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How I spent the Blizzard of 2011

Joshua Tree


I’m just about to plant a large portion of my garden – tomatoes, peppers, onions & broccoli – in flats, but am reflecting a bit. My wife & I returned from a week’s vacation in southern California to find more than two feet of snow on the ground. Chicago really got hit hard by the Blizzard of 2011.

We spent quite a bit of time in the desert, particularly the Mojave Desert at Joshua Tree National Park. As rugged, harsh and lifeless as this vast expanse seems to be, the desert is a land of extreme fragility with a very delicate balance. Just like my Illinois garden, invasive species can be very detrimental. Small changes can throw it out of whack. Invasive red brome and cheatgrass can spread fire by covering large areas at Joshua Tree.

Although wildflowers, fan palms, junipers, pinyons, desert willows, yuccas, teddy-bear chollas and other trees and bushes are native here, it is the Joshua Tree that I found most interesting. Early explorer John Fremont described them as “…the most repulsive tree in the vegetable Kingdom.” A Mormon legend says the limbs of the Joshua tree resembles the outstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land.

I find humor in their human likenesses.

It’s sometimes easy for me to forget the value that my garden will receive from all that snow piled up around and over it. Unlike the desert plants we visited, my tomatoes need a lot of water. Although different ecosystems have different requirements for sustaining life, it’s clear that they are all changing and more delicate than I had imagined.

Joshua tree at Joshua Tree National Park

a harsh ecosystem

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World View From a Sweet Potato

sweet potato


I’m a fan of Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times op ed columnist. I like his insights into human rights issues. He writes with the authority of one who has lived in the field and he does so with courage, caution, a straight-forward style and usually with a sense of urgency.

Kristof has been called “the moral conscience of our generation of journalists.” Bill Clinton said in 2009, “There is no one in journalism, anywhere in the United States at least, who has done anything like the work he has done to figure out how poor people are actually living around the world, and what their potential is….So every American citizen who cares about this should be profoundly grateful that someone in our press establishment cares enough about this to haul himself all around the world to figure out what’s going on…”

Somehow I missed his Thanksgiving column last year. I came across it two weeks ago while doing some research on, of all things, the sweet potato. Kristof begins by promising “a happy column about hunger” and concludes with a solution to starvation in Africa based on the sweet potato. It is the middle of Bless the Orange Sweet Potato that nearly made me choke on my organic coffee.

Although Kristof says that “there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical,” his solution is biofortification, including genetic engineering that will create such products as “golden rice” using genetic material from daffodils and corn. Kristof’s skepticism seems to come more from his impatience with the resistance he’s seen in Europe to “scientific tinkering with crops” than concerns about the possible catastrophic results from the “new seeds.”

I don’t really know the biology behind any of this well enough to counter the urgency in Kristof’s writing. He offers a bright picture in a bleak world if he and Monsanto are correct. He says, “These new seeds may finally help end the scourge of starvation in this century, on our watch.” Others feel that this same urgency may lead to irrevocable genetic damage, also done on our watch.

As I plant my sweet potato slips this spring I’ll have a vivid reminder of this issue. Do I blindly continue hostility towards genetic engineering only to “make it harder to save children from blindness and death?” It’s difficult to argue with Kristof’s heart. I just hope science doesn’t betray him and all of us. -Bill

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The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

-Emily Dickinson


Also posted in autumn, black & white photography, decay and compost, landscape photography, plant diseases, pumpkins Tagged , , |

A-Mazing Garden


My grandson knows how to have fun. Pulling weeds and watering are not on Noah’s fun list. Besides, he’s too young for that sort of thing.

His sense of wonder makes him love to follow the paths between my garden’s rows. They’ve grown together enough to no longer resemble the two strips of lawn they were in spring. To Noah it must look like a wonderland of vines, enormous leaves and exotic vegetation that creates a maze-like path. Dodging tomatoes, prickly squash leaves and shiny peppers he twists around one obstacle after another. He carefully protects himself from threatening tendrils with an out-thrust elbow. Then he reverses it or decides to make the return trip down the next strip.

I don’t know what type of temperament turns a weedy, overgrown garden into a playground but I like Noah’s outlook on life.

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A River Runs Through It…

The flood bypasses the garden to go into and through the garage. The studio was spared.


