All posts by thesnarkygardener@gmail.com

Visiting the Early February Garden

In the wintertime, I rarely take the opportunity to visit my Northeastern Ohio vegetable garden. This is doubly true in February, as this month is when I often forget I even have a garden. So on a cold, partly cloudy, early February Sunday afternoon, I breached my protocol and took a backyard tour.

Early February 2017 Garden
Early February 2017 Garden

Temperatures hovered in the low 40s, which I have to admit is mild for this time of year. I’d actually been out digging in the dirt a few weeks ago when we got up into the 60s. Why would one be working a shovel during a notoriously slow garden period? To dig up some food, silly. I purposely left potatoes, turnips and Jerusalem artichokes underground to store them. The earth is a much better place to keep these root vegetables from going bad than the refrigerator or the basement. Looking around, those uncovered places were now a dark rich brown. Everywhere else I inspected, the ground was covered with plants or other mulch, just as I planned it.

Garlic Under Straw
Garlic Under Straw

My garden design employs a blanket of organic material, whether it is fall leaves or common weeds. Covered soil is happy soil. Even in this bleak winterscape, the soil is alive with activity, albeit slowed down by the cold. I observed green even underneath the blobs of snow that dotted my raised beds and garden paths. Of course this green was not the bright vivid green of spring, but a dull representative of a future only a month or two away. After closer examination, I discovered some living leaves to sample. The citrus taste of lemon balm, the bitter garlic of garlic mustard, the spinach tang of Swiss chard, and the distinct flavor of oregano all reminded me that warmer weather was around the corner. The straw-mulched garlic peeked out from its blanket, becoming greener by the day.

Garlic Peeking Out
Garlic Peeking Out

Gazing around my semi-frozen field, I realized I had left plenty of untouched vegetable remains as tributes to fall’s frosts. Dead pepper plants stood blackened, as they can’t withstand even a touch of cold. Lamb’s quarters branch towards the sky, spreading their millions of tiny seeds with every winter blast. Tomato vines, long dead, twine through my fencing, reminding me to start their seeds soon for summer planting. Again, leaving these all here was done intentionally, as overwintering “good guy” insects need spaces to hide and survive.

As I returned to my house with numb hands and eyes squinting from the unusual bright sun, my thoughts turned to my perennials, as those need less care and return year after year. Strawberries were visible, even now, though it would be April or May before I’d see flowers. My Egyptian walking onions, so named because they spread themselves around the garden, were weak but present. The sage sat with a few leftover leaves on top like helicopter blades. Twelve-foot high Jerusalem artichoke stalks whipped in the winds, each one marking a treasure trove of calories and fiber we will enjoy this spring. Even the infant trees (maples, walnut, and honey locust) which coexist with my annuals made their presence known, though they all were still hibernating. I guess it takes a gardener to truly see what the future holds for this mostly brown dull rectangle of possibilities.

Darling Davey

In 1990, I was a college sophomore studying Computer Science at the University of Akron. While there, I took the mandatory Honors English Composition classes. At the time, I never considered myself a writer, let alone a good one. But in my second English course, I actually wrote some pretty good stuff, thanks to Dr. Pope, one the best professors I’ve ever had. Two of my assignments were selected for a journal called Fresh Inc.  What I didn’t know at the time was this journal was going to be used the following year in freshman composition courses. I had several people I knew tell me they read my writing as part of a course they took.

Everything in this story is true, from the point-of-view of my 19-year-old self. The original assignment was to write about a person. I knew Dave was who I was going to write about immediately, as this is a tale that had to be told. My favorite reaction to it was from my blue-collar dad who found it being printed out on the old home dot-matrix printer as I was in the middle of writing it. He asked me if I was indeed Dave. No Dad, just one of his faithful followers.

Enjoy!

Darling Davey

To the naked eye, Dave seemed to be an ordinary kid. His appearance was that of a studious, conscientious individual, his dress conservative, except for the occasional Superman tie tack, or Bob Evans “table cloth” shirt. A model student, his grades were at the all “A” level consistently. He was always concerned about his homework, even to the point of finishing it on the way to class. But his ability did not end in his academic classes. It extended elsewhere, into the field of music.

