Tuesday, April 28, 2009

First wild berries of the Year

Living out here in the middle of nowhere can be a pain in the ass sometimes. The drive to town takes twenty minutes, rain means muddy sloppy roads, and don't even get me started on the unbelievable number of bugs.

There is an upside though. Today driving home from my kid's preschool, we took a long slow drive down the muddy sloppy dirt road. As we drove along, she was looking out the window. When she saw a wildflower she wanted, I would get out the car and pick it for her. She was making a bouquet for my wife. Along the way, she would keep an eye out for the bright red unripe dewberries that grow wild all over here. Somewhere among them I could find one or two that had become ripe and she could eat them straight off the vine.
If we still lived in Las Vegas, the ride home would be us sitting in traffic for a half-hour on West Sahara.
Our blueberry bushes have finally gotten a few berries. In between the rains, I water them with the rainwater I have been collecting. The owners of the blueberry farm we go to told me that what I needed was lots and lots of water, so I have been trying to keep them really wet this year.

We have had a lot of these moments, driving home from school or grandma's house.
Once we stopped right at the mailbox at the turnoff to our house--that's where we turn off the (dirt) county road and head down our own (dirt) road--and there was a big turtle in front of us. The kids and I got out and walked over to take a look. We see small turtles quite often, but this one's shell was about the size of a large dinner plate. When we walked up to the turtle, he didn't move or tuck his head inside. He didn't act scared at all. My older daughter hunkered down and got pretty close to it. She looked up and asked if she could feel its shell. I told her sure, just pet its back, away from its head. Well, as God as my witness, I was under the impression that turtles are slow. That thing whipped around and snapped at her so fast I couldn't believe it. I nearly kicked the thing into the ditch to keep her from getting bitten, but she pulled her hand away just in time. I guess that's why it wasn't scared. It knew something that I didn't know.
Just goes to show you that, here in the country, I always find that what I think I know is totally wrong. But don't tell my wife.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

See the forest through the timber

When we moved in, most of the land around us was either pasture land for cows or unmanaged forest. We will never have a herd. I just don't see us having a the time or energy to fix all the fence, clear all the land, and take care of all the cattle. Besides, you can't really make money with cows anymore unless you have room for thousands and thousands of 'em.
We moved into our farm about four months before Hurricane Rita hit. That particular storm did a horrible number on our trees--we sustained major damage to a big percentage of our trees, both hardwoods and pines. What didn't fall over from the wind was snapped by the tornado spinoffs. So a few months after that, to prevent the damaged trees from getting infested with bugs in their weakened state, we had our place logged and replanted including planting over the pastures. Our place was done by a professional timber management company called Parker Forestry Consultants.

They start by logging the areas that have marketable timber. The land between our dirt road and the branch that runs along the edge of the property was heavily wooded and that is where most of the timber came from. This was tough for my wife because she grew up here and had played in those woods as a kid. They do let you mark any trees you wish to keep, but you can grow 15-20 pines in the area that one oak or beech tree might take.
The back ten acres of our place is covered with what they call "pasture pine". That's where pine trees have grown up in a field without being properly planted or thinned. They are close together and will grow slow and small, and won't get much bang for the buck. Although I recently put an ad on craigslist and it seems I might be able to get it cleared even if we can't get any money for the trees.
I had expected that the day they were going to start I would see a bunch of dudes with chainsaws, but that was not to be. The loggers came with a huge cutting machine that would grab the tree, cut it and then they could move a hundred-foot pine tree while it is still straight up in the air. It didn't take long.

Afterwards a couple of guys came out with small bulldozers and couple of gallons of gasoline. I remember driving out that morning and it was like driving through a forest fire. They cut fire breaks around everything with the dozers and torched everything: stumps, rotted logs, etc. They even knocked down an old camp house for us and torched it too.

They spent a few days driving around on 4 wheelers making sure that the fire wasn't spreading outside the fire breaks, and in the end the land looked like there had been a war. They left two trees we had flagged, and they left about twenty feet of timber on each side of the creeks (I am not sure why but they weren't allowed to cut it), and they left the huge trees right around the house. The ones by the house they had to leave because their insurance doesn't cover the logging company if they are within 150 feet of the house.

All of that happened in October of 2005, and by February of the next year they were ready to plant. It went much quicker than expected. In a few days, eighty acres was freshly planted in neat rows about six feet apart. They had tried to use a machine to plant the pasture land, but the machine got stuck--three times--so they gave up on the machine and instead brought a crew of about five guys who walked around with big tree-backpacks planting their seedlings. It was like Johnny Appleseed, but with pines. Then they sprayed each sapling to keep all the other stuff from growing around it. The land looked polka-dotted. I wish I had an arial photo from those couple of weeks.
Now we are cooking with gas. A slow, long-burning gas that takes twenty years to cook up a crop a trees. Growing managed trees on places like ours gives timber companies a place to get trees besides public land and old-growth forests. This is how we got a goverment grant to cover some of the cost of replanting.

