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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Companion Planting

2009 Native American Dollar, obverse
Planting the "Three Sisters" - corn, beans, squash

I was chatting with a colleague, asking what they do when they aren't working for a wage.

Turns out they have a half acre where they practice intensive gardening. They have 39 solar panels that produce 4.5 kW of electricity and tanks to hold up to 2000 gallons of water, along with an osmosis and UV treatment system so their water meets USDA standards for safe drinking water.

So cool!

I've spent some time checking out online resources for intensive gardening. I was particularly pleased by three of the resources I stumbled across:

1) VEGETABLE GARDEN: INTENSIVE GARDENING METHODS, a page at the Arizona Cooperative Extension website. They have an extensive table listing plant spacings for intensive gardening, a method for calculating the distance between companion plantings in such a garden, and a list of the top 15 vegetables from an economic value standpoint.

2) Companion Planting: So Happy Together! by Kelle Carter, in the April 2006 issue of the Seeds of Change eNewsletter. Kelle's article is informative and easy to read. And she includes a HUGE list of plants, good companion plants, and the effects of the suggested companions. Awesome!

3) Companion Planting post over at Emily's My Square Foot Garden. Emily has a spreadsheet that lets you figure out companion plants for a single crop or what third plant would work if you already have two other crops in that same space. I like that she tells you what plants to not plant next to one another, as well as giving degrees of goodness.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What lurks beneath...

A Monster Zucchini

I popped out to the garden tonight to feed the fish and spent a few seconds gathering ripe eggplant and tomatoes. As I passed the end of the garden, I caught a glimpse of "not-leaf" suspended from the edge, hidden by a curtain of leaves.

Oh. My. Goodness.

My daughter pointed out that August is host to Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor's Porch Day. To quote from the Holiday Insights page:

Experienced gardener's know that Zucchini is one of the most prolific plants in all of the gardening world...

By the time August arrives, gardeners are reaping far more zucchini than they can possibly use. Zucchini growers become desperate, as they try to give zucchini away to family, friends and everyone they encounter. By August, even non-gardeners have had enough. Everyone avoids you...

Desperate times calls for desperate measure. It's time to sneak over, under the cover of darkness, to your neighbors porch, and unload some zucchini.

Someone wondered why this "Zucchini... Day" is held on August 8. Think of 8/8, which is like infinity over infinity, capsized.

Luckily, I only had a couple of zucchini plants, so the harvest has been just right for us.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Getting rid of Fruit Flies

Summer + Fruit + Vegetables = Fruit Flies

This summer we had an infestation of fruit flies. Now that it's under control, I thought I'd share what we did:

1) Clean everything. Sponges, walls, utensils, appliances. Warm, soapy water will wash off eggs, pheromones, and leave a soap film that they hate. And anything they hate, I love.

2) Spritz them out of the air with Rubbing Alcohol. I'm actually not sure if alcohol kills them. But when they are flying around (in groups - shudder), it is satisfying to spray them and see them drop out of the air like lead balloons.

3) Trap them. For years we've used the standard cider vinegar in a glass with a drop of detergent. The detergent destroys the surface tension, so when the flies alight to drink the alluring liquid, it's the fruit fly equivalent of quick sand. An open bottle or bowl is ok. Using a paper funnel to aid entrance and impede exit is better.

This year we got a bit more sophisticated. We stuck a drinking straw through a capped plastic bottle. There's an exit cut into the straw, so the flies can get from the straw to the liquid. I also mixed wine vinegar with the cider vinegar, which seems to have attracted more flies than the traps that only had cider vinegar.

4) Vacuum them up. This last technique works best with individual flies on a flat surface. Turn on the vacuum in the center of the room. Carefully lay the nozzle along the wall at least 2 inches from the fly. Edge the nozzle towards the fly - by the time it tries to take off, it'll likely get sucked straight into the vacuum.

You can try to vacuum them out of the air, but don't expect to succeed.

5) Squish them. Once you've calibrated your fruit flies, you can sometimes simply squish them. Slowly place your squishing implement (e.g., hand) 1-2 inches away, or whatever you've determined is the 'comfort zone' for your flies. Then BAM. If you have a fine mesh fly swatter, that's good. I've also had good success with a crumpled plastic bag (increases effective surface area and breaks up the rush of air on which they typically escape).

Lastly, make sure you and yours clean up promptly and thoroughly after all interactions with food.

[I've seen theoretical discussions of using a homemade fly paper made from nori and molassas, so the resulting molassas/seaweed/dead fly thing can be fed to fish. If anyone tests that hypothesis and finds it actually eliminates an infestation, that would be good to know.]

