Monday, April 10, 2017

The Last Act

This is a special episode of Lost In The Farmers Market. It is not special because I’ve run across some new breed of plant or gardening technique. It is not special because there is an April Fool’s Day trick written into this post. Honestly If I ever posted on time I’d think that would be trickery enough. No, this time I will be discussing in detail the construction of a garden bed and the clearing and adaptation of land to achieve the goals of a given project. 

For those of you who do not know, On February 5th at 3:00 pm my mother passed away due to complications of Ovarian Cancer. She was diagnosed in October of 2015, and it was at stage four by the time it was clearly diagnosed. This made for a long battle that lasted seventeen months. In one of our conversations while we were at the funeral home sorting her affairs in advance just in case the worst happened she asked me what I would do with her ashes after she was gone as she intended to be cremated. I honestly had no idea as it was a new idea; I mean the idea of having the sole responsibility to lie to rest someone’s mortal remains isn’t something to be considered at the spur of the moment. It’s something you think about for a while and find (hopefully) the most considerate option. I asked her what she wanted as I had no idea what to do in that given circumstance and seemingly randomly, she asked if ashes made for good fertilizer. Honestly this fell into a strange grey area for me because I knew of potash and that the word alkaline came from a Arabic word for wood ashes but I had never really heard of the idea of using human ashes as fertilizer. Chemically I suppose the plants growing on such a plot would not know the difference, ash is ash give or take a few trace minerals and nutrients, but I doubt anyone would dare eat any food grown on such a site. I told her that I did recall that ashes and bone meal did help bulbs grow and she thought about this for a moment and said that she wanted ther ashes to be used as fertilizer for a bed. I asked her what she wanted planted there and she asked for ‘Lilies, like the ones at my house by the mailbox… but white.’ And that cemented the plan for the interment of her mortal remains. Thus this post will cover the construction of the memorial bed and the associated projects leading up to its completion.

To frame the series of events, Mom died on the 5th of February, and her Funeral was not until February the 19th. Normally this would be a major problem but mon chose to be cremated so the actual memorial service could be delayed by two weeks to allow family and friends to come into town to pay their respects. Work on her memorial garden did not start until the 22nd of February because of the complications of handling the funeral and its aftermath. On the first work date, the first tasks on hand in order were; survey the site, determine exposure to sunlight, assess problems with the land and begin initial clearing if possible.

The future site of the memorial garden as seen when facing towards the front yard.
The future site of the memorial garden when facing towards the  right hand side of the yard.

The site itself is relatively full sun with a 5-8% slope give or take. The sand there is relatively sandy and organic matter poor to the point that it will barely sustain sweet potatoes and a number of crops grown there have failed. Some of you readers can see the raised mound where prior attempts to grow things in the area have been tried and were unsuccessful. The overhanging trees are mainly composed of Carolina Cherries (Prunus caroliniana), Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), and the occasional oak or hickory. The first order of business was to lop off any overhanging branches so that the new garden has no competition from weed trees and in the image below you can see the beginning of the pruning that was talked about in March's post.

This pile of cut tree limbs is just the beginning.

 Work did not resume for a few days due to weather and other factors  and it was not until the 1st of March that things got really interesting. During this time the hedgerow clearing project was underway, which cut all the privets along the driveway down to a three foot height but also the clearing of the land occurred also.  I raked away small debris, and took measurements of the area to understand just what I was working with. The bed would be 9 feet by 8 feet roughly if I left the existing edge of the old bed mostly intact. 

The mound with the leaves and small debris cleared is still not much to look at.

It also meant that my original plan to place one white Asiatic/Easter lily bulb per year my mother lived would not fill the space. She lived 77 years and by my calculation I had room for at least 88 bulbs. I knew that My aunt was sending 12 bulbs which meant that I had to worry about 76 more with room to spare so the planting list ended up going from a simple 77 bulbs to something like the following.

