Approaching the Autumnal Equinox

The Autumnal Equinox is next Thursday, September 22. The middle of the month was Sept. 15. Therefore, it is time for fall planting of cool season crops in southern California. It is also time to harvest fall crops.

Oh look, more blackberries. A crop that usually ripens in July, but… global weirding. No, I didn’t weigh this harvest either. I washed them and gulped them down.

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The apples are getting ripe and the night critters are helping themselves to my crop. This is the first year that my semi-dwarf Gala apple tree has produced fruit. But the rats or possums got to these two apples before I did.

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The Asian pears are ripening as well. Some are the size of large marbles and fall off the tree. The rats and possums are devouring the rest. They seem to choose the biggest ones to eat.

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I managed to harvest just barely enough Asian pears for a nice pear tart for the humans of the household.

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Meanwhile, the Garden Box of Endless Fascination is producing green beans! These are Contender bush beans, one of my favorite varieties.

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I managed to get a photo of the surprise acorn squash that is growing in the garden box. It is a surprise because the plant sprouted from a seed in my compost.

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My little pumpkins are slowing their growth. They are now at 13 inches and 10 inches in circumference (not diameter) and just beginning to turn from dark green to… orange, I hope. It looks like they are pie pumpkins, but it will take two of these little guys to make a pie. Good thing there are two of them!

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Other mystery vines are producing their first pumpkins, but I don’t know if there is enough time left in the summer season for them to ripen. We shall see. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. This little guy is just a couple of days old.

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The pumpkin below is what they look like on the day the flower opens. It takes a couple of days to see if the female bud has set fruit.

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The mystery squash is looking more like a butternut than a cushaw at this point. I see tan just barely beginning to appear on it.

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This is my entire butternut harvest from my back garden bed–another volunteer from the compost bin. It weighs just one pound, a tiny little guy.dsc_3418

But I was going to talk about fall planting, not fall harvests. Some people plan their gardens carefully, selecting seed varieties from multiple catalogs and mapping out what is going to go where. My garden is more of a serendipitous happening, hippie style. Feeling in the mood for fall planting, I went to Home Depot and Armstrong Garden Center and bought the following seed packets. My choice, therefore, was limited to what they had in stock.

I got some Toy Choy (baby bok choy), big bok choy, mustard spinach (aka Komasuna, a delightful Asian green), Mammoth Melting Sugar snow peas, and Snowbird snow peas, which is a new variety for me. Neither store had sugar snap peas, unless Oregon Sugar Pod II are snap peas. (I’m old, I forget stuff.)

I got two varieties of parsnips, All American and Turga. I found some seeds for dwarf blue kale and Chioggia beets. All of these are heirlooms, which means that I could save seeds from them if I wanted to. You can’t do that with hybrids because they don’t breed true. Unless, of course, you don’t mind getting something strange from the saved seeds. Remember, you are listening to a gardener who lets completely unknown squash seeds from a compost bin grow in her limited garden space.

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I also bought some transplants because I like instant gardens. But first, one needs to clean up the beds and prepare the soil for planting. So much for instant.

Below is the bed cleared of old foliage. Only an overgrown clump of chives and a miserable bell pepper remained. I will let the bell pepper overwnter and hope it produces a pepper or two next summer. Oh, and I found four tiny garlic sprouts that I planted in the spring from cloves, knowing full well that they need to be planted in the fall. No surprise, the little garlic plants languished.

I removed the soaker hose, dug the bed up, added Sure Start organic fertilizer, hoed that in, and then topped the bed with Miracle Gro Moisture Control fertilizer. OK, so my garden isn’t totally organic. I don’t use pesticides, and I do add a lot of organic amendments to the beds. Usually I would have added my homemade compost, but my husband is the one with the good knees. He can bend down and get it out of the composter, but he was out of town.

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The next morning, this is what my newly planted bed looked like. I strung the bird netting over it after dark (which is when I finished planting), because if the house sparrows and house finches get to the lettuce, it will be gone in a day.

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I divided the big clump of chives into several smaller clumps. I am told that we are supposed to divide the clumps in half every year, but I spread those chives out a lot farther than that. Then I planted nine hybrid cauliflower. What kind of hybrid? Who knows. That is all the label said. And why nine of them? Because it was a 9-pack, not a 6-pack. I don’t think we need nine cauliflowers, but the heads that I grow are usually small, so I think it will be OK.

