Friday, April 28, 2006


Our pond has newts in it! A couple of weeks ago it was infested - we walked up to the pond and saw tens (40, 100?) of the little critters hanging around in the water. They'd hang just below the surface, suspended motionless, daydreaming. Then they'd swim down out of sight and slowly float back up to the surface. I looked them up and they are Eastern Newts or Red Spotted Newts.

I went up to the pond yesterday and the numbers are greatly reduced. I saw maybe half a dozen at a time. Maybe the water is getting warmer? I don't know.

These pics aren't the best. For one thing, they're taken through cloudy pond water. For another, I took them with an unfamiliar camera. But they're still interesting.

This little guy is hanging out by the post supporting the dock. Eastern red-spotted newts begin life as aquatic gilled larva. Then they move to land where they are red, and they are called efts. They remain in the eft stage for 1-7 years. Sometimes they skip it altogether. I've not yet seen efts here but I'm sure I will, with a newt population like this.

The adults turn olive brown and return to the water. They have lots of spots on them. The photo above shows the spotted tail pretty well (better in large size). The spots on their back remain red. You won't see the red, however, unless the light hits them just right.


Thursday, April 27, 2006

Fruit flowers

It was 34F when we woke up this morning, but a couple of days ago I walked around snapping some photos of fruit blossoms here at Palazzo Rospo. Above are apple blossoms.



Peach. This one cracks me up. We planted the peach tree in the fall, and it's just a stick with a few leaf buds and this one brave flower. Ambitious!


Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Let's do a Soil Test

Another thing I did last week during spring break was a soil test. I should have done this long ago, before I planted anything. Better late than never, right? Above is the test kit I used, very basic. It measures pH, nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.

For the pH test, you put soil in the tube up to the bottom line, then add water to the top line, and then the contents of the green capsule. Filling the tube to the bottom line with soil sounds easy but we had to decide whether to let the clumps of soil fall in loosely with lots of air space, or to pack it down. We opted for poking at it with a toothpick until a happy medium was reached.We added the water, the contents of the tablet, shook it up well, and let it sit a bit. If I recall correctly the instructions said one minute. The results look acidic, which I expected because we have a lot of clay content and I amended with sphagnum peat moss.The other tests, for nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, are conducted differently. We mixed 1 part soil to 5 parts water and let it sit for "about 10 minutes" so the sediment could filter out. After 10 minutes we still had a LOT of suspended material.So we poured the mixture through a paper towel and then a coffee filter. The result was quite muddy but I couldn't figure out any way to make it better.As it turns out, the contents of the capsule cause the suspended matter to precipitate out quickly. Here you can see the clear water, even before the powder has been dissolved.
Our final results show good phosphorous but pitiful nitrogen and potassium. I've obtained blood meal to boost the nitrogen and I'm looking for some seaweed or potash for the potassium. Wood ashes will also work but they increase the pH, making it alkaline. The pH here looks greener but I'm giving the initial results more credence, as the instructions specified we should wait a short time before noting the test results for the pH.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Archaelogical Finds

We are having the old farm house sided in vinyl siding. Should be much less drafty next winter, and of course less maintenance.

The crew that is doing the siding pulled this out from under the house. I just had to laugh.


Monday, April 24, 2006

String Trellis

One of the things I did last week was put up a string trellis for my peas. I've used them in the past for pole beans and cukes and they work pretty well. They're easy and cheap, too.

First get some 2"x2" boards about 8' long. Mark them every six inches beginning 2 feet from one end and going all the way to the other end.

Put nails in every six inches.

Using a post hole digger, dig a hole about 1'6" to 2' deep and put the pole in the hole. It helps if you have your poles oriented so that all the nails on all the poles are on the same side of the row or bed. I didn't do that this time and it was a pain reaching around some of the posts to put up my string. I usually have about 8' between posts and that seems to work well.

Beginning with the post at one end of the row or bed, tie the string to the bottom nail. Go to the next post and pull the string taut, wrap it around the bottom nail on that post, and go on to the next post. Continue pulling the string taut and wrapping it around the bottom nail on each post. When you get to the end, just take your string up to the next nail, wrap it around, and work your way back down the row or bed.

The finished trellis.

I couldn't reach my top 3 nails. If I need the trellis to be higher than it is, I'll drag a ladder out there and enlist some help in getting string on the top 3 or so nails. The string will sag as it gets wet and dry and as weight is applied to it. I've not had sagging to be a problem but if it is you can simply tie up some new string when the old sags too much.


