Friday, September 18, 2009

Geeky Gardening

I have mentioned several times in this blog that I am a total biology geek and that gardening is my expression of those tendencies. But this definition bothers me. My wife and I are proud geeks, but is gardening really geeky? I mean, it is usually done outdoors. There's sun out there! Geeks aren't usually known for their deep tans.

However, there are certain aspects of gardening that are intensely geeky. As John Hodgman said, "We are geeks. We are defined by our passions and our enthusiasms." There are few pastimes that inspire passion and enthusiasm in so many people as gardening. Gardening can make normal people talk about, and even research, things like chemistry, botany, zoology, microbiology and even mycology. It can make a seemingly normal person keep a thousand red worms as pets, fussing over their enclosure, their health and the quality of their bowel movements. I typically observe the status of my gardens at least 4 times a day. And yes, I can tell the difference, thank you. If that doesn't qualify as passion and enthusiasm, I don't know what does. So if you think that the statement "Can't see the forest for the trees" should be revised to say "Can't see the forest for those yellow spots on the leaves. Dammit! What is that, blight? I am going to have check my gardening books and spray now..." then perhaps you should check your habits against the list below. It might just give you some ideas.

1) Garden Schedule
Gardener: Knows when first and last frost dates are and plants accordingly.
Geeky Gardener: Knows exact planting dates of all seeds relative to first and last frost and keeps records.
Über Geeky Gardener: Enters all of those dates into a calendar program with a "repeat yearly" option.

2) Soil Chemistry
Gardener: Understands that there are nutrients in the soil that are essential to the growth of plants and adds fertilizer to make sure there are enough of each.
Geeky Gardener: Owns a soil test kit and several electronic gadgets and knows the exact soil composition in any given location because he tests it regularly.
Über Geeky Gardener: Created a raised bed garden and made all of his own soil so he could have exact control.

3) Tools
Gardener: Has a set of tools that he keeps in good working order.
Geeky Gardener: Has all the best tools and they are kept razor sharp, well oiled, and hung on pegboard, complete with outlined shapes so the unkempt masses don't put the tools where they don't belong.
Über Geeky Gardener: “What, they don't make WiFi moisture meters and networked programmable automatic watering systems? I guess I'll have to make my own...”

4) Latin Names
Gardener: What's a Latin name?
Geeky Gardener: Knows Latin names and family groups for most of his plants.
Über Geeky Gardener: Knows exact Latin name, including genus and species, of every plant is his garden, including cultivar names and refuses to call them by anything else.

5) Weather
Gardener: Understands basics of seasons in his area.
Geeky Gardener: Has a weather station and records rainfall and temperature highs and lows.
Über Geeky Gardener: Maintains a weather station for NOAA.

6) Garden Planning
Gardener: Knows where they planted each plant.
Geeky Gardener: Will painstakingly plan out their garden, developing diagrams (probably in AutoCAD) of what was planted where and keep them for posterity to help with crop rotation.
Über Geeky Gardener: Will plan it all out, just like the geeky gardener, but will also take companion plants, beneficial insect habitats, sun angles, plant light requirements, soil that has been previously innoculated for legumes and light exposure into consideration. He will also specially plan out and design microclimates for his perennials and slow-growing annuals.

7) Garden Biology
Gardener: Understands that the different organisms in the garden interact and that those interactions are important.
Geeky Gardener: Seeks to understand as many organisms as possible and to control garden health through the use of careful applications of organic matter, organic fertilizer, companion plants, beneficial insects and more.
Über Geeky Gardener: Does all the same things as the geeky gardener and then blogs about it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Purslane: Noxious Weed or Superfood?

Some years ago I was flipping through my new book on gardening and found an odd vegetable that I had never heard of called purslane. Oddly enough, it looked just like the noxious weed that was completely taking over my parents' garden. So I grabbed a sprig and took it to the nearest garden center where they confirmed that yes, indeed, it was purslane.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a fleshy succulent, preferring to grow in hot, dry weather. It has a low growth habit and produces thousands of tiny seeds all summer long, giving it its reputation as a noxious weed. It can be hard to eradicate from your garden. However, it is also a prime edible, with a crunchy texture and wonderful flavor. While the flavor is sort of generically "green," some of them, usually the bigger leaves, have a distinct lemon flavor. In addition, they are one of the highest known vegetative sources of omega-3 fatty acids. It is also full of vitamins and minerals. Its dietary benefits are enough that some have gone so far as to call it a superfood.

