When You’re Making Other Plans

Long time, no blog posts! Way back a million years ago in August I had plans for the things I wanted to accomplish this fall and winter, blogging among them. I’ve been mulling around renaming/rebranding my blog and other social media so they at least match a little; the Shady Character thing hasn’t made sense since I shut down the website over a decade ago. I also was looking for opportunities to get involved with some interest groups, get out a little more, fight my hermitty tendencies and be a little more social. There was also a goal to get the novel I’ve been noodling away at to the point where I could hand it off to a few beta readers before the end of the year to see if it’s worth really finishing. And, of course, there were the seasonal necessities that come with gardening and keeping bees. But, then things changed pretty quickly.

In December of ‘14 my dad had surgery for cancer. Things looked good at first but then he started having problems and was hospitalized several times again. By the end of August he was pretty bad off. A week or so later, on my mom’s birthday, her sister died. Another week after that my best friend’s husband died. A few days later Dad went, too. Then, of course, my brother-in-law’s sister died. Needless to say, my perspective on what constitutes a priority changed and my ability to write light, sparkling prose wasn’t at its strongest.

Tomorrow’s the Winter Solstice for us here in the northern hemisphere. There are several holidays around this time that mark the change from growing darkness to growing light so I’m going to latch onto that and work on turning things around a little and getting back to the things I’d planned. I’ve got some blog posts in the works that are going to seem a little out-of-date but maybe I’ll go ahead with them anyway. In any case, have a Happy Solstice, Merry Christmas, Good Yule and a Happy New Year. Love your families, be good to each other, and go ahead and make plans.


This year one of my “new” crops is the birdhouse gourd. This is the first time I’ve grown gourds of any kind so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was delighted when I started to see the first gourds forming on the vines twining over the “rustic” trellis I had built for them out of branches lashed together with sisal twine.

Birdhouse Gourd

Here’s one of the larger ones—large enough to be an actual birdhouse, I believe. There are few more only a little smaller that I think would work as well. I was scouting around among the vines to get an idea of how many there were when I came across this…


My thumb probably isn’t the best scale I could have used, but you can still tell it’s huge! How did it escape notice until now? The crossbar it’s hanging from has cracked and sagged. When I was planting these I had wrens, nuthatches and chickadees in mind. Now I’m thinking more along the line of California condors. They’re kind of cavity nesters, right? I only hope now that we have the right kind of weather to ripen and cure these things. If they turn out well, I would grow them again, building stronger supports and keeping a closer eye on them, of course.

A Cunning Plan

I know it’s only early September, but I’m already scheming how to make next year’s garden better. A couple of things that are influencing the basic layout are probably going to come into play. The first one I employed this year and have been happy with the results so I’m going to repeat it.

2015 Garden

This is my 2015 garden in two phases. The basic plan I’ve been using for a few years is shown on the left and consists of twelve equal sized beds I rotate crops through. I’ve grouped together the families I devote the most space to: Alliaceae (Onion, garlic, scallion, leek, shallot,) Solanaceae (tomato, pepper, tomatillo,) Fabaceae (beans, peas,) and Miscellaneous, the beds where I grow a variety of early, cool weather things like lettuce, spinach and broccoli that later get replaced with squash and fall plantings of leafy crops again.

On the right in the Solanacea this year I extended the adjacent beds to create a little more planting room where the path would normally go through. It’s meant a little more walking around, but I’ve been able to grow a few more pepper and tomato plants. In between the Miscellaneous and Fabaceae sections this year I had a little serendipity where my Bush Delicata squash grew. It ended up taking over most of the bed and the path between it and the pole beans. When I thought about it, I don’t need that path now that the smaller crops are gone. The pole beans are grown for drying so I don’t need to get to them before the squash is done, probably. It can stay.

2016 Garden

That brings us to the beginning of next year’s plan. In 2016 I will rotate everything around four beds clockwise. Think of  a volleyball team. I’ll continue the “Mutant E” arrangement for the Solanaceae, and now look! In the second stage (on the right) I’ll be able to put squash family plants in the middle of the three Miscellaneous beds and let them ramble across the paths. This is especially making me look forward to the 2016 season because today I received a gift of hulless pumpkin seeds and I want to grow some Red Kuri squash, a variety I don’t believe comes in a bush form.

I’m always looking for ways to cram more into my limited growing space. So far I’ve employed as much vertical growing as I can think of and now I’m temporarily utilizing paths. Do you have any brilliant tips for getting even more out of a small garden?

I Pulled the Plug

Remember the mystery squash? Or gourd? Or whatever it was? I got thinking it was a little too healthy and was competing with my known squash and gourds so I pulled the plug.

Pulled the Plug

Just uprooted it at the source and let it wither. It was growing so vigorously I was concerned about the water  and nutrients it was taking away from the plants I intended to grow, not to mention the fact its rampant leaves were casting some shade on the bush squash below. The fruits weren’t getting any bigger and now I’ve noted that’s the case with the bush squash, some of which look like they’re getting ripe. Right or wrong, I did the deed and am willing to live with my choice.

In the meantime, now that I’ve had the chance to observe how the three kinds of bush squash and the one gourd I grew this year behaved I have a plan to give them all the room they need next year. I just have to remember to write it down!

It Adds Up

The soil where we have our garden plot is mostly clay. Despite being gardened for over fifty years, I still pull chunks of clay out of the ground that could go straight to a potter’s wheel. Since we started working it I have made a concerted effort to dig in organic matter every chance I get. The garden committee occasionally purchases and resells compost at cost, but I rely almost entirely on a massive leaf pile collected from the curbsides of the village adjacent to the university where our garden is. Sometimes there are additional organic matter opportunities such as a mixture of manure and bedding from the riding club’s stables. The latest source of organic matter dumped in the communal area is lake weeds.