Friday, April 14, 2006

Garden Update

I thought it was time for a garden post. As some of you may recall, we dug our garden with a backhoe in the late winter. Since then I've been marking out four foot wide beds and digging 18 inch paths between the beds, as weather and work schedule allow. I've been tossing the dirt from the path onto the bed to create a raised bed of sorts, but with no walls to hold the dirt in place. My feelings on this are mixed. On the one hand I hate walking on all that good topsoil so it makes sense to pile it into the beds. On the other hand, with no structure to this newly turned soil, it tends to just roll down the sides and into my paths. I think after the beds have been established a few years I might like it better. I plan to try the "no till" techniques.

So far, I've managed to keep bed preparation just barely ahead of planting dates. A bed was ready for peas just as the peas needed to be planted. A bed was ready for potatoes a week or so after potatoes needed to be planted. As I progress, however, it becomse obvious to me that I'll need just a bit more garden space (don't we always?) So it's a race to see if I can get the rest of the garden backhoed, marked off, and paths dug before it's time to plant the beans, corn, tomatoes and peppers.

In the photo you can see a straw-covered bed on the far right. That is a perennial bed and holds strawberries, onions, and chives. It will also have garlic in it come fall. The strawberries are just beginning to leaf out but not enough to show in the photo.

There are some 2x4 boards in the rightmost path. I'll use the boards to walk on if it gets real muddy out there. So far, drainage has been great.

The second bed from the right is another perennial bed. In the foreground you see my cratered asparagus area. At the far end I'll plant perennial herbs.

The next bed, with a string running the length of it, has peas planted on either side of the string and beneath the string. I'll erect a trellis there in a few days. On either side of the peas I've sown mostly broccoli, but I'll throw in some lettuce, carrots, and radishes in the empty spots. I've never had any luck with peas or cole crops, having lived in zone 8 before this - they burned up before they could mature. This year I'm trying sugar snap peas and english garden peas.

The next bed is straw covered. This holds potatoes. I planted Red Pontiac, Yukon Gold, and Kennebec. The Kennebec were moldy when I planted them so I'm not expecting much from them. The bed is pretty crowded already so I'll just toss in some marigolds in any empty spots. Marigolds and nasturtiums are good for fill-in anywhere in a garden.

On the leftmost portion of the garden you see a bunch of plastic with various rocks and fireplace logs holding it down. This is the area yet to be prepared. I've got about enough space to dig one more path, and then I need to backhoe and amend the soil before doing the paths. Our soil is nice and dark but it's gravelly and VERY clay-ey.

The last beds will hold green beans with cole crops (similar to the pea bed); then a bed of corn with cukes on a trellis and winter squash; and finally tomatoes and peppers. I've worked out my beds so that they'll rotate well with "hungry" crops like corn and potatoes following the legumes (peas and beans) which help replenish the nitrogen in the soil. And I was also able to arrange things so that the crops run mostly from early plantings to later plantings, enabling me to keep garden prep barely ahead of planting. I'm late on a few things such as swiss chard and dill, but that's not catastrophic. I'll plant them when I get their places ready.
Here's a different view, with strawberry bed in the foreground, then asparagus, peas, and potatoes. And the beautimous plastic.

Next week is spring break. Not sure how that will affect my blogging. I may blog more or not all depending on what activites get under way each day.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Gardening Plans for April

Well here we are well and truly into April. I've done pretty fair keeping up with all my gardening tasks that I scribbled into my notebook back in the cold months of winter. My pages are in a three ring binder now, instead of the spiral notebook. That way I can insert and remove and rearrange to my heart's delight.

I've gotten the potatoes and peas planted. I'm not doing sweet potatoes this year; I just couldn't work in everything and they're something that got dropped. I planted my lettuce yesterday, about a week later than I'd hoped to, and I've realized I totally forgot to order spinach and cauliflower seeds!

If you look at the large image of the page, you can see that this week (8-14) I'm transplanting *and* direct sowing broccoli. The transplants will be for us to eat fresh. I'm going to be starting a few plants every 2-3 weeks during the growing season. The direct sowing is a huge planting, for freezing and/or dehydrating.

