I’m pretty excited about my grapes.

This is the first year I have gotten any grapes on my vines, and although I don’t expect to actually get to eat any of them, between the Japanese beetles and the birds, not to mention the various diseases that grapes are prone to, I am still excited to see actual fruit forming on the vines that are growing over the arbor across my front walk.

My friend Frank Miranti, who was a gifted gardener and a generous person, gave me the cuttings early one spring after he had pruned his own well-established vines, and he wrote me a detailed email explaining how to care for them. He told me I should start by planting the whole bundle of cuttings together and let them send down their roots. He likely gave me a complicated formula of minerals and fertilizers to give them a good start. The next year I was to choose the 3-4 strongest and transplant them to where I wanted them to grow. That year he said  I should just let the vines grow straight up, tying them to a string or some sort of support as they grew higher. The third year I was to determine what training system I wanted to follow and begin pruning the grapes, but his email said at that point he would just come over to my house and show me what to do. Unfortunately, by the time the vines were ready to be trained to a trellis or a fence, my dear friend Frank had died unexpectedly in his sleep.

Since Frank was no longer here to give advice, last year I went to a workshop and tour at Les Bourgeois Winery and learned just enough about viticulture to be even more impressed with Frank’s ability to grow grapes without resorting to a bunch of chemical sprays and fertilizers. I still haven’t actually pruned my vines (maybe next year), and I am this week fighting off an infestation of Japanese beetles and fretting over what appears to be some kind of fungus, but I consider the small green fruits a form of success. I hope Frank would have agreed.


WTF–The Year is Half Over

We’re not even going to talk about the last blog post, where I went on and on about my New Year’s Resolutions and how I was going to get organized and accomplish amazing things. But the good thing about resolutions is that you can make them any time. You can always start over. The first of every year, every season, every month, every week, every day, even every hour you can decide once again to pay attention and do those things you meant to do. Today is as good as any day.

For the longest time I couldn’t understand why my dad, after being away at sea for 18 months at a time, would never ask upon his return what my brother and I had been doing while he was gone and never told us what he had seen and done. Instead he would act as though he had just stepped out of the room for a minute and would talk about Right Now, and How About Them Tigers, and Did You Get a Look at That Car and Looks Like It’s Going to Be Another Scorcher. Eventually I figured out that if you spend all your time trying to recover a past you never shared, you miss out on what’s happening now.

I don’t know what it’s been like where you live, but here in the Midwest, every growing thing has been about a month early this year, which only adds to the sense that time is slipping by in a frightening way. The daffodils were fading by mid-March. The strawberries had a brief moment of glory not too long after. The corn is by now way past knee high and we still have another two weeks before the Fourth of July. Peaches are already ripe. We picked blueberries two weeks ago and put them in bags in the freezer. And all this with no rain to speak of. We did have a good rain the last weekend of April and then nothing for six weeks, until last week when it rained almost an inch, and all the gardeners were ecstatic.

With everything coming on so early, by the time we were able to pick up new queen bees in late April, the main honey flow was already over, and we’re beginning to wonder if we will be able to harvest any honey this year. But we’re taking one day at a time, and we have established a most satisfactory routine.

On Sunday afternoons about 4:00 or 5:00, we head out of town to the apiaries to check on our bees.  This year we have five hives in two different locations: two hives that wintered over and three brand new hives that we made from splits from the established hives. Both bee yards are on land belonging to friends. The established hives near the well-manicured University farms are having some trouble finding enough nectar this year, but the new hives, which are down by the river, where things are a bit wilder, are next to a large field of clover and are drawing out beautiful white comb and filling the cells with light honey.

After checking each hive and marveling at the amazing bees, we head down to Coopers Landing, where we listen to live music, eat Thai food, visit with friends, and watch the sun set over the river.

Pippa and friends playing some old-time music at Coopers Landing.

Memorial Day Weekend

I planted these roses years ago because they reminded me of the climbing roses my grandaddy grew on the fence surrounding his vegetable garden in Georgetown.