Green Gunk

To reduce the nutrient load in a large nearby lake and make the shore areas more attractive and usable large machines harvest the weeds growing there. The stuff reeks, but it’s full of nutrients and organic matter and even the occasional small fish that I’m happy to take.

Hole Awaiting Green Gunk

I had one bed that was mostly done for the moment so I tore out the finished broccoli and the kale that we’ve decided just isn’t our thing. I dug out the soil down to a depth of about eight inches in a third of the bed at a time and spread the glorious gunk in the bottom and then covered it completely. Remember? The smell? What I noticed as I was working and made me so happy was something that’s becoming apparent here and there throughout the plot. The soil is getting better. It’s less sticky and clumpy than it was when we took over and though we had had a two-inch rainfall over a couple of the previous days it was nicely and evenly moist for the depth that I dug out.

Job Completed

Once I’d interred all of the gunk I mulched the bed with shredded leaves. I’ve got some Chinese cabbage and baby bok choi seedlings I may set out here in the next few days. I hope they don’t experience any ill effects if/when their roots reach the gunk layer.

At the end of the season I’ll chop down any cover crops I may have going  and haul in more leaves and spade everything in to each fallow bed. It’s a bit of physical work but I’m encouraged by the results we’re getting and feel like it’s all worthwhile.

Sprouted Peas

In other news, I had terrible germination from the snap peas I planted a while ago so I resorted to a trick I’d used in the past for black-eyed peas. I soaked and sprouted the seeds and then sowed the ones that sprouted. I don’t know if the problem was the heat that we were having at the time or, more likely, the rodents that plague the gardens. In any case, I at least know these were viable seeds at one point. The crop was so good last spring–and made my co-workers happy–that I’m trying a fall crop for the first time. I hope there’s time for them to grow. The cool days we are suddenly having make me wonder.

Putting Away the Onions and Garlic

After some long weeks of drying and curing, the onions and garlic have been cleaned up and put away.


The garlic, all hardneck varieties, was dug up and placed in baskets hanging from the basement ceiling to cure out of the sunlight. Normally a basement is a poor place to cure garlic, but we run dehumidifiers and with the sticky weather we were having for a while it was drier down there than a protected spot outdoors would have been.


The onions got the same treatment only they were placed on galvanized nursery trays and spent the first few weeks outside in a mostly shaded spot. See how nasty those leaves were from the fungal attack? I spoke with a plant disease expert at the urban horticulture field day at the University’s local agricultural research station last weekend. He said the black, horrible looking stuff was probably a secondary attack after the leaves had been infected with another fungus first, likely Botritis or Alternaria. The good news is that since the basal plates were intact and the bulbs themselves appear OK they should still store for a while at least. I’m keeping an especially close eye on a few that didn’t seem quite right, though.

All Cleaned Up

To clean the garlic up for storage I broke the hard wad of soil and roots off each bulb, trimmed off the roots and stem, and gently rubbed off any remaining soil and sometimes a layer of the outer papery skin. The onions got essentially the same treatment but since they have finer roots they didn’t have the soil wad to contend with.

The onions should keep us for a while. There are more smaller ones than usual this year. The garlic we have more than enough of even when I subtract out the ones for replanting in October. These two crops are among the most satisfying to grow and I’m hoping we don’t have to contend with a repeat performance of the fungal problem any time soon.

Pollinator Tour

I was vacillating about going on a pollinator tour yesterday at a local land conservancy. We had been to an opening/tour of a distillery on Friday and then Saturday we braved the heat again for the urban horticulture field day at the agricultural research station.  In the end I decided I’d probably regret it if I skipped it. I’m so glad I went!


While the tour started with a general introduction to pollinators and their importance, the main focus of the event was bumble bees. We learned about their life cycle and got some helpful tips on how to photograph and identify them. The presenter encouraged us to submit our sightings to Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen science project I started looking at earlier this summer but hadn’t gotten around to submitting anything to. If you’re in North America I suggest you check it out and consider getting involved.

Bumble Bee on Echinacea

The weather has been on the dry side lately so there hasn’t been as much nectar available for bees. The purple coneflowers were popular. That’s where we saw this Brown-belted Bumble Bee, or at least that’s what I think it is. I’m not too sure of my identification skills at this point but hope with time and seeing more bees it will become easier. Bumble bees can be tricky to identify because the queens, males and worker females can all look different within a species and there are variations even within a sex.

Bees Gathering Pollen

The coneflowers also attracted these solitary bees who were busy collecting pollen for their brood.

Yellow Bumble Bee

In all we saw five species of bumble bees in the three hours we were there. This one in the jar is a Yellow Bumble Bee. Our guide was catching bees for us to see up close, first with a net, but then just by walking up to them and placing the jar over them. They were all released unharmed when we were done looking at them.

Monarch Caterpillar

Along with the bees we saw a few Monarch Butterfly caterpillars like this one. It seemed to be lost exploring a nodding onion stem rather than its usual milkweed host plants.

Solitary Bee on Mustard

It was cool to see so many people turn out for an event like this. There were even a couple of young boys in attendance who were really into it, asking good questions and having a great time finding bees. We all came away with information and suggestions of resources to help us continue our studies of bumble bees. Now I need to get out and see more bees before it’s too late. The flowers I associate with autumn, goldenrod and asters are starting to bloom and before we know it the bees will have tucked themselves away for winter.

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