Category Archives: life

Beginning Gardener: Class 4-Walking You Through What You Need To Know

This is the fourth and final installment of my beginner gardening tutorial. For this class I decided to list some of my favorite books and growing aides. The book list is by no means exhaustive but I have some that have truly helped me form the backbone of my gardening approach. I am not affiliated with any of these products, but they have definitely helped me understand some key gardening concepts that I have incorporated into my understanding of soil, compost, growing, harvesting and disease/pest control.

Find the first three classes here:

Beginning Gardener: Class 1

Beginning Gardener: Class 2

Beginning Gardener: Class 3

One of the first things I suggest is learning about what is on the cutting edge of gardening ideas. Thoroughly investigating several new concepts helped me merge and arrange them into what would work the best for me and my local growing conditions. The first idea is something I saw emerge a few years ago to help with dry/poor soil growing conditions. This was developed in Africa and is called keyhole gardening. This is a really good video about how to create one of these beds and I recommend this video for anyone creating raised beds. We are all aware of water usage and creating a low water bed is not only smart for those of us in high heat/dry areas but for anyone who wants to cut down on supplemental water usage. The center of these beds have a compost area and this compost feeds the bed and offers an easy way to keep the bed hydrated. Keyhole Garden

Another great idea is hugelkultur. This is my favorite article explaining this idea. It is super popular among organic gardeners and it is one of three ideas I combined to create my own version in my raised beds. Hugelkultur

The third idea I used for my beds includes a worm tower. This is an “in place” compost area similar to keyhole gardens as far as feeding beds but also incorporates worm castings as fertilizer.  In Bed Worm Tower

Hugelkultur/Keyhole Garden: Bridging Ideas

Hugelkultur/Keyhole Garden: Bridging Ideas

You can see my two beds I created with the Hugelkultur/Keyhole/worm Tower ideas (I’ll call them the HKT beds from here on.) If I were to make a third bed I would make it like the first one I made but with thicker ply plastic or seal the inside surface of the cinderblocks. HKT beds:

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LINK: HKT1

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LINK: HKT2

Now I will move on to my three favorite books for growing edibles. These each contain key concepts that I rely on and that are explained in an engaging and interesting way.

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The first is by John Jeavons. It details his method of soil building. This was the first book that I bought that turned my ideas about gardening on end. He teaches how to build soil over years with products you grow rather than purchase. He advocates double digging which originated in Europe. If you have ever seen formal European gardens, with their lush beautiful plantings you can duplicate that with his methods. Further into his book you will find the dietary breakdown of the crops you are growing and how to plan for a self sustaining vegan diet. A lot of what is in his book relies on you agreeing to his lifestyle choices but I found the detailed breakdown of information extremely helpful in understanding the relationship with soil, the ways he maintains his soil and how that effects his crops. On top of that, understanding what nutrients each vegetable I grow has and how to balance them to create a healthy diet, created a deeper understanding of my crops and what I needed to focus on to create a balanced diet (not only in my garden, but in my purchases at the grocery store as well.)

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This is his site: http://www.johnjeavons.info/  His book is called How To Grow More Vegetables (Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine) It’s a pretty bold title, but he delivers on it. I think this is a wonderful primer to anyone who wants to soak up information from decades of research and trials that this amazing gardener has accumulated.

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The second book that I recommend is By Rosalind Creasy. Her book Edible Landscaping is a thick bundle of incredible information, again, by a gardener who knows her stuff. She explains her ideas in a beautifully illustrated book. To Rosalind there is no such thing as a separation between flowerbeds and vegetable beds. All plants are used for their form as well as their food potential. She breaks down the nice-neat barriers that formal gardens traditionally employ and she blends them into a seamless combination that will inspire you. The photographs she uses to tell her story will make your jaw drop. I frequently found myself thinking: “Wow, why hadn’t I considered this before?”

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The third book was another one that introduced ideas that I would not have come up with on my own (regardless of the length of my personal experiences.) It is called Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemingway. Wow. Stood my gardening knowledge on end and flooded my stored knowledge with tons of brand new avenues to explore. This is possibly the finest gardening book I own. The subject matter is home-scale permaculture and if you want to have an interdependent, completely self reliant gardening experience: this is the book for you. He teaches you how to create planting groupings (that he calls guilds) that feed and nourish each other, how to capture natural rainwater and to build your own micro-climate using a variety of techniques. With these among other fascinating concepts, this book stands out as a revolutionary text.

I have many other books, but these three stand out among the others as having information that is interesting, complete and unique.

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Some things that I physically use in my garden: I love my stirrup hoe for weeding. I use miracle grow hose end sprayer while watering and osmocote granules under new transplants. I use a lot of “Superthrive”. It claims it is a plant vitamin rather than a fertilizer. Whatever it is: it definitely helps my plants and transplants. I originally bought a bottle at Walmart because the label’s advertising was so crazy that I thought: this has to work because no one would buy it for the crazy ramblings! (it looked like whoever made the old label may have been drinking some of the Superthrive!)

