Archive for the ‘Urban Homesteading’ Category

Nancy’s Tomato Chronicles – Week 1 of 2010

(Week 1 is Jan 4th to 11th)

It’s New Year’s resolution time, but I’m not going there. I’m not good at repetitive tasks so why ask for trouble? However, in my quest to grow bunches of great-tasting veggies and tons of delicious tomates (that’s French for tomatoes) in my organic garden, I realize for my plants to stay healthy I need to be proactive rather than reactive.

After the attack of late season blight, I pulled all my tomato plants, roots and all, and picked up all the old tomatoes lying on the ground and dumped them in the trash. Late blight will not survive in the soil but will overwinter in the plants and fruits.

The new products AzaMax (for bugs and caterpillars) and Actinovate (for fungal diseases) I wrote about last season work best when applications begin before the plants are under attack. These organic products are so environmentally friendly when used according to directions I needn’t worry about early applications harming bees, birds or other beneficial organisms, including my grandson.

So over the next few weeks, I’m putting together my gardening calendar. The dates aren’t written in stone, but will act as reminders to begin to track the temperatures of the soil and air, along with the rainfall.

Underground activity begins to heat up when the organisms break dormancy, and that begins when the soil temperatures reach 50 degrees. So when using a soil drench, adding them too early is a waste of time and money. Heavy rains can wash the product away. I plan to start monitoring the soil temperatures in March, and if we happen to have an early spring, I will be ready to hit the ground running.

Maybe This Year

My tomatoes were terrible this year, thanks to the cold, wet weather. They failed to ripen for lack of sun, and the fruit lost its flavor because of too much rain. We were drenched with rain all season, and twice our rain gauge that measures up to 10-plus inches of water overflowed.

I have lots of tricks up my sleeve to get things going if we suffer another cold, wet spring and summer, and over the next couple of months, I’ll let you in on my plans. If you have any tips or tricks that worked last summer or varieties of veggies that rocked in your garden and you would like to share them, e-mail me.


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Yardpost – Before storing the long wooden handled shovels, rakes, and brooms for the winter,  rub down those handles with a coat of linseed oil.  By spring they will be dry and impervious to wet conditions.

Sitting in front of a fire in the fireplace while the snow rages outside is one of life’s special luxuries.  But for me, another special experience in the depth of winter is to be repotting some geraniums in a greenhouse or conservatory while the snow piles up outside.  Whether you have a greenhouse, a sunspace, or a conservatory, the winter is when that space gives much joy while easing the stress of the day.

If you do not have such a space, but are thinking about getting one of these structures, you need to take your planning very seriously.  It is not an easy decision from any perspective.  You need to be clear about how you wish to use the space.  In most cases, we are talking about investing a substantial amount of money so you want to be right the first time.

The first question is whether this sunny space is primarily to grow plants or is it a space for people to enjoy.  The space for plants is usually called a greenhouse.  You can spill water or potting soil on the floor and not worry about it.  A greenhouse can be allowed to get as cool as 55 degrees at night.

Nancy's Conservatory

A space primarily for people is called a sunspace or conservatory.  You can still grow plants in these spaces, but the design must address the comfort of people so temperatures do not go much below 68 degrees at night.

A greenhouse that is easy to manage and somewhat economical to heat is attached to the house is some manner, thereby sharing some of the heat from the house.  I used to have a lean-to greenhouse made from old wooden storm windows attached  to the house with the cellar door inside.  I built another greenhouse that sat on the second story over the family room and was heated by the wood stove in the family room.  I used those greenhouses to overwinter plants from outside like geraniums, impatiens, and rosemary.  I grew lettuce  and swiss chard for winter salads, and grew orchids under the benches.  In the spring, I started all my seedlings in the greenhouse.  It was closed down for the summer months.

A sun space is designed first for the comfort of people. It can’t get too hot or too chilly.  A modest sun space will cost from $5000 to $15,000.  The English conservatory is catching on in this country.  It is simply a fancy sun space which will cost from $20,000 on up.

