Garden Maintenance

Garden overwhelm is a thing and, oh boy, is it here. While different from the harvest overwhelm looming on the horizon, mid season overwhelm can be very, well…overwhelming! There is not a single direction I can look on my farm without viewing partially finished projects and things in need of attention. Weeding here, mulching there, trimming here, mowing there. My string trimmer died in the heat and seemingly overnight the raspberry patch has grown out of control. Fireweed, wild raspberries, and grass has grown up and through the two layers of garden fencing that has not yet been secured together. Piles of 1020 trays are still waiting to be washed, dried and stored for next year. The potatoes need to be hilled, the broccoli needs to be mulched and I need to secure the second silage tarp over the horsetail beds I am trying to eradicate.

The July garden

I did manage to spend a fair amount of June weeding because I have learned these past 18 years that the more you weed in June, the easier it is to maintain your garden for the rest of the season. It is so important to keep up with weeding when the soil is dry and the weeds are, hopefully, still small. The strawberry spinach, fireweed, plantain and willow herb are racing to produce seed before I get around to yanking them out. Garden plants and garden undesirables seemingly double in size overnight this time of year. Usually about the time the garden is fully planted and I feel like congratulating myself on a well weeded space, the cottonwood and willows send out their fluffy seeds to coat the ground. Baby trees in waiting. Lovely. They like to root along the drip lines and grow incredible root systems while you are distracted by picking beets and zucchini.

My days these past weeks are not really going as planned. I had intended to work in the garden every day until I completed a thorough deep weeding. Instead I have been butchering a spring bear that went into the freezer as quarters and needed to be processed into meals, as well as 4th of July family festivities at the lake, and cleaning and consolidating freezers. I really need to spend a day on the backhoe turning compost and prepping the ground where we are setting a pad for the new greenhouse I want to build this winter. The recent stretch of hot weather has called for midday impromptu cousin swim parties and choosing chores that did not require quite so much sweat equity. Just the daily chores this time of year can fill the entire day. So much for the plan to “just’ weed this week. I have been pulling some of the larger ones in flower by hand but will hopefully get in there with my arsenal of tools soon.

Cheery marigold flowers

I have collected quite a few weeding tools that I use to maintain my garden beds. As I get older I have started using more ergonomically designed tools where I can weed rapidly while standing. I have a Mutineer tool (designed by Neversink Farms and sold through them as well as Johnnys Selected Seeds) with a head that can change out several styles and sizes of implements. I use it in the spring with a large wire weeder to quickly clear a bed of thread stage weeds and this time of year with a stubby collinear hoe to slide under my drip tape and between my closely spaced plants.

I use a hand held Japanese style hoe for hand weeding. This tool can pry, slice, or dig out any weed and root. While it is far slower to creep along a garden bed on your knees with a hand weeder, this tool definitely has its place in the garden weeding regime to clear a bed of pesky weeds or for precision work.

I regularly use a harvest knife to remove horsetail around tender plants like green beans without damaging the garden plants. Sometimes I know there will be more damage done if I try to remove an entire unwanted plant and its roots and I just want to slice it off just below soil level. A knife is great for this.

My all time favorite weeding tool is the scuffle hoe. This tool is operated while standing using a push and pull motion. The u-shaped implement is sharped on both sides and can quickly rout out any weeds, large or small. I like how powerful it is and that you do not have to bend over to use it effectively. I use this tool extensively in the spring to prep beds and this time of year to remove weeds that grew up unnoticed and are about to seed. I use a coarse file to keep both edges sharp.

Despite the arsenal of weeding tools at my disposal and the time spent weeding, the weeds still seem to be winning even though the summer rains have not yet started. I suppose that is the side affect of living on the edge of the Boreal forest where native seeds can float in to reclaim their territory the moment you pause maintenance on your garden beds. I have to remind myself sometimes that not all weeds are bad. I enjoy coming across familiar friends who self seeded last year: a chamomile or catnip. Many weeds such as lambs quarter, strawberry spinach, and chickweed are useful and edible. Plantain makes a great spit poultice to soothe all the horsefly bites but seeds so prolifically I remove it when I see it knowing there will be more. The two weeds I personally struggle with the most are horsetail and shepherds purse. One is nigh on impossible to eradicate and the other is host to the cabbage root maggot. I have spent more time than I care to think about fighting with these two. Weeds are natures way of filling the void, the first line of rescuers to repair damaged soil. The bottom line is that if weeds are coming up than I have not done my job well enough to keep the soil covered in plants that I do want. Something to strive for.