I make use of the copious amounts of rabbit poo that our pet rabbit supplies (you can’t beat a pile of rabbit poo under your squash plants!) I also occasionally use bloodmeal and if I need nitrogen for grass I purchase chicken manure (look at the bags of fertilizer. Lowe’s carries these types of fertilizer.)

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I love soaker hoses, newspaper mulch and landscape fabric. Milk jugs with peat pots for seedlings or tenting seedlings with milk jugs to shortcut hardening off are some of my favorite hacks. Short cut through hardening off

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Personally: I love gypsum. I tend to use a lot of gypsum in my super heavy clay soils. I usually turn a bag into the soil with some peat hummus and compost and then cover it for a year. I come back to the area and the soil is completely different. What we have here is more like potters clay mixed in to gravel. It’s some nasty stuff, but if I can get it to drain it becomes a great base.

The Specter Of Drought

As you can see, I use a variety of things that I have learned that work over the decades that I have gardened. I don’t have a high and mighty attitude towards fertilizers (although I try not to use any of the chemical ‘cides’ in my garden: herbicides, pesticides, fungicides.) I have found that adding cinder blocks around my garden areas provides shelter for spiders and other predatory insects. I almost never have pest problems. The only pest that is hard to deal with for me is spider mites. This is where Neem oil and insecticidal soaps come in handy.

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As far as fungal problems I use my own mixes. Baking soda and water will get rid of powdery mildew, as will cows milk and water. Look for recipes online. Baking soda is residual though, so I try not to mess with it. I have a secret ingredient I add to my fungal sprays: oil of oregano. I use the aromatherapy grade. A few drops in the spray I have mixed up almost always relieves whatever fungal disease pressure I end up with.

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Regular cooking oil in water with a little bit of dish soap makes a fast and effective insecticidal soap. Neem oil will slow disease and bug reproduction but it takes time and repeated applications. If my garden goes south fast: Neem oil is not something that can correct a heavy infestation before my plants collapse. I prefer encouraging spiders, praying mantis, ladybugs and wasps instead.

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I will stand outside and strip infected leaves of plants with fungal disease before spraying. If I see a leaf that is sick, I have found it is more helpful to remove it than let it limp along while it infects the rest of the plant. I clean up the disease and then I spray. Down here (as it is in most moist, humid and hot areas) fungal pressure is a big deal. It helps immensely to plant varieties that are disease resistant.

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This is the end of my fourth class. I hope it has been helpful and enjoyable. The first three classes are available here:

Beginning Gardener: Class 1

Beginning Gardener: Class 2

Beginning Gardener: Class 3

Curing An Extra Itchy Case Of The Gardening Stupids

I would bet that most gardeners have a list of a few things that they do, out of habit, that are counterproductive. For me it’s gardening without gloves or long sleeves. I almost never wear gloves or long sleeves. I love to work the soil with my hands, I weed bare handed and I harvest bare handed. Most of the time I end up in the garden working without having planned on it (which is why I’m usually dressed for Texas summer weather and not gardening!) Most of the time I can get away with this habit with minimal issues. Yesterday was not one of them!

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My wonderful but itchy okra! If you wondered about your okra plant’s smell: Yes. The entire plant, including the pods, have a distinct cat pee like smell. It’s part of the plant’s defense and easily rinses off the pods using just water.

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All of the okra goodness is under those big spiny leaves!

In high summer heat everything in my garden seems to have some sort of defense. Tomatoes, beans, squash, melons, cucumbers and okra (especially okra!) have spines or hairs that can break off in your skin (like the irritating glochid fuzzy hairs you can find on cacti) and cause a rash on your arms and hands (or whatever part of your body that brushes up against the plant.)

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The hairy underside of a poona kheera cucumber leaf.

I also grow some things with sap that can irritate. I have figs whose milky sap can cause itching and then there is the parsnips that can cause a chemical burn if you rub up against the leaves and stems. Yesterday I got into all of the above with no gloves or long sleeves to protect myself. My “duhhh” factor was in full swing and I was miserable by the time I came inside!

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The breba crop of a fig tree that I got a start from in my neighborhood.

It was like an instant poison ivy rash. I was itching so enthusiastically I was sure I was going to break the skin on my arms! I believe the main culprit was the okra spines I got into while reaching across the plants to harvest some pods but, I also carried in an arm full of figs. It’s entirely possible this was a cumulative rash from the many bad decisions I made that day to handle things without gloves or sleeves.

Regardless of the cause: I needed a cure, and fast! I first grabbed a tube of anti-itch cream from my husband’s dopp kit and applied enough to cover a large farm animal, with no results. The itching was completely uncontrolled with the cream so my mind started racing looking for an alternative to what I had already tried. I washed my arms repeatedly with castille soap because I was afraid it was sap from the arm load of figs I’d gathered (since my arms were sort of sticky.) That didn’t help much either. That’s when I remembered we have a can of instant oatmeal in the bathroom to mix in my kid’s baths when they get viral or allergic rashes. I was desperate at this point and I was ready to try anything.

I was beginning to wonder if I’d gotten into fire ants. This was sooooo bad! The itching was insane!

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The fuzz on tomatoes and beans make the plant leaves a little bit like Velcro!

