Organic Gardening with Sue Robishaw
Miscellaneous Thoughts, Ideas,
Discoveries and Projects
Questions & Answers & Notes
(or any gardening thing that doesn't fit
Four decades of Growing
in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
August 16, 2020 - Alarm in the Buckwheat
A week or so ago I noticed the last patch of buckwheat was starting to phase from flower to seed so it was time to cut it down. I often grow buckwheat whenever I have an empty bed or patch for green manure or mulch. Letting it flower allows the pollinators to enjoy it (though they've been very sparse this year) and it's quite attractive. If I don't cut it well before it goes to seed I end up with buckwheat "weeds" next year. I'd already taken care of two earlier patches. (I usually do this with the scythe but as the space was tight I tried our Greenworks battery hedger which worked surprising well, even though I had to run it on my knees.)
So I put it on my mental list to get to this bed of buckwheat soon. But about the same time I became aware of some persistent chipping when I was in that area of the garden. This was more strident and intense than the common chip-chirp of the Chipping Sparrows. Then I saw who it was - a male Indigo Bunting was directing his chips at me from a perch on top of the buckwheat. He didn't fly away, but moved next door to the corn, watching me, and chitting, the whole time. The next few days it became apparent that something serious was going on here. Not only did I often have the male chipping at me but I realized there were alarm-chirps coming from within the buckwheat patch. Then I saw the male and female emerge together to perch nearby. So, no question about it now; there will be no cutting down of the buckwheat patch, at least not for awhile. Are they nesting in there? It seems a bit late but with the unusual weather extremes of this year there really is no "normal" and it does appear that they've chosen that spot for an August event of some sort.
The male is so attractive amongst the white mass of buckwheat blossoms so when I saw him there again I ran back to the house to get the camera. He usually sticks around for some time. But when I came back both the male and female were off nearby fussing loudly at someone else. When I came back into the garden the male flew over to a nearby nest box to check me out, staying long enough for a photo op before going back to help his partner chase off whoever else they were upset about.
Thankfully for their peace of mind I'm not spending a lot of time in the garden right now. I haven't seen, or heard, the male the last few days so maybe his guard duty has eased off, or he's decided I'm not that much of a threat. I've heard some chirps from the buckwheat patch and have seen the female briefly so I assume all is well. Meantime, I walk/work gently around that area when I'm out there and wish the Indigo Buntings the best weather for their new family.
August 1, 2019 - For Thee and the Bee
I spend a fair amount of time searching and reading, planning and planting specifically for the pollinators, thinking that as I add more and more fruit that I'm counting on them to pollinate I should be adding special extras for their enjoyment and use. This is fine, and they do make use of these gifts, but they also often remind me by their actions that they are quite capable of taking care of themselves with what is already there. I do know this, it's quite obvious as our homestead is blessed with a wide and generous variety of wildflowers, and many a blossoming tree is loud with buzzing during peak time. But our pollinator population has definitely dropped. Only bumble bees seem to be in good supply, or maybe they are just the most obvious. But flowers are being pollinated, fruit and seed is being produced, nature is doing the job that nature does. There are ups and downs in all things.
And it is the plants that I didn't plant for the pollinators that remind me that all is well in spite of my fussing and mild worry. The Wild Bergamot I didn't have much hand in. Early on, maybe the late 80's, I noticed this pretty lavender flower up by the gate at the end of our road. I transplanted a little clump into the edge of the front yard wild area. They have grown there ever since, expanding some though not much, losing themselves in the surrounding vegetation until they flower and they get their well deserved attention, from the bees and us.
Some years ago more Wild Bergamots showed up by the garden gate, to our delight. We marked those few beginners so we wouldn't mow them and they responded by spreading into a really nice patch, along with a growing population of Black Eyed Susans, apparently enjoying each others company. They are a pleasing welcome to the garden, loved by the bees and other pollinators (and us), and with no assistance from me.