Nancy’s 8 x 13 foot conservatory by Canterbury is used to hold her collection of tropical plants over the winter.  As you might expect, there is no space left for people in this room.  Throughout the winter however, we have fuchsia, impatiens,  bougainvillea, and crown of thorns in continual bloom; talk about a pleasant place to watch the snow fall.  Clipping fresh rosemary for spaghetti sauce all winter is another benny.

At night and when the sun is not shining in the winter, the south facing space is heated with a thermostatically controlled electric heater.   When the sun is shining, vents are opened to release the excess heat.  Having a greenhouse or a conservatory does take daily attention to keep the plants from cooking or freezing.

I have a friend with a modest conservatory that has in its center a sunken hot tub.  In one corner is a small table where he and his wife have morning coffee all winter.  Three sides of the space are filled with all manner of flowering and foliage type tropical plants.  He has rigged a system of fans with a thermostat so in the winter when the heat from the sun reaches 80 degrees, the fans move that heat into the house.  In the summer they move the heat outside and pull some cool air from the house into the conservatory.  Sitting in the hot tub, surrounded by a jungle of beautiful plants while the snow is blowing outside must be a special treat for sure.

If I have peaked your interest, you can inspect a number of greenhouses, sunspaces, and conservatories up close and personal at Showspan’s Michigan Home and Garden Show at Ford Field, March 10th thru March 12th.  If you have any questions, Nancy and I will be giving programs and would love to chat.  Canterbury Conservatories have an office in Pontiac (248-745-6844).

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I’ve added a couple of new bird feeders to my songbird catering service this year and while I was setting the shepherd’s hooks in our meadow I remembered I needed to mount the old roosting box my Dad and I built probably 30 years ago.  What is a roosting box you ask, and why should you be thinking about setting at least one out in your yard?

While anyone with bird feeders knows there are lots of cute little guys hanging around for that free lunch, have you wondered where do they go at night to sleep, especially in very cold weather?  In cold weather songbirds eat constantly during daylight hours to sustain their energy. At night they expend a lot of that energy fluffing their feathers and shivering to keep warm until dawn.

Often thick evergreens and other vegetation fail to provide enough protection for the smaller birds trying to get through a cold windy night. Though they crowd together for warmth, many birds become seriously dehydrated and freeze to death. Mortality is typically highest among the little birds such as bluebirds, wrens, chickadees, titmice and small woodpeckers. In a very bad snow storm with below freezing temperatures for more than a day or two, as much as 50% of smaller songbirds can perish. This is a real problem and yardeners can really help.  These cute critters need their very own Motel 6.

Traditional roosting boxes are roofed, hollow boxes outfitted inside with pegged perches along their interior walls. Unlike birdhouses, which accommodate a nest, these boxes are only intended to provide shelter from severe weather for those cavity-nesting songbirds. They are accustomed to taking refuge in a protective hole in an old tree made by woodpeckers or tree injury. These days suitable protective hollow trees are removed from populated areas because they are unsightly, unsafe, or in the bulldozer’s path.

While the hole in a bird house is up towards the top of the box, a roosting box has the entrance hole set down low. Also unlike birdhouses they do not have vents or drainage holes, so the critical warm air generated by the roosting birds is retained. So if you have a roosting box on your property, the smaller birds, stuck in cold weather, can roost together in small groups to share body heat. In one documented case, 31 winter wrens were observed to fit inside an unused nesting box only 6 inches square!

Buying Roosting Boxes

There are six Wild Birds Unlimited stores in metro Detroit offering a number of roosting boxes ranging from $10 to $45 (www.wildbirdsunlimited).  Duncraft offers an interesting box that allows you to flip the front wall so the hole is high during the season and used as a nesting box or flip it so the hole is low make the device a roosting box in the winter (www.duncraft.com, $45).

Building Roosting Boxes

If you are just a little bit handy, roosting boxes are easy to build. I have complete instructions with illustrations on my web site at www.yardener.com, placing “roosting box” in the search window.  A 10 inch by 1 inch pine board 12 feet long is sufficient for one box. Perches for the interior are ¼ or 3/8 inch dowels. You will need a hand drill, a saw, a jigsaw (or hole saw), and a screwdriver.