I have used oatmeal in baths before for my kids, but what I was dealing with was not going to be relieved by my soaking in a tub with just a little bit of oatmeal. I put the oatmeal in a small cup and added enough water to make a paste. I rubbed it all over my poor bright red, itchy arms and hands. It was a messy process but:

I had instant relief!

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My son said this was zombie skin. To me: I see relief. This was after I’d let it dry and knocked off the big chunks of oatmeal. You would think I might have tried this at one point over the last forty some years! But this was the first time I’ve used it as a paste, and an oatmeal paste will be what I turn to first…next time!

I left it on long enough for it to start drying and then rubbed off the big chunks of oatmeal over the kitchen sink. What I was left with was a thin powdery coating of the oatmeal paste (my older boy noted that my skin looked like a zombie.) I left this coating on my arms for about an hour and then rinsed it off. I’ve never reacted to okra like this before, but in gardening: there are always first times for everything. I had complete and total itch relief. Now I have a new (old fashioned) cure for when I walk into another plant that my skin decides to violently dislike!DSCN0025

Lastly, over the years: this has become a bigger problem for me. If you are getting crazy itching on your forearms every time you get dry skin or after you are out in the sun for a while: you may have something called Brachioradial pruritus. You would need a doctor to diagnose that, but it’s getting diagnosed more frequently. Ice helps. I keep a dish sponge cut in half soaked with water in zip lock bags in my freezer or use a gel freezer pack. 

Or just a baggy of ice. The cold REALLY helps! 

I keep several frozen to help because the itching was becoming a problem several times a week. I also only moisturize with either an oatmeal baby lotion 

or something equivalent to Cetaphil lotion and I make sure to do it after every shower or bath: before the itching has an opportunity to start! I cover my arms too, when I’m outside,  so the sunlight doesn’t have a chance to start the intense itching. 

Cetaphil brand is expensive. This is the pump Walmart version.

This is a Cetaphil knock-off tub from a random grocery store.

Since the disorder above is also light sensitive it finally makes sense why my bare arms were crazy itchy after being out in the sun gardening. I no longer use any soaps or detergents on my lower arms and I have gotten a little bit of control over what I have (which actually IS what I linked to above.) Since pinched nerves can cause this: I also believe my chiropractor helps when he adjusts my neck. 

This itching is worse (or equal to)  poison ivy but there’s currently no treatment or cure. Try the above suggestions, and if this is becoming frequent for you: see a doctor. It might be something else, it might be serious or you might have what I have and these suggestions will save you hours of misery. Good luck! Let me know how this works for you! 

Melted Perler Bead and Pony Bead Craft Projects

Every once in a while I end up on Pinterest. I don’t do it often because it’s like going to an all you can eat buffet: I think I can eat (or do) way more than reality will allow me to. On one of my visits to Pinterest I saw some melted pony bead crafts and I thought it would be fun to do them with my kids.

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These are pony beads. If you want a stained glass look: make sure you use translucent beads.

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I bought two big bags of pony beads and then separated them by color and put them into sandwich bags.

I also like a challenge and since I saw a pony bead version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night on Pinterest I figured I could do that as my grown-up craft. You can find it here: http://www.craftster.org/forum/index.php?topic=101446.0

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Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

So, now I am going to come out of the closet and admit to being a Doctor Who fan. (This seems like a random admission at this point, but keep reading.) I love BBC programing and I have since I was a kid. I would hand tune my TV dial to PBS and watch everything BBC as often as I could. It definitely affected my sense of humor! To celebrate my inner nerd (Who am I kidding? I’m all nerd!) I did a bunch of Doctor Who themed crafts for the season premier, this being one of them.

I saw the original starry night pony bead sun-catcher and I said to myself: this just needs a TARDIS (Doctor Who reference) and it would be perfect! (I had seen a starry night painting online with the TARDIS in it before. It’s here: http://stuffpoint.com/doctor-who/image/36814-doctor-who-starry-night-with-tardis.jpg ) I also thought there had to be a way to make the pony bead version look more interesting (the colors in the original were very plain in the sunlight). I also wanted to have better control of the dark areas: I decided I’d use Perler beads there.

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These are Perler beads. Perler is a brand of beads . They are usually sold to be used in a preset pegged design and then fused together by passing an iron over it. These are sold in craft and hobby stores.

You certainly don’t need to watch (or care) about BBC programming to enjoy this craft. I also made a tic tac toe board using the same technique (The tic tac toe board was my son’s idea and it was a good one!). I used a combination of Pony and Perler beads for the Starry Night project. I only used pony beads for the board. Doing a large project like the Starry Night one isn’t too difficult but it takes a long time to finish. You may want to start with something smaller like the tic tac toe board or a small sun-catcher to get a feel for the melting times. I assembled my bead version of “Starry Night” over two days. You have to be very careful not to bump it or tip it or you may have to start over!

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We used parchment paper for the board but you don’t have to. Although, it made it easy to line the beads up in a grid.

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This is the tic tac “bow” board we made, prior to melting it.