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I also planted nine Lacinato kale. I don’t need nine kale plants. Oh well, it is what it is.

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The plant below was a surprise. I have never seen purple mizuna in the store before. I have never grown it or eaten it, just the green mizuna, which I really like. It is great in salads, stir-frys and soups. I hope this red variety is as good as the green one.

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I planted two six-packs of lettuce, Red Oakleaf and Red Sails, two of my favorite varieties. The poor little plants below are suffering from transplant shock, but will be fine by tomorrow. I will be planting Black-seeded Simpson and Deer Tongue lettuce in another bed from seed that I saved.

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In case you are wondering why I have lettuce growing in a tomato cage, the cage is merely to hold up the anti-bird netting.

And so my battle continues in my effort to grow food while combatting birds, squirrels, rats, possums, raccoons, disease, drought, insects and random acts of nature due to global weirding.

 

Progress in the Garden Box of Endless Fascination

Time marches on, and my little garden in an elevated box is growing. The basil in the left hand front corner is growing like crazy, and it is time to make another pesto, I see.

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In my last post, I wondered if the female pumpkin flower would set fruit. Yes, it did! Not just one pumpkin, but TWO of them. We aren’t going to starve this winter after all!

The photo below was taken on Sept 12. I can practically see the pumpkins growing.

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These little beauties are putting on about 1-2 inches of circumference a day. As of today, the larger pumpkin is 12 inches in circumference, and the smaller (and younger) one is 9 inches in circumference. In comparison, a mature jack o’lantern or field pumpkin is about 25 inches in circumference, while a little sugar pumpkin for making pie is about 15 inches in circumference. Given what I am likely to have dumped into my compost bin, a pie pumpkin is far more likely. I figure it is some kind of pumpkin-type winter squash, i.e. probably a Cucurbita pepo.

These two pumpkins are on one vine, but I have several other mystery winter squash vines growing out of the box. I was very surprised to find a nice little acorn squash in the box. I don’t seem to have a photo of it, but here is yet another female pumpkin flower on a different vine. I think I have at least three different pumpkin vines that sprouted from the homemade compost that I added to the box, plus two winter squash vines.

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I originally thought that the squash below was a butternut (Cucurbita moschata), but now I have my doubts. I don’t remember butternuts going through such a dark green striped stage before turning tan. This baby seems to have reached its maximum size, about 8 inches long. That seems too small for a green-striped cushaw (Cucurbita mixta). I am pretty sure that I didn’t dump any seeds of a cushaw into the compost bin, but there are definitely butternut seeds in there. At this point, I am just waiting to see if it turns tan. We are going to eat it either way.dsc_3381

The yellow crookneck and yellow straightneck summer squash (also Cucurbita pepo, go figure) are growing like crazy, giving us all the summer squash we want (and more than my husband wants!). Poor guy, I am giving him squash almost every day now, in one form or another. My current favorite dish is quinoa with garbanzo beans or white kidney beans, plus sautéed summer squash and whatever seasonings strike my fancy. This dish really needs chopped parsley or kale added to it for color.dsc_3379

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I am getting really confused about the Latin names of squashes now. According to the New World Encyclopedia (and Purdue University agrees):

C. maxima = Hubbard, Banana, and Buttercup squash

C. mixta = cushaw squash

C. moschata = butternut squash

C. pepo = most pumpkins, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, summer squash (yellow, zucchini, scallop)

Anyway, it looks like we are going to be getting yellow squash for a few more weeks. Hope my husband doesn’t move out. The green beans are going to be ready to pick one of these days. That should keep him at home. He loves green beans.dsc_3370

On to the fruit harvest. I never weigh my strawberry or blackberry harvests. I eat the strawberries right from the planter. There are so few of them that they never make it into the house. Well, this week, I managed to bring in the blackberry crop to photograph. This was it. Two berries! In all fairness, there are some more berries on the vine that are ripening, but not many. They should have been ripe in June, but the vines didn’t even flower until August. Global weirding?