I'll be starting my winter squash (if I ordered any seeds... I can't remember) in peat cups or jiffy pellets next week. They hate being transplanted so a method that does not disturb the roots is preferred.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006


I hurried out to the garden this morning to get a few things done before I had to go to work. This colorful guy was waiting on me. He's worth a closer look.

I googled a little and found a wonderful page about North American millipedes on the Stratford Landing Elementary School, Alexandria VA website. An elementary school, of all things!

You can click through yourself but here are some of the basics.

On the North American millipede, the first three segments will have one pair of legs, and the rest of the segments have two pair of legs. They move very slowly (this guy was moving slow as molasses).

I wasn't sure if he was a good guy or a bad guy, so I left him alone. Turns out he eats decaying plant matter and sometimes decaying animals (primarily earthworms and other insects). So he's pretty neutral in the garden.

They are nocturnal, and can live for several years.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006


I planted asparagus a while back. I planted "Purple Passion" and "Mary Washington". I probably should have taken pictures but I didn't. To plant asparagus, you dig a hole or trench about 12" deep. That was harder than I thought it would be, because my loose soil just kept filling in my hole. It was like trying to dig in pea gravel.
In the bottom of the hole you put some compost or composted manure, then set the asparagus roots on it. They look all ropey and dried out. Kind of alien. Then you only put in enough dirt to cover the crowns. I was worried because the night after I planted my asparagus the temps plummeted to 18F. And my asparagus only had a minimal covering of dirt. Some of them may have frozen, but not all, as evidenced by the photo.

When the asparagus starts to sprout, you add enough dirt to your hole or trench to cover the sprout. You continue watching and covering until you've completely filled the holes or trench. Then you're done! Above you see an itty bitty Purple Passion sprout shortly before burial. Purple Passion will turn green when cooked. Below you see my cratered asparagus bed-in-progress.
The first year you don't harvest any asparagus. You let the plants develop strong roots and get established. The second year you can harvest some (for about two weeks) but leave the rest to grow and help plant development. After that you can harvest all season.

The wonderful thing about asparagus is that unlike other vegetables, you get the produce first, then you do the work of weeding, mulching, feeding the plants. The bad thing about asparagus is you have to make yourself do all the work or next year's crop will suffer.


Monday, April 10, 2006

Broccoli Hardiness

Recently on one of the Mother Earth News forums, people were discussing hardening off seedlings prior to planting them in the garden. It turns out that many of the experienced gardeners who post there do not harden off their seedlings.

I had six broccoli seedlings with two or three true leaves that were ready to be transplanted into the garden. I set them out yesterday, planting them about one inch deeper than they'd been in their seedling cell pack. It was in the 60s yesterday, but dropped to about 31 last night.

When I set them out, I considered putting a plastic "tent" or row cover over them, but then I decided I'd rather see how they coped with moving from indoor grow lights at 70 to outdoors with low 60s to freezing. I know that broccoli planted directly in the garden doesn't mind a light frost, but these were coddled little seedlings.

As you can see from the photo, they had a light frost on them this morning when I checked on them (had to use the flash, it was still pretty early) and they look none the worse for wear. I'll monitor them over the next couple of days to see how they do with direct sunlight.


Friday, April 07, 2006

Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home

I grew up calling them ladybugs. I've also heard them called lady beetles and ladybirds. When I was a kid, they were wonderful. Brightly colored, no stinger, didn't bite. One of the "good guy" bugs.

In Georgia we got a lot of them crawling around inside our windows sometimes. That was nothing compared to this old farm house.

The ladybugs that swarm and invade are Asian Lady Beetles. They overwinter in attics, siding, and behind baseboards. I vacuum mine up. They make the vacuum bag stinky inside. About the third time I vacuum up ladybugs, the vacuum cleaner is whooshing foul odors throughout my house.

They congregate mostly in my windows, but I sometimes see them other places. If you are infested with lady beetles, or think you are, you should read this excellent article put out by the University of Kentucky. It won't really help you get rid of them, but maybe your ladybugs won't bother you so much after you read the article.

Ladybugs don't carry disease, they don't eat wood or wiring or otherwise destroy your home, and they don't breed indoors. They're just hanging out waiting on warm weather and plotting their big escape. They eat unbelievable amounts of aphids. My garden is gonna love 'em.


Thursday, April 06, 2006


This crazy guy got down the stove pipe to our wood burning stove about 4 days ago and made quite a racket scratching around and chirping. Eventually he made his way into the firebox, and we opened the doors. He flew out and threw himself against the windows a few times before we could toss a towel on him and take him outside.

