25 May 2011

Adapting to the Elements (and Buffering, Where Possible)

Pincushion flowers (Scabiosa lucida), Magdalena, NM, May 2011

It is a near-perfect spring day out here in western New Mexico, sunny and fairly calm, the winds having abated after some restlessness yesterday. Apparently this April was the windiest in a dozen years, so the aggravation I felt and shared with my fellow New Mexicans was well justified. By late May the winds have usually abated, but we have a few days of wind and "blowing dust" (an official weather term out here, apparently) forecast for the upcoming week.

So it is a good year to implement serious weather-buffering measures in my veggie garden; the tomato and tomatillo seedlings now residing within Walls-o-Water (they're cheapest at Wal-Mart, by the way) are doing well, whereas those open to the elements are lagging a bit. I completely encircled one bed (shown at right) with tomato plants in Walls-o-Water and then put pepper plants in the center strip, with black plastic and bricks to increase soil warmth and nighttime heat radiation, and this seems to be working well. If I'd thought of this before, all four tomato beds would be set up like this.... Yes, I have four tomato beds. Yes, that's insane -- in most places. Here, it's called hedging one's bets, or it could still be insanity, which is what happens when a once-accomplished gardener fails, year after year, to bring tomatoes to fruition in a climate that does not favor tomatoes because of its cool nights and early frost. Accept reality? Not yet....

Now I'm working on some kind of organic water conditioning; our water is so hard and has such high alkalinity that many plants can't get enough essential nutrients, including iron and phosphorus, which leaves them yellow and stunted if untreated. I noticed in my first year of gardening here that vegetable seedlings never really thrived after I put them out in the garden and in fact seemed "poisoned" by our water; now I know why. Soil conditioning with lots of aged manure, peat, and pine needles does help, but lowering the pH of the water they get every time the drip system goes on will help a lot more. As for the other gardens, I'm focusing on native or well-adapted perennials such as the pincusion flowers pictured here, which just thrive in dryish, alkaline soils. I'm only forcing the issue in the veggie garden because I really, really want to feed myself and my family home-grown, organic produce, which is hard to find (and afford) in our local stores... so off I go on a new quest....

24 May 2011

Tired Tuesday

Riley takes a nap, May 2011
No time for blogging lately, between the puppy (whose name is now Riley, for reals) and gardening and finishing my internship paperwork, which I got in a week early and just got approved for a July start. Other things I have not had time for: photography, jewelry making, and hiking. Not good. But with the garden mostly planted and my internship totally nailed down, I can start getting back to some balance.

Riley has grown quickly since we took him in 3 weeks ago; now about 9 weeks old, he has at least doubled in size, starting out smaller than our small cat Max and now (much to both cats' chagrin) bigger and heavier than our heavyweight cat Rocky. He is crate-trained, sleeping in there all night and going in frequently during the day for naps, and I've mostly trained him to stay out of my garden beds. Despite my best efforts (obviously not good enough) he isn't housebroken yet, and he still chases the cats and chews on shoes, so we have a ways to go. Good thing he's cute and seems to have a great doggie personality; he sure is a handful, though nothing like Lucy was at his age. Lucy is quite protective of the little guy and loves playing with him, though she does get a bit worn out and snappish by evening -- funny how little ones can do that to us old folks. ...So that's it for now; coursework beckons...

15 May 2011

I Heart Macro: Morning in the Garden

Rainbow chard, Magdalena, NM, May 2011
Arugula blossoms
Today's I Heart Macro post is brought to you by a perfect spring morning: sunny, warm enough to sit outside to drink my coffee and watch the cats patrol the yard, and not windy for a change. Despite our typically feisty spring winds I've been gardening like a madwoman (hence the recent lack of posts!)... I did resist the urge to put plants out last weekend because a frost was forecast (and did in fact materialize), so this weekend is planting weekend. Today is our last frost date, which means it's safe for everything to go out and for the glass covers (old windows) to come off the coldframe at night. The chard above and kale at right have been growing in the coldframe since March, and I've enjoyed several cuttings including a delicious greens-and-garlic stirfry last night. Also in the coldframe, conveniently located outside the dining room glass doors, are spinach and mixed lettuces along with basil, parsley, and fennel seedlings.

Asparagus tips
The main vegetable garden lies beyond and, with this spring's expansion, takes up almost one-third of our fairly generous backyard. This is the fourth spring I've worked on it, expanding it from one small 10-by-6-foot section to... lots more than that. In 2008, a deep spring rain brought up some old asparagus that has gradually recovered as I've tended it, and this year I was finally able to section off the half-dozen standing plants and add another two dozen that will bear tasty shoots next spring. I had also hoped to put in a strawberry garden but didn't get to the bare-root bundles in time, so that goes on next year's list. I might be able to plant those in the fall, with lots of aged manure and a thick bed of straw to help them grow roots over the winter.