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And that concludes my garden tour for now. I am working on cleaning up my other in-ground raised beds for fall planting, but at my age, that task goes pretty slowly. Good gardening to you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Naming my new garden box

I like to name my gardens. Next to the driveway, I have a bed that I call the Garden of Perpetual Responsibility, where I grow artichokes and weeds. LOTS of weeds. There is a never-ending parade of weeds. But there is also a butterfly garden in that narrow strip of soil, with lantana, yarrow, bloodflower milkweed, irises, and pots of zinnias and other plants for pollinators. I have pots of green onions growing there, planter boxes of strawberries, and two fruit trees–a new Fuyu Persimmon and a semi-dwarf Gala apple that is producing fruit for the first time this year.

Here is an overview of the Garden of Perpetual Responsibility, as it looked in late April.

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Here is one of the many, many Monarch caterpillars that we have raised. Well, actually, they raise themselves.

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In a raised bed by the front sidewalk, I have the Garden of Infinite Neglect. As usual, it is neglected. All that is growing there at present is a bedraggled patch of Bergarten sage. I never got around to planting it this spring. It will be time for fall planting in coastal southern California in a couple of weeks, and I intend to plant onions, garlic, kale, chard and carrots there. It is too ugly to show you, trust me.

I have three garden beds in the backyard, beautiful 3 ft x 6 ft raised beds from Gardener’s Supply Company. I call them Beds #1, 2, and 3. I know, not very imaginative. I got two of the beds planted before my cancer surgery on May 4, but after a productive summer, they are shot. Everything in them is dead except for collard greens, a couple of non-producing bell peppers, and mint that is at the end of the season. Those beds are  beyond ready for fall clean-up.

This is what one of the back beds looked like in late April, after I had just planted them. I got a lot of tomatoes and green beans out of this bed.

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This is my newest bed, an elevated planter box in the driveway.

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At present, my vegetable gardening hopes and dreams grow in this elevated planter box from Gardeners Supply Company. It has been nearly 5 weeks since I planted it, and the growth has been amazing. The pumpkins that volunteered themselves from the added compost are beginning to cascade over the edge.

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The first female pumpkin flower opened yesterday. Too soon to tell if it got fertilized or not. I will know in a couple of days. But there were no male pumpkin flowers open, so unless it got pollinated by a bee that visited a male yellow summer squash flower in the box, or that found a male pumpkin flower elsewhere in the neighborhood (unlikely), who knows what will happen. I await further growth of this nascent pumpkin with great anticipation. So should I name this garden box the Garden of Joyous Anticipation?

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I have plenty of male summer squash blossoms. Can their pollen fertilize a butternut or pumpkin?

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Check out these female butternut squash flowers. The first one opened a couple of days ago and appears to have been fertilized. The second one is open today. Come on, bees! Do your job. I am letting this butternut vine sprawl over the hedge. There is also a second butternut vine that is beginning to ramble out of the box. I had no idea that one could grow butternuts in a garden box, but so far, so good.dsc_2951

I transplanted one pot of yellow crookneck summer squash and one pot of yellow straight neck summer squash into the box on August 4. There were two plants in each pot, so in reality, I have four summer squash plants growing in this 2 ft x 8 ft planter box, as well as two butternuts and two pumpkins. For the first time in many years, we are getting summer squash from the garden again. My other veggie beds just don’t get enough sunlight, but this box in the driveway sure does.dsc_2939

The Contender bush green beans began blooming a few days ago, and now they have “set fruit.” I am anticipating a bumper crop of green beans. Check out the two tiny beanlets. They are only a centimeter long at this point, but should be ready to pick in another week.

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The basil at one end of the planter box has already given us several pestos. The squash, pumpkins and green beans have taken over the box and have pretty much submerged the chard, bell pepper, beets, radishes, green onions and mesclun. But those things are down there somewhere under the jungle of squash and bean foliage, surviving and growing. Maybe I should call my box the Garden of Bountiful Productivity and Plentitude.

One of the things I really like about this box is that I don’t have to bend and stoop. At my age, that is important. It has made it really easy to get up close and personal with the seedlings. I enjoy watching seeds sprout and photographing them. Here are some pics that I took earlier in August as the box was getting going.

Green beans, with radishes to the left.

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The first flower buds on the bell pepper. I hope there are some peppers maturing somewhere under the mounds of squash leaves.

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Arugula seedlings in the mesclun mix.

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Beet seedlings with the tips of the first true leaves showing between the cotyledon leaves.

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This is one of the volunteer pumpkin or butternut squash seedlings next to a beet seedling.