6x Annika Asiatic Lily
66x Casa Blanca Asiatic Lily
17x White Trumpet Lily
20x Star Gladiolas (Peacock Orchid, Gladiolas acidanthera)
3x Hymenocallis (Preuvian Daffodil)

All of the above have pure white flowers except the gladiolas and the Annika lily but more than anything else all the actual lilies were known for size and scent. In total this meant there were 112 bulbs in the bed which guarantees there are no bare spots. Of course while waiting for the main shipment of lily bulbs to arrive I had the bulbs sent by my aunt and the buffer bulbs I'd bought (gladiolas, Hymenocallis, annika) start to sprout. This was a bad thing because Asiatic lilies are a specific type of bulb that can die very easily if they dry out. For comparison tulips and true daffodils are called tunicate bulbs which means they have a papery husk to help them survive longer, bulbs without this are called imbricate bulbs and they don't have such a good shelf life.  As a stopgap to avoid loss of perfectly good but sprouting bulbs I had to partially plant the garden.
The first step to bed preparation in this case was to remove all the spent soil while leaving the edges of the bed relatively standing.
The 8"x8" tamper was useful in flattening and leveling the inside of the garden bed and it's walls.

 The early planting and excavation occurred on the 19th of March,  once the old soil was excavated out of the bed, the first decoration fot eh new bed was placed. Although the picture does not really show it, that is a double-shepherd's hook with a solar powered hummingbird light facing towards the house and a Woodstock wind chime facing towards the rear of the garden. Also in the above image you can see that the hedge row was effectively cleared by this point.

The fill soil of choice for the project was Black Kow and this is the first four cubic feet out of ten needed to complete the project.
It isn't hard to see why I picked Black Kow, compared to the existing soil it's like literal night and day in color.

 The picture just above needs some explanation, the chicken wire is there to keep squirrels or other critters from digging up the bulbs. Also the long area of Black Kow on the left is where all the Asiatic lilies I had at the time were placed. The spot where the square grey paving stone is placed is where the Gladiolas and Hemerocallis are planted, the gladiolas are in front and the Hemerocallis are in the back just before the shepherd's hook.   Work around the site and along the driveway would continue while I waited for the big shipment of lilies to arrive.

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 As luck would have it, the shipment of lilies arrived on April Fool's Day, and due to this I resumed work the very next day, the first Sunday of April almost two months to the day my Mother died. The above image shows what the beds looked like after I removed the chicken wire in preparation to work. Some of you are wondering what the two objects are in the image above. The both hold critical significance to the memorial because one of them meant a lot to my Mother, and the other had spiritual significance to her. The statue is of a howling wolf, and at some point she went to a Native American powwow and found out that this was her spirit animal.  But how I came into possession of this unique statue is an interesting story unto itself  you can scroll down for that as it's just below the wolf's closeup. The second Item is a inscribed stone that sat near her front door, many visitors never noticed it but she took it wherever she called home. I'll explain that in detail below the stone's image.


 This wolf statue wasn't at all what I was looking for when looking for a suitable marker for the location where here ashes would be interred. I was looking for something more symbolic I guess, maybe a cross or an ankh, something that espoused her life. One Sunday after much searching both online and in person I found myself at one of the many garden centers in the area, a Place called Big Bloomers and I figured, 'what the hell they have statues...lets take a glance.' I'd arrived there late and had about twenty minutes until closing time and begun looking through their selection of statues, most were just bland. Honestly I still don't know who thinks putting peeing cherubs in a garden is acceptable but to each their own. I wanted for about ten minutes until I hit the section with animals, and they too were bland, kittens, puppies varied farm animals and so on and then there sitting by itself with no others like it was the wolf you see. I looked at it and could not help but wonder what it was doing there as it didn't match anything else and it was literally the only one. On examination it had a price tag so it was inventory but when I got up to the booth they seemed not to know they had it either. Either way I ended up buying it with little care for the price as it was exactly right. I've been back to that nursery twice since and the spot where the statue stood is still empty so perhaps the old saying is right you don't choose the stone it chooses you. Ironically I had bought the square grey paving stone as a base for whatever statue I planned to buy, but the wolf has it's own base which  then means I can use the paver for another problem I had no solution for at the time, the installation of a birdbath nearby.