In band, where I knew him best, he excelled in many capacities. On the field, there was no better. He executed his maneuvers like a programmed robot. The notes that came out of his baritone were always the loudest and most accurate of anyone in our group. But his ability, and love, for music did not end there. In his junior year, the jazz band was revived after a few years of dormancy, and there Dave developed both his instrumental play and his singing ability. That year, at one of our concerts, he performed a scat solo that made him sound as though he had been an understudy of Louis Armstrong.

Dave loved jazz. His favorite musician was Al Jarreau – the one who sings the “Moonlighting” theme. Dave went to Jarreau’s concerts every single time Al was in town, and must have had every album that Jarreau ever made. Dave knew the lyrics to most of his songs by heart and often sang sections of them out loud. One time he even told me he wished he had been born black, because they were the best jazz musicians.

Dave was dark, of Italian ancestry. He wore dark-rimmed glasses, which made him look like an owl, especially when he showed up in his cap and gown on graduation day. He sometimes had a mustache under his nose, but even when full grown it didn’t look like it should be there. His most distinguishing feature, his mischievous grin and chortling laugh, usually showed up when someone did something that struck his fancy, which was most of the time.

Dave’s major strength was his likability. He had a way of pulling people to his side, even though his side wasn’t necessarily the best one to be on at times. I often found him talking to people he didn’t necessarily want to be conversing with just so they wouldn’t feel bad. But his sense of humor was the one thing that really made Dave what he was. It wasn’t that he was funny all the time, but when he was, he had a sense of humor all his own.

Dave’s “funniness” started to make its appearance in his sophomore year, but really took off when he was junior. Nobody is certain just how it started, but I have a feeling it had something to do with a common term many of the students liked to use in reference to any member of our instrumental organization – “band fag.” When confronted with this title, most of the student in the band would either get angry or just ignore it, but not Dave. He used it as an excuse to express his creativity and humor in a brand new way. And thus, the era of Dave’s “gaiety” was born.

At first it began subtly, without much notice, since he only acted gay around his friends in band, but he did it in such a way that you couldn’t help but laugh. It wasn’t unusual to see Dave walk up to a male friend and tell him in masculine, matter-of-fact voice that he was cute, or that he had a nice butt, or even go to the point of giving some obscene, but anatomically correct, compliment. The usual reaction was either disgust, or a humorous “Thanks Dave,” combined with a return compliment of equal severity. Either reaction only encouraged him to continue his ways and improve upon them, which he did over his high school career. Before long, it was a well-known fact, at least in band circles, that Dave was “gay”, partially because he advertised it himself. It was not uncommon to see him writing graffiti on walls, music stands, and books that proclaimed “Dave is Gay!” At Friday night football games he would often start Miller-Lite type fights with two groups of band members shouting back and forth at each other – “Dave is Gay!” “Dave has AIDS!” “Dave is Gay!” “Dave has AIDS!” But of course, Dave did not stop there. Soon his way of acting became a secret way of life for him. He continued to improve this brand of humor in bold, new directions. Before long, he was not only known for his “gayness,” but also for his ability to make suggestive comments about any person or subject at the drop of a hat.

Of course, Dave’s act would not have continued if he had no audience to play to, but he was able to “infect” others with his warped sense of humor. At first, it spread to only a few of his friends in the band, and they helped Dave improve his craft by adding new ideas, and finding new ways to express the same old themes. But by the end of his senior year, many others had been infected – including nine-tenths of the low brass, all the saxophones, a few of the trumpets, and to a degree, even our field commander, who had plans to become a priest after graduation.

Dave was a genius. The things he thought up and did could only be described as awe-inspiring. He developed an ability for changing the lyrics to songs that made me think of him as a demented “Weird Al” Yankovic. There wasn’t a song written that he couldn’t adapt to fit his strange sense of humor, and no music was safe: Top 40 hits, band songs, school cheers, and even classical music. His masterpiece was when he “improved” Prince’s already obscene song “Darling Nikki” and renamed it after himself – “Darling Davey.” The only lyrics that Dave didn’t bother changing were Jarreau’s, although he did often make fun of some of the passages in Al’s songs.