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The box lets me get up close and personal with the insects that come visit too. Even though this is an invasive cabbage moth, it’s pretty.

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Maybe I will call this the Box of Endless Fascination.

One month later with my new garden box

Oh my, I do love this garden box from Gardeners Supply Company. It is fabulous. In just one month, it has given me incredible joy and many wonderful meals.

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Above is what it looked like when I first planted it a month ago. Below is what it looks like now. I can hardly believe it. Best garden growth I have ever had.

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Below is the box looking toward the house. Remember those few butternut squash seeds that popped up from my homemade compost that I added to the box? They are taking over. I thinned them out a bit, but probably should have pulled out more of them.

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Some of the plants are indeed butternuts. Here is a female flower about to open. I figure if it manages to get fertilized that I may be able to harvest butternuts from this box.

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But the female flower bud below appears to be for a pumpkin. I am trying to remember what pumpkin I might have put into my compost bin. Was it a store-bought field pumpkin? Or was it a pack of seeds for eating pumpkin that I deemed too old and just dumped into the compost bin? Who knows? I love the adventure of surprises in the garden. I don’t even know if a pumpkin or butternut sprouted this late in the season and growing in a BOX will ripen. More adventure. With our new climate of Global Weirding, anything can happen. First step is for that little flower to open and get fertilized.

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The first flower bud is open on my Contender bush green beans. They are an heirloom variety, so they breed true. I will be saving seeds from some of these beans. Looks like it is going to be a bumper crop, God willing and the creek don’t rise. My heirloom Blue Lake pole green beans growing in my garden beds are already finished, so this new crop of green beans will be most welcome.

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I have been harvesting both crookneck and straight neck yellow squash from this garden box for a couple of weeks now. I have not been able to grow summer squash in my regular garden beds, so this is a first for me in many years. Summer squash! I know, any kindergartner can grow summer squash. Not me. My regular garden beds don’t get enough hours of sunshine. The garden box does. Happy face, happy face.DSC_2385

 

Here are some yellow squash, French Breakfast radishes, and green onion from our garden that became lunch. I sautéed the squash and green onion along with mushrooms and red bell pepper, and topped them with sour cream and some cumin. I split the baby radishes and filled the split with butter, topping them with grated pink Himalayan salt. Yum.

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Below is one of the dishes that I made with summer squash. The recipe is for Salmon Osso Buco, from “Dining at the White House” by John Moeller. Terrific cookbook, BTW. I rolled scallops up in strips of salmon, secured the roll-ups with toothpicks, and sautéed them in butter. They are supposed to look like slices of veal shank, the salmon being the meat and the scallop resembling the bone. It is served on a saffron clam broth. Then I sautéed yellow squash and carrots, adding some herbs de Provence, and mounded those between the salmon-scallop roll-ups. I topped it with chopped parsley for color. Delicious.DSC_2383

Here is another meal from our garden box. I sautéed some onion and summer squash, then added cooked quinoa and a can of garbanzo beans. Can’t remember the dressing, a lemon juice and olive oil base, with garlic and cumin probably. I served it on a bed of freshly picked arugula from the garden box. The melon was store bought. This made a delightful summer lunch.DSC_2316

Here is another lunch from the garden box, using some lemon cucumbers from our brother-in-law Jeff’s garden. I made another quinoa-based salad, with lemon cucumbers and red bell pepper, and a lemon-mint dressing, served on a bed of arugula from the garden box. The tomato bisque was store-bought (Sprouts brand, delicious), with a basil leaf from the garden box for garnish.

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I am having issues with my WordPress blog host. I don’t seem to be able to access my sidebar anymore. Don’t know why. They changed their format and I can no longer even see the sidebar in edit mode, much less alter it. So I have been unable to update my harvest poundage. Bummer. So this will do for now. Happy gardening!

 

Look What I Built!

My southern California urban garden suffers from lack of space and lack of sunlight. The only place where we get sun all day long is the sloped, concrete driveway. Our next door neighbor built a lovely sloped shelf on which he gardens in containers. That inspired me. But lacking his construction skills, I bought a kit for an elevated cedar planter box from Gardener’s Supply Company.

I have a cordless screwdriver among my bag of power tools. Because all old grannies need power tools, right? My kit arrived, and I was set. The delivery man dumped the big boxes on the front sidewalk, so I built the box right there. Why? Because the sidewalk is in the shade, and it gets hot in southern California. Also, because I have a bench on the front porch and at my age, I need to sit down a lot during these construction projects.