In the perennial garden, despite the ducks, the lilacs are blooming and their scent is uplifting.

The groundwork for the new greenhouse project has finally begun after deconstructing the previous infrastructure. We moved the old greenhouse across the yard in the spring and just got three dump truck loads of gravel to spread into a level pad. Spreading gravel with the loader bucket is challenging; it is not as easy as a bulldozer. There is still a lot of work to be done before I have a level pad.

One lonely duckling has joined the farm. The sole survivor of two eggs in the incubator, this ancona wants to spend the day in our hood or pocket rather than alone in the tote.

The heat of June has passed and we are back to cool, rainy weather. The garden plants like it better than the dry heat and so do the weeds. We have our work cut out for us!

From my garden to yours, happy growing!

It’s Still Spring in Strelna

May is a pretty busy month.

The lake goes out.

First kayak of the year on May 9 while there was still a skim of ice on parts of the lake.

The leaves come in.

Balsam poplar at 7 mile. First leaves!

The garden prep and planting begins.

By the end of May I am wondering why I ever thought farming was a good idea. I was listening to a farm podcast last month and the farmer spoke about their annual “May meltdown”. I have that too. Everything gets overwhelming and it feels like nothing is going right. The cold hard fact is farming, on any scale, is hard work. I am tired and dirty at the end of every day and if my husband does not make dinner this time of year, I can barely rustle up the energy to feed everyone hotdogs or scrambled eggs. The irony of not eating enough vegetables or consuming cheap hotdogs from a factory because of the immense labor it takes to put in an organic garden is not lost on me. Yet it happens because the window to get the garden in is short, (very, very short) and if you miss it, you have to wait another year. This year has been chilly and wet which is great for transplanting but not great for weeding or wheelbarrowing loads of compost around. Nothing is really taking off in the garden yet except for the pioneer weeds. I had planned on tarping the west side of the garden this year, and probably the next, to attempt to deprive the perennial horsetail of water and light. The thick horsetail mat has made the space unusable. But due to covid and last winter hurricane delays at the factory, I could not purchase the silage tarps I needed this spring. I have been trying to come up with different smother options but other than asking everyone for their amazon boxes, I can not come up with a way to get large pieces easily. Any ideas?

Regardless, I made it through the May Meltdown period without too much fuss this year (thank you to my husband and kids for feeding me during this time!! It helps that the garden has been consolidated and was well planned this past winter.

Spring moss

When the alarm went off at 2:45 AM on May 26, I lay in bed for a few moments contemplating my tender feet. On the 25th, my phone charted that I walked almost 4 miles, just from working between the greenhouse and the garden or inside of the garden fence. I was pushing wheelbarrows of compost and carts of mulching straw, trays of vegetable starts and irrigation pieces, weeding and broad forking the beds. I got up at that early hour hoping to see the blood red flower moon. It hung just over the Chugach mountains to our south and as the earth’s shadow crept across its face, the moon slid over one peak and down another. It is easy to forget just how fast the moon travels across our sky when you don’t take the time to track it. It was, however, not blood red. The strong spring winds had been whipping up the rivers and stirring up the silt off the sand bars. Some days you can see great billows of dust traveling up the Chitina. Other days it is clear here but we can see roiling clouds to the west as the wind blows up the Copper. The mountains and moon were a filtered pinky orange through this thick dust during the lunar eclipse. We watched until the face nearly disappeared and then went back to bed as the northeast sky was beginning to lighten with predawn and the swallows started sleepily chittering.