But Dave’s genius also extended into other creative disciplines. One summer at band camp, for Dave used one of his breaks to express himself in writing. With a friend as a look-out, he quietly snuck into the girls’ restroom. Once inside, he quickly took out a pencil and scribbled on one of the walls, “For a good time, Call Dave. 555-3164.” After completing his task, Dave exited the same way he came in, and luckily escaped without notice. He never did receive any calls, at least none that I heard about.

Throughout his high school career, Dave successfully avoided discovery by his parents and teachers, mainly be switching between his band and his normal personality. It all depended on who he was around. Of course, he had a little trouble in the presence of both his band friends and someone from the outside world, but he usually handled it pretty well, at least for a while. By the time he had reached his senior year, however, he didn’t care who knew about him or heard him talk. Reports circulated of remarks he made in academic classes just loud enough for the student around him to hear but not the teachers. Thus, during his last year, he slowly deteriorated to the point of almost getting himself into trouble. Fortunately for him, the year ended before that happened.

Today, Dave is attending Ohio State University, where he is studying to become an optometrist, a career that fits his academic side. Behind him he left a legacy that is slowly but surely fading away. Those “infected” by Dave have been somewhat successful at continuing the tradition, but without Dave’s creativity and special sense of humor, things are just not the same. Within a few years, the only trace of Dave’s band life will be his name on the Louis Armstrong Jazz Band Award plaque that hangs on the wall of the band room, and few “Dave is Gay!” scribblings that remain undetected on the chairs and stands. Soon, no one will know who wrote those words or even what this Dave character was all about. But not to worry, for as you are right now reading this last sentence, I know that Dave is down in Columbus, infecting new people and creating new traditions that only Dave and his special sense of humor could set into motion.

Groundhogs in the Garden

There is nothing worse than spotting groundhogs amongst your prized vegetables. Here’s how I’ve dealt with the critters over the years.

My experience with groundhogs began a handful of garden seasons ago, The first clue I had an issue was some barely noticeable missing leaves on garden plants, specifically spinach and broccoli.  I didn’t think much of it and thought maybe it was insect damage.  The next day, a few plants were stripped and others were just gone. My instincts told me I had bigger problems but I still hadn’t witnessed the perpetrator in action. The following day provided my answer – a decent-sized groundhog (who I named Woody) was inside my fencing. He had dug under to get to my veggies.

groundhogbroccoli
Groundhogs just love broccoli

Knowing I needed to stop this menace, I bought a box trap from the local farm supply store. Using that intelligence us humans are always bragging about, I placed the trap inside the fence. I knew a groundhog was getting into garden, but I didn’t want to deal with other animals like opossums, raccoons, or skunks.  Several days (and half my corn stalks later), Woody was looking back at me from the trap.

groundhogcage
Woody with some of those pulled down corn stalks on top of him. I used corn in the trap.

With a cage full of groundhog, now I had to figure out what to do with him. I could have killed him, but my heart wasn’t really into it. So after some soul searching, I decided to release him somewhere else. Technically this is not the most legal action in my state, but I was desperate. It was either this or just let him pass naturally, which seemed cruel. If anyone asks, I just tell them that Woody’s in a better place.

The next year, my groundhog situation was worse tenfold. Being a permaculture practitioner, I left a woodpile surrounded by brambles a mere ten feet from my garden. A momma groundhog took up residence with her little ones running through my fence like it wasn’t even there. These groundhogs were too smart to fall for my trap and I ended up calling in the professionals. Three groundhogs, three raccoons, and $300 later, my problem was solved for now.

groundhogtrapped
This groundhog was taken to the “groundhog sanctuary.”