The planter box was really easy to assemble. Once it was done, I used those round plastic sliding-gliding things under the legs to move the box from sidewalk to driveway. I was able to do this all by myself, the assembly and moving. Not bad for a 73-yr-old granny recovering from recent cancer surgery!

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Because our driveway slopes, I propped two legs of the box up on blocks to level the planter box. I added the boards for the bottom of the box and topped them with the included landscape fabric. At that point, I was ready for potting soil.

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The directions say to use potting soil, not garden soil, because of weight. I added three big bags of Miracle Gro Moisture Control potting soil. By then, I was worn out, so I called my beloved spousal unit for reinforcements. He dumped in the other two bags of potting soil, and did the laborious task of digging out two plastic Tub Trugs (also from Gardeners Supply Company) of compost from our backyard com posters. Then the box was ready for planting!

I added transplants of yellow crookneck squash, yellow straight neck squash, orange bell pepper, Swiss chard, basil, and green onions. The green onions were ones I had grown myself from seed. I always have several bowls of green onions growing, and haven’t needed to buy green onions for many years.

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Hmm, this bell pepper plant seems to have some ugly brown spots on it. But the new leaves look good. Who knows if any of these summer vegetables planted in August will actually produce anything. I do have hope for the yellow squash though, since there is already a lovely female bud on the crookneck squash plant.

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Next, I planted seeds of Contender bush green beans, French Breakfast radishes, Detroit Red beets, and a mesclun mix with lettuces and arugula. All of those should grow and produce a crop in the time available to them. This is my greatest gardening joy, watching seeds sprout and grow.

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The radish cotyledon leaves are heart-shaped, and the stem is red.

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The beet cotyledon leaves are elongated, with deep red stems and a red streak on the cotyledon leaves.

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This mesclun mix is supposed to be mostly lettuces, but at this stage, it seems to be mostly arugula. The arugula cotyledon leaves have a deep notch in them, while the lettuce cotyledon leaves are round.

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Bean seeds arch up out of the ground, kind of dragging the cotyledon leaves after them. You can see the brown seed coat clinging to the head of the sprout.

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Then the neck of the stem begins to straighten, lifting the cotyledon leaves up and out of the soil. The sprout is shedding its seed coat.

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Then the thick cotyledon leaves open up, revealing the first true leaves.

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Uh oh, there were a lot of butternut squash seeds in my compost. This is a volunteer squash seedling in front of the bean. Winter squash needs to be planted in May or June in order to bear fruit. But I just love these big, bold squash cotyledon leaves. I may leave a couple of volunteer butternuts at the back of the planter box. Why? Because I just love these big, bold squash sprouts. Maybe I will get a few male squash blossoms to put into scrambled eggs, who knows.

I hope you enjoy these pics of my new planter box and the seedlings as much as I enjoy watching these seedlings grow. Having them at waist height makes it possible for me to take closeups. My old knees don’t let me get down on the ground anymore. The closeups were taken with my Nikon D7100 and a Tokina 100 mm, f 2.8 macro lens.

Getting back to the garden after a bout with cancer — 28 July 2016

It has been a bit over 10 months since my last post. No, I’m not quite dead yet, to quote Monty Python. But I could have been.

To recap, my last post was in September 2015, and was about playing covered wagon days with my four little grandkids. Then they left for Paris with their parents to live for the next year. Or two. They took my heart with them.

My husband Vic Leipzig and I went to see them in Paris in January. And that is when my first symptoms of endometrial cancer appeared. Ladies, if you have ANY post-menopausal bleeding, even a mere two drops of blood like I experienced, go see your doctor immediately. I did and that probably saved my life.

The next few months were filled with doctor visits and icky tests, each one worse than the one before. I passed them all with no problem, except the last one, an endometrial biopsy. That was NOT fun. The doctor used an instrument that felt like something between a samurai sword and an egg beater to scrape off about one square mile of endometrial lining, with no anesthesia. Holy moly, I don’t ever want to do that again. Turns out, I won’t have to.

That test came back showing endometrial cancer. Next step, yet another doctor, another exam, blood work, EKG, and surgery. I was so filled with dread that I couldn’t breathe, assuming that the worst would happen during surgery and I would die on the operating table. Note, I suffer from high anxiety.