Amazing how fast a three-day weekend can go. Yesterday was warm and sunny and breezy. I spent a fair amount of time writing and waiting for my son Matt to come online, which he did around 3:00, but he has not been talkative lately. One of his friends last week stepped on an IED in Kandahar province, where they have been deployed for the last year, and got both his legs blown off. His name is Gregg, but I don’t know any more about him, how close he was to Matt, what his rank is, what job he was assigned, where he is from, where he is now, whether he is married or has children, whether Matt was nearby when it happened, or anything else. Matt said to ask him in a year how he’s doing; right now he doesn’t want to talk about it. I hope some day he can talk about all of this or find some other way to deal with it.

His grandfather Ralph, who was at the Battle of the Bulge and also with the troops when they opened up the first Nazi concentration camp, never wanted to talk about his experiences of war. The only hint of what he had seen was a brief poem he wrote once with images of blood on the snow after a battle. I wish he were here now to help Matt through the mindfields of life. There are so many amputees and brain injuries from these most recente wars. It is horrifying. Of course, the soldiers who are featured in gee whiz news stories are those who fight to walk again, with the aid of fancy new spring-loaded prostethics, and who go right back into the war zones to demonstrate, I suppose, how brave soldiers can be, leaving the others, who are justifiably bitter and angry about their injuries, feeling like lesser men, weaklings, when they can’t just buck up and carry on. On this Memorial Day, I am thinking of those who have died in war, along with their friends and families who have suffered such tragic loss. I am praying that some day we humans can find a better way than war to solve conflicts.

I got a little bit of work done in the garden this weekend, but I need to finish up. The main thing on my list is to find places for the new plants I bought recently—eight new perennials and about the same number of annuals (tomatoes, basil, lantana). I deadheaded the daisies and pulled up some of the chives around the mail box, until the ants came pouring out of the ground carrying their eggs everywhere. I also pulled out the asters that were growing over the surprise lilies, but I need to decide how many asters to leave and then cut those back, so they won’t get so out of control this year.

Apparently, you can cut asters back until July without affecting the fall bloom. I’m not sure which of the asters has spread the most. I have three kinds out there—one that blooms in September, one in October, and one in November. Maybe this year I can pay attention to which ones have replanted themselves all over the yard. I also need to figure out how many of the blackeyed Susans I want to leave. They really took off last summer and have almost filled the circular space in the center of the yard, which I used to call the butterfly garden, when it had more variety of plants. I picked some more brocolli and strawberries. Even though I am nowhere close to self-sufficient, it makes me feel good to grow at least some of my own food.

My roses are looking amazing this year. I have never had this many buds and blossoms. Always before the deer have bitten them off just as they were about to bloom. I’m not complaining, but the deer have been scarce this year. A couple neighbors even planted hostas right out in the open, and those are still looking lush and green. We have seen a couple deer in the back woods, but they have not (so far, at least) been a problem in the front yard. Maybe I’ll actually get to grow tomatoes for a change!

It’s been a strange spring in other ways. While cleaning out the gardens, we have found literally hundreds of acorns and dozens of small oak trees sprouting. I don’t know if the trees had a bumper crop last year, or if the squirrels forgot where they buried their stash, or if the snow covered the ground for so long that animals that normally forage for acorns (like deer, perhaps?) could not get to them, or what, but I don’t remember ever having to pull out so many oak trees. Fortunately, the spring has been wet, so the trees have not been too difficult to pull out. The yard next door has a forest growing in the front. The neighbors moved out some time ago, but there has been no for-sale sign and apparently no one maintaining the house and yard.