The reason I am exposing my nerdy tendencies is this: as I was doing the Van Gogh craft I wanted to use Perler beads for detail and translucent pony beads for the sun-catcher part. I could NOT find anything that had information about melting Perler beads or if you could use them with pony beads. This was my first bead melting project and I had no instructions. I’m a firm believer in the “go big or go home” way of living. (You can refer to my past gardening entries for verification of this.) I spent two days assembling the beads and I had no idea if they would work.

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Perlers and pony beads. DO NOT try it this way!

They didn’t, and they failed in a different way than I thought they would. My husband and I were able to pry them out and in the process we broke the whole thing. Luckily this project is just melted beads so I was able to save this by fixing the problem with the Perler beads and remelting the whole thing.

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So, Yes! You can melt Perler beads and pony beads and any combination of the two, you just need to follow these directions:

There are many melted pony bead sun-catcher instructions online. All you need to be successful melting pony beads is a non-stick cookie sheet and an outdoor gas grill so you don’t have to deal with the fumes. (This will forever ruin the non-stick cookie sheet or non-stick cupcake tin. Make sure you put them in with your crafting supplies when you are done rather than trying to cook on them again. If you don’t have a non-stick pan you are willing to ruin: visit your local thrift shop and pick one up. You can also do this in an oven. I don’t recommend it because the fumes are horrible.) After you melt the pony beads: they cool and shrink and will automatically release from the non-stick surface. Just wait for them to cool and lift it out. EASY!

Perler beads are a different animal. Perler beads look like they are made of vinyl. I figured they would melt first and maybe run under the pony beads and make a huge mess. They did make a huge mess, but not in the way I imagined. The Perler beads melted last and I didn’t leave them in our gas grill long enough to melt out the holes in the middle of them. I imagine if I left them in a bit longer I would have had a smoother end product but this was when I was dealing with the difference in the beads. I came very close to giving up. The Perler beads fused to the nonstick cookie sheet. I ended up having my husband force them out with a hard spatula. He had to break the whole thing to get the Perler area out.

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I was afraid I had wasted two days of my life on this dumb sun-catcher project. So, I started going through pages and pages of obscure blog posts trying to find the answer to the Perler problem. I did find an answer: parchment paper. Here’s where I found it: http://rebekahgough.blogspot.com/2012/12/perler-bead-oven-ornaments.html

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If you line your cookie sheet with parchment paper the Perler beads will not stick. But would the pony beads work with my solution? Yes. They did.

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The very nearly ruined first attempt.

The problem then became how could I melt these in the gas grill and not catch the parchment paper on fire? I ended up deciding not to chance it and remelted the broken pieces on parchment paper in our oven. It stunk up the whole house with a sickening plastic smell! That is why Fall (or Spring) is a great time to do this. You can open up your house and air it out! I did mine in +100 F degree summer weather and I still HAD to open the house up to get the plastic smell out. Not good for our air-conditioning bill…live and learn! I wish I had had a big enough toaster oven to do this outside which would avoid the chance of catching the paper on fire. I think the paper might work at a very low temperature for a longer amount of time in a gas grill.

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I’ve made a few things with melted beads and I would only use Perler beads if I wanted the effect I got in the Van Gogh project. The pony beads are much easier to work with! Either way: this is a fun and satisfying project!

Instructions:

First decide which beads you want to work with. For pony beads you just need a non-stick cookie sheet (Use a sheet with sides! I wouldn’t try this if you are making something large on a completely flat sheet.) For Perler beads, or for a combination of the two, you will need to line the cookie sheet with parchment paper.

The pony beads don’t ooze much so you don’t need much paper outside of the pony beads design. Perler beads ooze more so: you will need more paper or run paper up the side of the tray for them. Put the parchment paper down and fold the area by the sides so that it is creased enough to follow the  of the edge of your sheet.

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Decide on your design. Mine was loosely based on Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I printed out and put a grid on my inspiration piece so that I would have an easier time lining things up in the right proportions. The more I worked on it the more it became my own idea and less of what I’d seen.

Remember this is a bead project. If you keep these two rules in mind this will be a much less stressful project: 1. You won’t get a lot of detail with little circles that melt down to a hexagon shape. 2. You will not get straight lines with a large picture like this. For a very large project it is necessary to pack the beads tightly to keep the design from moving. That means the beads will be in a zigzag pattern as you push them close together. Try and remember that as you pick out your design. It is one reason that the Van Gogh painting works with this: few straight lines. Anything with strong lines or great detail will be hard to duplicate.

I marked on the parchment paper with a pencil to get the lines straight on the tic tac toe board (Or: “tic tac bow” as we call ours. It looked too much like a present to not add a bow!) I was able to create straight lines with this one because the pattern was much smaller. It took a long time to get straight and then the slightest bump made the lines wonky. Also, the pencil transferred to the melted beads so you might want to try a pen or marker.

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Some pony beads don’t melt as fast as others. The red ones that I had that did not have glitter in them stayed lumpy even though the glittery ones melted flat. I would guess if you wanted to have them both flat it would just take a little longer in the grill. I kind of enjoy the lumps. I used two kinds of beads because I didn’t have enough of one kind for the project.