Discussing the groundhog issue with my landlord, he thought a .22 rifle was a good solution. He said I could even practice with it by shooting targets off the very logs the groundhogs were living under. Had I lived within city limits, this wouldn’t have been an option. At this point, I had never owned a gun and couldn’t imagine having one in my possession. Not because I was against guns, but because I was unfamiliar.

In hindsight, a firearm could have saved money and the lives of those poor innocent raccoons (legally they can’t just be released). Several times I was within feet of these trespassers. A gun would have solved much gardening heartache. I think the issue holding me back was my lack of experience plus my girlfriend’s love of groundhogs. The trappers actually told her they were taking them to be released at a special groundhog sanctuary upstate or some other nonsense  She didn’t truly believe it, but it did soften the blow.

One defensive maneuver I  have implemented after all this groundhog fun was to turn those groundhog harboring logs into a hugelkultur mound (with help from the landlord). This act, plus mowing down the brambles around the area, reduced the chances of another groundhog infestation. Leaving an overgrown area with piled wood is just asking for trouble. You are literally aiding and abetting the enemy.

Last season, I was again faced (literally) with a groundhog. He was traveling several hundred feet (and several neighbor’s yards) from his home to graze next to my garden. In his defense, I do have some really nice clover out there. One day, I found myself nose-to-nose with him, as I ran to block his escape route. There we stood, a mere 5 feet from each other, deciding what to do next. My inner voice whispered softly, “If you only had a gun right now.” Instead, here’s the cellphone picture I took of him fleeing the scene.

groundhogfast2
Run, Groundhog, Run!

Thanks to my giant hugelkultur mound and diligent garden fence reinforcement (including chicken wire bent in an L shape out into the grass – the Snarky Girlfriend’s idea), this particular varmint hasn’t made his way into my garden. But as long as they are in my yard, there’s always a danger of an invasion. This year (knock on woodchucks) there has only been one groundhog sighted and he lives out by the road, far away from my precious veggies.

I want to leave by saying I am an animal lover, which is why I’ve taken quite the twisted path to my current stance. I find myself thinking “How adorable!” when spotting a groundhog eating away in the grass next to the road. I don’t look forward to personally ending the life of a groundhog (or any creature for that matter). But since I’m not vegan, I’m eating animals all the time that didn’t die of old age. Cognitive dissidence is a funny thing. We humans kill by proxy all the time but society thinks poorly of hunters because they are “killing Bambi”. I believe next time I’m faced with a garden invaders, I will “dispatch” them with a newly purchased .22 rifle.  I guess we’ll see.

Give To Your Local Seed Library

A seed library allows you to “check out” seeds with your promise to return some of your saved seeds at season’s end.

Seeds I borrowed from the Seed Library of the Kent Free Library.
Seeds I borrowed from the Seed Library of the Kent Free Library.

Seed libraries are getting to the point where they are becoming commonplace, at least from my point of view. Just a few years ago, they seemed like they were an endangered species, with seed laws making their existence precarious at best. Now with updated state laws, the seed library is coming back with a vengeance.

Earlier this year, I wrote up a post for Mother Earth News about seed libraries. One point I made was that the only way a seed library will survive and thrive is for people to give back. Well, now’s the time for action.

Saved seeds can be beautiful.
Saved seeds can be beautiful.

My seed library experience

For example, my neighborhood seed library, the Seed Library of the Kent (Ohio) Free Library) just sent out a request for gardeners to bring in collected seeds.

Here’s a few of their reminders:

  • We collect vegetable, herb, or flower seeds.

  • If  you had a successful crop using seeds from the Seed Library, we’d like you to bring back at least twice as much seed as you “borrowed.”

  • Donated seeds don’t have to be from plants you grew from Seed Library seeds!  Anything you’d like to donate helps grow the collection.

  • Review seed saving guidelines to be sure that your seeds will be viable and “true”–for instance, double check whether plants needed to be grown a certain distance away from other varieties in the same family or whether seeds can be harvested from the plant the first year, or are biennial and need to overwinter.

  • Save and dry your seeds according to recommended practices.

