2019 Garden Plan….at least I hope it will be.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of my goals for the winter was to do the advance planning for my vegetable garden. It’s nice to do it now rather than in the rush of spring. I have time to look at my journal from last year (yes, I keep a planting and harvest journal) and see what worked and what didn’t. Before I get into what I hope to have in store for this year….a little background is in order.

In the Beginning….

We moved into our current house in August of 2016. The big back and side yards were part of what attracted us to it. I immediately declared the south side of the house, a section hidden by fence, as the new “vegetable garden area”. The whole area is maybe 20’x 35′. It gets sun all day, but due to the mature cypress hedge on our southern border, part of it is sightly shaded. It was too late for a garden that year. So I sat, and I waited. Plotting and scheming the whole time. During that wait, I fell in love with the concept of Square Foot Gardening. At our last residence, I ignored conventional row gardening anyway and packed everything in as dense as I could, as a result I had some great yields. So this seemed like a logical step forward to me.

Spring arrived and I came out of the gate hard. I built nine raised beds, 3’x 6’x 8″ out of pressure treated lumber. I used fence boards to make it more economical as they are pretty cheap and the beds wouldn’t be that high, so sides collapsing wasn’t a concern. And I ordered up a load of topsoil. Here is where it went bad. The topsoil was nothing more than this real fine, screened clay. I cut it with compost and as much organic matter I could get my hands on. But it wasn’t near enough. That first season, I had serious compaction and drainage problems. Everything was stunted and only a few of the real hardy things did well. I was expecting some problems, just not to that extent.

Next season I added manure and raised bed soil to all the beds and mixed it in as much as I could. I also noticed last season that the beds have a nice worm population which I took as a good sign. Things were much better last year. I planted a ton of different stuff. I had zucchini and cherry tomatoes in such quantity, that I was sick of them long before the season ended. I started a bunch of stuff inside from seed and that gave me a nice jump on a few things.

This time around

So here we are in 2019. What is my plan this year? This year I am going to start replacing a few of the beds with something a little more hardy. I plan to keep the same size as it is good for working. I just want to use some sturdier lumber and build some cold frame tops for a few of the beds. As for Square Foot Gardening, I am going to stick with it, but ease back on the density just a bit. Especially with beans. I think it will help improve yield. I also plan on adding more organic matter to all of the beds this year. probably more raised bed soil and maybe a little composted manure.

I plan on having a good variety of stuff again this year, just at a more manageable level. So here it goes:

Green Beans and Yellow Wax Beans: I will plant half a bed of each. I prefer bush beans to pole beans, just easier to work with. The dog does too, because she likes to steal them when I am not looking. I have a lot of “Provider” Green Bean seed left over from last year. So I just need to buy more yellow. And I will stagger the plantings by a few weeks.

Red Butter Lettuce and Romaine Lettuce: I had these in beds previously, this year they go into pots on the deck. Too many critters having their way with them last year. Plus then in the heat of the high summer, I can move them to partial shade to help get a handle on bolting.

Swiss Chard: I suddenly can’t get enough of this. I planted Rainbow Chard last season and it went nuts, and I went nuts for it. But I will scale it back to three plants instead of the six I had last season. Not everyone feels the same way about it as I do so I had problems trying to give away the excess.

Zucchini: Okay, so last season I had about 6 plants…..I didn’t have the heart to toss the extra seedlings so I found them a home. My freezer is still stuffed with vacuum sealed bags of zucchini. This year…..1 plant. Maybe a second later in the season, we will see.

Yellow Squash: See Zucchini…..same story just a different colored vegetable.

Potatoes: One of the beds I plan on re-building is the potato bed. This way I can make it deeper. I plan on half a bed of Pontiac Red and half a bed of Yukon Gold. Last year I got a lot of earlies which was great.

Tomatoes: I have been a tomato junkie since I was little. I love them. I planted a few oddballs last year just playing around and grew a lot of Romas. This year I plan on scaling it back a little. No Roma. Just Cherokee Purples, Sweet Cherries and some Brandywines. I am also trying a new seed by Burpee, called “Steakhouse Hybrid”. It’s a giant indeterminate Beefsteak type with fruits upwards of 3 pounds. I like odd things, what can I say.

Cucumbers: These are my wife’s favorite an one of mine. I grow them every year. This time I plan on trellising them in a bed along my deck. I have doe it before with decent success.

Peppers: I tried a ton of different varieties last year. I had great success with Aji Dulci’s, but I will not be repeating that. I gave most away. This year, Green Bells, Red Peppers, Ancho Chilis, Jalepenos and a variety I discovered last season called “Sweet Chocolate”. Dark chocolately flesh, very sweet.

Kale: I have been growing Tuscan Kale for several seasons now. I does great in upstate New York. It really gets it second wind in the fall with the cooler nights.

Broccoli: I haven’t had a lot of luck with it the past few seasons. This year I plan on just a few plats, but growing them in pots . This way if I fail again, I haven’t wasted precious bed space.

Carrots: The bed for carrots is the second bed I plan on re-building this year. For the same reason as the potato bed. I want more depth. Like the beans, I will stagger the plantings a few weeks apart. They store good in the ground, but they are vulnerable when out there. So I would rather have a fresh batch every few weeks and take them direct to table.

Corn: Last year was a corn fiasco. I started a batch inside. Got the seedlings outside and they never really progressed. So I started over from seed. Good germination and the corn got about 5 feet tall, then the wind storm came after a few days of heavy rain and put a hurting on it. On top of all that, the deer ravaged the corn patch. So….fencing this year. Plus some tall stakes and guide lines to keep the corn straight.

Delicata Squash: I am trying this out for the first time. My plan is to grow it in this huge pot I saved from a fruit tree I bought. I am a huge squash fan and everyone raves about these. Plus,they are pretty pricey if you want organic. So I can hopefully get a good yield and feast cheaply.

Melon: I am trying a new hybrid of cantaloupe called “Mango hybrid”. I have a little spare bed space, so I plan on giving it a lot of room and see what it can do.

Brussel Sprouts: I may try these….not sure yet. I have been eating a lot of them lately, so I thought why not give a stab at growing them?

And although not vegetables, I plan on adding some Blackberries along my southern fence. It seems like a good use of space and I love blackberries. Hopefully my blueberries will come back a little harder this year too. Last year they performed poorly.