The U.S. goverment established this grant system to encourage rural landowners like us to replant their land with timber. They paid 75% of the cost replanting the previously forested areas and 50% of the cost of planting the pasture lands. The nice thing about this is they have an interest in making sure it grows well. For the first year or two a guy from the Natural Resource Conservation Service would come by out here once a month checking on the little fellows.

They have been growing for a few years and it will be long time before they are ready to cut again. In a few years they should be pretty again and, as the trees choke out the grass and weeds, it will make the property more enjoyable.

I spoke to a guy from the Forest Service a few days ago. They will be able to give us more ideas for use and conservation on our little plot o' dirt. I am interested in finding out more about the Carbon Credit program which is apparantly where you get paid for the trees breathing. This, I gotta hear.

Friday, April 24, 2009

I can almost taste 'em

The garden is growing well. I am not sure what is growing faster: the vegetables we planted or the weeds that were already there. Almost everything has survived the frost, the flooding rain and my inexperience. Only one row had nothing at all come up and I weeded that this afternoon so we can replant it on Sunday.

The tomatoes and pepper plants are at least twice the size that they were when we bought them. Maybe next year we will start some from seeds, but you have to start very early in the season in order to get them big enough to transplant on time.

I went up to the crumbling barn that lies along the edge of our property, and inside was a pile of sixteen-foot-long pieces of 3/4 inch pvc. This was a big score. I dragged a bunch out and now I can cut them into four-foot pieces to use as tomato stakes. Cages would be nice but there is no way we could fork out the cash. We might as well use whatever we can find around here. There is plenty of old junk we can use.
The sunflowers are at the very bottom of the garden in a mound along the fence. Being at the bottom, they get the most amount of water and have been growing fast. During the heavy rains that Tyler County got last weekend, they all got it hard. When it was over, we brushed the dirt off and stood each one up and tucked a leaf into the fence to support them. They have made a great comeback. These are extra special because our kids planted them and are very excited about them getting big. We will try to keep the seeds and dry them out for a tasty snack.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

We're sticking to It

While some people get ideas from great literature or history, I got mine today from a stick.

Not uncommon for me.

Inside our garden we had originally laid out some soaker hoses. In order to get them to lay straight, we needed stakes to use as hose guides. I had taken my hatchet and cut off some branches from a a hurricane victim, a downed black walnut tree not far from the house.

Well, we had to give up on using the soaker hose because we couldn't afford to buy enough to cover all the rows. (That should give you an idea of how broke-ass we are.) We returned said hoses to Walmart, but left the stakes in place. Yesterday, we noticed that they were actually still growing. Not just one, but they all had little shoots of new growth. Weird, huh?

So today when I got home from work I went outside to water the garden. Of course I was outside for a while, because I found out that one of our ratcheting sprinklers doesn't ratchet any more. Itwas a few years old, so that loss was not too bad.

Anyway, I got my trusty hatchet. I love the hatchet. I just feel so woodsy when I am chopping stuff. I want a really nice one from Lee Valley tools, but they cost a ton. I hacked off a new branch from the walnut tree and trimed the bark off the bottom five or so inches. I filled a coffee container with a mix of regular dirt and potting soil and inserted said branch.

OK, I am well aware that this sounds ridiculous, but who knows, maybe it will actually grow. I know that for it to have any chance, it will need lots of water, maybe some fertilizer and probably a miracle.

Here's a picture of our lettuce from the container garden on the porch. Both of our girls ate it in their salad last night. They were balking at the prospect of a little rabbit food for dinner, but when we gave them the old "Hey, you helped grow this," their mouths were soon full of green stuff. If you're wondering, yes, that is a tub from an old washing machine.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Garden soup

The rain was so heavy today--I think we got something like 3 1/2 inches of rain today, and that doesn't include the 2 inches from yesterday's storm. Water was running like small streams across the grass and through the garden. The yard was completely underwater, and looked like a lake.

Our garden lies on a slope that heads down toward a small spring-fed branch running along the edge of our property. When I tilled the garden and put in a little fence, I had piled up the soil around the the bottom of the fence on all 4 sides, so we could use the fence to trellis some of the veggies like cukes and gourds. The mounded-up soil on the downhill side of the garden was keeping the water in and creating a small lake. The watermelon sprouts where completely underwater.

Can you see where I'm heading with this?