Mom bought this stone while on Martha's Vineyard and she always placed it by the front door of her house. Many have entered and few have noticed it or even read it and yet it has sat there like a mute sentry to all who pass. She used to love going to the Vineyard during the early summer before it got too hot, but she found a similar experience in going to Hilton head for a week or two every year up until she was too sick to go. I figured it too was an appropriate thing to place in the memorial garden

Her Urn, it's carrying bag and, the dried roses that will fill the urn once it is emptied.
 So here's the urn, the velvet bag it goes in and, the dried roses are from the floral arrangements at the memorial service. Since all the arrangements had white roses with exception to the living arrangements I thought it would be a fitting tribute to fill the urn with the petals after the fact so something would be in there.

I will say this I did not know what to expect in the urn. But ashes dont take up much space but they seem rather heavy. One could say that the the weight of your final task adds to this or is most of this but I am not certain. The movies and television clearly get what cremated remains look like completely wrong. What came out of the urn was light grey powdery and without and noticeable 'chunks'.... though I was glad the wind was still because any wind could have blown this stuff all over the place.  So I sprinkled the ashes gently in the remaining bed area that needed filling and set the bulbs down in a pattern as seen in the next photo.

 No it's not the photo angle, your eyes or editing, those lily bulbs are very large. Large lily bulbs are a good sign they are healthy, vigorous and ready to grow. It tells me that despite the garden's cost overruns everything will look great. The pest part is the photo below with the soil filled and the mulch in place.

 This site without a doubt which tourists can see during the Urban Farm Tour is most definitely a place of final rest. In case you are wondering, the Bulbs were planted at an effective depth of 4" with an additional 2" of mulch on average. This may seem a bit shallow but this bed is going to receive more care than my normal ones for several years to come. normally lilies are planted 6"  down with out considering the mulch but since this already is a raised bed I wanted their roots to be at a high to get the most out of runoff during rain storms. I also know that the nutrient from the Black Kow will drip down to the roots of the lilies also while immediately having it on hand will accelerate their first year growth.

Feel free to ask any questions you like in the comments for this post and stay tuned for some more garden activity next month.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

It Only Takes a Moment

“So how about that weather?”

While that phrase seems a bit tired these days given the strange highs and lows we’ve seen it is a valid statement. The temperatures have been bouncing between freezing at night and the 80’s during the day and even the crops look confused. This of course makes it very hard to make any solid garden plans because we all know that the frost date unofficially is Easter which April 16th and while that is not far off, it seems like an eternity for those with a gardening disposition. There is some good news as there are certain tasks we can accomplish in the garden regardless of what the temperature is. For instance, despite the weather at the Test Gardens an aggressive regimen of pruning has been underway for several weeks starting at the end of February and finally reaching its completion when the town took away the last pile of debris last Friday. Before anyone gets alarmed, this is a normal process known as Structural Pruning. This form of very heavy pruning is done perhaps once every five years to once per decade with the express purpose of rejuvenating very old landscape plants that have not for some reason received full care and have become so large that they have lost their original form. In this process you are not killing these plants but rather hitting the reset button and in the process removing every volunteer tree or plant that has grown within their crown. It’s a win-win for the landscape plant in question and it brings dramatic change to your property.  The target area was the hedgerow along the driveway, which consisted of Wax Privet (Ligustrum japonicum) and Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), while a number of Carolina Cherry (Prunus caroliniana) and a few Willow Oaks (Quercus phellos). 

I'm pretty sure this is what a Horror movie for plants looks like.