Then the goofball did it again! Almost immediately! So we tossed the towel on him, built a fire in the stove, and released him outdoors. That did the trick.

Then last night darned if he (or someone who looks just like him wasn't flying around in the house again. We have no idea how he got loose in the house. No open windows or doors, the wood stove was all closed up. We're guessing the got into the attic and then came down where the ceiling and walls don't quite fit together.

Apparently this little guy (or gal) longs to be an indoor bird.

I looked him up in my bird guide and learned that he is a European Starling, whose habitat is all over the United States. In the winter he has a dark bill, brown back, and speckled breast, throat, and shoulders. In the summer he has a yellow bill, brown back and shoulders, and iridiscent head and breast. He keeps speckles low on his belly from his legs to his tail. So this guy is pretty well into his summer plumage.

He is "Often an abundant pest in city parks suburbs, and farms."
Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Brunn, and Herbert S. Zim, Birds of North America (New York: Golden Press, 1983)


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Mill-Rite Grain Mill from Retsel

Been insanely busy in the garden and around the house recently. The big news here is that we ordered a Mill-Rite grain mill from Retsel and it arrived on Monday. Naturally I had to take it out for a test-drive that evening. We considered geting a grain mill after reading an article in Mother Earth News about why whole wheat is so healthy. The article piqued my interest and I began researching. In my reading I learned that wheat berries can be stored indefinitely in an air tight container,which fits well with a lifestyle aimed at increasing self-sufficiency. I also learned that once ground, wheat loses a significant percentage of its nutritional value surprisingly quickly. The more we learned, the more we felt that a grain mill made good sense for us.

After reading as many articles and reviews as I could find, I decided to get the Mill-Rite made by Retsel. It's one of the higher priced mills but it had all the features we were looking for and it consistently received excellent reviews. We wanted an electric mill that could also be operated manually. We wanted something that could grind textures from cracked corn to baking flour, and something that we could work like a dog without it overheating or breaking down. The Mill-Rite reportedly fits the bill perfectly. As you can see in the photo above, it has a generous hopper. I put 4 cups of grain in it and it was maybe 1/3 to 1/2 full, so it holds a lot. At first I put a bowl on the counter top to catch the flour but the bowl wasn't wide enough so I grabbed a 9x13 casserole dish and that works nicely.

I thought the ground flour would come out a chute or something but as you can see it comes out from between two metal plates. The burrs are inside and you can get either metal or stone burrs. It's not very loud when it operates - about the same as my stand mixer or even a bit quieter (the mixer is higher pitched so "feels" loud to me). In the reviews I read, consumers mentioned dust as a potential problem. I didn't notice any dust at all when grinding flour in this mill. Grinding temperature should also be a prime consideration, as high temperatures cause the wheat to lose nutritional value. When the flour comes out of the grinder it is warm to the touch but only slightly so.

For the first run, I ground flour. You can see it gets a pretty darn fine texture. I ran a few cupfuls of grain through the grinder and disposed of it, as recommended by the vendor. This is to get rid of any grit in the burrs left over from the manufacturing process. They clean the burrs but they still recommend running a few cups through just to be safe. I found that each cup of grain resulted in about 1 1/3 cups of flour. I ground up 4 cups of grain and made some bread. The bread has the best texture of any bread I've made to date. It rose well and quickly, and when I was kneading the dough between the risings, it seemed more springy than dough made with store-bought flour, but perhaps that was my imagination.

One final note. Retsel is a small company. Although I easily placed my order via telephone in early February and was told it would be three weeks before my mill shipped, I found them to be difficult to get hold of during mid to late March after I'd made two inquiries asking when I could expect my order. I encountered unanswered emails and telephone recordings asking to please call during normal business hours (various days, various times during their business hours). They charged my debit card the day I ordered but didn't ship the mill until two months later, after I got the BBB and Visa involved. So, I have mixed feelings about the company. They have a product that appears to be outstanding. They are friendly, knowledgable, and helpful. But the company is inconsistent in their accessibility and failed to ship as promised.

Edited 11 January 2010 to add:
This post has easily gotten the most comments of any of my posts and while some of them are educational or interesting and many of them are amusing, I'm growing tired of my blog being used as a vehicle for finger pointing and ill will. So, I've disabled further comments. It's really deteriorated to the point where comments are not helpful to blog visitors.


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