Lastly, I found a northern hardy fig. It’s a bush, not tree,, and I have a spot in full sun in the back yard where I have the remains of a stump to pull out. This wold be the perfect spot for it. It’s a variety called “Violet de Bordeaux”.

So that’s the plan. Seems aggressive doesn’t it? It’s a lot of growing in a little bit of space, but that is the essence of what suburban gardening is all about. How much can I produce? If I can make the soil a little better and fertilize when I am supposed to this season, who knows how much I will get. I do keep a harvest journal. I weight everything as I pick and compare it to what it costs at the local grocer. Last season I grew just under $400 worth of produce. This year I want better yields, and my goal is $600 or more.

So that’s it. Any thoughts comments or experience would be appreciated. I enjoy hearing the wisdom of others. I would rather learn from your mistakes whole I have a chance. Just like I invite you to learn form mine.

Up Next, The Great Winter Lettuce Experiment…..

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The Do’s and Don’ts When Seeking Design Help

Some backstory is in order here

I have spent a lot of years in retail nurseries, big box Home Improvement stores and as a business owner helping people design gardens and landscaping. All manner of people have come to me seeking various levels of help and guidance. Nervous new homeowners, people disgusted with what they currently have at their house, amateur gardening “masters” who want me to buy off on their ideas,  the list goes on.

There are tons of reasons why someone seeks out help with landscape and garden design. Many of us will go it alone when it comes to decorating the inside of the house. But that line stops at the front door. For many people. the great outdoors is a mystery best left to those cargo-short, floppy hat wearing individuals at your local nursery. Strutting around, pruners holstered on their hip like some strange modern version of a cowboy, or cowgirl (I never wore the floppy hat..).  Chances are, since you are reading this, that you have sought out design help, or are contemplating doing so. So what I intend to do is give you some advice that can make this visit seem less humbling, much more productive for all involved, and help you realize your vision.

Do Your Homework

I can’t stress this enough. I am not saying go out and become a Master Gardener before you embark on this process, but do some homework. New homeowners especially need to realize that time is on your side, and not rush the process. It’s not like a couch that you can just return. Once stuff is in the ground, you own it. But where to start?

Start by learning about your area. Walk around your neighborhood and other neighborhoods. Different neighborhoods were generally built up at different times, so the landscaping preferences of the designers will be obvious. In my neighborhood, almost everyone has Honey Locust trees, and some type of evergreen foundation planting. Not so across town where the houses are packed in tighter and thick privacy hedges are in style. Chances are good that somewhere in your area is a public garden, park, or arboreum. Here you can find typical specimen trees for your area, see plant combinations and start to get a feel for what you like and don’t like.

There are a ton of other good resources: such as the library; the garden section at a bookstore; the internet, or even just wandering around your local garden center. After all, questions are free. Check social media as well for local garden groups. Many will tell you where to go to see good stuff and some do periodic garden tours or walks. What you want to do is fill your head up with potential ideas. Take and save pictures of things you like, especially if you don’t know what they are. It will pay dividends later on.

Try and Be Unique

Your house is a reflection of your personality. The outside is no different. If you want to have what everyone else in the neighborhood has, there is nothing wrong with that. What has been done up and down your street has been proven to work, and is always a safe choice.  If that is what you want, there is no point in seeing a designer. Just go out, buy what your neighbors have, plant it like they did, and celebrate your victory. This is the first question you have to answer. Do I want something unique? I bet you want something unique.

Next, consider the outside of your house, just as you would the inside. By that I mean, don’t just see it as one giant area, but rather different sections that should be considered separately in terms of function. Just like rooms in a house have different purposes. The professor who taught our initial Landscape Design Class hammered that into us. I will use my house as an example. I have a big front yard. It’s the showpiece. Large expanse of grass, ornamental plants, not a lot happens there except lawn mowing and raking. My southern side yard is the vegetable garden area. Fenced in area with a compost area, raised beds and an area where stuff is stored. It has a character all it’s own.

The backyard is more functional and built for socializing, with the deck and lower patio area. A large grassy area for dogs and humans to run around. The beginnings of a rose garden along the garage. And a big saucer Magnolia with a 20 foot tall cedar hedge ensure a little privacy.  Each area has it’s own distinct character because each area has it’s own purpose. So consider what your needs are and use that as a starting point. This does not mean that your property has to have 3 or more distinctly different themes. You can still have one contiguous theme even though you have a play area, a Japanese garden and a traditional cottage garden around your front porch. Once you know what each area will be used for it helps a lot with plant selection, placement of hardscapes such as walkways, patios, decks and arbors and you will end up with areas that are built for use. You bought the land along with the house, might as well get some mileage out of it.

Now You Are Ready

Why did I ask you to go through all that? Simple. A designer is not a mind-reader. Don’t expect that because they have education and experience, that telepathy is included.  They will have a ton of questions. If they don’t, be wary. If you walk in the door with at least a working knowledge of what you like or don’t like  in terms of colors, textures, what the purpose of each area is, and maybe even a few plants that you saw and really liked, you will be far ahead and more likely to get something you really love with a lot less hassle.

Bring pictures of your house or the area in question. It helps a designer to know what parts of the house or property you like and those you want out of sight, out of mind.  You might have a huge bay window in the front you want to frame, or maybe that spigot around the front corner you wish to conceal.  You will also know by now if you prefer evergreens to deciduous shrubs.

Those initial likes and dislikes, goals and purposes you give to the designer are what they use to give you a preliminary drawing. The more you can articulate, the better off you will be. The designer is going to begin with the end in mind. It’s what we do. We are putting together a puzzle with all the pieces you are giving us. But it’s a puzzle with multiple possible outcomes. Some other relevant things to consider that you need to communicate are; how much work you are willing to put into this when it comes to maintenance; do you have kids, if so what ages; any outdoor pets? And last, for all you northern folk, anywhere you intend to shovel, blow or plow snow, and any walkways that you salt regularly, speak up! You don’t want to wait until the following spring to discover all the grass and expensive perennials along your front walk are dead from salt. Or in the teeth of winter you discover that all that snow along the garage could be easily blown aside, if only those huge shrubs weren’t planted there. Begin with the end in mind.