The buckwheat in the garden, on the other hand, does get my help by being planted wherever there is a spot not being used by vegetables. Since it will happily self seed (and does in spite of my management) in a way it doesn't need me either. But being in the garden proper I require it to keep in its place, though I'm pretty lax and often let volunteers grow here and there. I initially started planting buckwheat for green manure - to grow and be cut down for mulch and extra nutrition as it breaks down. It grows easily and produces a lot of matter. But when it flowers it's obvious it has an even bigger purpose - it's there for the pollinators, and they are there for it. It is one very popular flower! And by a variety of insects. The "fragrance" of the flowers won't win it any awards by humans, on the contrary being downwind causes wrinkled noses (and visitors might look quickly at their shoes to see if they stepped in something they shouldn't have) but no matter, the prolific buzzing coming from the patch wins all. There certainly are showier and more touted "bee flowers" but I doubt there are many more popular to the bees than the rather humble buckwheat.
December 3, 2018 - Thinking Green
It's been a particularly cloudy November heading into December. Though colder than usual the lack of sun isn't unusual for this time of year. We get rather excited and instantly cheerful when the rare sun does show, as it did for a good ten minutes today! Not only for spirits but also for that fully appreciated solar boost to our batteries. We take the days, and weather, as it comes without complaint; happy to have some sun, happy to have some snow (even if it's only about 4" thus far), happy to be living here. I like winter. But when I came across this photo from a beautiful August day this summer I found myself gazing at it overlong, melting into the feeling of that green warmth. Steve was, of course, warmer than I was that day as he was doing the work while I stood back and appreciated what he was doing. Mostly the garden and orchard are my domain but he gets involved for special projects, like this one.
Several years ago I decided there had to be an easier way to keep the surrounding vegetation out of the garden beds. We'd tried many things over the years - mulch, carpeting, tilling, hoeing - all OK but too temporary and not particularly satisfying. I wondered about concrete pavers. We checked what was available in the simple and inexpensive line and decided to try it. Steve agreed to the job (much neater than if I'd have done it) and did the west, east and half the south borders of the 50' x 70' garden last year. It worked well and I liked it. For sure some grass roots do find their way under but not many. I was a bit afraid it might look too formal for my very 'down to earth' garden/orchard but it would take more than a neat line of pavers to make this area formal. They fit in surprisingly well. Most important, I no longer feel like I'm fighting vegetation. My garden is a wonderfully peaceful area full of joy. I like it that way and the pavers are helping.
This year Steve did the north border. Almost complete! He couldn't finish the south border because the squash was growing there and vigorously spreading out onto the surrounding vegetation, both in and out of the garden. It was a great year for the squash! It loved the long hot summer and made the most of it. Next year Steve will have to get the remaining pavers in before it starts growing.
August 27, 2018 - Magic!
Our world is full of magic and magical moments which we don't always notice, but sometimes they are so right in front of you that you can't miss them. This was one such. A few weeks ago we saw that a Monarch chrysalis had appeared on the overhead metal evestrough right over our front door. So beautiful and delicate looking. The main door swings in which was fine, but the screen door brushed the chrysalis as it opened setting the pretty green decoration gently swinging. So off came the screen door.
We didn't know how long it would take for the butterfly to emerge but chose not to 'look it up', just enjoy it. The last days we'd noticed the chrysalis darkening so knew something would be happening soon. I was concerned that there wasn't anything near by for the emerged butterfly to grab, if it indeed needed anything. Maybe not, but I put up a small branch just in case.
When I stepped outside before breakfast today I saw an oval spot of monarch wing color and pattern on the side of the chrysalis. Today was the magical day! After breakfast I carefully opened the door to find the fully emerged beautiful butterfly holding onto its thin (but strong!) empty case. Wow!! It was a cloudy and windy day. I'd often watched butterflies in the garden sitting on a plant in the sun slowly working their new wings but there was no sun today. Maybe later. But it wasn't time to work those wings yet. Thankfully it was warm.