It’s been about a week since people started talking about the cicadas emerging from the ground where they have been lying dormant for thirteen years. The last time these red-eyed cicadas were around, Isaac and I were at scout camp in Arkansas. In fact, that year (1998) was the first time since 1777 that both the 13-year and the 17-year cicadas were out at the same time. It was certainly loud enough, especially when you added the annual cicadas to the chorus. (or perhaps I’m remembering the 400 screeching boy scouts!) From what I’ve been reading, the periodical cicadas generally emerge in May and stay above ground through June. After they emerge from the ground, their shells harden and they move up into the trees, where the males congregate to “sing.” After mating, the females cut slits in small branches and lay their eggs. When the caterpillars emerge, they return to their underground burrows for another thirteen years. What a life! Apparently, they do little damage to mature trees, so I don’t need to worry about anything, with the possible exception of my lemon tree, which I should probably cover with cheesecloth. If I liked to fish, I could use them for bait. Here’s more about the periodical cicadas.

We went out to the bee yard again last evening to put on the new supers Jim has made. They look so beautiful, with their fresh white paint, and the new frames with foundation all ready for the bees to draw out creamy white comb. I love the smell of the fresh wax foundations. I suppose the new plastic foundation they have been selling lately is more convenient than having to wire the frames for the wax foundation, but I don’t like the plastic, and we have had trouble getting the bees to draw out comb on the few plastic frames we have tried. We looked briefly in all the hives but did not see the queens in any of them. They all had good patterns of brood, though, with eggs and larva in all stages of development, including plenty of capped brood, so we think the queens are doing well.

One hive, though, has had numerous queen cells for about six weeks, so we’re not sure what they are doing, but it seems to be distracting them from collecting honey, even though there is plenty of clover in the fields right now. We think that hive swarmed earlier in the summer, and they appear to have a queen, who is laying eggs, but they also have several capped queen cells and a couple queen cells with larva and royal jelly. Not sure what’s going on in there, but they did not need one of our beautiful new supers. The new hives (the swarm hive and the split hive) are doing well and seem calmer. The hive we have dubbed the “mortgage lifter” is collecting honey like mad, so we have not looked very far into their hive lately, since they seem to be thriving. The old angry hive, which may have swarmed and which we also then split, is still somewhat defensive. When Jim was checking them, the bees kept bumping against his hands in warning but did not sting. I stayed back aways while he worked that particular hive, with my hands in my pockets, just in case.

After we left the bee yard, we went to Coopers Landing for beer and Thai food, but we had to park about a mile out and walk on the MKT trail to get there, because the road was covered with water. Some people ignored the signs and just drove on the trail to the landing. We had a very pleasant walk along the river and stopped to take a couple photos of the high water. The landing was crowded with people, and we had to stand in a long line in the camp store to get our beer and then in another long line to order our Thai food from the trailer out back, but everyone was in a festive mood. Every picnic table was filled with people; some had brought their own lawn chairs. A band was playing rock and roll, people were hula-hooping, boats were running up and down the river, children were riding bikes around the trails; the colorful umbrellas over the picnic tables were fluttering in the breeze.

After we ordered our food, we joined our friends Krishna and Eric at a table up above the loading dock and talked about plans for the upcoming Cumberland Dance Week, which we are all attending in July. Several men in a fishing boat motored by; one man stood up in the middle of the boat and raised up a huge catfish to show off. People at the landing cheered, and the boat circled and then headed up the river. By the time we finished our food and headed back down the trail to the truck, it was dark. Lightning bugs were flashing and the frogs were singing as the river rolled on.

Organic Food: Safer, Friendlier, Better?

This is the title of Chapter 2 in a great little book we picked up from our local public library called How the Government Got in Your Backyard: Superweeds, Frankenfoods, Lawn Wars, and the (Nonpartisan) Truth About Environmental Policies. I told myself I was not going to get into politics in my blog, but truth is, I think about politics a lot and am fascinated by power struggles and wild differences of opinion. I also happen to subscribe to the belief that the personal is political, so there you go. After spending a week with my dad recently and wondering every minute how we could have ended up so far apart politically while at the same time holding such basic core values in common (e.g., independence, self-governance, fiscal responsibility, stewardship, and an abiding appreciation for “nature”), I especially appreciate this book for its head-on, scientific, nonpartisan approach to some of the biggest environmental issues we face.