Be On The Same Page And Stick To The Plan

This part applies to all you couples. This whole learning process needs to happen together. You don’t want to find yourself having an argument in public in front of a complete stranger, because you want that country cottage looking she-shed, but your partner wants a water garden in the same spot. Discuss everything beforehand this way you are both aligned. The whole process of learning and planning needs to be a group activity. Otherwise you like it, he hates it and that’s a recipe for disaster.

A savvy and opportunistic designer, especially if commissions are involved, is still a salesperson. Their job is to sell you a lot of material. Stick to the plan when you go in. Don’t let them sell you stuff you aren’t crazy about.  You will have no way of knowing if the designer is really that in love with Dwarf Korean Lilac and wants to share that love with you, or the nursery manager accidentally over-ordered and they are trying to unload it. Stick to what you like, be aligned, and don’t go rogue on each other.  Don’t be afraid to say “NO” if you don’t like a recommendation.

So there are my tips to help you succeed. This is not the “be all and end all” list by any stretch of the imagination. But I have seen all of it happen. These tips can hopefully help you get exactly what you want and have a green space that you want to spend time in; one that people stop to look at when they walk by. I want you to go in there and make the designer sell you your own idea, tempered with their professional knowledge of design and plant materials. And I want everyone involved in the process to come away happy.

Not too much to wish for.

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An Introduction is in Order

Welcome to my re-purposed blog.

Previously, I was just posting about random stuff, trying to have a purpose….and it just wasn’t doing it for me. I like to write. But, I like to write most about things I am passionate about. That was the driving force for the re-purposing. The whole time I was blogging before, it felt too much like work. Like I had to keep doing it, but I could never truly answer the “why?”.

Now I feel I can.

I have always had an interest in the outdoors, gardening, landscaping, and horticulture in general. I went to college and studied Ornamental Horticulture and Landscape Design. I spent tens of thousands of hours working in Garden Centers, home improvement garden departments, nurseries, commercial landscaping, and consulting. At one point, I even found time to have my own landscaping business. Even after all that, there is still a enough I don’t know to fill a set of encyclopedias. The green world is vast, and even a lifetime spent in it, only shows you a very narrow piece.

Here is my space to share my piece with you, and hopefully you will share a little of yours. Bringing the green world into our lives makes us happier, healthier, more self-sustaining, and builds a better word for the rest of us. A greener world is a better world by far, and no one could really challenge that statement. Don’t think this means I am advocating for getting rid of cars or plowing under civilization only to return the modern world to pasture. But I feel we can integrate the green world into our little corners of civilization and sort of “take the edge off”, if you will.

I plan on covering a range of topics, from product reviews and gardening tips, to more educational stuff like soil science, design elements, site selection, common landscaping problems, and sharing my landscaping and gardening trials and tribulations. In return, I would love it if people would comment and share their experience, advice, etc. With my education and experience, I am still by no means an expert compared to some. Everyone should bear in mind that I live in upstate NY. So my preferences and experience are based around being in USDA zone 5/6.

Even though we are staring winter in the face here, there is still much to do and even more we can talk about. All winter long we wait for spring, then when it comes we never seem to be fully prepared! But we love it all any way. So welcome. Pull up a seat

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Make Container Gardening Your New Thing and Unleash Your Gardening Potential.

For us gardening purists, there is only one way to garden. At least their was. You dug up a patch of lawn and planted stuff in rows. Then some forward thinking person, probably with terrible soil and /or back issues, thought there had to be a better way. So they made a tall box and filled it with better soil, planted some rows of stuff and relished in just how easy it was to garden that way. But that wasn’t good enough. An engineer named Mel thought traditional row gardening was a waste of valuable growing space. He went on to utilize every square foot of his raised beds and set the standard for easy to achieve, high-yield gardening. Today, the world of gardening continues to evolve.

Along the way, a small part of gardening that many of us were already doing got overlooked: containers. Maybe we had an herb or two, a patio tomato, or some cute miniature pepper plant but that was it. Never anything serious. Well I am here to tell you different. Container gardening may just be the next big thing. Why? With the rise in urban gardening and homesteading, containers are a great way to make up for a lack of space. City and condo dwellers have been doing that for a long time. There are several reasons why you should jump into container gardening or consider adding containers to your existing setup. So instead of looking down on those who choose to grow stuff in pots, I say add it to your arsenal.

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Containers are a Great Beginning

If you are a budding novice gardener, or on your first gardening baby step, containers are a great way to get started. You can start slowly with just a few pots and easy to grow stuff and then add to it as you get more proficient. And should gardening suddenly not be the thing for you, then you won’t have the regret of all the time and money spent on raised beds. And you won’t have the added labor of trying to turn garden back to lawn.

I recommend starting with something easy, like lettuce or another fast-sprouting leafy vegetable. They are easy to grow and can handle a variety of conditions and it will help you gain proficiency and confidence as a gardener. Then as you get bolder, you can move on to tomatoes, peppers, even potatoes.

Containers Eliminate a lot of Problems

When you plan a garden or where to put a raised bed, you need to consider what you will be growing and how much direct sun it likes. Lettuce bolts easy in the heat, so having partial shade will help counter that and result in bigger leaves, but then what about the others that want that full sun? Now stuff is getting complicated…..not with containers though. Put them wherever you want and move them when you need to. Right now my patio lettuce is doing great in full sun. Once we get into July though, I will move it to a spot that gets a lot of afternoon shade. I can’t move my raised beds.

If water conservation is important to you, containers use far less water than even raised beds. Water your containers directly with a can or a wand and you avoid all that wasted water that just leaches into the water table. Some types of containers such as thin walled plastic ones, can dry out a little faster, so be aware of what you are growing in. The thicker the better. And a saucer to catch the excess helps as well especially with clay pots. The same rules apply to fertilizing containers. You need a lot less so you will save money there as well.

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You can get creative in your watering methods if you are imaginative and handy.

Weeding, even in raised beds is tough. No one likes doing it. In containers it’s a lot easier. Your not weeding the empty space in between rows, and if you want, put your pots on a higher surface to make it even easier. I have six pots and a planter so I just run through them quick. I pull a lot less weeds from my containers than from my beds. You don’t have to worry about tilling containers in the spring. You can either work the soil around with a trowel, or dump it out into a larger container such as a wheelbarrow, mix and re-fill.

