Goings on OUTSIDE

Another nice day, yesterday. Not as warm as on Friday, but working hard raised our body temperatures plenty.


DH finished all ten veg bed frames (in the picture he’s begging Amie to hand over a screw). I heard her ask: “Baba, what are we making?” He: “Beds for the vegetables.” She, incredulous: “Vegetables don’t need beds!”


I also read to her from a novel which mentions “a middle-aged man” and she piped up: “That’s a man who lived in the middle ages, right?” (That as an aside.)

In the meantime I double-dug, sifted and prepared the bed in the cold frame. I used the soil screen DH had put together for me. It’s a prototype, and we already decided on some major improvements, like handles and pivots…


I dug out some real clunkers!


Then I filled it up with the sifted soil, lots of Moo Doo (no access to the horse manure yet), and some of our own almost-one-year-old compost (screened: the eggshells for instance still hadn’t broken down). And so I finally got to plant the lettuces. Here they are, basking in the setting sun, and then I tucked them in for the night.



As you can see I still have lots of room in there for other things, but they will have to be cold hardy (a couple of days ago it was 18F in there – the lettuces obviously survived) and either transplantable or quick to harvest, because the cold frame will soon become the seed bed.

All three compost piles are hot and cooking. I’m debating which flowers to grow in our one flower box: gotta start attracting those pollinators!

Goings on in the basement seedling area

  1. dumped the two dead thyme seedlings, others are doing well, no change in the sickly one
  2. dumped the 9-pack with the suspicious “tomato seeds”, will resow the Ida Gold tomorrow
  3. fed everything that has its own leaves with Neptune’s fish emulsion
  4. noticed the kale has germinated
  5. admired again the first true leaves on the fat borage: that’s going to be one bulky compost crop!dscf22861
  6. admired the catnip: it grew so big in just a couple of days
  7. gave onions and leek a haircut (and cooked the trimmings into the haricots verts for dinner – I guess that was our first harvest!dscf2277

Goings on in the hotbox

  1. elecampane and stevia started germinating
  2. holy basil (tulsi) seems to have stalled
  3. no action yet in asparagus or lavender

To do

  1. resow Ida Gold tomatoes
  2. transplant basils
  3. organize the canning jars (accumulation of many Freecycle runs)


And last but not least, my seed potatoes (10 lbs) and onion sets (3 lbs) from Moose Tubers have arrived! So now what do I do?

The garden planning continues. A couple of days ago I wrote about GrowVeg, and I posted the garden plans I made with it. A reader in a comment mentioned a different gardening planner software (Plangarden) and I tried that out – as I was making drafts anyway. This is what I came up with, so far (click for larger):


Garden plan in Plangarden

There are things in Growveg that I like that I wish were in Plangarden and vice versa: the former, for instance, has quick info on the plants (which family, how much sun, etc.) and the latter has a nifty device for recording when you sowed and when you harvested.

CAUTION: Either program claims to space out the plants (i.e., you drag a row of kale across 8 feet and it places 4 plants), but neither program actually does that, or does it accurately. So you need to consult the books or internet, or your experience, and calculate. Because of this Plangarden is, IMHO, the better program, because it does allow you to record how many plants you plant in the row or area you assigned it.

There must be better, much more detailed softwares out there… Anyone?

Friday was a glorious day and a holiday too, so Amie and I went out to visit two farms. First, Codman Community Farm and then Drumlin Farm, both in Lincoln, MA.

I went to Codman to check out their compost and also to see if they have duck eggs.  They had neither. But we had fabulous fun checking out their ducks and chickens and their fabulous new coops – I’d want one of those, for myself!



At Drumlin we again had chicken luck. Amie got to pet a pullet and a hen. She was fearless, not just petting them, but running up to the volunteers and asking if she could.



I had a psychedelic conversation with the volunteer in the hen house. Of the thirty or so pullets I asked if they will keep all of them – not just out of curiosity, of course: I want some! The volunteer said, “No, unfortunately not. About half we sell.” Me: “Really!” She: “Yes, you can buy them at the front desk. You have to hurry, though, they go fast.” Me: “Can I get on a waiting list? Can I call to inquire?” She (mystified): “Sure”. I was about to walk away happy when it occurred to me to ask: “We’re talking live hens, right?” She: “Oh? O no!”

Worth a try…

Most of the pictures I took were of the greenhouse (and its sumptuous contents) and other food-growing-related structures. I believe I was also the only visitor to the farm who took a snap of the compost bins and screen, and the large bag of compost.

At the end Amie counted the rings on the stump in front of the Drumlin Farm entrance. She does that every time.


“Almost as old as you, Mama!”

