Still Life from Quimper

Still Life from Quimper
A shot of an almost-completed still life needlepoint

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Gardening in May

It's Maytime in Atlanta, which means there are some evenings that it is cool enough for a quilt, and others where you wonder when the AC is going to kick in (yes, we did finally have to turn it on).  There are some evenings where the front porch beckons with a beer and a book, and others where any cooking is just not going to happen it's so humid.

And by May, I've pretty much finished all of the garden prep work:  digging, adding soil, adding compost, selecting plants, and putting them in the ground.  It's important these days to have everything well established by at least Mother's Day, so that the heat and the drought don't kill off the new plants responding so well to all this good tending.  We have both vegetable and flower areas and I've taken advantage of weekends off (still a new phenomenon) and fairly mild spring weather to tend them over the past 2 months. 

Let me start by saying that we've taken great pains to include plants that are heat and drought tolerant so that I don't have to spend too much of the precious resource called Water on plants.  We have a lot of trees and shrubs that are native:  Red Buckeye (placed close to the backyard birdfeeder and used often by the wild birds as "cover" while they decide who's next for the Diner); several types of Hawthorn, including one with inch-long spines that has really created a nice cover and dividing line between the back grassy area and the back wild area (I even saw a bunny taking in the shade once!); some Bald Cypress; and some Arrowwood Viburnum (which I need to begin cutting back, as it is taking much of the sunlight from one of the bald cypruses and I'd like for the tree to flourish more). 

And then we have some flowerbeds in the front, built around a Lantana that just grows back year after year after year and provides food for a myriad of butterflies and even the occasional hummingbird,  and even an anchoring site once to a Praying Mantis egg sac.   I fully encourage bug predators of all sorts to make our outside their homes (which results in myriad ladybugs deciding our inside is also their wintering home, but that's another story) and I'm always one to watch a ladybug take on an aphid or a praying mantis capture its prey.  Not to mention enjoying the gorgeous spiderwebs that show up almost overnight in the fall; they are truly miraculous bits of construction.

We've also continued with our Square Foot gardening that was a carryover from our time living in Midtown years ago:  construct a 4 x 4 garden, fill it with soil and mulch and compost and manure and plant your veggies in a 1' square area.  So that means you can grow 16 radishes, or 1 cauliflower, or 4 beans, or 8 carrots, and the method also allows for great crop rotation.  We've kind of gotten lazy with the 1' square method, and now tend to do our crop rotation bed by bed.  Especially with tomatoes - you can't visit any farmer's market or gardening department anywhere in Georgia without walking out with more tomato plants than you might need, and they really need to do a lot of room for expansion as they grow.

One thing we are concentrating on this gardening season is fine-tuning the crop rotation.  We got kind of caught up short when we planted potatoes in what had been last year's tomato bed, only to find out that members of the Nightshade family (both tomatoes and potatoes) should not be two consecutive planting.  Ooops!  We're hoping that with a visit to our local Ace Hardware's gardening department has yielded enough plant food and (I hate to admit it) pesticide that we can save the potato crop. I've always believed that healthy plants will pretty much keep away pests, but sometimes they need an extra boost.  Sort of like putting antibiotic cream on a cut when the comfrey root doesn't do the trick.

We've got a variety of heirloom and hybrid tomatoes, and I swear that ever since I put some plant food around them they have gotten bigger and less blossoms have dropped off.  The tomato bed is flushed out with basil (of course!), tomatillos (you have to have 2 for cross pollination), and some peppers.  I had not been a big pepper fan, but I have since found that cooking with cayenne peppers (the real thing, either dried or fresh) creates a heat in the salsa, tomato sauce, or chili that commercially prepared pepper flakes just ain't gonna do.  There will be much salsa this year that I can use as a sauce for chicken or as an adjunct to celery.  Or on top of soups - one of my cookbooks has a black bean soup with pineapple salsa on top;  yummy!  And some of the bigger varieties (my especial favorite is Cherokee Purple) are just perfect for stuffing.  I also realized that you can use ground turkey instead of sausage when stuffing, a much healthier meat alternative.

The bean patch has 3 different kinds of bush beans (and bush is the operative word here!) including some purple beans that are quite a contrast to their green brethren.  And some cukes that are shadowing the dill from the intense sunlight.  Members of the squash family do take a lot of space and water, and I have never developed a taste for zucchini or summer squash even though I do believe in growing what is native to your area.  I have a great recipe for zucchini bread, but really, I can buy one zucchini as I need it and in the process support a local farmer with my purchase!  I've tried heirloom melons and while the ones we ate before the melon borers did were tasty and delicious, but I was just too discouraged with how many we lost to pests in years past to want to tackle them this year.  I do like cukes, though, and saw a cooking show recently that had some insight into how to make really, really good and authentic Tzatziki:  you marinate the cukes overnight (I didn't see in what) and that gets most of the water out of them, and you also use Greek, not US, yogurt.  One cuke has already started, and there are many, many blossoms.

With any luck, the birds and critters will leave us most of the blueberries (otherwise, it's up at dawn to pick not-quite-ripe berries, and the taste just isn't there), the sweet potatoes in their brand new bed will yield the milk crate that they yielded last year (seriously - 9 plants, a milk crate full of sweet potatoes), and the Rattlesnake beans (another heirloom, drought-resistant variety) will make lots of luscious, healthy beans for both steaming and for bean stews.  Will keep ya posted!