Containers make it economically feasible to use a higher quality soil. If you want to use a high end  garden soil it can get costly to buy enough to fill your raised beds, or till into your garden in a quantity enough to make a difference.  Not so with containers. You will need a significantly lesser quantity of soil, so you can spend that savings on quality. Ideally you want something high in organic matter, maybe a little perlite and some peat. Even using this, it’s best to mix in a handful of native soil. What you want are those beneficial microbes that sterilized bagged soils won’t have.

Container Gardening for Kids

Growing stuff in containers is a great way to introduce your kids to growing their own food. How many of us grew stuff in cups or small pots as a project in school? We did beans. A decent sized pot, some soil, and a seed or two is all you need. You can’t tell me they won’t anxiously be checking every day to see if the seed sprouted, or measuring how much taller their pepper plant is today than yesterday. Children learn to care for things, it teaches responsibility and patience and is a great way to teach them a little biology and love of nature along the way. Your children get to see where food comes from, to a lesser extent.

Keeping Furry Pests Away

Growing things in containers can put them out of the feeding range of may smaller pests. Bigger pots ensure that further still. I had my lettuce ravaged last year, along with my spinach. If I wasn’t such a fan of Watership Down, I might have taken steps. Since I switched to pots and moved them to the deck, nothing has bothered the rather abundant lettuce crop I have growing. Not even the deer.

Are there downsides? Sure. Containers can dry out fast, or drain poorly. Large plants will need large pots and that can get heavy. High winds can knock stuff over. But the good outweighs the bad as long as you use quality pots, know the peculiarities of what you are growing, and manage your risks. Enjoy and explore the possibilities of this option. It can expand your gardening possibilities.

If you don’t try, you never learn.

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Tomatoes and Tilling

Tomato Status: Excellent

Despite the setbacks for the cold, the tomatoes are flourishing. They are almost a foot and a half tall. Color looks good. I removed all the yellowing, cold-damaged lateral stems.  I would say I am on track for where I would normally be this time of year, which is a little surprising considering the long, drawn out cold spring we have been having. But lot’s of sun and a few hot days and the tomatoes have bounced back in fine fashion.

Yesterday I weeded all the beds and gave everything the first shot of Espoma Garden Fertilizer. Today, I went through the plants and pinched off the small flower buds that were starting to set. It won’t affect the quality or quantity of the harvest. Plants can’t expend energy in too many directions at once.  So by pinching off the flower buds, the plant will shift gears to green growth instead of fruit production. More flowers will come, but until I think they are ready, no flowers. This is gardener’s version of responsible parenting. I also went through and removed all of the suckers where lateral shoots come off the main stem.  They can have a tendency to retard growth if left unchecked. And if you can successfully root them, they are a ready made plant.

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Today I also started tying up the plants as well. You have a lot of options with tomatoes. You can stake them, cage them, weave them o a wire, or just let them sprawl out. I choose to stake mine. It works better with square foot gardening. Over the years I have used a variety of tying options from jute twine to wire , electrical zip ties and kitchen twine. What I found last year was something that works better than all of that. Elastic. Just a plain old elastic band like the type you wold use for sewing. I bought a roll of 3/8 inch elastic at Walmart for just a few dollars and it goes a long way. I tie the stems loosely using a square know and leaving just a little room. As the stems thicken and move around, the elastic will stretch and flex with them without any damage. Especially when it gets windy.  It cuts and ties easily. The only downside is that you can’t compost it. So either you untie it and save it, or do what I do, cut it out with scissors at the end of the season and throw it away.

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To Till or Not to Till

Finally, I would like to close out by bringing up a topic I have seen discussed a lot lately. Tilling or working the soil. The current and trendy view is that this shouldn’t be done because it damages the mycorrhizae which exist in your soil, and in damaging them you hurt the soil as a whole over the long term.

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The mycorrhizae are those tiny little fungi that inhabit the soil and latch onto your plant roots in a complex symbiotic relationship. Plants can easily absorb water, but not so easily absorb most nutrients. The mycorrhizae need sugars that soil doesn’t provide. Thus a partnership is formed. The fungi latch to the plant roots and help the plant absorb those nutrients and the plants provide them with sugar. This is the complex interconnection of nature in action.

The along come the humans. We break up the soil to some extent in order to make soil easier to work, add in amendments or simply to till under a cover crop. It all amounts to the same thing. Some amount of damage is done to the beneficial fungi. But I believe that extent is a bit exaggerated by the “no till” permaculture crowd. There are several reasons why I think this is true, but mind you these are theories based on what science I do know.

If you remove the plants, roots and all at the end of the season, you are basically cutting off the fungi’s food supply anyway. But don’t worry, unless you are sterilizing your soil between seasons, those fungi have inoculated your soil with spores. Spores which hang for the next season waiting for another plant to bond with. This will be especially true if you’re a heavy user of compost or have a garden soil already rich in organic matter. Rich, well drained soil will help the mycorrhizal layer quickly re-establish itself.

The “no-till” viewpoint gives too much credit to these fungi for being able to overcome terrible soil. If you have that dreaded heavy clay, or soil so sandy it holds water about as effectively as a colander, then you need to amend it, most likely for several years in order to get it where you want it. The fungi that help the plants don’t really improve the soil. That’s not their function. So in this case the benefits of tilling or mixing in amendments, far outweighs the damage done. Your fungal layer will more quickly establish itself the better your soil gets.

There are several fungal inoculants you can buy to aid you in re-establishing the beneficial relationship. I can’t speak as to their effectiveness as I have never used them. I would suggest trying it out o a small scale and see how that does versus a non-inoculated section. Where I can see these inoculants being most helpful is if you are starting plants from seed in pots or trays and you are using sterilized soil. The sterilization process may have destroyed any mycorrhizal spores present. The seedlings will not need these fungi when they initially germinate. But as they quickly mature and develop roots  here it will make an impact with faster nutrient uptake. In theory this could mean you enter warmer weather with bigger, healthier transplants who already have an established root/fungus relationship to bring to the garden with them. Hmmmmm. This sounds like something to experiment with.

That’s all for now. The warm weather is upon us. So get out there and enjoy it. A bad day out in the lush green beats a good day inside anytime.

 

Cold Spring: Gardening in Cold Weather

The official first day of spring was Wednesday, March 20th. By the weather we have been having, you would think it was yesterday. The cold, dreariness of winter slogged on. Sure the snows melted, and the ground thawed. But until recently, that’s about all we can say has happened. April was drier and colder than usual, leading to a bleak, cold and wet start to May. We have had a few days of promising temperatures so far. But this time  they seem like aberrations, rather than the gradual warming trend we see going into May.