The authors are Jeff Gillman, an associate professor in the Department of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota, and Eric Heberlig, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. They do an excellent job presenting the complexities surrounding key environmental issues; each chapter focuses on a single issue—organic food, pesticides, fertilizers, alternative energy, genetic engineering, plant patents, invasive plants, legal and illegal plants, local restrictions, global warming—all issues I am deeply interested in but do not know enough about. Each chapter includes essential scientific information about the issue, relevant governmental policies and policy options, ratings from left-wing and right-wing perspectives, plus the “bottom line.” The introductory sections also provide a clear overview of how science and political science interact, as the authors compare the contradictory roles of various players (politicians, scientists, lobbyists, the public), making it abundantly clear why it is so hard to get at the truth of these issues—not least because “politics is about making value judgments,” while “value judgments are outside the realm of science.” So policymakers are left having to decide what outcomes are desirable and at what cost, without the benefit of “hard science” to guide them, because science, which can be contested or modified with future study, does not offer The Truth, but often raises more questions. Add in the conflicting pressures from the public and the lobbyists, with their often narrowly defined self interests, and it is very difficult to know what is the right thing to do.

As I read the chapter on organic food, I found myself thinking in new ways about where I stand on the continuum between increased government regulations and letting producers do what they need to do to raise crops. Where the environment is concerned, I generally weigh in on the side of increased government regulations for the protection of people and the Earth, while my dad generally weighs in on the side of free market and entrepreneurs.  I generally distrust businesses that have profit as their primary motivation, while dad thinks bureaucrats put too many limits on business owners who need flexibility to respond to the market. We both mistrust large corporations, but I lean toward increased regulation to try to protect consumers, while he recommends lowering their taxes and getting the government off their backs so they could be more competitive in giving consumers what they want.

But I can see how the lines could get blurry. For example, I don’t want the city or the neighborhood association to tell me I can’t grow native perennials or vegetables in my front yard but must have a perfectly manicured and weed free (i.e., chemically treated) lawn, so in that instance I would be anti-regulation, I suppose.  As a gardener who tries to raise plants “as organically as possible” but who sometimes reaches for pesticides or fertilizers to solve particular problems, I can appreciate on a small scale how challenging it is to find a balance between philosophical ideals and practical applications. But I definitely want the label to tell me what is in that bottle of spray so I can make an informed decision before I use it. Even if the ingredients are labelled “natural” or “organic,” I prefer to know about any potential dangers they might pose to honeybees or other beneficial insects before I spray my grape vines. I also know that I am one of the lucky ones who can afford to pay a little more for organic and locally produced food, a luxury that many, many people do not have in today’s economy. Given all that, is it right to mandate numerous regulations that increase the overall cost of production and impose undue burdens on small producers, when we have no guarantee that organic methods are superior to conventional methods, or to restrict the ability of large producers to produce foods in the most cost-efficient ways possible?

The authors do a very good job of raising some of the questions that I generally avoid thinking about too deeply. For example, I happen to believe that growing organically is better for our health and better for our planet,  but is it then preferable to buy from a large-scale organic farm, even if they must use nonrenewable fossil fuels to ship their produce to my town, or is it better to buy from a small local farm, even if the farmer occasionally uses pesticides and fertilizers? If a local milk or meat producer avoids the use of hormones, treats her animals humanely, allows them plenty of time outside to graze, and does not put animal waste products or other questionable ingredients in their feed, but does occasionally treat them with antibiotics when they get sick, should the farm lose its credentialing as an organic producer? If a farmer returns from the weekly market with bushels of unsold turnips and lettuce and other produce, should he be allowed to feed it to his pigs at the end of the day, knowing it will go to waste before next Saturday’s market? Or should the state, in an attempt to protect people’s health, be allowed to define the unsold turnips as “garbage” and thus outlaw feeding it to animals that will be sold for meat? These are important but difficult questions that we all weigh in on every time we put food to mouth.