I had to go out into the rain and the mud, wearing a rain jacket, my boxer shorts and a pair of my wife's slip-on sandals.

The ground was so wet that I was sinking straight into the lawn. I trudged over to the bottom edge of the garden thinking "OK, hardly anyone actually gets hit by lightning." Of course, it's probably the guy who is out in a lightning storm holding a big metal trenching shovel that gets juiced by a couple thousand volts.

I cut three trenches and let the water drain. The center of the garden is lower than the outside so I used the dirt from the trench to make a little burm to keep the water out of the center.
After twenty minutes or so I was soaked but the water was draining and our pond was no more. A few plants had to be sacrificed and the drenching will probably kill some more, but all we can do now is wait. In the morning we will assess the damage.

Here's the score so far, based on a freeze and two floods: Nature, 3. Gardeners, 0. Mama Nature is laughing at us, and I'm thinking there's more of a learning curve to country living than I had previously thought.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Signals from outer space

It is pouring rain here.

Not a little drizzle, certainly not a smattering of rain: This is a full-blown downpour.

We should get between four and six inches of rain today. This, of course, is followed by the usual tornado watch, massive thunder storms, very likely power outage and more of the same tomorrow, but so far, I can still get an internet signal.

If you are used to living in a town or a big city, your internet options are plentiful. You can choose from cable, DSL, or even the dreaded dial-up. But out here, there's nothing. Even the phone lines are so old that with a dial-up, our service is even slower than its normal snail's pace.

When we first moved in, a guy from Sprint came out to fix a few old phone lines right at the house. So I asked if DSL was an option for us. He just laughed and said that, in order for the company to run the line, it has to be going somewhere. We are literally the last house on the line. The power and phone lines stop here. I guess that means so do the improvements.

After going without internet for a while and jonesing like a true internet junkie missing out on all the free samples of cat food and cheesy YouTube videos, we got HughesNet.

I gotta be honest, they're not happy with me right now because I need to pay my bill, but I can't complain about them. We have gotten a signal in terrible weather even though they tell you it will go out during storms.

Even after Hurricane Rita we received a signal and didn't have to have a service call until the roofers took it off and then put it back on. The wind hadn't hurt it at all.

We pay around sixty-five or seventy dollars a month for their lowest speed, and it is just a tiny bit slower than our cable connection was in Las Vegas.

The only problem is their Fair Access policy, which only allows you to upload and download a certain amount of data in a twenty-four-hour period. If you go over the limit, they jack up your connection for twenty-four hours. To be fair, however, we have only gone over the limit a few times in the five years we have had service with them. For the most part, HughesNet gives quick and reliable service.

If anyone is wondering, I was not paid or asked to write this (which is too bad, because I could use the money to pay my internet bill).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

There's a flood coming

So far, the weather has been good for gardening except for that little bit o'frost. We have had a quick rain followed by warm sunny days.

The plants seem to be very happy.

Of course this also means so do the weeds.

This weekend is supposed to bring three to six inches of rain to Tyler County, but we need to do more weeding desperately. Hopefully Sunday it will be dry enough to get some done.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

in the days after the frost......

Well, even with covering, a lot of we had coming up looks bad. Of course, it really didn't help that the next day had (unforecasted, thanks Weatherdude!) frost as well. The tomatoes and peppers have brown crumpled leaves that are probably plant sign language for "Hey, look at me, I'm about to freaking die!"

We are gonna wait a few days and replant. Some of the tomatoes might come back--their damage, for the most part, left the crowns of the plants intact. Cross your fingers, because I know I'm crossing mine. Next week the kids have spring break, so maybe we will have time then.

This week I need to go to the old barn on the edge of property and see if the PVC pipe that I found in there will be useable for tomato stakes.

I have a love/hate relationship with all the junk out here. The side of me that wants to be neater and tidier hates it, but the cheap guy in me likes to dig out things we can use from these piles of crap. We have used T-posts, tools, pipe, buckets. and other junk from the old garage, as well as adding old bottles and antique fishing lures to our collections.

For years, we had been trying to get rid of junk that had been piling up for years before we moved to the country...and then we moved back here and there was even MORE junk piled around... Lots of people have told me that I should dig a big hole with tractor and pile it in, but that seems like it is not really fixing the problem. When it is gone, I want it to be gone for good. I know I am the kind of lucky guy who'll find out later I have buried it right where it will have to be dug up again. Little by little we've made progress getting rid of all the clutter, but I am starting to realize that there will always be junk. It would be easy if a trash guy came every few days and took your piled-up stuff, but that's just a part of rural life you have to do for yourself.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

one night winter

Yeah yeah, I know it's a terrible picture, but of course the fancy Kodak digital camera doesn't work because it needs a new $70 battery, so I have to use my six-year-old cell phone. I haven't had service with T-mobile in four years, seeing as how their service area ends at the cattle guard about fifty yards from our front door.