May is usually that month where upstate New York gardeners are feeling confident about the danger of frost being behind us, and we wait patiently for a few weeks for our soil to get warm enough so that our seeds will sprout and our transplanted seedlings thrive. Not so much this year. The weather has been terrible. While we had a good day here or there, nighttime temperatures have been dipping into the low forties, and occasionally high 30’s. In fact as I write this, it’s expected to dip to 42 degrees tonight.

I had a ton of seedlings ready to go. I had pots with lettuce loitering around inside waiting to go out (the dog kept eyeballing them, she has a taste for romaine…). I had a transplanted fig and several raspberry plants that needed to get put in the ground as well. Only the weather was stopping me. I wasn’t too concerned about sowing seeds at this point. All of my slower growing plants, like peppers, tomatoes, kale and brussel sprouts were putting on size, and I had to transplant them from starting cells to 3″ pots.

So on a nice day last week, I decided to start the hardening off process. If you have never done this, it’s the process of giving plants started indoors time to acclimate to being outside.  Plants started under grow lights in stable temperature will burn up, die back or otherwise wilt when exposed to the harsh temperature fluctuations and glaring sunlight of the great outdoors.

So my plan was to put them outside during the day on nice days giving them a chance to adapt. After a few days of this, I made the decision that they were ready. My arrogance and impatience would prove costly. But I forged on anyway. The first cold night outside, I dug a pit in one of my raised beds, dropped a storm window over it for a cover, and housed my plants in the improvised cold frame. This is where it started to go bad. The first few days they were in the frame, it was clear and really sunny, but temps were barely in the 40’s. I wasn’t concerned because I had been monitoring the bed temperature and it was staying around 50. But I failed to consider the effect of the sunshine through the glass. Almost everything in the cold frame got scorched being under clear glass. Not fatal, but decidedly ugly.  Thankfully, they have strong roots.

Last weekend was sunny and warm. I took advantage of that to get all of my raised beds tilled, and with a few days of decent weather on the horizon I decided to plant my potatoes, all of my transplants, and sow the remaining beds. I mean it was 60 degrees, almost mid-May. Safe space right? So I removed my wretched looking transplants from, the improvised cold frame and got them into the ground. I figured this would give them a measure of protection. WRONG AGAIN.

The temperature snapped back down. We barely made it into the 50’s here during the day, and back into the low 40’s most nights. At this point I think the transplants were hardened off enough that they just accepted the suffering. Poor little things. They are ugly looking for sure, with their  scalded leaves and withered appearance, but they are gamely hanging on. As you can see below the next few days things seem to be picking up.

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I am hoping that being planted in good soil, some warm sun, and decent average temperatures will snap them out of their sunburnt funk. A shot of organic garden fertilizer will help too. I will give the a few weeks to snap out of it. If they don’t I need to consider replacement options. On the plus side, my potato seedlings are already showing above ground., and I saw some bean sprouts this morning. My brussell sprout transplants appear to be indestructible. Not a mark on them. And above all else, my lettuce which has lived outside in pots for weeks now is loving life. In fact it’s doing so well, I started two more pots of romaine.

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This entire fiasco has taught me three things. First, I need to stop screwing around and build a few proper cold frames before fall. Second, I am considering black plastic to warm the beds faster, and to keep it on until late may with the transplants. Last, I need to be more patient. Not having a cold frame ready, I should have just made a home for everything in the unheated garage. It would have blunted the worst of the cold.

WELL, LIVE AND LEARN. Another update coming soon as things progress.

Spring relentlessly pushes forth and my green soul longs to keep pace.

Coffee in the Garden: Enjoy it Twice

I love coffee.

Many of us love coffee.

We all love gardening so…………..

I enjoy nothing more on summer mornings than sitting on my deck, sipping a warm cup of coffee, enjoying the quiet sounds and watching the world come alive. I look out over the garden, smell the fragrance, listen to the birds and just enjoy the moment. A lot of coffee gets consumed in my house. I also have a lot of garden beds in need of good compost. So I take advantage of this ready source of nitrogen and add coffee grounds to my compost. In doing so, I get to enjoy the benefits of coffee twice.

How good of a source of nitrogen is it?

Used coffee grounds are an excellent source of nitrogen, and a few other nutrients and minerals. Depending on which scholarly article you read, coffee grounds are somewhere around 3% nitrogen by volume. So on it’s own, coffee grounds would read as 3-0-0 for NPK. They do also contain potassium and phosphorus, but generally less than 1% by volume. 3% isn’t too shabby. Now coffee alone shouldn’t be your only source of nitrogen. But when added to compost bins, it creates another diverse source of nitrogen for you.

compost grounds

Why wait then? Why not just add it straight to the garden beds?

You can add your grounds directly to the garden soil. However, the nitrogen in coffee grounds is not readily available for plant uptake. The grounds have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 20:1. If you remember your rule of thumb for compost breakdown, then you want that ratio closer to even. The coffee grounds are an available source of food for beneficial microbes, but that process can rob the soil of it’s existing nitrogen. So you can add them, but you will also need to supplement with additional fertilizer, so whats the point? Eventually when the coffee grounds break down, they will provide nitrogen, but that takes time and could represent a good portion of your growing season. You should not  expect any results right away.

But coffee is acidic……

Adding spent coffee grounds to your soil, or using compost of which they are a part will not make your soil more acidic. Used coffee grounds have a pH of between 6.5 and 6.8. That is slightly acidic, but pretty close to neutral. The brewing process removes most of the acid from the grounds because it is water-soluble. Your coffee ends up being acid and the grounds neutral. So don’t be scared by this urban myth. It’s based on only knowing half the info. This all being true, fresh ground coffee poured around your hydrangeas and watered in, should in theory cause a color change. I have never played around with it, but it sounds like a fun experiment.