Arrange your design. Work until you are happy. I didn’t have enough beads for the Van Gogh project to use the colors I wanted. I wish now that I had just bought more beads. You can’t change your design once they are fused. This takes a long time to get right and you might as well invest in the color beads you will be most happy with. I also wanted more colors than the one I saw online. Unfortunately, the beads looked very different before I melted them than they did afterwards.

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Before

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A very different “after” look.

I really liked my color choices before I melted them. After I melted them I wished I had used slightly different colors and gone ahead and bought more beads…but they aren’t cheap so I doubt I will redo this. Plus: it was a fun Doctor Who themed craft. It’s not like it was going to hang in a museum!

Set your gas grill burners on low or set your oven to 400 degrees F. Carefully place your cookie sheet in your heat source. Wait 5 minutes and check it. These will continue to flatten out. If you want it as smooth as glass it may take 30 minutes or more. The longer you melt, the fewer bubbles will be trapped and the clearer the design will be. Heating times will vary depending on the look you want and (unfortunately) the type and brand of plastic pony beads you use (which makes the melting time kind of random.) Mine melted really fast on the grill. Slower in the oven. Your project most likely won’t be done after five minutes, but you need to keep an eye on this. I have read some people have caught them on fire in their grills. (I would guess they left them in way too long, had the heat too high, were using charcoal or did something else that aren’t in these directions.) Check on your beads every 5 minutes. Opening the oven or gas grill often will allow the bead fumes to vent. Again, I wouldn’t do this inside if you don’t have to: but you can.

Once your beads are fused and as flat as you would like them, carefully remove them from your heat source and allow them to cool. Put them outside to cool! Since cooling can be done outside and they are still creating fumes: remove them from your home if you had them in your oven! Wait until it’s cool to the touch. If you used pony beads they will have automatically pulled away from the non-stick surface as they shrink and cool. Lift it out and admire your handiwork!

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If you used Perler beads: allow your project to cool. They should not have touched anything other than the parchment paper. If that is the case: lift it out and admire your handiwork! If they touched the cookie sheet: Pry it off. If it breaks, put parchment paper along the whole surface (you’ll know exactly where it didn’t have parchment, it’s okay, you can fix this!) and carefully align the broken area/s. Remelt. Allow to cool and admire your handiwork!

Finishing:

I have a bunch of different colored magic markers. I added details using the magic markers. You can easily remove the magic marker marks from the pony beads with a pencil eraser. This way, you are not stuck with just the way the beads melt. I wanted to see a little more movement in it so I added swirls to it. I know from experience magic marker will not last outdoors. If you like what your design looks like with magic marker make sure you hang it inside.

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For anything you would like to hang (versus just sitting it in a window, which is what I did): use a small diameter drill bit and drill a couple of holes and hang (If you break it, you can always remelt!) These end up pretty fragile so be careful. For the tic tac toe (tic tac bow) board: use dry erase markers to play. I’ve only done these projects with the above directions. I don’t know what else would work, but that’s the fun part: experimenting! I’d love to see any projects you come up with using these directions!!!

Please remember where you got your instructions! If you use these directions and post your own project please be kind enough to link back to this page. Thanks! Have fun!

Here are the other projects I tried out for the Doctor Who season 8 premier:

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I tried painting some $5 shoes I picked up at Walmart. I will definitely do more like this. Sonic screwdriver

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A weeping angel and the eleventh doctor with a mop, a bow tie and a fez. You can scream “NERD!” at me now. I’ll roll with it.

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A crack in the Universe and my obligatory glitter. Yes, I am only twelve years old in my mind! I figure I should never grow up: It’s bad for my imagination!

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Goofy, Doctor Who themed nails. WAYYY to much work. I will not be trying to do this much detail on my fingers again (especially since I was using toothpick tips to paint the details!) I have a lot of respect for the people who post nail art. I will have to admire their work from a distance from now on!

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Be The Bee! How And When Hand Pollinating Makes Sense.

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Flowers are beautiful examples of sexual reproduction. We gather them, we create bouquets, we stick our noses into a plant’s sex organs and take a deep breath of intoxicating fragrance.

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The idea of sex (at least when we look at our own species) seems to be incredibly more complex and inherently immature.

 

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I will point to plants for transferable lessons in the beauty and enjoyment of sexual reproduction. Because: with flower sex there are no immature experiences. Enjoying a flower is simple and healthy.

Plant sex: On display

Plants are never shy about reproduction. Those beautiful blossoms on your rose bush? Reproduction. The fruit you enjoy from the market? Reproduction. The nuts that provide fiber and protein in your diet? Reproduction.

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Plants can’t walk around and find their ideal mate. Instead they are more like billboards attempting to get pollinators to look so they might entice them to stop by and enjoy some nectar (and to spread some pollen around while they are at it.) With a plant’s sexual reproduction: it is in the plant’s best interest to get noticed. Pollinators create new offspring for plants, fruit and nuts attract animals to help with dispersal.