Now to be clear if you are not familiar, Carolina Cherries (Prunus caroliniana) are semi-invasive and their seeds have a very high germination rate. This fact is made worse by the fact some species of wild birds like the fruit they produce. Unfortunately for us the fruit is somewhat poisonous and unlike the cherries we buy at the farmer’s market, they are lacking on sweet flesh as the fruit is mostly comprised of one big seed. Where possible I try to take out Carolina Cherries as they are evergreen and can rapidly out-compete most landscape plants unless they too are evergreen. I don’t have much of a dislike of Willow Oaks (Quercus phellos) as I find them graceful and given their small leaves perhaps one of the tidiest landscape trees I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. The problem I faced was that the one mature Willow Oak in the hedgerow was less than twenty feet from my house. The tree was Thirty feet tall, and while it might not be an issue for the next twenty to fifty years eventually its roots would heave the driveway and its branches would be over the roof which is considered a long-term hazard. This perhaps is the first lesson of this article that you can learn, do not put of tackling a long-term problem because the longer you avoid handling it the harder it becomes to deal with. A thirty-foot tall oak at an average of 1.5-2.5 inches in diameter/caliper can be handled with a careful diagonal cut facing towards what you want the tree not to hit when gravity pulls it down. Barring that careful use of a pole saw (in the case of the cherries) allows you to take out parts of the canopy so that the trunks pose no threat to you or your property.

AWWWW Yeah it was a garden party alright!
With all of that said, the hedgerow was pruned down to an average height of about three feet from an average height of ten feet. Even the Crape Myrtles were cut back heavily because truthfully they will recover and bloom heavier for it. Now I know there are certain Individuals in the Fayetteville Observer who claim that you should never prune Crape Myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica), which is rather naïve. The fact is that Crape myrtles look best in a tree form where their patterned back provides year-round interest making them less a one trick pony reliant on the blooms to draw attention. In order to get that tree-form one has to prune regularly to encourage a set of strong main trunks. So when a certain well-known garden advice columnist says you shouldn’t prune them at all I have to wonder if perhaps he would do well to stick to daylilies and leave the real garden operations to those of us who aren’t afraid to get the job done. But enough on procedural sparring since that’s not what this entry is about.  As a general rule you should refrain from pruning a few things and technically you are not really refraining but rather delaying the act. Any flowering shrubs that flower on new growth, any fruiting landscape plants that fruit on new growth are things that should not be pruned until after blooming or fruiting. For instance it is long held that you should not prune Azaleas until after their blooming is over which tends to mean June. Although the strange temperatures have both Azaleas and dogwoods blooming very early I would still err on the side of caution and wait. If you must prune consider the three questions I ask myself while considering if I need to prune a plant.

“Does the plant have a health issue such as double leaders, branches crossing over or some form of damage?”

“If I prune this will it spur new growth that may be damaged by cold weather?”

“Is any part of this plant posing a danger to persons or property?”

Each of the above questions is a simple yes or no answer, and from them you can determine if you are taking the right course of action. For instance as part of the hedgerow project I had to also very selectively prune the Fig orchard which is on the driveway for branches that had started to reach over the driveway at a height that meant they would be hit by vehicles or be at head height. I also had to prune a few overly tall branches that would take the harvest out of reach. While technically in the short term this means less figs, in the long term it means a healthier specimen. Under most circumstances I realistically consider it better to prune things while they are actively growing so that they are actively healing which reduces the amount of time a wound is open to possible infection.
The entire clearing operation took four weeks and undoubtedly was a point of irritation to my neighbor whom actually protested it and found out that no; none of the hedgerow was on her property, ergo she could complain all she wanted but it wasn’t her property or problem.  My front yard was a mess for that entire time as I took the debris out in measured amounts cut to the size requirements for the town to pick it up. For note, Bulky Yard Waste is picked up once per week and the requirements are as follows; no limbs longer than 6 feet and thicker than 3 inches in diameter also if you put out a cubic yard they may not pick it up at all so if you need to break your pile into smaller ones do so. I always recommend that you put your pile in the street because the claw arm on the truck they use will damage your lawn if it’s on your lawn. The town isn’t liable for this damage so putting it in the street in a pile that by shape is longer than it is wide so it’s not a vehicular obstacle is the best way to avoid your property being damaged and getting the job done.