Where to get the grounds

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Kitchen grounds bucket with some vegetable scraps in it

If you drink coffee, you have grounds. But that alone may not add up to enough to be meaningful. Luckily for us, there are a lot of other coffee drinkers in the world. So there are lots of grounds available. There has been a lot written about making deals with coffee shops, convenience stores and the like for their grounds. They almost always have coffee brewing, and they produce a lot of grounds. But realistically, they don’t want a stinky bucket of used grounds underfoot. So you can ask, but you will need to stay on good terms with them. Try smaller, boutique coffee shops. They generally thrive on being environmentally friendly, and may jump at the chance to help you out.

free grounds

Friends and neighbors are always a good source too. Especially if they share in the bounty of your harvest. This way you can sell it as they are really helping themselves by helping you. If you are brave you could leave out a bucket, pail or tote with a sign, but who knows what would end up in it. I leave that to your discretion.

I have discovered a gold mine of free used grounds. Work. We plow through coffee at work. Most offices do. Last spring I put out an empty #10 coffee can with a sign on it explaining why I wanted them. It was a hit. I was lugging home two of these containers a week. The cleaning lady even helped me out because in case you don’t know, wet coffee grounds are heavy. So I effectively removed over 10 pounds from the trash for every can of grounds I took home. It didn’t take long to fill a 60 gallon Rubber-made tote.

This year I decided I didn’t need that much. So I settled on an alternative. Like many offices, the traditional coffee maker setup is being slowly phased out in favor of Keurigs. No more buckets of grounds. Now I get bags of spent k-cups. I sent out a email to everyone in my general vicinity at work, and told them why I wanted the grounds, and that I had a bin labelled for used k-cups in my cubicle.  All it took was a waste bin from an empty cubicle and a label maker, to be in business. Once a week I get a decent sized bag of k-cups to bring home.

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K-cups from work being processed

The down side of this is, that it requires some processing on my end. You just take a knife, run it around the foil rim, peel it back, then once around the inside to loosen the grounds. Give it a tap and out they come. K-cup grounds are a finer grind. So per unit of volume you get more coffee grounds than traditional grounds. The finer grind should also help with the breakdown process, as a finer grind has more surface area. More surface area makes them more chemically reactive.

So consider this resource when you are hunting for things to compost. When organic matter like coffee grounds gets to a landfill, it gets buried and decomposes anaerobically. That means it produces methane. But by composting you help eliminate this source of green house gas. So all you organic gardeners, urban homesteaders and mad scientists need to take advantage of this resource.

Stay green. Help the planet and in turn help yourself.

A parting word of thanks to all you new subscribers. I am touched by the fact that you liked what you read enough to subscribe. I will keep trying to turn out qualify content for all of you.

 

 

Spring Garden Preparations Continue

I had such plans for last week and this weekend. Our growing season is short here in upstate NY. Because of that, savvy gardeners like to hit the ground running as soon as it gets warm enough. I have the normal list of stuff to do such as work the beds, transplant seedlings to pots, etc. Additionally, I have an ambitious list of outdoor projects that I want to get done as well before the growing season gets underway. Some items are necessities, some are “nice to have’s”. Either way, I need nice, or at least tolerable weather to get it all done.

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Towards the end of last week, it started to rain and got cold again. Not exactly what I wanted because I had taken apart the almost 100 feet (30 m) of vinyl picket fence that was slowly being pulled down by creeping English Ivy. This Ivy had been planted in the cedar hedgerow along my southern border and just left to it’s own devices for who knows how long before I bought the house. It grew through the fence and into the lawn, in the process applying so much downward pressure on the fence, that it shattered the plastic clips that hold the sections to the posts. My only choice was to yank the fence sections out, prune back the ivy, then reinstall the fence sections using new hardware.

I could have let this go, but I have a deer problem and a dog problem. Deer want in, dog wants out. So I decided to solve both by installing plastic mesh deer netting. This would make the broken down fencing inaccessible, so the ivy/fence issue had to be dealt with first. I was not kind to the ivy……if anyone tries to sell you on the idea of a few flats of Ivy as a ground cover or border, or anything, just know that it needs to be constantly contained. And it will grow underground and pop up in other places. So you think you have it under control but you don’t.

I was also anxious to upgrade my compost bin in order to take advantage of the debris from spring cleanup as a potential source of compost. But given the location of the bin, the deer meeting had to go up first. So as you can see the ivy and fence issues were in the way of pretty much everything. To top it off, the weather was wet and cold. I needed a better option, but waiting for one would not help.

No secrets here. I sucked it up every decent, passably dry hour I could find until I beat back the ivy, and got the fence back up. Slammed home a bunch of 7′ metal T-posts I purchased at Tractor Supply and hung that netting. Hanging deer netting is no fun. It snags on everything. At one point I was like a salmon caught in a gill net. But you need to be patient, careful and deliberate. I still have a few hundred feet to go, but the hardest part is done.

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That was enough to then allow me to build my new compost bin. I already had a 4 foot (1.2 m) by 4 foot square made of 2″x 8″ lumber. My goal was to use that as the base and extend up so the bed was 32 inches (81 cm) tall sides and back, yet only 16 inches (40 cm) in the front to allow for easier working. I built this monster about 10 feet from the beds current resting place. And I grossly underestimated how much this beast weighed when assembled. Pressure treated wood is heavy stuff, and only handling one cut piece at a time, I didn’t consider the overall weight until it came time to re-position it. That took a combination of brute force and ingenuity, but I got it situated and I am a lot happier. My co-workers have been donating coffee grounds and between that and the yard waste I will generate form cleanup, I have quite a few sources of carbon and nitrogen and I expect to create black gold with this new setup.

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During the wetter hours, I managed to get most of my seedlings out of the 6 packs and into some larger starter pots. Even though I re-potted my peppers, they are still sitting on heat mats for another week. Everything got a small shot of fertilizer as well. That will help with the transplant shock. But the hardening off process has begun. My Viollete de Bordeaux fig has started to leaf out, so I potted that and it now lives outside. Soon it will go to it’s permanent home in the yard.

All told, it was a productive weekend despite the crappy weather. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and will yourself to get stuff done. Had the weather been sunny and dry, I would have gotten the garden area mowed out as well, maybe gotten some additional deer netting hung. But I am happy overall with what I have so far.

Find your motivation, make your own Eden.

Let the thought of growing things move your hands to action.

Growing Degree Days: Unlocking The Timing Of Nature

Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.    (R.W. Emerson)

I want to take a minute to talk about a little known and seldom used topic: Growing Degree Days (GDD). A new topic for many, or an old topic just called something else depending on where you live. We all  know at least one piece of folksy garden wisdom such as putting down crabgrass preventative when  the forsythia bloom.  There are tons of little “tips” like this out there. Most of them actually based on science, even if most of us didn’t know it. So GDD is worth taking a minute to talk about.