  • Bring your seeds to the library in a clear plastic bag and be sure to completely fill out a donation form.

Unfortunately for me, my checked out seeds didn’t fair well. I borrowed 4 varieties of beans, yet none survived. Between our drought and hungry rabbits, no beans were produced. I do have other seeds though, including the pictured Jacobs Cattle beans. Turnips, tomatoes, and peppers will round out my donations.

The most important idea to remember about seeds is they are an abundant resource when saved. Our consumer society wants you to believe seeds must purchase them from giant organizations hundreds of miles away. Truth is, one tomato or turnip plant can produce literally thousands of seeds. As a seed saver, you will have so many you won’t know what to do with them all. Why not give some back to the community?

Invasive Thoughts

Isn’t “invasive” just another word for “abundance”?

Garlic Mustard. Evil invasive invader or abundant producer?
Garlic Mustard. Evil invasive weed or abundant producer?

One of my favorite weeds is garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Yes, that invasive biennial that’s the bane of naturalists and ecologists everywhere. Ever since I discovered it a few years ago, it has held a special place in my heart. Most of its detractors (“haters gonna hate”) don’t know a dirty little secret – garlic mustard is edible. It’s in the New World because settlers brought it over from Europe as a culinary herb. Garlic mustard is a mustard green that tastes like garlic and has no natural predators here in Ohio (including our veracious deer and groundhogs). It grows where other plants don’t (shady, wild, and disturbed areas) and makes a really delicious pesto. My garlic mustard adoration stems (pun intended) from its resilience. It’s the kind of resilience and vigor I wish all my plants had.

During a library gardening presentation, I was describing my garlic mustard love. One woman stopped me mid-sentence as she finally put two and two together and realized that I was talking about Garlic Mustard (cue the evil music). She thought I was actually cultivating it, and was abhorred at the idea. For the record, I’m not purposely growing it. I try to harvest as much as I can carry every spring so it doesn’t take over the world. Truth be told, because of its “invasiveness”,  I will never have to cultivate it. Garlic Mustard can really take care of itself.

“Indeed, Homo sapiens is perhaps the weediest of all species, and the more he dominates the landscape, the more he seems to thrive. If we confine the concept of weeds to species adapted to human disturbance, then man is by definition the first and primary weed under whose influence all other weeds have evolved.”
Crops & Man, Second Edition, Jack R. Harlan,  p. 87

I do find it interesting that people love to villainize flora and fauna with the “invasive” tag. As I was going through my Permaculture Design Course, my instructor Peter Bane wouldn’t even utter the word. He called it the “I word”. This label is put on plants and animals which are seen as invaders from another land. They take over niches that “native” plants have and squeeze them out. Of course, from an environmental point of view, I get the whole “keep our natives native” concept but the problem I see in this discussion is the elephant in the room – us.  

Humans are more invasive than any other creature except maybe cockroaches (you know, the whole surviving nuclear war thing). Yes, settlers did displace the native people that were here in the Americas 400 years ago (thanks to the animal-based diseases Europeans carried with them), but those “natives” have only been on the continent maybe 15,000 years maximum. Considering the Earth is 4 billion plus years old, and humans have only been around a 200,000 years in our present form, native is extremely relative. All I can say is that maybe all our efforts to eradicating invasive species could be put to better use, like creating sustainable ecosystems and using “invasive” resources to feed and warm us when the oil runs out.

Permaculture stresses utilizing on-premise resources.  My plea to you is research the wild plants on your sites. Try to learn as much about them as you can before dismissing them. “How may ways can this plant be useful?” is a question every permaculturalist should be asking (otherwise known as “function stacking”). Many of your “weeds” came to your location as food and/or medicine. Here’s a list (in order of deliciousness) I came up with here at Snarky Acres (my .91 acre Kent Ohio urban farm) by asking this very question.

Fact that only interest me:
Most descriptions I find for unknown edible plants state that they taste and cook like spinach, like the plant version of “it tastes like chicken.”

 Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)

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Lamb’s quarters are in the same family as quinoa and is closely related to spinach and beets.  I found this in my backyard last year, saved some seeds. and tossed them throughout my garden. The plants I discovered almost didn’t make it as the friendly neighborhood groundhog seemed to prefer it over other plants in the backyard (which tell’s me it’s delicious). This last season I ended up with about a dozen plants, one was 10 to 12 feet tall, during our mild drought (resistant!). I don’t think I’ll ever need to worry about having enough lamb’s quarters again.

Best way to eat Lamb’s Quarters:  same as spinach

Violet (Viola sororia)

violet

Violets (a perennial) not only show up in my garden, they are also spread throughout my yard.  I didn’t know until last year they are edible but have been eating them ever since. The leaves are pleasant and remind me of spinach.  Like many leafy greens, the earlier in the season the better.

Best way to eat violets:  leaves and flowers in salads

Plantain (Plantago major)

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Also known as white man’s foot, plantain is a yard and garden staple. It loves compacted soil, so you’ll notice it growing near where there is a lot of foot traffic. The leaves are full of nutrients with a spinach like taste. Plantain can be used medicinally for bug bites and scrapes.

Best way to eat plantain:  same as spinach

Dandelion (Taraxacum)

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We all know the good old dandelion. I laugh (just in my head) when people talk about eradicating them from their yards. Not only can it be eaten, but it helps in other ways.  The yellow flowers give bees pollen early in the season when they need it the most.  Its long tap root brings up minerals and nutrients that are then utilized by your garden plants.  Just hoe the plant down and use the leaves as mulch around your veggies.  Don’t worry – the tap root stores plenty of energy and will help the plant grow back in no time.

Best way to eat dandelions:  young leaves in salads, flowers in fritters, and roots in beer or wine

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)

purpledeadnettle

In the mint family. purple dead nettle is a bee favorite.  It comes up early and often on bare ground in gardens.  As a salad addition, the taste isn’t the greatest but a few flowers at a time doesn’t hurt too bad.

Best way to eat purple dead nettle:  just a few flowers in salads

Ground Ivy/Creeping Charlie) (Glechoma hederacea)

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Ground Ivy or Creeping Charlie is a ground cover in the mint family. It’s not my favorite food but the bees seem to love it. Ground Ivy’s little purple flowers give plenty of nectar to small native insects. It’s strong mint-like flavor makes ground ivy a good companion plant and natural mulch.

Best way to eat Creeping Charlie:  it’s too strong for my taste, but I’ve read it makes a good tea. 

Permaculture creates abundance through nature” – Don Abbott

Seven useful weeds listed (including garlic mustard) and many not mentioned, including quickweed, hairy bittercress, purslane, multiflora rose, , and poison ivy (just kidding), raspberries, pigweed, and pokeweed. Pretty impressive.

Another place I hear the “I-word” is with common herbaceous perennials. Everybody knows that the mint family (including the Creeping Charlie mentioned above) can run amok if left unchecked. I even relocated my chocolate mint from my main garden to a more secure and bordered shady plot next to my house. I wasn’t as careful with my oregano and lemon balm though, and both have taken over a few areas of my production garden. What’s not always discussed with the mint family is their wonderful purple flowers. The oregano especially ends up looking like a pollinator airport once the flowers open up for business. Bees (both native and the non-native honey bee) and predatory insects swarm all over to the point I have to avoid the area completely so not to get stung.

“The common definition of a weed – that is a plant in the wrong place – conceals two important implications. Firstly, the word “wrong” implies a human opinion, since right and wrong are human concepts not inherent in nature. Secondly, the word “place” implies some characteristic dependence on environment, or in other words an ecological relationship, and clearly that relationship has to do with man’s own botanical activities in farming.” – A.H. Bunting (1960)

The invasiveness of weeds is a human judgement. We as humans put values on things we often don’t understand. Both honey bees and earthworms are not native to my eastern United States home, but everyone accepts them as a positive thing. Some day I’m going to ask those who describe living things as invasive to explain to me why these two examples (plus us humans) don’t count. Should make for an interesting conversation.