Sunday, August 28, 2011

For the Birds

I just came in from the morning. It isn't a cool morning, but cooler than it will be in a few hours, and the hummingbirds are out sipping from honeysuckle and cactus blossoms. The wrens and sparrows hop and make morning noises. But it was quieter this morning because there was no laughter.

Our last remaining chicken, Smalls, died yesterday in the heat. I had tried to provide shade and cool water, but it wasn't enough. She had a morning crow like a fat woman laughing, waking up from a hilarious dream. She laid distinctively shaped dark brown eggs almost every day. In the middle of our backyard, her coop and run was a social place; we had parties around it, and everyone who came in my yard stopped to talk to Smalls.

This summer, a blue jay pair built a nest in my big old oak tree. One of the young blue jays was born without a wing, and my husband and I have fallen a little bit in love with him. He's nearly reached maturity, and he can use his one wing to get him up and into trees when there is a threat. By hopping and flapping, he can move from branch to branch. He'll never soar and swoop—fluttering and hopping is his destiny. What else is his destiny remains threateningly up in the air; will it be the hawks who get him, or something more pedestrian, the coyotes or cats? It's dangerous for us to hang our hearts on him, the bird with such a slim chance, but isn't that how it goes?

In fact, isn't that how it goes with any animal? The pain of animal love is that we'll always outlive it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Guest Post: My Garden Intern Speaks

This summer, I had the great gift of a garden "intern." When my friend and coworker (Jen is a Biology teacher at my school) asked if she could help me once a week through the summer, I jumped at the opportunity. Help and company in the garden? Yes, please. As the summer has worn to its last little nubbin, today was our last day working together, and I asked Jen to write an end-of-summer recap about her experiences. I assigned her a simple prompt: What did you get out of the garden?

By Jennifer Eggers

For a variety of reasons completely out of my control, I found myself with very little to do this summer. So little, it could be measured in one word, nothing. Friends suggested all sorts of things, but part of my resistance came from the bitterness of having found myself with nothing regularly scheduled. I kept asking, “What do I enjoy that doesn’t involve teaching or education?” I love to go to the Arboretum and gardens but there’s no space for me to have a garden in or around my one bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. Besides, the houseplants I have are already taking over; as my boyfriend points out, they’re starting to cover the television. Then inspiration hit: volunteer in someone’s garden. And who do I know that already has a well-established garden and is very knowledgeable? The rest of the story is history. The pieces just fell into place.

We decided Tuesday mornings would be for gardening. Even if I spent the previous day walking through Disneyland, out late, or enjoying some wine, bright and early I would be out gardening. I don’t tend to be a really happy person in the morning, but even shoveling goat poop and soiled hay was not bad when outside in the midst of plants. My overall health benefited from these grand Tuesday mornings, but I also learned more than I could’ve ever learned about plants in one of my college biology classes. Some tidbits have proven to be helpful, whereas others are just hilarious.

Things I’ve Learned This Summer:
  • Just because a strawberry is growing between two cracks of cement at the Huntington Gardens doesn’t mean it's not going to be the most amazing strawberry of my life.
  • Jerusalem crickets are not from this planet.
  • A wall of ivy is never ending work. Just leave it in a pot.
  • “Plant surgery” is not as gross as human surgery. Orchid roots just need to be worked with sometimes.
  • Decomposers are amazing.
  • Fungicide can be made in a variety of non-smelly ways, including with cinnamon.
  • Corn grows ridiculously fast.
  • Performing sexual reproduction for plants is not as weird as it might seem. Each strand coming out of an ear of corn needs pollen in order to produce a single kernel.
  • Canning tomatoes is a long process and should not be done on hot days.
  • A screen (like for the windows) can be used as sunscreen for peppers. Good thing too, because I wasn’t ready to slather some SPF 85 on them as well.
  • Field trips to other gardens are just as exciting as field trips were during elementary school.
  • “Dead heading” does not hurt the plant. I nearly cried while dead-heading the lavender.
  • There are lizards everywhere.
  • There something peaceful about trimming shallots that have just been harvested and throwing the trimmings directly into the compost pile.
  • Mice can spontaneously appear out of a compost pile while being moved. Turns out Louis Pasteur was wrong; spontaneous generation does happen. (Note to self to change that lesson plan when I get back to school.)
  • Coming home with a bag of produce after working with all the plants feels amazing.

So today as I pulled what felt like microscopic worms off sprouts, I realized it is okay to be playing in the dirt. It is okay to enjoy the very simplest parts of the world, and more importantly, it is okay to be in love with nature.

Friday, August 19, 2011

That August Glow

Above me.

Right in my face.

And below too, though sometimes more subtle and peculiar.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cucurbit Sex

In the summer garden, the melons, squash, cucumbers are the lookers. They've got sexy tendrils and bright, brassy, bosomy blossoms. They're such vibrant growers that they tumble all over each other and everything else, climbing trellises, walls, the ground, into the lemon tree. Unstoppable. Funny. These plants are the whole package.

If you're as entertained by cucurbits as I am, perhaps you'd like to try your hand at saving seed of your favorite varieties.

Identifying species: If you want to save seeds from your cucumbers, melons, squash, and pumpkins, you must know what species you have growing in your yard. If, among squash, you have only a butternut (a C. moschata cultivar) and a pattypan (a C. pepo cultivar), you should be able to plant seeds from the saved fruit and expect the plants to grow true. But, if you're growing a Hubbard and a Banana squash, both C. maxima cultivars, it is likely that pollen has crossed successfully between them and the seeds will not produce an exact replica of either parent. In short, like any other genus, varieties within the same species easily cross, while those of different species only very rarely do so. So, in order to keep track of what species you have, I've written a brief description of of the more common cucurbit species below.