Just as I forget how irritating a cloud of whining mosquitoes can be when trying to finish a task at dusk, I also forget what the silty air tastes like over the course of our long winters. All through the middle of May, my mouth was full of the dry, gritty sensation of silt laden air. My body too comes in from the garden coated in soil. My forearms turn russet brown while weeding beds and screening compost. I appreciated this dry, warmish spell for the ease of bed prep. Before it started raining last week most of my beds were ready for planting. With rain looming in the forecast, I pushed hard to get the carrot beds done as I can not use the Earthway seeder in anything but perfectly dry soil. I hate hand seeding carrots. The Earthway over seeds the rows and I have to thin them later on but I would rather do that than try to meticulously place 9000 carrot seeds by hand. I prep the carrot beds by weeding, spreading compost then broad forking and finally raking smooth. A broad fork is a tool for aerating the soil without inverting it. You insert the tines into the soil and gently pull the handles towards you to loosen up the bed. Broad forking after the compost is spread means a little compost slips down into the bed instead of just mulching on top. I have permanent no-till beds as I don’t want to disturb the soil biome or break up the developed underground fungal networks. The row placement is marked by placing some pex tubing on the rake tines and running them down the beds which creates a guide to follow with the seeder. After everything is seeded it gets watered throughly and then covered with thin row cover. The row cover protects the tops of the bed from drying out too quickly in spring winds. It also diffuses rain drops so that soil does not wash away and expose seed in a heavy rain. It captures morning dew which also helps keep that top one inch from drying about pre-germination. I leave it on until the carrots start growing. They are not up yet and though every other year they eventually do come up, I can not help but stress about them until they emerge.

Carrot beds

The rain has been coming down for a few days now and the air is scrubbed clean of the glacial dust that filled the skies for most of May. It was the perfect Memorial Day weekend for planting out transplants: cool and damp. The garlic is up (though rather slow to grow this chilly spring) and the peas are emerging.

The pea row is on the left, potatoes on the right. I interplanted the row with hakurei turnips and spinach starts this spring. (plants in trays)

Potatoes and onions (transplants, scallions and sets) are in.

Spinach is nearly ready for us to start picking baby leaves. Several successions of lettuces are planted with more to come. Chard and orach and beets are two to three inches tall. Many folks think starting a root crop as a transplant is not possible but beets are an exception to that rule. I start them in trays of 100 in 1 1/2” soil blocks and plant them out when they are 2ish inches tall, three to four weeks later. I have had spotty germination with most of my varieties this year so on my latest planting I soaked the seed in tepid water overnight to see if that would help. We’ll see. I should have added some kelp to the soaking water as that helps pepper germinate too. Next time.

My brassicas are hardened off and all 6 beds are planted. I am deliberately holding back on them this year hoping to delay most harvest until early September. I didn’t start them till the end of April and now they are robust 4 week old starts.

3 of the 6 brassica beds are planted in this photo. All are in now!

The four low tunnels are next on the list and I need to plant the summer and winter squash, herbs, bush beans, and cold hardy tomatoes that are still in trays in the greenhouse.

Greenhouse chaos.

I hope to have them planted by June 7th, weather permitting, but it been in the 30s nearly every night this week which is too cold for these tender plants. My greenhouse is still stuffed with plants. Tomato and pepper pots are taking over the space that opens up as the garden starts are planted out. I am out of big pots and trying to find buckets to plant my cucumbers in. I forgot to save enough pots when I planted the tomatoes. It is so easy to plant too many tomatoes!

The greenhouse dahlia, October Sky. It is blooming early this year and it so very beautiful!

The ducklings are now 5 weeks old and have been booted out of the house into a deluxe temporary accommodation of an old truck camper placed in the perennial garden. It is quite the garden focal piece. Ha! They seem happy enough with their cozy new digs. The meat chicks and poults just moved out two nights ago into a temp home of an old mini greenhouse. They are still young so I have their brooder bar plugged in and I am greatly enjoying not having any birds in the house! This is the last year I will have any significant amount of baby birds until we build a better infrastructure. It is just too much work to scrap together a system that works temporarily. Spring is busy enough with out having to clean bird bedding, rotate birds inside and outside on nice days, and fill their feeders and waterers several times a day. Ducks and chickens have different needs and keeping them both doubles the work. We made it work this year but it was bad timing, bad planning, and terribly inefficient at a time of year when every waking moment is spoken for.

They are so cute when this small but their bodies had filled all this space by the time it was warm enough to move them outside.

We need it warm up a bit; lows in the 30s° is still a bit chilly. My fingers are crossed for a warm June!

From my garden to yours, I wish you happy growing!