I checked on her often during the morning as I cut up tomatoes to can. It appeared she was trying to get a better hold as the wind rocked her back and forth but the metal trough didn't give any purchase. So I carefully clamped a soft plant stem beside her. She wrapped a leg around it and settled back down. I went back inside. It was taking a long time to get the tomatoes cut up.
Finally, tomatoes done and on the stove, I headed out to the garden to pick lunch. Came back to find her on the wooden door frame, gently rocked by the wind and carefully opening and closing those new wings. Being overly concerned I saw some spider web strands nearby and carefully removed them, getting too close for comfort I'd guess. So off she flew, several small low circles then one large sweep above the house and yard, and into the nearby trees. Away from the gusty wind and away from the meddlesome woman. Wow!! doesn't quite describe it but I was so thankful to be there to watch her first flight. Maybe in celebration I'll pick up another late blooming on-sale plant somewhere. A possible little treat for our beautiful flying resident(s).
August 18, 2018 - Wildlife Co-workers
Conversations with other gardeners tend often to veer at some point towards the 'wildlife bandits and outlaws' -- those creatures whose desire and search for a good meal (or maybe just a good time!) are often in conflict with the gardener's own desires for a good harvest. Over the years I've come to terms with all the varied wildlife we share this part of the world with, and generally enjoy them (a good fence helps!). They get some of ours, we get some of theirs, and overall it's a peaceful co-existence. But this year was a bit more of a challenge, thanks to the over-abundance (in our opinion) of voles. When the snow melted this spring we had the most amazing network of runs in the grass that I've ever seen (or ever hope to see again!). And I understood why we had a Barred Owl move in and stay around all winter. It saw it often in the garden and orchard. I thought it was because of the logging around us. But I'm pretty sure now that it was because of the great food supply.
Thankfully, most of my trees and bushes had hardware cloth barriers so my losses due to vole damage wasn't as bad as it could have been, and many things have recovered/regrown over the summer. The wild shrubs, trees, brambles - anything that could be chewed and eaten - had a great deal of 'thinning out', too. I bought more hardware cloth and set in to make sure ALL of my plantings are protected for this winter. I wasn't concerned about summer months because the voles pretty much are eating grass and such, not bark.
But then about every time I went out to the compost pile I had a vole or two run in or out of it, almost across my feet. That was just going too far. It was obvious they had set up a vole housing complex in my compost pile. So I got out some wooden mouse live traps Steve had made many years ago, and started catching voles - one almost every morning, and I'd take what became a routine walk to a far section of our property and release them. I certainly didn't mind the walk, but after several months the three traps (made for indoor use) were looking pretty rough, and I was getting tired of transporting voles (and cleaning the traps). Plus they were eating my red ripe peppers and cherry tomatoes. It was time to get serious about clearing this community out. I knew I wouldn't get all voles out of the garden/orchard area (there are plenty of fields around for new ones to move in from) but I needed to get this population down. So soon I had 6 new purchased plastic vole/mouse live traps in place, baited with the the best (well, cheapest) peanut butter. I was ready.
First morning - no voles. Second morning - no voles. Third, fourth. Well this was irritating. I supposed I could have gotten them all, though somehow I didn't think so. Maybe the didn't like the peanut butter. Maybe they didn't like the traps. Then the fifth day I was making my rounds checking the traps and there in the middle of the path, near one of the traps was a small scat. Mmmm. Could it be? I came in, looked up in our "Animal Tracks" book (which includes scat drawings), and yep, there it was -- a weasel. A weasel had moved in and cleared out the voles. This wasn't too much of a surprise - there had been weasel tracks this past winter by the compost pile (along with owl wing prints). It had simply come back for some more good eating. I hope it sticks around this winter.
I picked up my new traps and put them away. The weasel is much better at vole control than I am.