It is a good idea, but not essential, to add a coat of exterior, dark colored paint on the outside of a roosting box to encourage the absorption and retention of daytime heat. Also a coat of varnish on exterior surfaces will extend the life of the box. Renew the coat of varnish each year. As with birdhouses though, never varnish or paint the inside of the roosting box; the birds won’t use it.

Mount roosting boxes 8 to 15 feet off the ground in trees or on buildings. A good place is in a mature pine tree where the foliage buffers the wind of the winter storms. It is best to mount the box in a spot that is easy to reach for cleaning. In any case, orient the entrance toward the south, away from prevailing winter winds. Be sure to locate it where accumulations of bird droppings will not be a problem.

Turn Birdhouses Into Roosting Boxes

I got a wonderful tip from Bill Thompson, editor of the wonderful Bird Watcher’s Digest (www.birdwatchersdigest.com $20 for year’s subscription). You can make every bird house into a roosting box by covering the ventilation holes on the sides near the top of the box with that gray clay-like corded material called Mortite; used to seal drafty windows for winter (available in any hardware store); then remove it in the spring.



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Yardpost – While it is a good idea to fertilize mature shrubs and trees in the fall with a slow release granular fertilizer, fruit trees and berries should not be fertilized in the fall.  Feed them in the spring.

Last week I visited our local farmer’s market and spotted a variety of apple I have been wanting to sample for several years.  The Honeycrisp apple has been lauded for years as one of the best fresh eating apples ever produced.  While it was developed at the University of Minnesota in the 70’s, the honeycrisp apple is just beginning to show up at farmer’s markets and some local apple orchards.  It is projected to become available in super markets in Michigan in a few years.


Honey Crisp Apple

After one bite,  I was blown away by this apple.  I am a texture freak when it comes to apples.  I hate mealy apples.  So when I took my first bite of a honeycrisp, I was in heaven.  It is incredibly crisp, very juicy, and has a wonderful aromatic flavor; not too sweet.  When I learned that you can store honeycrisp apples in refrigeration for up to six months without losing that crispness, I made a decision I have been putting off for several years.  I will finally plant some dwarf apple trees this spring and two of them will be honeycrisps.


I had dwarf apple trees years ago when I lived in Pennsylvania, but had not gotten around to planting any here in Michigan.  I’ve always been a proponent of dwarf fruit trees.  They should be grown more in home landscapes, but they have never caught on.  What is interesting is that a dwarf apple tree is just about the same size (four to six feet tall and three to four feet wide) as an indeterminate tomato plant and they both produce about the same number of fruits (25 to 35). Anyone already growing tomatoes should give serious thought to planting a few dwarf apples.


Espaliered Apple Tree

I suspect there are three issues that have prevented  the dwarf apple tree from becoming common in the home landscape.  Having to choose from over 100 varieties can be daunting.  Then there is the reality that it takes 3 to 5 years after planting the tree before you get a full crop of apples; we are an impatient species.  And finally, there is the need to spray an apple tree with a number of different pesticides a few times each year and that prospect can be off-putting to some folks.


The five most popular apples sold in grocery stores are Red Delicious, Yellow Delicious, Gala, Fuji, and Granny Smith.  There is no need to grow any of these varieties since they are available in the stores almost year around.  My bias is to grow varieties that have been introduced in the past 30 years.  I want the most insect resistant and disease resistant apples that have great texture and taste.  The Empire and Liberty are examples of varieties that are very tasty and generally free of disease or insect problems. Many folks grow these apples with no need to have any spray program.

A fun exercise is to visit some local apple orchards and buy varieties you have never tasted before.  You might find an apple that you would really like to grow yourself.  Another place to go for help in selecting varieties to grow is AppleSource, a specialty apple grower in Illinois (www.applesource.com).  They offer over 100 varieties of apples to taste.  They send apples by mail in boxes of 12.  You can order just one variety in a box or order up to 6 varieties.