Humans select strains for the best fruit as far as taste and visual appeal. However, we create imbalance in the system when we don’t remember to select to attract and feed pollinators. I believe helping create healthy pollinators is going to become a necessary interest that must be included in the future of breeding and research in horticulture. It will be in recognition of the importance of the balance that nature strives to create.

What is the difference between hybrid and open pollinated seed?

These are legal definitions for plants. If you would like to know how and why these are separated in seed catalogs this is a great explanation: http://www.garden.org/subchannels/care/seeds?q=show&id=293&page=1 You need to know the difference before you start on the pollination journey.

Purposeful hand application of pollen:

As a home gardener, you can effectively focus on two different things in hand pollination. The first is to (1) purposely pollinate plants to create (A) a new hybrid or to (B) isolate and maintain pure strains:

(A) Hybridization (taking pollen from one desirable plant and placing the pollen on a second variety. With this method you are trying to create a better strain than either of the parents) will produce a new type of fruit but the seeds will not be stable. Reliably hybridizing takes more expertise than the average home gardener has. If you allow one of nature’s pollinators to do this you will get something unique next year if you sow the crossed seed (although you may not enjoy eating it.) Letting nature engage in hybridization is like the slot machine gambling of the plant world. You may hit the jackpot growing hybridized seed but more often you may just lose your money (with lesser quality plants than the parents, wasted garden space, water etc). I will admit to enjoying random crosses that grow out of discarded winter squash seed in my compost heap. Even if it’s merely to marvel at the possibilities that plant genetics can offer us!

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In my home garden I occasionally play the game of: “Squash, squash, what is that squash?” I have had some crazy crosses come up when I haven’t rotated crops from year to year or have found them growing from discarded seed in my compost heap. This game can easily be played with all cucurbits (squash/melon/cucumber/gourd family). To play: encourage the help of bees. Just save seed after two varieties of the same species have been growing at the same time.

(B) Keeping plant strains pure: The other part of this type of pollinating is isolating varieties to prevent hybridization. You will need isolation space (which varies per plant type), grow only one variety or use barriers like bags to keep what you have pollinated fertilized by only what you have chosen to place on it. You can try this if you have had a few successful seasons in your home garden and feel ready to expand your skills. You can learn more about keeping open pollinated seed strains pure or creating new hybrids here: http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Seed-Saving-Resources/

and here: http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Seed-Saving-Instructions/

If you are a seasoned gardener, I suggest this site: http://seedalliance.org/index.php?mact=DocumentStore,cntnt01,download_form,0&cntnt01pid=12&cntnt01returnid=139

(I always encourage people to support seedsavers.org. They are a genetic bank for open pollinated and heirloom strains of vegetables. They are maintaining diversity which is in complete opposition to GMO and hybrid seed companies like Monsanto.)

The second part is 2) Lack of pollination: The second focus in hand pollination is to make up for a lack of pollinators. No bees is a big deal! When sexual reproduction in a vegetable or fruit garden is bee reliant, you can intervene if there is a lack of them. Just make sure you add bee attracting flowers next season. You aren’t going to want to have to totally replace the bee’s handiwork. They work hard!

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Where we fit in:

Just like humans can sometimes use help with fertility: plants that use sexual reproduction can use our help as well. Male and female organs on a plant use pollination to reproduce. Here is a list of common vegetable plants and how they reproduce: http://www.harvesttotable.com/2009/05/how_vegetables_are_pollinated/

There are three main categories of pollination and gardeners can easily affect them:

A: Pollination by wind. This happens between separate male and female flower parts found on plants like corn (how to hand pollinate corn: link) You can help these plants along by physically rubbing the male pollen onto the female flower to increase your chances of fertilization. You can specifically help corn by cutting off one of the tassels (located at the top of the plant)

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Corn tassles.

and knocking pollen onto the silks as they emerge (found closer to the middle of the plant).

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Corn silk from this years plants.

B: Self-pollination: This happens within the same flower like tomatoes (how to hand pollinate tomatoes: link ) The key for these plants is agitation: grab a stem and give the plant a good shake. It is a little like what a good wind or rain storm would do. Self pollinating plants have their male and female parts close together. The pollen needs to drop a very small distance onto the stigma. Grabbing the plant and giving it a good shake will help knock loose pollen from the anthers onto the stigma.

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You can grab a tomato plant and give it a shake to knock the pollen off of the male part of the flower onto the female part. Tomatoes are self-pollinating. Each flower contains both male and female parts.

C. Animal pollination. Where a plant relies on something in the animal kingdom to spread pollen from plant to plant. Examples are bees, butterflies, moths and other insects pollinating your home vegetables and fruit trees. Here is a list of plants and their pollinators: link

Ideally you have a ton of bees in your yard from avoiding insecticides and other chemicals while ensuring you plant nectar and pollen rich flowers. This should create conditions to assure that you have pollinators already on your property eager to pollinate your fruits and vegetables. Even so, early in our season we are short on pollinators. Unfortunately, most suburbs are surrounded miles and miles of a monoculture of lawn grass.  Homeowners struggle to keep weeds out of their lawns just so neighbors (or an HOA) don’t judge them for noncompliance. While homeowners are planning their herbicide attack they don’t notice the hum of bees enjoying those same weeds.