August 2, 2018 -- Abundance and Absence
Life is so wonderfully full, especially in the summer! There is so much going on to share with you and so little time to do the sharing. I know we'll catch up come winter and I expect your lives are equally full so just a few photos and words to let you know we're still here and enjoying the abundance of summer. Food certainly, and the garden is feeding us very well! But there is so much more.
Populations rise and fall naturally with the years and usually adjust themselves without any attention from us but we do tend to mostly notice the extremes of the peaks and valleys. Here on the homestead this past year has been a record high for voles (and I'm sincerely hoping they are on the downswing now -- at least in the garden and orchard. But I'm sure there are those who are happy with the abundance, such as the resident Barred owl, weasel, coyotes, fox, and our own LilliB.) Equally noticeable has been the unusually low population of flying insects, which means a low population of birds who depend on those insects for food. We miss having so many birds -- but we haven't missed AT ALL the usual abundance of black flys and mosquitoes. We do have birds, just not as many. Some, like the trees swallows, simply came, checked things out, and went elsewhere where the food was more plentiful (I'm guessing), though they stayed around long enough to harass the bluebirds for awhile. Some just didn't show up, like the sparrows and juncoes. Others it seems we have just one family instead of several families - robins, bluebirds, hummingbirds, gold finches, wrens, chickadees, indigo buntings, catbirds, cedar waxwings, and the hard working friendly co-gardeners Chipping Sparrows. And others. Life wouldn't be much without the birds. I don't even mind sharing some fruit with them (well, within reason!) (my reason, of course, not theirs).
But the other big absence has been pollinators -- the many kinds of bees, wasps, hornets, others. And butterflies, too. Since their numbers are so down it's a special joy to see them busily supping at the variety of flowers this time of year. I'm happy that what I'm growing in the garden and orchard is popular, from dill flowers to catnip, each with their own admirers. And with much sharing between species, like the fritillary and bee on the echinacea. Now, personally, I think the Campfire Rose (above) is much more attractive and catches my eye every time I walk in the garden, but I don't often see insects on those flowers. While the very understated small hardly noticably flowered (but prolific and quickly overgrown!) catnip is always humming with many busy bumbles the moment the first flowers appear and is never without attendance. So I allow too many to grow in the garden, brush by carefully as it grows with abandon into the paths, and weed out the many progeny.
But there are also many flowers that both the pollinators and us enjoy and I'm having a good time adding to the mix. Most are wildflowers such as the Purple Coneflower, and some are imports that wouldn't survive without the gardener's help. We all enjoy them each in our own way and every time I see a "bee" working diligently on flowers tiny or large I marvel at their ways. It makes the flowering time of year so very special.
Starting Seeds - February 26, 2018
MISCELLANEOUS QUESTIONS I'VE RECEIVED (and ANSWERED)
GROWING GRAINS -- I am interested if it is possible to grow and mill my own alternative grains (sorghum, millet, etc). Is it possible or worth it?
In our early years on our homestead I tried growing a number of grains for flour but found that it took a lot of space to grow enough to amount to much, and it was quite time consuming to thresh out even the easiest grains by hand and to winnow them clean. Grains in general aren't that hard to grow -- I think we grew, in addition to wheat -- rye, barley, naked oats, millet (the birds loved it), amaranth (didn't make it to maturity in our climate but it was beautiful). But it certainly can be done. For any quantity a good grass scythe is almost a must, though for small quantities grass shears work. Field corn is by far the easiest grain for the homestead (if you happen to be in a short season area Painted Mountain is a very good choice). I'd highly recommend Gene Logsdon's book -- "Small Scale Grain Raising -- An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing and using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers" -- which I see has been reissued (my well worn and falling apart copy is over thirty years old and still a wonderful resource). It's available from the Countryside Bookstore and other sources.
SEED SAVING -- It is the gathering of seed for next year's crop that is presenting me with problems. I find a lack of sources of information on how to tell when plants are "going to seed" and how to get the seed from the plant for things like Brussels sprouts, lettuces and other greens, onions, carrots and others.