I’m going to plant Empire and Honeycrisp which are early bloomers and Braeburn and GoldRush which bloom later in the spring.  You need two different varieties of apple to get proper pollination by the local honeybees.

On my web site, www.yardener.com, I  offer an organic spray program for apple trees.  In the search window type in “Caring For Apple Trees”.  I suggest using least toxic products such as light horticultural oil, lime sulfur fungicide, insecticidal soap, and bacillus thuringiensis insecticide for controlling insects and disease.  Four dwarf trees can be sprayed in fifteen to twenty minutes so we are not spending a lot of baseball watching time here.

In four or five years, I will expect to be harvesting over 125 apples from my five trees (two honeycrips).  That gives me fresh eating apples, apple sauce and apple pies for five or six months.  There is nothing more satisfying than picking and eating an apple from your own tree.


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We Michiganders have been informed that in this coming winter season, we are in for a serious increase (50%) in the cost of heating.  When the price of fuel oil or natural gas goes way up, the sale of wood stoves moves in the same direction.  A woodstove seems like an attractive energy boost, but carefully consider the economics. A reliable and safe stove can cost over $2000, the installation can cost $500 to $1000 and decent dry hardwood delivered and stacked can cost over $600 for the season.

Now that I’ve put a damper on your wood stove plans, let me reveal that I am a big fan of having a wood stove in the home.  I’m a yardener with a little homesteader blood in me.  A good stove, properly maintained will provide comfortable heat and emotional comfort for over 25 years giving a good return on that initial investment.  During periods of excessively high fuel costs, running a wood stove, properly placed in the home, for 24 hours a day, can reduce heating bills by 30 to 50%.  Then if heating costs return to some level of sanity, a lighted wood stove with the door open and the screen attached is that fireplace that everyone in the room will stare at because there is something about watching a fire that is incredibly peaceful.

From Alternative Energy Primer

The secret to saving any money with a wood stove is to find a way to get all the wood you need each year for free.  I did just that for ten years, burning four to five cords of split hardwood each year while running the stove full time from late October to early March in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

The requirements for acquiring free firewood are a chain saw, a splitting ax, several splitting wedges, a sledge hammer, and some storage space in the back yard.  Youth can be an advantage as well.  Also needed is a vehicle such as an SUV or pickup truck to get that free wood back home.

It is amazing how much wood is available in established suburban communities.  My modus operandi was to go out on tour after every serious wind storm, snow storm, and especially ice storms.  I had two approaches to the process.  If I found some good sized branches had fallen in a yard, I volunteered to remove them myself.  If a very large tree had fallen, I asked for the wood after the arborist had cut it up. If the arborist doesn’t have to take the tree away, the removal cost is lower.  You can get two or three cords of wood out of a single large tree.  You should be looking for hardwoods like oak, hard maple, hickory, ash, walnut, locust, apple,  or peach which all burn well. Soft woods such as willow,  poplar, pine and cedar will have more creosote buildup in the chimney and not burn as long.

From Alternativetechnology.info

I always had five cords of wood stored and drying in the back yard from last year’s forays. The wood I collected this year would be stacked and dried for a year before it went into the wood stove.  A cord of wood is a stacked pile of firewood that is 8 feet long, four feet high, and four feet wide.  That is two parallel stacks of split wood that is 20 to 25 inches long, however deep your wood stove happens to be. I’ll let you do the math, but you can see that 7 or 8 cords of stacked wood takes up a fair amount of space .  These wood piles should be at least 25 feet from the house to avoid any insect problems.

Over the winter months, I split the smaller chunks with my splitting ax or my maul and wedges.  It was great exercise and a wonderful way to work off life’s frustrations.  When I had a good number of very large chunks, I rented a gasoline driven log splitter which can split a couple of cords of wood in a morning with a buddy helping you.

A very thorough collection of web sites dealing with all aspects of heating the home with a wood stove, go to www.zeal.com and put “woodstove” in the search window.

Jeff Ball, a Metro Detroit free-lance writer, has authored eight books on gardening and lawn care. You can visit his yard care Web site at www.yardener.com,   E-mail him at jeffball@yardener.com.

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