When I say this farm is an adventure, what I mean is: despite the predictable circuit of the seasons, you never really can predict what’s going to happen next. For instance, our family was just adopted by a cat. Believe me when I say we did NOT see this one coming. He was one of a new litter of feral cats that have been sadly multiplying in our area, but instead of scrambling into the brush at our approach, as his brothers did, he nosed his way closer, curled up on the seat of Aaron’s tractor and staked his claim. One quick trip to the vet later, and we find ourselves in possession of one brave and very silly farm cat.
There were other surprises waiting for us this week. Last month we planted Gogi berry, Aronia berry and blackberry bushes, as well as two hardy kiwi vines. The blackberry bushes seemed to thrive, but the leaves turned red shortly after planting. Strange, but otherwise healthy-looking.
The kiwi vine leaves, on the other hand, curled up like a wet kid shivering out of a Missouri lake on a windy day. We may have planted those a touch too soon… Every single leaf died back. But, surprise! Full, glorious recovery! These kiwis aren’t called “hardy” for nothing!
My garden guru, Elizebeth, was kind enough to investigate the reddened blackberry leaves for me, and discovered with a quick google search that my plants were not transporting their stored energy very well and sugars were accumulating in their leaves. Bone meal added directly to the soil and watered in adds phosphorus (i.e. energy/sugar) for the roots, stimulating below-ground growth to match their above-ground vigor. While I was at it, I treated all the new bushes to a healthy dose of bone meal. The leaves are already beginning to re-green!
The plants I picked up at Antioch Urban Growers are showing their hardy, heirloom quality by thriving even with all the wildly swinging temperatures and monsoon levels of rain we’ve been getting. These plants have not been treated with pesticides or chemicals, and thus have developed their own stalwart defenses. The red kale and lettuces looks beautiful, the herbs are flourishing, and the cabbage, squash and peppers have already grown significantly!
But the tomatoes… those are my heart. They are the reason I grow things. I chose six heirloom varieties: Brandywine, Super Sweet 100 (grape), Yellow Pear, Italian Heirloom and Black Japanese Truffles. They are doing very well, especially considering the torrential rain we’ve experienced. I did notice some yellowing of the bottom leaves of the Super Sweet 100s, and since those grape tomatoes are my kids’ summer candy, I had to make sure I was giving them all they need to thrive. Elizebeth mentioned that yellowing leaves indicate a potassium deficiency. Potassium helps the plants resist disease, use water efficiently, and it provides better overall quality fruit. She recommended black wood ash, added into the soil, as we had done with the bone meal and sent me this quote from How to Grow More Vegetables, by John Jeavons.
“Black wood ash is best. Wood ash provides strength and plant essence, aids in insect control, and is a flavor enhancer for vegetables, especially lettuce and tomatoes. You can produce it with a controlled, soil-covered, slow-burning fire built during a soft drizzle or rain. This ash is higher in potassium and other minerals because they do not readily escape into the atmosphere as the wood is consumed by fire. Wood ash should be stored in a tight container until it is used; exposure to air will destroy much of its nutrient value. Grey wood ash from a fireplace may be used if it is from wood and not from colored or slick paper.”
Well hey… this leads us to Providential surprise #647:
A few days before, Aaron had lit a dead, hollowed-out tree stump on fire, and I wondered if it would still be smoldering. Sure enough, even the rain hadn’t put it out, rather the ash on top formed a crust for the fire to continue smoldering beneath, creating a black, nutrient rich ash, ready for me to apply to the soil around my tomato plants! I shoveled it into the wheelbarrow and waited for it to cool before sprinkling it around the base of the tomato plants. Some of the ash on the bottom got wet, which I’ve heard can wash away the potassium I’m looking for. I’m not sure all of the plants got the dry ash, but hopefully they got enough to make a difference! (I might be imagining things, but the plants do seem happier. Or maybe that’s just me.) The rest of the wood ash will go into the compost pile over time, to balance out all those acidic apple cores we toss in there.
Farm animals are beginning to find us, and I wonder if this is the way of all would-be farmers. First, Felix the cat. Before summer is out, chickens and rabbits from a friend who is moving. And in the next few weeks: ducklings!
We thought it might be time for us to come up with a plan of some sort. Felix isn’t the only cat in the area after all. (And as sweet as he is, he probably wouldn’t mind feasting on a baby duck or two himself.)
We want the ducks to be able to hunt among the garden plants as they are great at slug control and they don’t scratch up plants like chickens do. However, their feet are clumsy and can trample seedlings, so they would need supervision whenever they are free-ranging. Also, I’ve heard they like tomatoes. (You can see where this might be a problem for me.) We decided they need their own enclosure inside the fenced garden area. And a pond.
Our five-year garden plan includes a small water feature because birds are attracted to the sound of running water. And, who am I kidding? It would be beautiful. So why not have both? A water feature and a duck pond in one. Good idea, right? (Hint: not exactly.)
Square and his friend set to work digging our little pond in a rough 8 ft circle. Since we now had wagons full of black dirt piling up, we decided to build one of the potato beds we were going to save for next year. The boys dug a respectable hole, the potato bed grew…
…And then I made the mistake of doing a bit more research.
It turns out, ducks are messy. MESSY. They turn their ponds into a slurry of water and duck poo that must be changed weekly.
Yes, that’s right. I would have to drain, vacuum out, and refill my little pond EVERY WEEK. That might not seem like a big deal for some of you, but it’s just not happening over here. My floors don’t get mopped that often right now.
But as usually happens, research ends up disabusing us of horrible ideas and handing us much better ones in their place. You may remember me waxing eloquent about my friend’s gift of rabbit poo straw? The duck pond slurry is also made of, well… poo. (You may see where I’m going with this.)
The ducks will now have an even larger enclosure (we had to move one of the Gogi berry bushes. Good thing we’re figuring this out now while the plant is still small!), and they will have a large tub that they can mess in as much as they like. At the end of each week, my garden veggies will have a nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer and all the mucky water they need. Much easier to clean a plastic tub you can tip and spray than a hole in the ground.
Speaking of: Plan B has left me with a large hole in the ground– a large hole whose soil has been stolen for potatoes. :O I guess I’ll have to build the water feature sooner rather than later? But hey, after our monsoon, at least finding level will be easier!
Next on the research docket: pond ecosystems. Oh boy.