I have been saving my own seed for many years and some vegetables are quite easy while others have more complex needs. The best source of information I have found on home seed saving, and one I highly recommend, is the book "Seed to Seed" by Suzanne Ashworth. I wish the book had been around when I first started! It is a great resource and should get you going the right direction. Some seed can be grown and saved in a small garden but many of the crops require more space and plants. It's fun to grow what you can though. Thankfully, good seed is available from many very good seed companies and is not very expensive so even if you can't grow your own you can obtain good seed.
SEED SOURCE -- We have 15 or so seed catalogues, heirloom and otherwise, but we cannot find the lettuce, tomato and pepper seeds you mention in your article. Could you tell us where you got those seeds? --Nancy from Canada
Seed companies change their line-up regularly so it's often hard to find a particular variety -- this is why I save seed of my favorites, though I've found that there are so many other good varieties available that it's not much of a problem. Many of the varieties I grow came originally from growers listed in the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook and are often not available commercially. I don't now recall exactly what I mentioned but you might try Kathleen Pluncket-Black's "Plum Creek Seeds" -- she sells a number of varieties not generally available. I've also had good luck with Fedco. In the past I've ordered from many of the companies listed on my Seed Sources page (see above left menu for link) and been happy with them. I don't order many seeds now since I grow most of my own.
PLANTING FLATS -- What
is the bottom of your planter? Plywood? Do you drill holes? Maybe a screen
Yes, the flats are homemade, and I've used both solid wood and plywood for the
bottoms. I drill maybe 8 holes for drainage but they are as likely to drain out
the edges as out the holes. They both work and do rot out eventually. If the
sides are still good, I just replace the bottoms. I usually put a layer of
newspaper on the bottom before adding the dirt which I think helps them last
longer. Here is a description from the Greenhouse article in the March 2010
issue of "Countryside Magazine":
POTATO SEED -- I have been planting certified seed potatoes in containers for about three years. I have a couple of plants with some seed-bearing fruit. I would like to try planting these seeds to see what varieties turn up. How and when do I harvest the seeds? And how do Ikeep them until next spring when they will be planted? --Jan from Alaska
It's fairly easy to harvest and save potato seed. Let the seed balls ripen --
they will turn from green to a pale tan or whitish, from hard to soft, not
unlike tomatoes. Mash them up together in a container such as a glass to
ferment. you may have to add a little water since they tend to be quite dry. Let
them ferment about three days, stirring once or twice a day. They will develop a
mold and probably smell (I don't remember on the potato seed but I know tomatoe
seeds fermenting do). The fermenting apparently destroys some possible diseases
and it breaks down the sac around the seed.
QUEEN ANNES LACE FLOWERS -- Is the
Queen Anne`s Lace you speak of the same as the dried version they use in flower
arrangements? I love the smell, and have been trying to find some to grow and
dry for my own use. None of the seed catalogs I get have it listed. Maybe it is
not a good thing to have around. --Ila from central
CAT GRASS SAVER -- When I mentioned in an article my cats lounging in (and flattening) the flat of grass I plant for them for winter grazing, Dave from Michigan sent his solution which works great:
He staples a piece of hardware cloth on the top of the flat; the grass grows up through but when the cats walk and lay down on the grass the plants are somewhat protected and survive much better. I happened to have a piece of hardware cloth in a frame (which is usually used on the vent between greenhouse and house when I want to keep the cats out of the greenhouse). I set it on the cat-grass-flat and the cats were able to graze at will but weren't inclined to lounge on it, thereby making the grass (actually mixed grains) much happier and healthier.