Having cancer is very hard on the psyche. And that sapped my resolve to do anything. I only managed to get two of my four veggie beds planted before surgery. But at least I got those two planted.

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I bought tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, parsley, and lots of pretty marigolds. I needed beauty around me, LIFE.

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Veggie bed #1 looked beautiful with heirloom tomatoes, bell peppers, an eggplant, a collard plant, parsley, and a row of Blue Lake pole green beans.

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I planted butternuts from saved seeds, and acorn squash from transplants.

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I planted radishes and meslun. This is arugula sprouting in the mesclun mix. Looks just like radishes.

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This is the Garden of Perpetual Responsibility, named for the unending weeds in this patch. I have artichokes, a Fuyu persimmon tree, an dwarf Fuji apple, a butterfly garden, and pots of green onions, planters of strawberries, radishes, and mesclun, and some new pots with flowers for the bees and butterflies.
Surgery on May 2 was nothing, a minor blip in my life. It was done laproscopically by robotic arm assist, with five tiny incisions on my belly. I was in and out of the hospital in 9 hours after a full hysterectomy, and totally cancer free as far as anyone knows. The docs will annoy me with exams every three months for the next year, and then twice a year for the next four years after that to make sure no cancer cells escaped. But the cancer was stage 1b, easily and totally cured by surgery. No chemo, no radiation.

I had a prescription for pain pills, but didn’t need them. I took ibuprofen for the next few days, and needed help getting up out of bed, but I was in my garden the very next day after surgery. Digging and planting? No! Just watering. My garden gives me life, hope, strength and resolve. My garden is a delight of blossoms in February, April and May. Plus, I had planted extra flowers to tide me over psychically.

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Orchid cactus, a reliable spring bloomer.

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New flower bowls with plants to attract pollinators

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Pollinators like zinnas.

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I don’t remember what this is, but the hummingbirds like it.

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DSC_1679I got these iris from someone who was “thinning their herd.”Beautiful.

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The camellias were extra pretty this spring, but I killed one of them–the whole plant–by using water fresh from the hose that was boiling hot. I scalded the poor thing to death.

 

My recovery was unbelievable easy, and surprised even my doctor. But in an effort to get back into shape, I twisted my bum arthritic left knee two weeks after the surgery and crippled myself. I was essentially bedridden. More doctors, more tests. I assumed that I was going to finally get a knee replacement, but the surgeon said no, injected my knee with cortisone and sent me off to Physical Therapy. I have only two more PT sessions, and then I will be released. You know what they say, PT stands for Pain and Torture. Old age sure ain’t for sissies.

DSC_1719My Florida Prince peach tree was loaded with fruit this year. But it had the poor timing of presenting me with ripe peaches all at once, right when I was laid up and not able to deal with them adequately. Still, I got a peach pie or two and several cobblers. Turns out that I can cook even when using a walker.

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Eggs, avocados, oranges and lemons, a typical April harvest here in coastal southern California. I had so many eggs this spring that I was able to freeze a few packs of 4 scrambled raw eggs each for winter use. Our hens don’t lay from November to mid-Janurary, so I have to plan ahead.

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Artichokes, avocados and more eggs.
During May and June, I tended my poor garden in a walker, trying to keep it alive. I took only a very few photos, but I did maintain my hand-written harvest log. One of these days, I will enter the data into Excel and post my harvest totals.

I can now walk again, and am beginning to rejoin the world of the living. This has been quite a journey, one I would have rather not taken. But throughout it all, I continued to harvest and cook with my harvests. And enjoy life.

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This was a typical spring brunch of a leek fritatta with avocado on top, navel orange from our mini orchard, and an English muffin. I was really sad when we ate the last orange from our tree this spring. They were amazingly sweet this year, the best oranges I have ever eaten.

I am looking forward to still more produce from my mini orchard of about 22 fruit trees. Why have a useless lawn when your yard could be producing FOOD?

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We have been eating and giving away avocados all spring. There are about 3 dozen left.

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The Meyer lemons have been wonderful, but I am nearing the last of the crop. I need to freeze some juice before all the lemons are gone.

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Asian pears will be the next fruit crop to harvest, along with apples from my Fuji, Gala, and Granny Smith apple trees. Here is hoping that the night critters don’t get my whole crop, as they do in some years.
These were only the pics from April. More to come. Hope you enjoyed my garden update.