Cucurbita pepo: All the orange carve-able pumpkins are C. pepo, but so are zucchini and pattypan. The basic identifying key is that the stem where the plant attached to the fruit tends to be very ridged with five distinct ridges. The leaves and stems tend to be very prickly.

C. maxima: The leaves of C. maxima are among the largest and are usually an even green. The fruit-to-stem attachment on C. maxima is easiest to identify: the stem is round (not ridged), it isn't enlarged against the fruit, and it is less strong. C. maxima can be just about any color, but they aren't usually bright. In other words, an orange C. maxima will be a soft, rusty pinkish orange instead of a Halloween C. pepo orange. They can be steely blue, pink, deep green, etc. In the maxima species, I am growing Uncle David's Dakota Dessert and an unidentified variety that I brought back from Argentina.

C. mixta: The fruit of mixtas (aka cushaws) usually aren't terribly tasty, but they have huge seeds with distinct, silvery rims around the seeds. These varieties are often grown for their seed alone. The fruits looks similar to washed out moschatas. I don't grow any mixtas.

C. moschata: The leaves on C. moschata plants often have silvery spots. Also, their fuzz usually is softer and less prickly than either pepo or moschata. The place where the stem meets the fruit is smooth and has five points that flare out against the fruit. The fruits are most often pinky-tan colored, a la its most famous cultivar, Butternut. However, moschata fruits can occasionally be dark green or green and ivory mottled. I grow Seminole, a historic moschata.

Pop quiz: Which two species are in this picture below? Which is which?

Cucumis cucumis: Cucumber! Easy to identify. This year, I'm growing Poona Kheera.

Cucumis melo: All melons (except watermelon) and a couple "cucumbers" (Armenian cucumber and Bari cucumber). This year, I'm growing an old favorite, Boule D'Or, two new-to-me varieties, Eden's Gem and Petit Gris de Rennes, and of course, Armenian cucumber.

Citrullus lanatus: Watermelon! Once again, easy to ID. This year, I'm growing Orangeglo.

Preventing cross pollination: The easiest way to prevent cross pollination is to grow only one of each species. While there are cases of species crossing (the mules of the cucurbit world), those are the exception rather than the rule. If you're like me, it is really hard to contain yourself to just one variety of each species. I know that I will never have a garden with just one kind of melon in it. One kind of melon! That's practically starvation.

If you choose to grow multiple varieties within a species, the most practical means of preventing cross-pollination is mechanical isolation and hand pollination. To do this, walk out to your garden and look at your flowers. Make sure you can identify male and female flowers.

This is a male squash flower. It has no immature fruit at its base, but it does have a pollen-rich anther in the center.

This is a female squash flower. It has a large, irregularly shaped stigma and an immature fruit at its base.

This is a male melon flower; melons, watermelons, and cucumbers have nearly identical flowers. The anthers are low and tucked into the base of the flower.

This is a female melon flower. It has a stigma that can easily collect pollen off the insect pollinators.

Now that you know what you're looking for, find several just-about-to-open female and male flowers of the variety you want to keep from crossing with any other variety. If you can, choose flowers from more than one plant in the same variety because that will help keep a healthy gene pool in your resulting seeds. Tape the flowers shut.

The next morning, when the flowers would open with the sun, cut the male flower off the plant, carefully remove the tape from it, and gently tear the petals off, leaving the anthers exposed. Remove the tape from the female flower, coax the petals open, and insert the male flower into the female flower, shoving the anthers up to the stigma. After you see the stain of pollen on the stigma, cover the female flower with something to protect it from any other creature that may want to crawl around in it. I use poly mesh bags, the kind that some people use for wedding favors.

Once you're sure the young fruit is growing (see below), identify it with a ribbon or stretchy tree tape to remind yourself later that this is a fruit with pure seed.

Protecting fruit: Not every fruit will "take," no matter how carefully you work to pollinate the female flowers. It's easy to determine which of the female flowers are truly pollinated, because they'll take off growing almost immediately. If you have lots of pillbugs and similar in your yard, as I do, protect the growing fruit by placing a plate, brick, or other object underneath it, keeping it off the soil.

This is a female fruit that the plant will abort. Notice that it is yellowing towards the blossom end. The stem is also anemic, telling me that this fruit won't develop further.

Saving seeds: Now that you've worked hard to protect your varieties from cross-pollinating, it is important that you save seeds from mature fruit. It is easy to tell when seeds in a melon or watermelon are mature, because they're ready when the fruits are ready to eat. However, the seeds in a zucchini that you'd eat aren't ready to save; the fruit must stay on the vine until the fruit is bloated, like an oddly shaped pumpkin, and hard, so hard that you can't pierce the skin with your fingernail.

And cucumbers that are ready to collect seed from don't even look like cucumbers anymore. Here is a Poona Kheera cucumber that still isn't ready to harvest for seed; the skin needs to toughen more, to feel like a ripe melon, before I remove it from the vine. Sometimes cucumbers will even split open and reveal their mature seeds.

When you do remove the seeds from a fruit you've saved for seed, scoop the seeds out into a colander, give them a quick rinse, then spread them on a cookie sheet (if you like, you can line it with parchment, but that really isn't necessary) to dry thoroughly. Once completely dry (and I mean completely, totally, very, very dry), store in a cool, dark place.

Cucurbit love. I've got it bad. Maybe you do too?