So where can you get some seeds from this wonderful plant? I have yet to see any offered at seed catalogs, but it is pretty easy to score a little seed factory in many areas. Purslane uses its fleshy stems, which are also edible, as a water and nutrient storage device. After you have pulled the weed, it will continue to produce flowers and manufacture seeds as long as it can. I pulled one particularly healthy plant a few months ago. It was still producing flowers after a month of sitting in the sun. In Arizona. In July. So find the biggest plant you can find and pluck it. Then put it wherever you want the plants to take over. It will likely produce hundreds of seeds before it perishes. Unless the javelinas eat it first .

Now go eat your weeds.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Begun, The Piggie Wars Have

Back in December, I moved from a house to a rental unit. At the house, I had a full fence and no mammalian herbivores larger than a mouse. I was able to garden with nary a worry about keeping the varmints off of my produce. At the new place, this is very much not the case. I have seen rabbits, ground squirrels, deer, and javelinas, and who knows what else lurks at night. Ringtails, skunks and porcupine are certain to inhabit the area as well. Of all of those, javelinas are the worst threat. Javelina (pronounced hav-a-LEEN-a) is a local name for a collared peccary, which is sort of like a wild pig. Gangs of two to 15 or more roam my neighborhood at night, and occasionally during the day. Not only are they eaters of all things vegetable, but they are also known to be ornery and cantankerous, digging up plants they don't eat for just the heck of it and doing damage randomly for no reason. I have heard that if you do something that makes them mad, they will make a point to swing by and tear up your landscaping just to get even.

So when I decided to garden in containers at the new place, I knew some protection would be required. I encircled each container with a cylinder of chicken wire 3' tall. Some cylinders were better than others. The one around my greens was a bit loose and I suspected that they wouldn't have too much trouble getting under it. I was right, and round one went to the piggies. They also did some damage to my tomato plant, which had taken it upon itself to grow outside its protective barrier.

For round two, I raised the greens up, putting the shallow metal tub that they were in on cinderblocks. Javelinas are short and won't usually bother with things that are too tall. Plus, the extra height inside the chicken wire made it extremely difficult to get under the chicken wire and get anything useful. Well, it didn't work. They figured out how to push my chicken wire down, making an accordion out of it. They also finished off my greens, eating everything that was over 2" off the ground. In the same raid, they managed do much the same thing to my tomato plant, doing enough damage that the plant had to be removed. They also made a play for my beets. However, the chicken wire around that pot, a whiskey barrel, fit much tighter and while they were able to push it flat, they couldn't get any of my plants through it. Round two went to the piggies.

This past weekend I bought some 3/8" rebar, 4' long. Each of the central pots got 3 pieces of rebar, with each woven through the holes in the chicken wire on the way down and then pounded 1' into the ground. The ones on the edges got a 4th piece of rebar to protect the sides. This stiffens the chicken wire, making it a lot harder for the javelinas to flatten the cages. It also makes it harder to push the containers around because they are more firmly rooted to the ground.

As phase two of round three, I bought some garlic and hot chili powder. When I get a chance, I will crush two or three garlic cloves and mix them with a few cups of water. Then I'll add a tablespoon or two of the chili powder and a few tablespoons of vinegar. The vinegar will help the capsaicins from the chili dissolve in the water. Then I'll stir well and strain and spray on the pots and some of the plants. Yes, it is chemical warfare just the way Mother Nature intended.

In addition, when I planted the rest of my fall garden this week, I generously planted garlic in among the fall veggies. Not only will the garlic grow all winter, giving me a spring crop, but it will also provide an additional layer of living chemical protection from the critters.

While I was disappointed at the damage the javelinas caused to my garden, I must say I am enjoying the challenge they are giving me. We'll see how round three goes.