Yes, well…


I think becoming a mom made me a better farmer. Before Amie came along, all my houseplants died on me. I simply always forgot to water them… or feed them. The herbs I grew on my steps when we were living in our condo survived because they were outside, getting rained on. But now I can’t help but have this sense of responsibility for all the little live creature in my care.This evening i ran out in the freezing rain to cover the cold frame with the lettuces with blankets and a tarp. They all have Amie to thank for that!

Still – sigh – two thyme seedlings succumbed (left in the pic) and one is not doing well. First of all, I can’t express how enamored I am with the thyme seedlings: the tiny pores on the green tops of their fat, small leaves, the delicate burgundy on the underside, and the stems all akimbo, reaching for more light.

Well, in any case, two of them may have succumbed to over-watering or over-feeding, I don’t know. Or under-watering: I transplanted them into peat pots ( the only ones on hand at that moment), and those dry out so much faster than plastic plugs. These two were on the corner of the pack and thus dried out even faster. They curled, then shriveled up and died.

Another one seems to be struggling (middle of pic, camera would not focus on that one): its leaves are also curling (down and in) and the bottom leaves are turning yellow and reddish at the tips.  I’ll see how it does tomorrow. :(

(In the pic to the right you can also see that mystery seedling: still don’t knwo what that is!)

Then there’s this:


It’s one of my Ida Gold tomato plugs… I have to laugh now. I feel like one of those people who meet a doctor at a party and without further ado strip to show them their boil: “Doctor, what’s this?”

Well in any case, I sowed 9 plugs of Sungold, 9 of Glacier, and 9 of Ida Gold. I put them in the hotbox, which works really well. Only three days later about half of the seedlings of the first two varieties had popped out, and two days after that all but one of them were out and I moved them out of the hotbox. I could have sworn there were a couple of seedlings in the Ida Gold batch as well, which is (probably) why I took off the plastic wrap (as the seedlings were pushing up against it) but kept in the hotbox. Bad record keeping!

Anyhoo. Yesterday morning I found no seedlings. Not a sign of any: not shriveled or fallen over or rotted… just gone. I found, however, congregated in the middle plug, six or so fuzzy black balls. This evening they have become what you see in the pic. They look like seeds but, really, I couldn’t have sown 6 in one plug! I’m very careful to sow only the seeds I want, and thin only rarely. Is that fuzz really small roots, or is it a fungus?

When I first spotted them I immediately sequestered the set and set it aside. I don’t want to throw it away…

So, doctor, what is that? And more importantly, is it lethal?


I wasn’t getting to the actual design of the garden: it was too intimidating, all those elements, heights and widths and soil types! Then I found GrowVeg, and I signed up for a trial membership. I like it a lot, it makes designing the garden quite easy.

I have a couple of suggestions for them:

  1. They don’t (yet?) have all the  vegetables I need (parsnips anyone?).
  2. Some aspects of the program (Flash) are clumsy (don’t fill something in if you think you might have to move it later).
  3. Also, some of their growing information contradicts other sources, but then that’s not new.
  4. I also wish their “companion” info was more complete.
  5. I wish there was some way the program could automatically add soil PH to a bed or a row, so one doesn’t put a high PH together with a low PH veg.

Still, it finally got me going. In fact, I’m having way too much fun! This is what I have so far (click on image for larger):


Yes, those are potato bins in the lower right-hand corner: 4 of them, for late varieties. 2 more potato beds for earlies. Lots of tomatoes and dry beans. The herb garden is in front of the house, not in this picture. 2 beds for lettuce and spinach, and 2 for compost crops. Lots of beneficials and companion plants tucked in. The rhubarb probably won’t get enough sun there. The onions I placed outside the fence, figuring none of the wildlife will want to eat them…

I probably need to fiddle around some more, especially with the orientation of the beds. I also think I put too many beds into the space we have.  Is 2 feet between beds (4 x 8) enough? I don’t think I could get a wheelbarrow through. I also need to check for incompatibles in the same bed. And I need to ponder on crop rotation… Any comments and advice is welcome and needed!

I increasingly find myself wishing for more sun. We have 2 mature oaks, 2 beeches and 2 pines closing in around and above the garden. We’ll get some good morning sun and noon sun, but the afternoon will be cut short quickly. I filled the prime sunny locations most sun-loving plants (tomatoes, peppers, basil and potatoes), but we’ll see how they (and the rest) perform. And even if they do well, I’ll be in trouble next year, when I want to rotate the crop.