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Lawn weeds in Bermuda grass. These are tiny, but the bees love them!

I hope within the next decade we start looking at the ground around our homes as the potential to support nature rather than trying to enforce an arbitrary idea of beauty. Humans seem to enjoy battling the way things work in nature by forcing the unnatural concept of perfectly manicured lawns. Try removing as much grass as possible and replacing it with pollinator friendly, native plants.

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A butterfly magnet: lantana.

When does it make sense to hand pollinate?

Cucurbits are number one on this list of home fruiting plants that have issues with pollination. Cucurbits include: winter squash (which includes pumpkins), summer squash, melons, cucumbers and gourds. They produce large fruits on a bush or a long sturdy vine. If you have struggled getting these plants to produce for you, it may be time to start looking at pollinating the flowers yourself.

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My melon patch this year. I recommend trellising cucurbits unless they are a kind that will “slip” from the vine when ripe. Here’s how I do it: Simple, Inexpensive Vine Support I don’t support melons or squash that I grow like this. I don’t need to. Big vines like these climb naturally and retain their fruit as they do it. I cut the melons off when they are ready.

Identifying male and female flowers on cucurbits:

In the cucurbitae family there are separate male and female flowers. Once you can tell the difference between the sex of a flower, you can try your hand at pollinating.

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Male flower on a melon plant. Notice there is nothing but a thin stem attaching the flower to the vine.

These are the male flowers. They are easy to identify because they will be on the end of a long straight stem and covered in pollen. The male part of the flower is called the stamen. There will be a long filament that has a pollen covered anther at the end.

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I sliced a male blossom in half here. Notice the shape of the interior of the flower. There is pollen at the end of the stamen and no immature fruit below the petals.

At the end of the stamen is the anther. This is where you start. The anther is where the pollen (which is male) is found that is required for the female flower to produce fruit.

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Female flower on the same melon plant. Notice the immature fruit between the stem and the flower. There will be many more male flowers and if you eat squash blossoms you should plan on frying or stuffing the male blossoms. This would not affect the amount of fruit you get.

This is the female counterpart. You can spot female flowers by looking for the swollen ovary.

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Here is the interior of a female blossom. You can see that the stigma (on the inside of the petals) is pollen free and that there is a swollen ovary (the future fruit) that contains unfertilized seed.

These will abort and fall from the plant if they are not fertilized properly.

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If you have a whole lot of this…

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…and not a lot of this: You probably have a pollination problem.

Like most living things: the female reproductive organs are more complicated than the male organs. The entire length of the female part of a flower is called a pistil. Starting from where the pistil is attached to the base of the flower you will see a swollen area which is the ovary. It is full of potential seeds called ovules. Continuing up the pistil there will be a narrower tube called the style connected to the sticky tip of the pistil: the stigma. This sticky tip is what needs to be fertilized with the male pollen.

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Male and female parts within the same flower.

Here is a simple description that will give you a working foundation in hand pollination:

You don’t need to work with hundreds of flowers, just a few per vine. If they fail, go out and do it again, until you have the amount of fruit you are after. You will get better quality, larger fruit if you allow your plant to concentrate on only producing a few fruit per vine.

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Thai Golden Round melons. I have these on my melon trellis. Learn to build a cheap trellis here: Simple, Inexpensive Vine Support  I’ve probably got 10 or more that are close to being ripe. These are not my favorite melon but they are prolific and the vines do well here.

If you have to stand in for bees frequently, you will realize how much work these little garden friends do for us. I recommend making plans to plant nectar and pollen rich plants so you can attract these busy bees to your yard and save yourself the trouble of trying to do it all yourself.

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Successfully pollinated by our neighborhood bees. The blossom is shriveled at the bottom of this melon.

The following is how I like to hand pollinate in small areas with large fruited plants:

I use a q-tip to gather and spread pollen. They are cheap and simple. I twirl it over several of the same species/variety of squash or melons. This is Thai Golden Round. Then I hunt for open female flowers and twirl the pollen onto the stigma. If you’ve done it correctly: the fruit will begin to grow and mature. If your attempt fails: the immature fruit will fall from the vine. You will have more chances and this is why I save and label my q-tips: I want to load as much pollen on them as I can. You can also use a small paintbrush or remove the male flower completely and rub it’s anther directly onto the female’s stigma.

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You don’t need to be careful if you aren’t saving seed, but you won’t create a squash with watermelon pollen. You still need to focus on one species of plant, even if you choose to mix varieties of pollen from the same species of plants. Here is a good explanation of cross-pollination in cucurbits: http://www.walterreeves.com/food-gardening/squashpumpkincucumberwatermelon-pollination-explanation/

You can label your q-tip by putting a piece of tape on it and writing the variety you used it on. If you aren’t saving seed you can use the same q-tip for all of your pollinating (I am not currently saving seed because I am trialing too many, in too close of proximity, to keep the strains pure. Although I usually keep at least one q-tip for each: winter squash/summer squash, melon, watermelon etc. In this way I make sure the q-tip only contains pollen that will fertilize the species I am trying to grow.)