One thing about gardening here is that I can't just clear some ground, put in plants, and let nature do the rest; I have to dig into and below the fine silty crust to break up the hardpan beneath (which accumulates as our heavily mineralized water settles and forms a hard sub-crust a foot or so below the surface), mix in lots of aged manure and straw (easily available here thanks to many neighbors who have horses) to create soil that doesn't turn to muck when wet, and create a series of raised beds so the first hard rain doesn't wash all this hard work into one big mess. The photo below shows an overview facing southwest, from the new summer squash bed back towards the long winter squash bed along the south fence and the woodpile along the west fence. Behind me towards the left is a bed for broccoli, onions, cucumbers, peas, and bush beans; the long beds extending from the left of the photo will be planted with tomatoes today or tomorrow, and lead towards the asparagus and tomatillo/eggplant beds (the latter one has the green Walls-o-Water, which seem to be working well).

Looking southwest across the veggie garden
Because rain is so variable (and non-existent so far this spring), I have to put everything on a drip irrigation system, which is labor-intensive up front but thanks to a timer provides automatic, measured watering. I've expanded the drip system along with the garden, adding a new section for each new bed (below is the new Pattypan squash bed, looking northeast), and along the way I've learned that drip emitters can go for a year or more before I have to clean them (individually, by hand) with vinegar whereas sprinklers and misters only work for a month or two before our hard water clogs them up. And then, to keep the soil from drying out and caking up, everything gets a thick bed of straw which, thankfully, is also easily available.

Looking northeast towards the house
I've learned these past few years that our short season (5 months at best) and cool nights do not favor tomatoes or peppers; rather than causing me to give up on these garden delights, these constraints have spurred me to figure out how to coddle these plants enough to actually harvest something before first frost. This year the peppers get a black plastic mulch and dark rocks around each plant to absorb sunlight and release the heat overnight, and the tomatoes get the black plastic along with Walls-o-Water to keep both heat and moisture around the plants. I am nothing if not determined....

05 May 2011

Lil' Dude! No, wait, Buster! No, Marley! Marley it is. I think.

So I think we're calling this little dude Marley; Laz had named him Buster yesterday morning (after the dog in Toy Story) but then my Dad was talking about "Marley & Me" this morning and Laz changed his mind. Marley is a cooler name... not that the dog answers to anything right now. I took him in for shots and deworming yesterday and the vet said he was in good shape despite having been dumped on the street; she said he's about 6 weeks old and seems to be a boxer/pitbull/shepherd mix. I also got a kennel (really a huge dog carrier so he can travel in it later on) for him at night; the roaming around the house whining and yipping and peeing and pooping all over the place does NOT work for me. Truth be told, I adore puppies but hate raising them; I had planned to get a young adult dog at a shelter in another year or so, but this guy really needed a rescue. And God, look at that face. So, puppyhood it is. Lucky little dude, I'm feeling generous these days.

03 May 2011

And we shall call him...

Lucy's new buddy, who came to us today

Lucy at about 5 weeks (2003)
... well, we're not sure yet. Dad and the kids found him cowering under Dad's car this morning; a neighbor said someone dumped him and some siblings (who I haven't seen yet; another neighbor might have taken them in) on our street last night. And then Dad made the mistake of bringing the little dude into the house to show me how cute he was... so he's ours now. I've been wanting a buddy for Lucy for a while, and she seems eager to play with him, but of course the cats hate his guts and are surely plotting revenge. I'm guessing he's the typical Magdalena Mutt blend of cattle dog, shepherd, pitbull, labrador... He looks a LOT like Lucy did at this age (that's her in the photo at right, the day we got her) and has big feet, so I'm guessing we've got ourselves another big happy dog.

So, what shall we name him?

01 May 2011

The Sunday Creative: Rock

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) in rock, Magdalena Mtns., New Mexico, April 2011

This week's Sunday Creative theme is "rock," and I happen to have some nice rock images on hand from my Friday hike in the beautiful Water Canyon area of the Magdalena Mountains. The image above shows a deceptively soft-looking mullein sprouting from a shallow crack in a sheer rock face, illustrating this plant's toughness and adaptability. Mullein grows abundantly throughout New Mexico, even in the poorest of soils and the driest of seasons, and has long been used medicinally for coughs, eczema and other skin conditions, and bacterial infections. It only grows in sunlight, so of course it thrives here. Also growing in this canyon's granite/limestone/volcanic rock walls are claret cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus, shown in the photo below), Apache Plume (Fallugia paradoxa, just beginning to leaf out), nonpoisonous sumacs (Rhus trilobata and R. microphylla), junipers and pinon trees, and willows bearing neon spring-green leaves to brighten up the dry brown landscape.

Rock with lichens, claret cup cactus, and grasses, Magdalena Mtns., NM, April 2011

I love how visible rock is out here; the giant, tumbled slabs and boulders and protuberances of this landscape remind me that nothing is permanent, even the very ground we stand and live on.

Willows and sumacs tumbling down a rock slope, Magdalena Mtns., NM, April 2011