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!

Melting Down and Breaking Up

Spring finally showed up for real mid April and when she arrived it was with determined intensity. All the snow collapsed into big messy slushy piles during the warm sunny afternoons.

Crocus, on the Chitina River Bluff, are our first spring flower every April.

A robin, perched on the perennial garden fence, sang a morning song as I walked from the greenhouse to the house with a shovelful of burning coals. We have not been having a fire in the house lately as the morning chill usually passes quickly. But the ducklings are pig piled today under their brooder warmer and I thought they would appreciate the extra warmth. Since there was already a fire going in the greenhouse, the glowing coals make a quick and easy fire inside. A short while after the fire was going they were busy running around.

Ah, ducklings…they are one of my very favorite things about spring. Our eight bundles of fluff hatched in an incubator on top of our propane refrigerator on the 29th of April. Though we were moving the greenhouse across the yard that day, we stopped often when our daughter let us know another one was about to come out of the shell. It is always amazing to me to watch how they uncurl from within the shell and then stretch out, exhausted, and already trying to walk. The next day the cycle of voracious eating and playing with water begins (and never ends!) Eat, drink, sleep, repeat.

First one to hatch!

The big ducks spent the winter in the greenhouse until spring melt flooded it out (hence the moving it across the yard…), then in the old empty pig pen which was clean and dry under the roof, and then in the pallet duck house that we had to wait to put back together once the snow had melted back enough. I let them out the other day and when I went to shut them in for the night they were no longer in the yard. We found them swimming happily in Sandpiper bog, the little slough adjacent to our lake and not inclined at all to head home. One swamp water filled mud boot later, they were waddling home through the woods. Putting up a duck fence is now on the to do list. The ducks are a new but necessary part of the farm providing eggs and amusing company but most importantly, slug eating tendencies. The introduced non-native and invasive garden slug has no coevolved local bacterial or fungal foe or native predators. In addition because they are hermaphrodites, every single slug is able to lay eggs. Beside manual removal, rotating the ducks through our lawn and gardens is my only hope of controlling the slug population.

What a mess!
The ducks thought the pond was pretty cool even when it filled up the greenhouse and soaked all their bedding.

Break up started in earnest April 12 for us. Just two days before on the 12th, the morning temperature at 7 AM was negative 21° F. April is not my most favorite month. March is the best of winter with snow, ice fishing, sunshine and frozen rivers to explore. May is soil, leaves, nesting birds and wood frogs singing in the evening. April, however, is mud over frozen ground, soggy snow, dog turds and runoff. It is the frustrating time of transitioning from winter to summer. The permafrost melting under my perennial garden has created a low point in the yard that collects all that run off into a brown, murky April pond that lasts until the ground thaws enough for the drainpipe to work. With all the snow this year and then the rapid switch to 50 degree spring days, the spring garden pond filled rapidly.

Last November we moved the greenhouse (a homemade 10 by 20 foot gothic frame) to a temporary location next to the perennial garden fence by the lake with three sleds full of dunnage and a snow machine. I needed to be able to use it this year but have it out of the way so I could do dirt work and start building a bigger and better insulated greenhouse that could be used earlier in the spring for a propagation house. We are a family of four in a pretty small home that gets overrun with plant trays every spring. With the kids both homeschooling, it can feel even more cramped. Once the April days get warm, the plants move outside during the day and inside at night but by the end of the month we are shlepping a lot of trays. I have to prioritize what I can start because I am limited by space. The farm desperately needs a prop house. As we brought trays in and out this year to where we had set the greenhouse up in November, now with break up run off and uneven ground, I realized this would not work for the season. I could not heat the greenhouse with the large gaps from uneven ground and with the impending arrival of ducklings (and meat chicks due to arrive in a few weeks) that need inside space, we had to get the plants out of the house to make room for raising this years birds. This time we used a 4 wheeler, an old low homestead trailer and our backhoe with forks to move it across the yard to a flat graveled area on the pad behind the house. Much better! The plants all moved out permanently that night and with the greenhouse fire perking along every night, they are growing rapidly. Our house always feels inordinately larger than before without the tables of plant trays. The only downside is that I have to get up at 3 AM to stoke the fire.

Moving the greenhouse to a better location after the pond receded.
All snug in its new temporary home.

I had to build another screen table to be able to hold all the trays and luckily had enough hardware cloth left in the roll from the two I built last fall for a 9 foot table. With the way lumber prices have skyrocketed, Tim is calling this my $500 table.

With the greenhouse sorted out, my priority projects this week are catching up on seeding and then finishing spring pruning before anything starts to leaf out. After that I really need to mix potting soil for my tomatoes and peppers and then get my low tunnels planted and set up for some early greens. It is wonderful to be working outside again.

The snow is almost completely gone and the lake ice is becoming rotten.

The bugs have emerged from their winter slumber. I had a bumble bee trapped in the greenhouse that I relocated to the garden. I fed a caterpillar on my currant bush to my favorite chicken. The mosquitos have arrived in force to pester our evenings outside. And many many more flies, moths, and other creatures are flying around in the warmer hours of the day. The soundtrack to my days outside is no the longer deep muffled silence of winter but bird song as they make their nests, frog croaks as they search for mates, buzzing insects, and running water.

I do love spring poetry units and the writing assignments! My daughter often writes about things I love dearly. Lucky me!

“The Bee”

She lands on a Plant

Coating her legs in Pollen

Soaking up the Sun.

Sylvia Nelson

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