bear up under the weight. At some point, I inevitably come home to find an avalanche has occurred and prop up the works with something less than esthetically pleasing. The upshot: I've been googling rebar tomato cages. It's time for industrial strength reinforcement.
Sometimes I do internalize the garden lessons from the previous season. This year I managed to follow through on a lesson from last year: Just because a tomato volunteers some place doesn't mean you have to let it grow there.
What has your garden taught you?
Swiss chard can be a tough sell for some kids, but to the denizens of my back yard, it's apparently a delicacy.
I had thought originally slugs were the culprits making inroads on the chard leaves, although the leaves were more shredded than usual. Then I read Val Cunningham's birding column in which a reader noticed a goldfinch stripping the leaves off the chard: www.startribune.com/lifestyle/homegarden/168494206.html. She reports that goldfinches are nicknamed the "lettuce finch" because of their fondness for young greens. Apparently they not only strip it right down to the veins, but they poke holes in the leaves, too.
While for some reason I'm more willing to share my chard with pretty little finches than ugly fat slugs, I originally dismissed the idea, because I hadn't seen goldfinches any closer to our home than a few blocks away along the creek. Until I noticed the flitting dart of yellow in a neighbor's yard two houses down, that is. Well, I was still somewhat forgiving, as there's only so much Swiss chard one can consume, and that just means less I have to process into soups in the fall when frost presents a deadline.
But I was decidedly less forgiving when I chanced upon a rabbit sitting in the raised bed, calmly munching away on chard and kale leaves, consuming them wholesale. Since this discovery came the day after finding that the busy bunnies had chewed a hole in the thick netting that had been keeping them out of another raised bed, I gave the rabbit a speedy escort off the property before heading to the store for more stakes and netting.
Now I'm channeling my inner Mr. McGregor, and I'm busy devising sturdier defenses of produce for next season. It's either that or I have to plant enough for all of us.
What's eating your garden? Have you ever been visited by the "lettuce finch"?
This time last year, a lot of gardeners -- me included -- were grumbling about tomatoes. There weren't very many, they were hard and green, and they seemed to be growing at a glacial pace.
The 2011 crop was so disappointing that my fellow Greengirl Mary Jane Smetanka even wrote a Page 1 story about it: "Too hot, too cold, too bad for tomatoes." (http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/homegarden/126895018.html)
Not this year! I have nothing to gripe about -- at least on the tomato front. My cherry tomatoes started turning red and golden yellow more than a month ago, and I've been happily plucking and eating a couple every day ever since.
My Roma tomatoes are now flushing red, too. And I seem to have healthir tomatoes this year, with lush leaves, few pests and virtually no end rot.
Last week, I harvested my biggest yield for a single day -- ever -- 18 tomatoes of various sizes, shapes and hues. Not bad, considering I have about 10 plants and they're all in pots on my deck.
Everything in the garden happened early this year, thanks to a weirdly warm spring. But while my tomatoes seem early, at least compared to last year, they're right on schedule: mid-July through September, according to the Minnesota Harvest calendar. (http://www.pickyourown.org/MNharvestcalendar.htm)
What's happening with your tomatoes? Are you harvesting more than usual? And what's your favorite way to eat them?
The invasion has landed -- and is devouring our landscapes. I'm talking Japanese beetles, those voracious pests that make their presence all-too-known in mid-July.
A few months ago, there was some speculation in the plant world that this could be a worse-than-usual year for Japanese beetles because of the early spring and mild winter. Now that they're here and munching, that definitely seems to be the case, at least in my yard.
Japanese beetles started invading my space a few years ago, right after I planted a little contorted filbert tree. In no time at all, it was covered with beetles who turned its leaves into lace doilies. I'm pesticide-averse, so I didn't do much those first few growing seasons. Besides, the beetles were so enamored of the filbert tree that they largely avoided my few rose bushes.
This year, it's another story. The beetles are munching all over my yard, and it isn't pretty. In addition to the filbert tree, they've decimated my roses and a patch of Virginia creeper. I even found a few on canna in pots on my second-story deck, a refuge they've never invaded before.
I knocked those beetles into a pan of hot soapy water, then threw them down the garbage disposal. But the battalions of beetles below, in my garden, would take full-time surveillance to combat manually.
We did try an application of milky spore to the bare patch in my lawn where the beetles appear to be laying their eggs and spawning their larvae. But that will take several seasons to have any impact on the beetle population, I'm told.
I don't want to go the pesticide route, but I may weaken.
The University of Minnesota Extension Service has a lot of good information about Japanese beetles on its website, http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/dg7664.html
What's going on in your yard re: Japanese beetles? Worse than usual? About the same? Or do they leave you alone?
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