Playing “Covered Wagon Days” with the grandkids

A little covered wagon, handmade in Mexico--this inexpensive E-bay find came with a tiny shovel, rifle, powder horn, barrel, and plow--everything a pioneer family might need.

A little covered wagon, handmade in Mexico–this inexpensive E-bay find came with a tiny shovel, rifle, powder horn, bucket, barrel, and plow–everything a pioneer family might need.

When I was growing up, I loved hearing my mother and aunt talk about their grandparents, Andrew Thomas and Louisa Caroline Hedrick, and their 1880 trip west in a covered wagon. The Thomas family went to the Red River country between Oklahoma and Texas, and lived with the Indians there for a year in Chickasaw territory. My great-grandmother had a baby there, but was too sick to nurse her baby. An Indian woman fed the baby mashed pumpkins and saved his life. My great-grandparents named their baby after the woman’s husband, Charley Horse. I am not making this up.

covered wagon

I am a Slow Food aficionado, and believe in growing my own food, cooking from scratch, and preserving the harvest. I want to pass our food traditions and family history on to my four little grandchildren, so I decided to play “covered wagon days” with them on a couple of visits to our house.

Westward, ho!

Westward, ho!

Life in the 1880s was a far cry from today’s plugged-in and pre-packaged world. The grandkids love visiting my little urban “farmlet” with fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and even chickens! We play like we are farmers who are living in the late 1800s, going west by wagon train.

Allison, left, Megan, middle, and Lauren at the other end of the table.

Allison, left, Megan, middle of the table, and Lauren at the other end of the table. Mike was off in his own boy world, playing with toy cars and trucks.

I bought quite a few toy Breyer horses recently, with a barn and corral, so the kids could play farm-homestead-wagon train. The twins are 9 and have read “Little House on the Prairie” in school, so they were really ready for it. Megan is in second grade and loves to harvest produce and cook. Mike will be four next month, and prefers the plugged-in world of iPads, and mechanized toy cars and trucks. He is definitely a motorized modern boy. So I got him a toy horse trailer so he can play modern farmer.

My plan was to take pictures of us playing the various roles of homestead life, but the above pic is the only picture of the kids that I got. The rest of the time, it was a four-ring circus, no time for photography. So you will have to use your imagination as I attempt to walk you through our role playing, using photos taken after their visit.

Megan harvested all four of my tiny butternut squash, using clippers to cut the stems.

Megan harvested all four of my tiny butternut squash, using clippers to cut the stems.

First we have to harvest food from our farm before the long journey west. (Our pretend starting point is Indiana, where my great-grandparents lived, but I haven’t incorporated that little fact into our play yet. If the kids had any concept of west, they would think we were traveling into the Pacific Ocean!)

Dino-Peep, my hen who thinks she is a dinosaur.

Dino-Peep, my hen who thinks she is a dinosaur.

The kids all love feeding our three hens and gathering eggs, and that occupies quite a bit of their time. Megan probably likes harvesting more than the others.

Megan harvested limes and a lemon for herself--not exactly crops one would grow in Indiana.

Megan harvested limes and a lemon for herself–not exactly crops one would grow in Indiana.

Fall is apple season too. This is the first of our Fuji apple crop.

Fall is apple season too. This is the first of our Fuji apple crop.

On the trail, we had to build campfires before cooking any meals. I printed out photos of buffalo chips and scattered them around the living room. The girls thought it was really gross to pick up dried buffalo poop, but that is what was used for fuel on the treeless prairies. Hey, it was just PICTURES of buffalo poop.

A buffalo chip! They are about 8-10 inches across. Don't pick up the wet ones!

A buffalo chip! They are about 8-10 inches across. Don’t pick up the wet ones!

I hid a rubber rattlesnake under one of the end tables in the living room, and the kids had to avoid the rattlesnake while picking up the buffalo chips. My husband’s Irish greatgreatgrandmother Mary (Ryan) Kelly was bitten by a rattlesnake while living on the prairie in Iowa in the early 1850s. They lived in their covered wagons until the men got the first crops planted and then built a log cabin. His great-grandmother survived and went on to have many children, including his great-grandmother Nelly (Kelly) Brian.

midwestern USA --- Ada McColl pushing the wheelbarrow with buffalo chips for fuel on the plains with brother Burt McColl --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

midwestern USA — Ada McColl pushing the wheelbarrow with buffalo chips for fuel on the plains with brother Burt McColl — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

The girls were amazed to learn about some of the differences in lifestyles before electricity and modern grocery stores.