So What are they?

Basically, they are a measure of heat accumulation to-date for the growing season. It is a tool used in phenology, which is basically the study of plant and animal life cycles. Tracking GDD allow you to predict plant, animal and insect development. These things are biologically timed to enter certain stages at certain times, often based on GDD. So forget about your calendar. Nature has it’s own, and it cares not for our man-made creations.

Growing degrees are calculated when the temperature goes above the base temperature, usually 10 °C. The actual formula is a little more complex because it requires taking into account the high and low temperatures. Then there are formulas for determining cumulative GDD, not just for a single day. The good news is , you don’t need to do math.

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Why Use Them?

If you are a serious gardener, urban homesteader, or even someone just getting started, tracking GDD is something you need to consider. Why? Because as I mentioned earlier, nature keeps it’s own calendar. Some people may go out and do the same things at the same time every year, and get lucky as a result. But why not do things at the proper time, when conditions are optimal and you get the best results? From an integrated pest management and organic gardening standpoint, it’s worth it. Using GDD to time fertilizer and pesticide applications maximizes results. That saves you time, money and reduces chemical usage.

Getting it right the first time is important with plants. As many of us know, depending on what you are growing, you only get one chance to stop an infestation, block a fungus, or correct a nutrient deficiency. Watching your GDD, and knowing what is coming next can really give you an advantage.

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Where Does One Get This Helpful Information?

I told you earlier, you won’t need to do math. You can if you want to, but there is an easier way. For those of us here in the states, it’s simple. Every county has an extension service , every state has its own friendly department of Agriculture who track this data for local farmers. But this data is just as helpful to the gardener as it is for the farmer.

This is the web page for the station nearest me, our local agricultural service has a monitoring station at a local apple farm. Here I use a “base 50” scale. Which calculates GDD using a base temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit:

NEWA Cornell at Orbaker’s Apple Farm

I visit this page weekly through mid-season. They have some helpful guides as to what pokes it’s head up when. So I know when to start looking for certain pests. The best defense is when you know exactly what the offense is going to do.

So take advantage of the hard work others are doing. Most of it funded by your tax dollars anyway. You will be the local garden wizard who always seems to know what is going to happen before it actually does. Whether you choose to share your secret is up to you.

Happy growing!

 

 

Growing Lettuce Indoors: The Basement Lettuce Experiment

My experiment with growing lettuce indoors from seed is progressing nicely. I posted once before about why I decided to do this, so I won’t go through all that again. I am happy with where things are right now. So far it’s been pretty easy.  I feel I should have done this much sooner.

So everything has been transferred to clay pots for a few weeks now. The romaine has started to darken a little and is now starting to show some size. It’s about 5-6 inches tall now. The red butter lettuce is starting to spread out a bit. I have never seen it mature. When I planted it last year, the critters got to it. So I am not sure of the final size, although I must admit I bought it on a whim just to have a little variety and didn’t do much research. I do have one stunted plant. Not sure what’s going on there. I gave it a little tug to check root development and it didn’t seem to develop the roots the others did. It’s still hanging in there, so I won’t get rid of it yet.

I think I am to the point now where they can come out of the basement and up to a sunny location. Outside is not an option for at least another 4 weeks, a little less if I protect it somehow. The trick is to find a spot in the house with enough sun, out of reach of the dog. She has a taste for romaine and pretty much any leafy green.

While we are on the subject of plants being started in my basement, I would like to introduce some new members of the 2019 Garden family, just arrived from Burpee.

On the left of the first photo is a Bristol raspberry, to the right of it, a Violette de Bordeaux fig.   The photo on the right are a variety of heirloom raspberry. A quick word on the fig……It’s supposed to be hardy for my growing zone. It’s a bush, not a tree, that grows 6-10 feet tall, is supposed to be a prolific fruiter after a few years growth, and the fruit is reported to be very sweet. A caution should be sounded here, that Burpee recommends netting to keep the birds off it. Now, look at the little tiny rooted cutting in the 3″ pot Burpee sent me. That cost $20.00. I would have sought out a better option had I known that is what I would get. Here is a fully grown specimen:

Violette de Bordeaux

I think it may take a little bit to get there. But I want to see how it goes. I may end up planting a few since I have a big open sunny space. Excess fruit can be dehydrated so I don’t worry about overproduction.

Well, that’s it for the update. Greener days are coming. The warmer weather has me aching to be outside. I caution myself with the fact that we were blanketed with snow when I got up on April 1, so conditions are still subject to sudden change here.

If you like what you see here, subscribe. Spring is in the air and new material will start coming faster now that there is so much good green stuff to go see and do. And for those of you who have already, thank you.

The Case for a No-Mow Lawn

If you own a home, to some extent you have a lawn. For many of us, a lawn is a source of pride. Here in the suburbs, rows of manicured lawns lend consistency to our shady, tree-lined streets. The front of the house has always been a sense of pride for homeowners. It’s our showplace. We manicure the turf, weed, spray, edge , mow, trim and otherwise fret away our summer Saturdays making sure everything is squared away. Your front yard is your first impression. It can say a lot about you.

But what about that one person down the street? You know the one. Where the lady in the straw hat and crocs is always weeding some patch of flowers, in that jungle she calls a front yard. As much as it bothers you, it most likely bothers you because it isn’t the same as all the rest. Not because it is ugly, but because it isn’t. Some people it seems, are willing to break the mold. To boldly go where no one mows anymore. I am talking about the no-mow lawn.

Traditional turf has been replaced, and endless possibilities have been discovered. Instead of a traditional expanse of manicured green carpet, let stone, mulch, beds of flowers, clumps of perennials, shrubs and even vegetables rule the landscape. Your entire front yard is now transformed into a giant landscaped garden, as unique as the homeowner wants it to be. There are a few different paths to take here. Either just plain and simply stop mowing your existing lawn, or a least a part of it, and let nature take it’s course. Or your lawn gets turned into planted beds.

Standing Out

There are benefits to doing this. First, you stand out. If done right, your home will have “pop”. People will walk by, just to look at it. You get included in local garden tours, and it is just plain and simply enjoyable to look at, and ever changing as you progress through the season.