The day the rapture was predicted but did not come

The garden in May

Although the meteorologists predicted 80% chance of rain and the doomsday prophets predicted the rapture would occur on May 21, in my corner of the world today, things were as perfect as they could be, and I spent my day happily poking about my gardens. Here are some of the things I did:

  • Inspected the grapes for the brown Japanese beetle larva I had seen earlier this week and picked those off. Pulled weeds around the base of the trellis. Dug out a few more asters and coneflowers to share with my office mates. Looked at the dried, shriveled, and skeletal leaves and debated whether I should spray the grapes again. Noticed that the new leaves coming on are very healthy and green, although many of the older ones are looking poorly. I don’t know if the worms caused all the damage or if perhaps the grapes also have some sort of disease. The “Garden Safe” spray I have is supposed to be a fungicide, insecticide, and miticide. Apparently grapes have a lot of problems. But even though the spray is billed as “Garden Safe,” it comes with warnings not to inhale, not to get on your skin or use in food-handling areas or when bees are foraging, which makes me doubt the safety of this product. The instructions also say not to apply to wilted or otherwise stressed plants; instead they recommend a 7- or 14-day preventive spraying schedule in spring and fall. The ingredients on the spray list .9% Neem oil and 99.1% “other ingredients.” Hmmmm. I decided to forego the spray for now and focus on building up the plant’s strength, so after picking off all the larva I could find, I added composted manure and fed each vine with an organic dry fertilizer, Plantone.
  • Inspected the rose for green sawfly larva but could not find any more (I had found two the day before and picked those off). I did find something that might be either a stink bug or a soldier bug, plus a small cluster of metallic eggs. I need to figure out which bug it is, because a stink bug is a pest (especially damaging to soybeans), while a soldier bug is a beneficial predator. Until I can figure it out or see some signs of damage on the rose, I just pulled off the leaf that had the eggs, took it around back to the deck, photographed it, and watched the adult bug fly off before I had a chance to inspect its belly and legs for identifying characteristics. I also weeded around the rose and added composted manure and fertilizer. I photographed the rose bush because it looks better than it has ever looked before. I’m not sure why the deer have not been a problem this year, but I’m grateful.
  • Added composted manure to the pot with the lemon plant and pruned one branch. The leaves are looking greener since I added calcium, Epsom salt, and fertilizer about a week ago.
  • Weeded along the sidewalk leading from the driveway to the front porch, cutting enough daisies to fill my two ceramic “paper-bag” vases that I got from the J Peterman Company years ago. Cut back daisies that were fading or were hanging too far over the sidewalk.
  • Pulled out dozens more oak and maple trees that were coming up all over the yard. Noticed how much leaf litter I still need to rake up from the corners of the gardens up near the house and under the yellowing daffodil leaves. Jim cut down a walnut that had grown taller than the lilac and was crowding the butterfly bush. He also dug out some wild grape vines that were suffocating the hollyhock and threatening to crowd out the peas growing on the small trellices.
  • Removed the cages from the square-foot gardens, where the brocolli is looking amazing! Took more photographs. Pulled weeds. Added a little composted manure around each plant. Later Jim harvested enough brocolli for a small serving each at dinner. It was delicious. It’s so amazing to watch plants grow from such tiny seeds into something so beautiful and nourishing. We have seen no signs of the dreaded cabbage caterpillar this year, although there was some other green worm that had chewed holes in a few of the leaves. I took photos of that to have as a reference to look up later on the internet, but I got distracted holding the leaf in the sun and watching the changing patterns of shadows and sun as the leaf turned in the breeze. It reminded me of watching a solar eclipse once through a pin hole with my back to the sun, when the light went all shimmery and there were shadowy half moons all over the sidewalk. I forgot all about the worms for a moment and was fascinated by the appearance of the bright yellow marigold through one of the worm holes—on the day when the rapture was predicted but did not come.
  • Jim ran the weed eater around what few grassy areas have not been taken up by perennial beds or vegetables.