I bought an antique coffee grinder from Goodwill. It actually works, and all four kids grind coffee beans for us.

I bought an antique coffee grinder from Goodwill. It actually works, and all four kids enjoyed grinding coffee beans for us.

I ramped up my sourdough started and we made sourdough pancakes.

I ramped up my sourdough starter the night before and we made sourdough pancakes. Here it is all nice and bubbly,

Did you know that baking powder wasn’t invented until about the mid 1800s, and not in common use until later that century? Our ancestors would have used sourdough for biscuits, pancakes and bread, all homemade and cooked over a campfire or in a fireplace before cast iron stoves because available.

This is a loaf of sourdough bread, ready to cook on my gas BBQ grill. It is too hot to use the oven in the house.

This is a loaf of sourdough bread, ready to cook on my gas BBQ grill. (It is too hot to use the oven in the house.) That was our pretend campfire.

A finished loaf of sourdough bread. I try to use cast iron cookware when we are playing pioneer days.

A finished loaf of sourdough bread. I try to use cast iron cookware when we are playing pioneer days.

I bought a pint of whipping cream and we made butter. First we pretended to milk our cow. Then I put the cream into a 1 qt glass jar and we all took turns shaking the jar. (I don’t have a butter churn, OK?) It was pretty amazing. First, it became whipped cream, and we all had a sample. After about 12 minutes of shaking, the whipped cream changed. Butter globules separated from the whey, aka buttermilk. I scooped the butter out, added some salt, and we all had fresh butter on crackers. It was delicious, and couldn’t have been fresher.

Even toys were different in pioneer times. My grandmother had a china head doll from her childhood in the late 1800s. These are reproductions that I bought at Goodwill.

Even toys were different in pioneer times. My grandmother had a china head doll from her childhood in the late 1800s. These are reproductions of a bisque head doll (left) and china head doll (right) that I bought at Goodwill.com, a great place for finding antiques and reproductions.

One of the things that we do is look at some of my things from times past, like family heirlooms that have been handed down.

This old whiskey jug belonged to my great-grandmother Mary Ann (Toliver) Williams.

This old whiskey jug belonged to my great-grandmother Mary Ann (Toliver) Williams.

This was my great-grandmother's cream pitcher.

This was my great-grandmother Mary Ann Williams’ cream pitcher.

Part of our role play is trading with the Indians. The kids’ parents kindly play the role of the Plains Indians. We traded some homemade cookies for some (cans of baked) beans one time, and traded for winter squash another. This helps to teach the beans, corn, and squash are New World foods, along with sunflower seeds, tomatoes, etc. We also trade for jerky, a great food from covered wagon days. The pioneers would have traded with the Indians, especially my great-grandparents who actually lived with them in Red River country.

We usually play with Native American artifacts like this beautiful drum.

We usually play with Native American artifacts like this beautiful drum.

I am part Native American on my father’s side, and I lecture about some of the old lifestyles of local southern California tribes. I have accumulated a number of musical instruments and encourage the kids to play with them. The grandkids are not only part Native American on their dad’s side from my ancestry, but from their maternal grandfather as well. In fact, on their maternal grandfather’s side, they trace back to Jamestown Colony days in the early 1600s to a daughter of Chief Powhatan, a half-sister of Pocohantas. One of the reasons that I do this role play is that I want to connect the grandkids with their interesting and varied cultural history.

From top to bottom, a clapper stick, a deer hoof rattle, a turtle rattle, and a flute.

From top to bottom, a clapper stick, a deer hoof rattle, a turtle rattle, and a flute.

The deer hoof rattle is the only artifact that I don’t let them play with because it has great cultural significance to the Kumeyaay of San Diego. It is used only for funerals. I have used mine at the funeral of my mother, and of my oldest son Bob, both of whom passed away ten years ago this year.

I am probably forgetting some of the fun things that we do while playing Covered Wagon Days, and I didn’t get out the many toy horses for a photo, but I think you get the idea. Do you enjoy this post? Do you pass on your family history to your descendants or relatives?