Check back next month for the next project, oh and just one more thing....

The first day of spring was about a day or so ago.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Much Ado About Fresh Foods

Modern refrigeration as we know it is one of the most critical inventions in the last century because they improve your access to safe food supplies. Fayetteville is known as a food desert* and when one is without refrigeration this fact is exacerbated to a potentially intolerable level. About two weeks before Christmas my refrigerator decided to die on me. I knew something was wrong when I opened the freezer to find all of 2016’s frozen harvest defrosted completely. Since I did not know how long it had been that way unfortunately there was no good reason to try and salvage most of it. Once I did notice that there was a problem, the first task was to verify that the refrigerator was actually broken. I raised the cooling settings to maximum and then placed a thermal sensor in the freezer and the refrigerator section and afterwards checked them every hour for six hours. When you change the settings of a refrigerator it takes 24 hours for the settings to take effect so six hours was a good time frame to estimate the refrigerator’s functionality. At the end of six hours the fridge was cool at about 50 degrees and the freezer was at roughly 48-49 degrees; the normal temperature should have been 32-40 for the refrigerator and 30-32 degrees for the freezer. While looking for the unit specifications I found that the refrigerator was made in 2014, and thus it had depreciated enough that repair would cost more than replacing the unit. The next step was to clear the refrigerator of anything that posed a health threat via spoilage or contamination. Nothing in the freezer was salvageable so everything that was not packed in oil went out to the compost pile, you could say that the decomposers in the pile got big Christmas present this year.

The process was repeated for the refrigerator section though a lot of things in the refrigerator were just fine at 40-50 degrees. A good example of things that did not need to be thrown out would be your basic condiments. For example, mustard, soy sauce, siracha, non-sweet salad dressings, and anything that is acidic such as pickles were relatively save in the short term. Eggs, butter and, cheese were also alright because they could withstand a wider temperature range than milk, yogurt, cut fruit and vegetables and fruit juices which had to go in the cooler. Meat products were handled cautiously because at 45 degrees it would not take long for food-borne microbes make them hazardous. Any meant brought in had to be cooked the day purchase and consumed within 48 hours. I found that it takes a 20lb bag of ice to effectively cool an 18 cubic foot capacity refrigerator per two days.  The trick was to use plastic containers to spread the ice around and ½ to ¼ fill the vegetable crispers full of ice. This kept the refrigerator at around 43-46 degrees which reduced any further losses of food. I also used a 48 quart cooler with 10 pounds of ice to super-chill what absolutely needed to be cold**. It was a good thing the refrigerator failed during winter because if it had it done so during summer it might have been impossible to keep anything cold. So life settled in to a pattern, every two days or so I would go out on an ice-run, and while there I would buy the fresh foods needed to make two days’ worth of meals. It briefly became a normal aspect of life that everything had to be cooked fresh every second day. This was made possible by taking normal recipes with the amount of ingredients reduced by half. The half-scale style of fresh cooking meant that I made twice as many trips for food but the cost of food remained the same overall.

The biggest lesson learned was that it is very possible to have a fresh and organic food diet that was nearly vegetarian without the presumed big price tag. It took some planning to have a menu that would not get boring; my diet varied a bit for two weeks with the following selections; Kale-bean soup, Grilled vegetables with basmati rice, Tuscan Stew, Sautéed yellow squash with sweet onions, traditional hearty stew, Broccoli Rabe with fresh garlic over penne pasta, Steamed broccoli served with Turkey drumsticks and basmati rice and a rich mushroom gravy. I will admit the aforementioned list is just dinner, I kept lunch and breakfast limited to one-off dishes that were made and consumed on the same day. The point is that you can eat fresh, but creativity is critical to a reasonable fresh diet, and that starts with you determining what you do and do not have a taste for.

*The USDA has a food desert locator;
** Things such as cut vegetables & fruit, milk, dairy products, and fruit juices, opened jams and jellies and, meat should be stored in the cooler.