  • Inspected the various gardens and tried to figure out what to do next. I’m liking my approach this year of staking out places for small 4 x 4 pocket gardens. For one thing, it makes it easier to decide what is weed and what is valued perennial. If any coneflowers or asters or shasta daisies or blackeyed Susans or chives or lambs ear or poppy mallow or lemon balm or any of the other self-seeding, aggressively spreading plants I have all over my yard encroach on the 4 x 4 space that I have designated as my new pocket garden and do not fit the new “plan,” then I either pull each plant out as a weed or dig it up and take it to work to share with my gardening friends. So far I have made two of these little gardens, both along the sidewalk leading from the driveway to the front porch. In one, I planted seven varieties of lavendar and edged them with purple and yellow violas. By having all the lavendar in one place, I’m hoping I will remember to mulch them so they have a better chance of surviving our cold winters. In the other I planted three rhubarb plants and edged that with alyssum. While weeding that space yesterday, I discovered a couple volunteer cilantro plants and one dill and decided to leave them, since they are annuals and won’t get in the way of the rhubarb this year. It will make the “plan” less obvious when the dill begins to tower over the other plants in an awkward way, but that will be temporary as it will quickly go to seed and be done.
  • While trying to figure out where to put my next pocket garden, I discovered a cute little poppy mallow with delicate fringed leaves that was struggling to survive under the marjoram and lambs ears, so I “weeded” around it to give it more air.
  • Looked in mild dismay at the asters taking over the space by the mailbox and inching toward the strawberry patch, plus individual asters coming up in farflung places. I need to figure out what to do about those. They are not difficult to pull out by the roots at this point, but I don’t know how well they transplant. When I pull them out and put them in pots for my friends, they immediately begin to wilt, but I suspect they make a strong comeback once planted in the ground. I am fairly sure that asters I have yanked out by the roots and tossed on a pile have on more than one occasion crawled off to replant themselves before I could get them on the mulch pile. I have heard that if you cut asters back severely in the spring (to 3-4 inches), they will grow back at a slower pace through the rest of the season. That sounds right. Perhaps I should give that a try. I have seen asters neatly trimmed in small mounds, and they look beautiful in the fall. I might try both approaches. For sure, I want to pull out the ones that are covering the surprise lilies that will bloom in August, but I want to be sure to keep some of all three varieties of asters. I love them for their late color, as they bloom right after frost and continue sending up their little blue stars from September to November, providing a last source of nectar for the bees to get through the winter.
  • I weeded the patch of new iris that I planted near the road, but I don’t expect them to bloom this year because I was late getting them in the ground last fall. I may go ahead and plant some annual seeds there—cosmos, probably, or zinnias—because that’s what my old neighbor used to plant when his iris were done. My other iris (the purple and white ones that I got from our first next-door neighbors here, ones she had gotten from an estate somewhere) have inched away from their original location and are now closer to the front sidewalk and in and among the strawberries and columbine. Only one has bloomed so far.
  • Pondered the situation with the strawberries. We have had about eight strawberries so far, with more coming on. They were delicious with my yogurt and blueberries and granola parfait. I have never done much with strawberries other than let them grow. Perhaps I should feed them or cover them with netting or mulch them. Wonder why they call them strawberries. Should I be putting straw under the plants now to keep the berries off the ground, or should I cover the plants with straw over the winter?
  • Weeded the areas around the trellises and tried to guide the pea vines up the trellis but did not tie them yet. I’m not sure if I got the seeds in the ground early enough this year, but they are looking good so far. I also have a new native clematis that my friend Krishna gave me, and it is starting to take off. I hope it is in a sunny enough area.
  • Started thinking about where to plant the eight new perennials I got from the Missouri Wildflowers stand at the market: two varieties of liatris, larkspur, wild ginger, blue sage, royal catchfly, queen of the prairie, and Indian physic. Some of these I have tried before with no success, so I need to make sure I understand their preferences for light and shade, wet and dry, before I put them in the ground.
  • Admired my handiwork and gave thanks for such a beautiful day on God’s green Earth.