…our garage, that is. Several times a year we get very heavy rains that convert our backyard into a lake and our garage into a flowing river bed. Last night’s 5-7 inches (our 5 1/2 – inch rain gage was full) of rain caused the flooding which narrowly missed the garden. In the photo above you can see that the water surrounds the lettuce & bean patch at the left. The main part of the garden is on a little higher ground.

The effect on the garden remains to be seen. We are supposed to get more rain today.

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I’ve often wondered if scarecrows actually work. Ever since I saw a large bird perched on a garden scarecrow’s shoulder I have become a doubter and yet people continue to make scarecrows.

I’ve tried to think of a way to keep the rabbits out of the garden without putting up a taller fence midway through the gardening season. I wondered if there would be something I could use to frighten them that would not be expensive, obnoxious to my neighbors, or deadly to the rabbits. Our rabbits have become sort of like the cousins who came for a visit but have worn out their welcome. I want them gone but not dead.

Even as the bunnies first emerged from their nest in our yard, I knew I’d have to deal with them in a more adversarial way later. But early on they were a good time. We developed a relationship with two of them. They “taught” my 1 1/2 – year-old grandson to chase them in exactly two circles around the yard. It was a wonderful game they played almost daily.

Okay, back to the scarecrows. Actually I am less concerned about crows than I am about my now-grown rabbits. We’re still friends but discovering them inside the garden fence, well – that crosses a well-defined line.

Last year I faced the same issue but the summer weather was very damp and grass and weeds were growing so fast and were apparently so tasty that the rabbits didn’t think it was worth the extra effort to jump the fence. This year they’ve had the taste of seven varieties of lettuce and Kentucky Wonder pole bean plants. They return each day!

As a child I spent a lot of time observing animal life in the wild. I found this relaxing, educational and sometimes amusing. (Nevermind how amused my friends were watching me do this.) This developed into my having a pretty good sense of animal behavior.

It struck me that small mammals do have a fear of snakes and for good reason. I have heard of people putting fake snakes in gardens to keep critters away but these have been largely unsuccessful. They work for a while and then the garden thieves return sort of like the bird sitting on the scarecrow’s shoulder.

Rabbits and crows know the same thing. Something that doesn’t move is not a threat. By moving I don’t mean all flashy and wiggly. I mean moving from one place to another.

My “snake” is actually a section of hose about 6 feet long. It looks just enough like a snake to give a bunny pause. I find myself in the garden saying “Do you feel lucky – Well, do ya punk?”

Early on I didn’t change my snake’s position. It would work for exactly one day before the rabbits returned. But changing it once each day has kept the rabbits completely away. I’ve had no problems with rabbits at all for a couple of weeks now.

I like to think that my hours of watching animals as a kid has finally paid off. It’s also turned me into Dirty Harry.


Weighing Safety of Weed Killer in Drinking Water, EPA Relies Heavily on Industry-Backed Studies


Continue reading »

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The War Continues…


Last year I documented the war being waged in my garden. My “Winged Monkeys” came to my rescue in protecting my broccoli from green worms.

This morning I walked into another battle. A flower spider intended to make a Japanese beetle its brunch. I’ve rarely witnessed a spider taking on something more powerful than itself.

flower spider vs. Japanese beetle - Here, it's advantage spider.

Running to get my camera early in the match, I wondered what the outcome would be. My mind raced. I thought that if the win goes to the spider, would I perhaps be able to order flower spider eggs to control the Japanese beetle infestation currently eating my pole beans? Should I consider raising them and telling my Organic Gardening forum friends I’ve found the answer to this awful problem?

The chase went on for several minutes. Around and around the grape leaf they went. The spider wrapped the beetle with its thread, the beetle tore it up and escaped, only to be confronted again by its determined foe. Neither one seemed to have a clear advantage.

Like any neighborhood brawl, a crowd began to gather. Both a long-legged fly and a ladybug watched from a safe distance.

You can see here what I saw as I first brought my camera to the scene.

After several attempts the Japanese beetle was the victor. He retreated within the relative protection of new leaf growth a little ways away from and out of view of the spider.

It looks like I will need to continue using my old peanut butter jar full of water to solve my Japanese beetle problem. (I couldn’t find it in me to put the battle-worn beetle in the jar.)



capture again!