TOMATO RACKS -- Are the tomato supports in the photo permanent or do they move with your tomatoes? -- Heather in New Windsor
I do usually plant my tomatoes in the same plot each year but the wooden racks are portable. I often change my mind about what I want where, plus the tomatoes start the season in cold frames. When the frosts seem to be over (or the tomatoes are outgrowing the cold frames) they come off and the rack goes on. It's a simple affair made of wood we had on hand and suits the semi-determinant tomatoes I grow. [see photos above]
ROTATING CROPS -- I've always read that you should rotate crops but in your article you indicate you don't. Why not? -- Karen
As in so many cases, I think there is some truth to the idea of rotating in some
cases but it got repeated again and again until it became a hard rule for all
with little questioning of why. It's been my experience that insects are very
capable of moving from one row to another to get to their favorites! Nature only
"rotates" occasionally and the trees, plants, bushes generally live a healthy
life, building up their own balanced ecosystems and that is what I strive to
imitate in my garden. There ARE times when I rotate, usually for convenience of
fitting the pieces of my plantings together (I'm always changing something),
sometimes for weed control (putting thickly mulched crops such as potatoes or
tomatoes in a weedy spot to clean up that area), and occasionally for a problem
such as root maggots in carrots. Though I'm not sure location matters as much as
timing. My tomatoes the last few years have died rather early of blight (though
the tomatoes also ripened early because of that so this may not be a "problem"
in my very short season!) so I'm thinking of changing the tomato and bean plots.
Maybe that will help.
POTATO HARVEST -- I planted potatoes in my garden and they are growing but when do I harvest them? -- Mary
Potatoes can be dug to eat whenever they are a size you want to eat them. If you are careful you can dig around with your hand to pull out a few of the larger ones and leave the smaller ones to continue growing, usually about the time the plant is flowering. For storage they are dug after frost in fall after the plants have died down and the skins on the potatoes have firmed up (can't be easily rubbed off).
PUMPKIN SEED DRYING -- I'm interested in drying/saving
pumpkin seeds for next years planting. Is this covered in your web site? Unable
to locate it there and wish you might suggest a procedure.
--Tom from Michigan
GARDEN SIZE -- My husband and I are selling
our home in NH and looking for a few acres and a small house in Maine where we
plan to raise as much of our food as possible. I have previously grown, canned
and frozen food for winter consumption, but that was some many years ago and
really wasn't enough to be considered self-sufficient. Is there a simple way to
size a vegetable garden for two people other than actually trying to figure
yield per plant, etc.,? If there is a general rule of thumb, i'd love to hear
it. --Linda, moving from New Hampshire to Maine
COMFREY FLOWERS, LEAVES -- Should I cut the flower stalks of my comfrey plants (which are growing very well!), and how can I use the leaves? --Sandy
You don't have to cut the flowers off the plants -- they are quite hardy and you really don't have to pamper them at all. You can use the leaves for whatever you want to -- tea, animal feed, healing, mulch. It's a wonderfully versatile plant.
HEIRLOOM PEPPER VARIETIES
I only grew Vinedale a few years as I found another that did better in my garden (Georgescu -- a vigorous plant, large blocky yellow from NJ CA J), and I didn't maintain the Vinedale. Meantime, I've tried a number of peppers since as I continually had some rot in the Geogescu's (but they did well other than that). I found two that were more reliable here -- Sunshine (large green variable bell and non-bell with a thinner wall, turns yellow-orange early) (IN BL S '00); and Red Belgium (earliest, thick walled, mild, light yellow non-bell, smaller plant, turns bright red) (MI FL J '00). Getting some rot in Sunshine as well, so I've decided to stick with Red Belgium. I also occasionally grow a hot pepper that came originally from Johnny's many years ago, since dropped -- Caliente Hot Pepper. You have reminded me how much I enjoy the "other part" -- experimenting with varieties, searching out the histories and stories behind them, and the sharing.
Copyright © Susan Robishaw
appreciate links to our site www.ManyTracks.com from appropriate sites, and we thank you for
Have you read "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.
or "Homesteading Adventures" Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.
and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun" A journey you can use in your own garden.