Hurricane Irene - Before and after

The Garden - Before Irene

I took the plastic cover off my greenhouse a long time ago for two reasons:

1) It was getting blasted hot inside the greenhouse, even though I never got around to installing the "ends" on my greenhouse.

2) My plants were running into the 5-foot 2-inch 'roof.'

The garden did great 'topless' all summer, even with me being absent for weeks on end. But Hurricane Irene was set to arrive off my coast around midnight last night. Predictions were rainfall of 2 to 6 inches and winds of 20-60 mph.

I mainly worried about the rain. I didn't want my system to flood and overflow.

Worst case if my system flooded was the water level in my sump would overflow the lip of the sump tank. The goldfish in my sump probably wouldn't even get washed out of the system. Unless I developed a clog in the piping between my fish tank and sump, the fish tank wouldn't overflow. Even with a clog, the cover on the tank will keep the fish inside.

Long term, adding as much as 6 inches of rain water to my tank could throw off the water chemistry. Not sure how much of an impact that would have since the fish and plants are so well balanced and I have no ammonia, no nitrite, and low levels (ppm) of nitrate in the system right now.

Wind could do a number. My growbeds are filled with hydroton, which in itself doesn't anchor the plants well. I do have 2 inches of gravel in the base of each growbed, but I'm pretty sure that won't help against tropical storm winds.

To mitigate both the rain and wind, I loosely covered the greenhouse frame with plastic for the weekend. I harvested basil and moved the banana plant, since they were too tall to fit inside. The banana is now in a large planter in my basement. I blanched the basil and turned it into a quart of pistou (pesto without the pine nuts).

Basil - before becoming pistou

We spent the evening reading, munching on toast with pistou, waiting for the storm to pass. From our digital clocks, it looks like we briefly lost power around 2 am, but that was it. The garden fared well, with just edge flaps of the plastic coming undone. Once things dry up this afternoon, I'll go ahead and remove the plastic again for the rest of the summer.

The Garden - After Irene

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Shake, Rattle, & Roll

USGS Map of Tuesday's Virginia Earthquake

We had an earthquake Tuesday, and I missed it, because I was driving on the interstate. The rumbling sensation of a large truck passing by isn't as remarkable when you're on bridges with large trucks passing by...

Turns out earthquakes on the east coast of the US can be "worse" than a same-magnitude quake on the west coast.

Though the west coast of the United States experiences significantly higher seismic activity, the crust in the eastern United States is more efficient at propagating seismic waves because it's older and colder. For example, a magnitude 5 in San Jose, CA would be moderately felt 45 miles away in San Francisco. In contrast, an east coast magnitude 5 (or 5.9 in our case today) could be felt for several hundred miles. The earth's crust in the east coast propagates much more energy at high frequencies than crust in the west coast, so small structures like homes experience about a factor of 5 more shaking. [Derived from a post by kmayeda at]

Luckily, my old-construction masonry home isn't showing any cracks. Phew!

I did take the chance to snap a few pics of my (overgrown and un-tended) garden. Enjoy!

Goldfish in my Sump

Monday, August 15, 2011

Back from my travels

Double Rainbow with supernumerary bands, Nebraska

It's good to get back to my garden again!

I was in France and all across the United States over the past three weeks, so didn't have much to post about my garden. I was a bit worried, in fact, since local temperatures have been up over 100 degrees Fahrenheit several times, and consistently above 90 degrees.

Thankfully I had someone who could check in on my fish and water levels, and everything is thriving (I'd had visions of coming home to sun-baked black plastic tanks and dessicated remains of plants and fish...).

There were some garden-related points of interest during my travels, aside from the amazing double rainbow with supernumerary bands (extra inner rainbows) we saw while driving across Nebraska:

  • Notre Dame Gardens - I had the chance to visit Paris while in France, and quite enjoyed the garden around the famous cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. As always, it's fascinating to realize that Paris is further north than any point in the state of Maine.
  • UW Botanic Gardens and Center for Urban Agriculture - From Paris, I flew to Seattle for several more perfect days. Locals tell me that Seattle is usually overcast and wet, so the perfect weather was a rare treat. The Center for Urban Agriculture is lovely, and there are several walking tours one can take of the surrounding Botanical Gardens. If you can't visit in person, you can always listen to the online audio tours.
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park - I was surprised to learn that this is America’s most visited national park, with over 9 million visitors each year. This part of the southern Appalachian mountains was located just south of the ice cap during the most recent ice age, so animals and plants from more northerly regions migrated to these mountains. When the ice receded, many of the species remained in ecological niches on the mountain slopes. This area is the most biologically diverse of any similar-sized temperate area, with upwards of 100,000 species of plants, animals, and invertebrates believed to live within the park's borders.