We’ve been trying not to think of cutting down some of those trees, but reading Edible Forest Gardens has – seemingly paradoxically – convinced me that it would not be a bad thing. First of all, we have many, many pines, oaks and beeches elsewhere on our property, and throughout the whole neighborhood. Secondly, the oaks are in bad shape, and one of the beeches was badly nicked during the construction of the septic system. Thirdly,  replacing these canopy trees with many varieties of dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees and berry bushes would amount to replacing a mono-culture  with a much more complex poly-culture. It would be good for the veg garden as well as for the diversity of the garden as a whole, as such a variety will be more useful for us as well as for birds, insects, and other wildlife.

But having such massive trees cut down will costs lots of money. We’d demand they leave the wood here, of course, though we still don’t have a wood stove, or even a saw (chain or otherwise) that can handle that kind of girth… all of which also cost money. More for our wish list!

In the nearer future, the Fedco Moose Tubers seed potatoes and onion sets will be arriving soon – I hope not this weekend, though, as it will freeze around here.

And just done:

  1. sowed Broccoli blend
  2. sowed Swiss chard
  3. sowed Russian Kale
  4. sowed Elecempane
  5. sowed Stevia
  6. sowed Lavender (True)
  7. sowed Hyssop
  8. sowed Asparagus
  9. also cut and brought inside the first Narcissus

Bookcover of A Handmade Life by Bill Coperthwaite

In 2002, Chelsea Green published William Coperthwaite’s book A Handmade Life, In Search of Simplicity, and the book has now been released in paperback (read the review). It is a book that aspires to social design, and it is most perceptive and inspiring on the issues of childcare, the nurture of the young, apprenticeship and education.

  • Nurture and apprenticeship

Bill Coperthwaite’s hopes for fairness, integrity and completeness in our lives and societies reside first of all with the children.

Coperthwaite holds both a Ph.D. in education from Harvard University and an unconventional view of the education of the young. The originality of his views, in fact, goes so far as to negate the usual meaning of “education”. For one who is of the opinion that “many of the most important lessons in life can be learned but not taught,” and that the best lessons are learned through experience, nurture and encouragement are the preferred words.

If, when reading his book you think of Coperthwaite as a “guru” in the sense of a life-teacher, he will challenge you to put that in perspective. At most he will commit to this one line, which sums up his message for the young and those in charge of them: “Apprentices needed, not disciples”.

  • Non-violent, natural learning

Coperthwaite diagnoses several ills of traditional schooling, for one, the fact that it runs solely on competitiveness and compulsion, not enthusiasm, curiosity and self-confidence.

For most, school is “a parade of failures, one after the other, year after year, with ever more ‘proof’ of inadequacy.” For most, it is the threat of the law, social condemnation and the loss of “prospect” that keeps them there. And Coperthwaite is talking not just about the students, but the teachers too: all seem to be in school against their wishes. It’s a sure recipe for disaster.

But all children are naturally excited and eager to learn. To nurture that, he proposes “non-violent learning”, in which all are learners, young and old, chose the curriculum and participate in a voluntary and firsthand exploration of the world.

Central to his are three components, the first of which is nature.

  • Nature

It is no surprise that Coperthwaite, who is homesteading “off the grid” in the wilds of Maine, locates the best kind of learning in nature. He asks: what are the most important geographical factors in your child’s life? A tree, the sky, the sea? Or the convenience store, parking lot, TV?

He is not advocating that we all go back to homesteading. His proposes not “back to the land”, but rather “down to earth”.

Nature inspires awe and tranquility. She teaches small, bite-size lessons – the ways of bees and grain – and, once in a while, whopping big ones too – as when a storm overtakes a scouting party and spurs survival instincts. All of these will teach a child about life: how it works, and also, more importantly, how to interpret and deal, indeed live, with it.

A close connection to nature not only heals the child – one need only read Richard Louv’s recent book, Last Child in the Woods (2006) for scientific and practical confirmation of that statement – but the earth as well, when that child grows up to be a good steward of it.

  • More remedies

Coperthwaite’s other prescriptions for a better education are a context of home and family, and a feeling of usefulness through physical work, whether it be work on the land or in crafts. I’ve written about these here.

My apologies for the spotty posting. We’ve had to cope with sickness – Amie and Mama last weekend and now Amie again. A dear friend of mine has also galvanized a project I had set aside as not fitting our current schedule: the communally oriented side of “Transition” (yes, the more I think about it, the more the Transition Movement and philosophy appeals to me.)

I had thought I needed to get the garden under control and some of our house greening projects finished and working before I can use them as an example.

But I now realize that the process of transitioning has great community appeal: it is after all something that others will have to go through as well.  The idea of transitioning is after all not to do it all by oneself and then to be an “expert” for others. The idea is to transition together.