Anyway, this is how our garden looked last night after a desperate attempt to cover all of the stuff coming up. We didn't have any plastic sheeting (and we're broke) so this was our only hope for salvaging the plants we've either bought or had sprout.

Using buckets and coffee cans (luckily Luci drinks a lot of coffee), we covered up all of the tomatoes and peppers. Those were the most expensive to replace so we got all those covered. The rest we covered with sheets and old jars. I do mean old; most of the jars, I dragged out of the crumbling garage behind the house. Some of these jars are probably fifty years old, so if anyone knows anything about vintage jars, let us know.

Even with the covering, some of the garden looks like it might go down. That means we will be planting again soon. Bah, humbug.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Closer everyday, but never there

I think one thing about living here is that I don't belive there will come a time when are finished with anything but, I got some of what I wanted done today. I worked on resetting the sprinklers to cover the garden, cutting stuff from the pear trees, and watering the blueberries.

Down here in Tyler county we are supposed to have nice little frost tomorrow night. SO tomorrow after work I will be ot in the garden covering up little plant after little plant so they don't die in the cold. If we had nothing planted I can assure you It would be uncomfortably hot.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Of Moles and Miracle-Gro

Just thought I would take a minute to let y'all know what's coming up in our garden.

So far, we've transplanted tomatoes, 26 total, about 8 different kinds. My wife loves to try different heirloom types, but we're limited in what we can find around here because of our location. Note to self--next year, order seeds early and try to start them in the house around mid-February. Here are the kinds we have so far:
  • Health Kick Roma (supposed to be higher in lycopene by 50%)
  • Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes
  • Golden Jubilee full-sized yellow tomatoes
  • Golden Pear tomatoes (the little yellow ones)
  • Big Beef beefsteak
  • Regular Roma tomatoes
  • Red Grape tomatoes
  • Early Girl slicing tomatoes
  • Best Boy slicing tomatoes

The transplanted peppers are also looking happy in their new home--we have sweet banana, big green bell, and red bell.

Both types of sweet corn came up, but the Chubby Checker appears not to have germinated yet. So we have about 3 half-rows to fill with something else.

Also a dud are the blackeyed peas and the purple-hull peas. Not sure what's the deal with those, but we'll give them another week and then give up and replant those two rows with something else.

Mustard greens have sprouted, as have the radishes, yellow squash, zucchini, okra, pattypan squash, acorn squash, dragon tongue beans, Ford Hook lima beans, and both the pole and bush green beans. We're also seeing a few of the watermelon seeds sprouting, and both types of cukes. And the marigolds and sunflowers that the kids planted are also coming up.

No word yet from the gourds, pumpkins, or cantaloupes. Not sure if they take longer to germinate or not.

We sprinkled some Miracle-Gro on the transplants and on the beans that had at least one set of true leaves, and on the corn. We'll see if that helps. Plans are in the works to do some fertilizing in a week or so, with some time-release fertilizer pellets.

Also, we have MOLES. I don't think I've ever even seen a mole. My mother-in-law says we need to get "peanuts" from the feed store to kill them off. So we'll be doing that fairly quickly too.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Weekend gardening plans

Collected about fifty gallons of water from this morning's downpour. At our house, the rain started pounding about 7:30 this morning (just in time for me to try and load the kids in the car, thank you very much) and was done by 8:30 or 9:00. In just that short time, the buckets filled up with about fifty gallons of water. I definitely need to refine this system so I can get more water collected and stored. We are trying to begin planning now for next year's planting, which will hopefully include a lot more fruit trees and berry bushes.

The quick rain clearing into a nice sunny day seems to be a great trend for the garden. Everything is growing well except for one type of corn, but it was seed we bought several years ago so a I am not suprised that it has not come up. My wife has bought some more tomato plants to put in place of the not-corn. We have big plans for the tomatoes. Should be putting up lots and lots of sauce this year.

The weekend will really consist of just Sunday since we have a soccer game for the kids and a parade to go to on Saturday. Here're a few things I hope to get done:

  • clear more away from the pear tree to keep the squirrels off
  • clean more of the dirt around the peach tree and possibly use some extra to form a little well around it
  • strenghten the fence with some extra wire that is out by the old garage.
  • plant the okra that I started in the house with the girls
  • plant the seeds from the cantaloupe we ate yesterday around the garden

To do in the coming weeks

  • plant some garlic
  • get mulch for around the blueberry bushes