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You can be as detailed or as simplistic as you want. My labeling depends on what I am trying to do for the season.

For more information including recipes, pictures and growing information: Here are some great links.

Learn all about melons: (This is a fantastic site out of Australia that includes growing information, recipes and reviews of melon varieties.) http://melonmaster.yolasite.com/

Learn all about squash: This site can take a while to load but it has reviews and recommended ways to prepare and consume pretty much any variety of squash, gourd and cucumber that you are growing. The site is listed alphabetically.) http://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/vegetables/squash-glossary.asp

There you go! A simplistic guide to an incredibly complex field of study. Botanists can write the text books full of the complex how’s and why’s, but anyone with this simple guide can go out and enjoy becoming the bee!

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A How To: On Animals and Life

How to: Enjoy an indoor rabbit…

Hahaha. No. He stinks, will live up to 18 years, digs up the carpet in the corners and kicks out rabbit poo all over the floor from his cage.

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Red uses his ninja training to kick poo out all over the floor when night falls. Rabbits, like most rodents, are nocturnal.

Unfortunately, (for me anyway) it gets way too hot to cage a rabbit outdoors down here. (There are ways to do it, but it would take a lot of work.) He is a long term rodent investment!

How to: Own an Australian Shepherd and triumph over the hair…

Oh my God, no. My dog blows his coat every spring.

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This is my dog and his undercoat. There’s at least another dog his size worth of hair after this brushing. It’s not over at once, either. He will continue to shed heavily for weeks and then go back to medium shedding (like most dogs do in the spring) for the remainder of the year. His shedding is insane and never ending!!!!

Huge chunks of rabbit fine undercoat dropping off onto the carpet. Daily vacuuming cannot compete with these random blobs of dog hair. My dog is the ultimate champ in all shedding events! In case you wondered: Australian Shepherds are an American based breed. I have no idea why he isn’t called an American shepherd. Probably just didn’t sound as cool!

How to: Keep a cat out of your pots, flower beds and vegetable garden…

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Urg. My attempts have included laying chicken wire across the beds, plastic netting and high fences: he still manages to get into and poop on everything. Cat poop is like the nuclear waste of animal dung. Toxic, nasty, yuck that will last long after anything natural should! That stuff is deadly to my plants and it does not compost (even though he chooses to bury it.)

My animals each have their issues. So do my human friends. But they all have reasons to ignore the drawbacks:

In defense of the rabbit:
Our rabbit “Red” is a snuggle bunny. He was a gift to my kids for surviving a tough move, away from family, down to Texas. My then 5 year old thought naming a black and white rabbit “Red” was hilarious. I agree! I don’t have any babies in the house anymore. My boys are getting bigger. I still get kid snuggles, but our bunny is about the same size my boys were when they were born.

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Red getting some snuggles!

Our rabbit makes a great stand in for a mommy and a daddy who are nostalgic about the days when we had infants at home!

In defense of the dog:
My dog is incredibly smart. Like: “Are you sure you aren’t just a really hairy five year old kid?” smart. I got him on the first anniversary of 9-11. He has a patriotic registered name but we call him “Christmas”. I think I chose that nickname because Christmas is a holiday full of love, forgiveness and promise. Just what I needed on an anniversary of a horrible, emptyhearted tragedy that was created by a few bent souls.

He is great with my kids. He has endless love and forgiveness. He is great entertainment with his goofy quirks (He does flips, can out fetch anyone’s desire to continue to throw a ball for him and he actually kicks balls with his front feet. Dog soccer is awesome!) Plus, he was my family before I met my husband. I love my dog completely!

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In defense of the cat:

My cat is an antique. I rescued him as a kitten. He was up a tree at my mom’s. She was out of town at the time but offered this advice when I called her asking if I should rescue the kitten: “Leave him alone. He’ll come down. You never see cat bones up in a tree.” After three days I got out the ladder and brought him down. That’s when I noticed he had a puncture wound on his stomach (most likely from a coyote trying to eat him. That would make me stay up in a tree indefinitely, too!)

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He was scared, dehydrated and feral but he recognized I was trying to help him and he’s been a great buddy ever since. If I’d left him, I think he might have become the first set of cat bones in a tree!

His name is “Newman”. He was named after the Seinfeld character when that show was popular. He’s that old! 20+ years and counting. The dogs and other cats we had at the time are long gone, but Newman keeps plugging along! He was a barn cat that defied the odds. He is super friendly and one of those rare “great cats”. I’ve only owned a couple of those in my life.
Every relationship has troubles, even ones that are forged between species. But most long term love affairs happen because they have earned the right to happen. They are made through mutual respect, love and interdependence.

I love the relationships I have with my animals. They have helped me understand that my human connections are just as rewarding (and as challenging) because “perfect” doesn’t really exist. It’s not supposed to. Love is complex but it’s definitely worth the hassles and learning experiences that imperfections bring! Learning to love means dropping expectations and opening up to a direction you don’t control. Forgiveness is a habit. Respect is not optional. Control is not compatible. (And I take that stance: in defense of me.)

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Here’s to enjoying the imperfections and gifts that love and life bring our way!

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