A long-legged fly watches the drama from a safe distance.

It's not over yet! He escapes with the spider in hot pursuit.

The Japanese beetle is putting some distance between himself and the spider.

It's over. The winner escapes with his life.

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The Urban Garden


With today’s post I want to introduce some gardens other than my own.

Two of my “city kids” have gardens. Andy is in Pilsen in Chicago and Jesse is in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. They both have very limited space for growing vegetables but that doesn’t seem to stop them from rather ambitious plantings.

Andy says, “It’s really amazing just how much you can grow if you have enough room and decide to devote enough space for plants. I’ll be totally set with tomatoes for the summer with three plants. Oh wait, actually four plants.”

In addition to the tomatoes Andy is growing:

    • habañero and jalapeño plants from seeds Jesse gave him from last year’s plants

    • herbs: thyme and basil

    • a two-year old strawberry plant that hasn’t yet produced any fruit

    • mustard greens

    • a forget-me-not plant

It’s important to note that all of Andy’s plants are inside his second-floor apartment in front of his large north-facing windows.

Andy says, “I’ve been using Terracycle plant food, which is the worm crap fertilizer and it has worked pretty well. I also like how they recycle old plastic pop bottles for the packaging. I guess one thing about container gardening is that you have to keep up with watering because the dirt in containers dries out very quickly.”

Andy's Chicago garden

Jesse also has an amazing garden in a very small space. I asked him last evening if he could send me a photo. He answered this way,

    i saw your message and directly went and shot a photo of my tomato plants. there was supposed to be a storm tonight and this was just as the rain started coming down. those are in my bedroom window. they are growing strong, but they have not fruited yet. many brown leaves. perhaps i am not watering enough? i have a feeling this is it. nothing i have is in the ground and i think the water runs out quickly. it is also possibly very crowded. i have five large plants in my window. in my other bedroom/office/darkroom window i have my squashes and one other tomato plant. they are doing similar. the squashes have been fruiting slightly, but they have fallen off when they do :(. i will keep at it.

Jesse also notes that container plants need to be watered more often than ground plantings. I would also add that tomato plants are self-pollinating. That is, they don’t need insects to pollinate. They DO, however, need wind or something to make this happen. With indoor tomato and pepper plants you may need to tap the flowers gently to get them to pollinate. Some people use an electric toothbrush to make this happen! Since Jesse’s are on an outside window cage he should be fine. I do wonder a little about Andy’s north light for tomatoes! And… wait a minute… Did Jesse actually say that he has squash plants in his window?

Jesse's Brooklyn garden as the rain begins to fall

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Brushing My Tomatoes’ Teeth

Brandywine (Sudduth's Strain) tomato

There are a lot of stages of growth in a garden. Waiting for seeds to germinate, seeing the first “true” leaves, and finding the first squash blossom are landmarks I look forward to each year. Probably my favorite is finding the first tomato.

I have been reading recently on the Seed Savers Exchange forum that the Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain) variety has some, well… difficulties. Half of my tomatoes are – you guessed it – Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain). Posters have been using words like “temperamental” and “difficult” regarding this variety. One even called it “legendarily temperamental.” One poster suggested using an electric toothbrush a couple of times a day to vibrate the flower clusters. This is “to allow the pollen to fall from the anthers onto the stigma.”

So I’m to brush my tomato plants’ “teeth” two times a day, huh. Gosh, I hope they don’t need flossing. It is actually nice to know that there are ways to pollinate plants when ideal weather conditions or lack of bees cause fruit to not set. This situation could certainly be encountered by both greenhouse and high-rise patio gardeners. Although tomatoes are essentially self pollinating, some varieties may need a little help. I really recommend the knowledgeable people on the Seed Savers and Organic Gardening forums

I’m happy to report that my tomato plants seem to have produced tomatoes without the toothbrush routine. This weekend I came upon first tomatoes of each of the three varieties I grew.

As usual, I’d welcome any stories about your gardens.

** an update from one of my Seed Savers forum friends regarding the tomato pictured above – “…as is very typical with Brandywine Sudduth’s and other varieties of that era, you can see that that’s 2 merged blossoms. You’ve got a double! That could produce a VERY large tomato.”

Cherry Roma tomato

Red Brandywine tomato

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