… Can’t say too much yet, but we’re working on it together and with her contacts and experience and my vision, we’ll soon be able to “go public”!

Spring is here! The first Robin arrived two days ago, along with a bunch of House Finches, and (I believe) one Pine Siskin (must be part of a flock). The neighborhood is full of bird song: it’s so good to hear! Our garden is home to many  new generations of squirrels but I haven’t seen the chipmunks yet. And the shrubbery is eating the house.

The lettuces spent their first night in the cold frame. It was a mild night, and in the last light of the day I had thrown a blanket and a tarp over the frame. The minimum temperature was 50F: well within their coping abilities. We have some colder nights coming up, let’s see how I do… I mean, how they do. Of course. (*)

Most of the veggie garden action is still in our basement, though. I sowed my 9 last Sweet Bell Pepper seeds. Don’t know if the 24 seeds I sowed over  month ago are bad: they are taking up a lot of real estate on my hotbox doing nothing.

Then there’s this:


Now what could this be? Mm… I sowed it with the Thyme, and it germinated and grew in pace with the Thyme, but it is not Thyme.

This, however:


… this I know is Borage. Big seeds, easy to sow, germinated readily, and grew huge and fat in no time. A great compost crop: I’ll be sowing more, but outside.

And this is a sweet sight:


It’s Sweet Basil, after only 7 days in the hotbox (soil temp 80F). We loves the basil!

But then there’s this:


It’s the one and only Burnet (salad) seedling, out of 24 plugs, 2 seeds per plug. What’s up with that? I now keep it wrapped in cellophane to force the seeds, a trick that worked for many others seeds, like the previously recalcitrant eggplant, but hasn’t so far for the Burnet.

Speaking of disasters…dscf2068


(Back to front: onions, celery, spinach)

(*) You should have seen me, it was like their first day of school!


We’ve got a funny situation going on here, in the lettuce patch! A week ago we just plunked our cold frame onto its proposed site, without preparing the soil. The hot temperatures inside made the tulips spring up double as high as their colleagues outside the box. And among these I set out the lettuces in their hotcaps. I guess they can coexist for the time being.

Today was anyway the perfect day for setting them out: after five days of hardening off on the north porch  they were ready to brave the southern exposure on this overcast day. The sun is slowly peeking out, so I’m keeping an eye on the temperature in the frame (61F so far)… and on those squirrels (do they eat lettuce?). The largest ones are quite large, but I’m uncertain whether I can harvest the outer leaves already. I’ll let them get over their transplant and setting-out shocks first.

This means I have half a shelf free again in my seedling setup: room for two more flats! Yesterday I sowed three kinds of tomatoes:

  1. Glacier Tomato Organic
  2. Ida Gold Tomato Organic
  3. Sun Gold Cherry Tomato

After moving things up out of the hotbox to make space for them, the seedling area got quite cramped.I am thinking broccoli, and some kale. We’re six weeks from my estimated last frost date (5 May), so a lot needs to be sowed soon.

I’m happy to report that I am finally having success with the eggplants: I resowed them several days ago and 6 out of 9 germinated and are already quite large. My basils also came up nicely (even the Sacred Basil, which is supposed to be finicky), as well as the oregano: those can move our of the hotbox soon. The spinach too is thriving. Nothing in the peppers yet, I might have to resow those as well.

Yesterday Amie and I made hotcaps (or some version thereof) for our lettuces, some of which are bursting out of their already large containers downstairs. I had hoped to transplant them into the cold frame before today, but the weather has been in the extremes. Three days ago, for instance, the max in the (unvented) cold frame was 130F, the min 43F.

As for the max, I’ve ordered a thermostatically controlled and solar operated arm that will lift one of the lights when the temperature reaches 70F. As for the cold nights, I hope the milder weather that arrived today will stick around till, oh, end of October or so…

Not wanting to take any chances, however, I decided to make some hotcaps for extra protection inside the cold frame. Not having any soil in the cold frame yet, our hotcaps need to be containers too. So I cut the milk jugs in half, leaving the two halves attached by about one inch of plastic. Then I punched several holes in the bottom and filled it with garden soil and composted Moo Doo. (*)

We made and filled about seventeen of them. Here they are, along with the  lettuces on their first outing into “real” light:


It was quite a moment for them, and for me, as they emerged from the basement! They’re in our screened in porch, which lies to the north of the house, so they’re out of direct sunlight, in 55F.


Once they’re hardened off I’ll plant them in the hotcaps and line them up in the cold frame. During the night I’ll close them. Here’s Amie demonstrating the idea:

dscf1636 dscf1637

(*) For “real” hotcaps you cut the bottom out altogether and just place the dome of the jug over the planted seedling.