Conserving Water

Also, if you live in an especially dry, arid zone, an established no-mow lawn despite all its lush greenery, will require significantly less water. Which is very helpful if you have water restrictions and its also less work for you. Watering a no-mow lawn also produces much less run-off that just ends up in your storm sewer system.

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Irrigation run-off on a traditional lawn

Expand Your Growing Space

For all you avid vegetable gardeners who have run out of space, no-mow lawns present an opportunity: Front Yard Vegetable Gardening! A lot of vegetables, especially the leafy ones, make attractive landscape plants. Why not decorate with them? Move that Kale out front to make room for more potatoes out back. Rainbow Swiss Chard grouped together can make an attractive planting instead of hostas. There are lots of possibilities here.

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Edible front yard

So What’s the downside? There are a few, and carefully consider each before you dive headlong into something like this:

  • Work
  • Municipal issues
  • Impact on selling your home

It’s a lot of Work

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Despite it’s really cool appearance, in some cases it can be more work than the lawn was. It will of course take a lot of labor to establish. But the remember, unlike grass that you just basically mow, all those lovely perennials, bulbs, vegetables, shrubs and cutting flowers have individual needs. There are different times to prune, fertilize, pests to fight, watering and a host of other unique factors. If you like gardening, this is not much of a down side, and in many cases, much more enjoyable than schlepping a lawn mover back and forth. So I wold say this one at least balances out.

Municipal Issues

The nail that sticks out usually gets hammered. That’s true with your lawn as well. Check your town regulations. Especially if you want to just stop mowing all or a portion of your lawn. In most cases they can legally deem you a nuisance and fine you or more. I used to work for a landscaping contractor who did jobs for the town in those instances. If the town deemed your property a nuisance, and you did nothing about it, we showed up and did it for you. Then we billed the town, who in turn billed you. There are ways to get around this. But start by knowing your rules. The internet is rife with stories of this happening to people. 

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These people had to fight the town to save their lawn

Impact on Selling

Not everyone appreciates the growing world as much as some of us do. If you plan on selling your house in the future, something like this may not exactly be a selling point. There are exceptions, such as a a Victorian -style house set close to the sidewalk. Something that is usually in keeping with several other houses in the neighborhood.

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Most potential buyers may see an overworked, heavily designed front yard as a negative. Or at the very least use the potential cost of removal as a bargaining chip. But that is your decision in the end. Don’t let yourself be talked into it by a realtor as soon as they see your house for the first time.

My Approach to the Concept

I like this concept. But I am literally going to play both sides of the fence with this one. I have a nice front yard, and I sit on a corner lot. I even pay someone to care for it. My back yard is separated by a white picket fence. It is the back yard where I decided a while ago to apply the no-mow concept. Starting this spring, I intend to turn the back yard into a series of gardens and functional areas connected by a meandering stone pathway. A sizable piece of my backyard is already taken up by a deck, the vegetable garden, a brick patio that needs to be re-leveled, and a nice magnolia tree. I think those things make for good bones to design around. And I relish the thought of sitting on the deck on summer mornings, drinking a warm cup of coffee and looking out over the gardens, admiring their colors, textures and shapes. To appealing to pass up.

Seed Starting Update for 2019

The seeds have arrived. The plans are drawn up. And last week the first stage of the 2019 garden season began. I started seeds! I knew how many plants I wanted this year, so I made my list, and selected things for early starting that I knew needed to be started indoors, or were something I may have had a problem with in the past. My secret weapon this year is heat mats. I should have used them last year, but I thought my basement was warm enough and boy was I wrong.

So this year I ordered some off Amazon. I planted a week ago, and what a difference. I already have seedlings. If you were considerering using them, I would highly recommend it. They don’t cost much and the results I saw speak for themselves. Before I get into what already sprouted, here is what I started:

  • Swiss Chard
  • Kale
  • Jalapeno Peppers
  • Ancho Chili Peppers
  • Sweet Chili Peppers
  • Chinese Giant Bell Peppers
  • Intruder Bell Peppers
  • Sweet Chocolate Peppers
  • Olympian Slicing Cucumbers
  • Calabrese Broccoli
  • Mango Hybrid Melon
  • Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
  • Brandy-wine Tomatoes
  • Sweet Cherry Tomatoes
  • Steakhouse Hybrid Beefsteak Tomatoes
  • Green Gem Brussel Sprouts
  • Tango Celery

Seems like a lot doesn’t it? But I only planted 3 cells of most of those. I scaled it back based on my notes from last year. There is still an entire group that will be sowed outdoors in May, such as Sweet Corn, squash, beans, basically the easy fast germinating stuff. This year, because I ordered seeds, potatoes and some plants, the order is staggered. The seeds came about 10 days ago. I expect the tubers next, then the plants (raspberries and a fig), and last will be the sweet potato slips.

Right now I have sprouts on the kale, chard, brussel sprouts, tomatoes and cucumbers. So I am looking for a cheap source of small plastic pots to transplant them into. They will develop better i pots then left in the starter cells, even though I use deep cells.

20190317_074459My enthusiasm seems to grow along with them. One thing I did notice is that the heat mats require more frequent watering. Not a lot, but noticeably more than last year. I am okay with that. I tend to it all daily, like an impatient, hovering parent. I expect in another 10-14 days, maybe a little less, I will start seeing peppers. Peppers were a hard spot last year. It took a log time because my basement was so cool. The plants were small when I moved them outside, and were stunted for the season. This year I am hoping for bigger plats, for a bigger yield. .

20190317_075036So I am pleased that things are moving along. The warmer weather makes me impatient to get out there, so having something to do is a nice distraction. The snow is gone, the finches are changing colors, and in the mornings when I leave for work, I can hear birdsong. Now is also when I also start stocking up on supplies such as: fertilizer, copper fungicide for the squash, melons and cucumbers,  Epsom salts and calcium. I mix Epsom salts and calcium and give the beds with the peppers and tomatoes a good shot of that. That helps prevent blossom end rot and a number of other deficiencies they are prone to.  My raised bed soil is deficient in micro nutrients and last year I didn’t use nearly enough. I ended up having to foliar feed to treat symptoms and I would rather stay ahead of this time and have improved plant health in order to see increased yields.

20190317_074513That’s all I have to cover for now. In a few weeks I may update again, if some meaningful change has occurred. Until then, play for warmth.

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