Archive for January, 2009

Welcoming Home the New Family Pet

Friday, January 30th, 2009

I’ve wanted a worm bin for a while, but it was never an urgent issue. It’s not as though we don’t have a compost pile. For as long as I can remember, we’ve composted all of our food scraps. In fact, when I was a kid, I didn’t know what a garbage disposal was. I distinctly remember visiting a friend’s house and asking where they kept the compost bucket. The way I understood it, throwing food into the kitchen sink was a BAD thing. Imagine my surprise when she flipped a switch, and the sink ATE the table scraps! At the time, I probably thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I’ve since gotten over it.

College was a different story. No one composted in the dorms. There were no places for compost piles at any of the various apartments I rented. I was vaguely aware of worm composting as an option, but I really didn’t think much about it. I was too busy making sure I got to band practice on time. Yes, I was a band geek.

Then I moved to Austin, Texas, where my brother and I shared an apartment for three years. Geoff kept a community garden plot, but there was no place in the apartment complex to keep a compost pile. Geoff decided to try worm composting, and he had some degree of success using five gallon plastic buckets that he kept out on our balcony. He also made me read Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Appelhof. It was a very informative book and a pretty good read, but still I didn’t really pay much attention to Geoff’s worms or his garden plot. I was too busy working two jobs.

When I started working for CobraHead, my interest in worms began to grow. I attended garden shows and Green Festivals, and I would see stackable worm composting systems like the Worm Factory and the Can-O-Worms. I thought they were great products, but by then I was back at my parents house. We didn’t need a worm bin – we had a compost pile (several, actually).

But then, it happened.

My best friend got a worm bin. And the worm bin was cool.

When I visited, I would ask Kelly how the worms were doing. “Can I feed them? Can we call them Squiggly?” Yes, I named her worms Squiggly. All of them. It’s not like we were going to try to keep track of individual worms, so the whole bin became Squiggly. I was so fond of Kelly’s worms that I regarded them as another pet. And I wanted my own.

I finally got around to ordering my worm bin a little while ago, and Kelly was kind enough to give me some of her worms. I decided I’d better come up with a name other than Squiggly, and Squiggly II seemed a bit unimaginative. It’s been a few weeks, and I’ve finally settled on name.

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Phil.




Nice. Hello, Phil.

I too have been kicking around the idea of a worm bin. Here in Utah our weather at 4,000 feet goes to extreme near zero in winter and over 100 at least 6-10 days in summer. So, placement and good insulation is my biggest concern. One of these days I will get started, probably when I least expect it I’ll find myself buying a bin and off we will go.

Good luck to all your Phils, I look forward to seeing how they all do.
# Posted By Greg W | 1/31/09 9:29 PM

We’re no strangers to extreme weather here in Wisconsin. Two weeks ago, it got down to -17F. Summers aren’t quite so bad, but it can get into the 90s. I’ve got the worm bin in the basement right now, and that’s probably where I’ll keep it year round. My friend Kelly actually keeps hers in her kitchen (in her 2nd floor apartment). This particular bin has a reasonably small footprint, so it’s not too hard to find a corner to stash it.
# Posted By Anneliese | 2/1/09 2:34 PM

Ant Gardeners

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

On Monday afternoon I went out to my garden to harvest spinach and chard for the evening meal. However, I discovered some friends who were also helping themselves to the spinach and devastating the beets: Texas Leaf Cutting Ants (Atta texana.) I hadn’t noticed any sign of them the previous morning, but in less than a day they had eaten about one third of my beets to the ground and severely damaged the rest.

Initially panicked and upset about the rapid loss of my one of my favorite vegetables, I couldn’t help being fascinated by these creatures as I observed their hard work. The ant formation carried off pieces of leaf ranging in size from a dime to a nickel. The leafcutting ants are fellow gardeners who use the leaves as food for fungus that they raise back in the mound.

I was unable to find their nest with my initial observations. However, according to the Texas Extension, the ants will travel up to 600 feet from their mound in search of green matter, so it is quite possible that their home base is not in my yard. Some colonies may contain as many as two million ants, but I think that I am dealing with a much smaller settlement.

After about 45 minutes of awe and respect I decided to try to protect what was left of my beets. I dusted them with diatomaceous earth, hoping to at least create a physical barrier between the tender leaves and the ant mandibles. I can’t yet say whether or not the DE worked, because that night the temperature dropped to near freezing and has stayed cool all week. The ants are not generally active at temperatures below 45 degrees.

Amazing. That’s exactly how my chard and spinach look this year, and early on it seemed like there was an insect to blame, but I’ve eventually come around to blaming the squirrels.

Do these tend to come around during the day, or night?
# Posted By Kelly | 1/29/09 9:11 PM

I noticed the ants about an hour before sunset, but judging by the damage they had already been there for a while.
# Posted By Geoff | 1/30/09 6:31 PM

Edible Estates

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Last January the Arthouse at the Jones Center here in Austin hosted an exhibit by architect Fritz Haeg called Attack on the Front Lawn. The hands-on installation presented examples of projects from Los Angeles to London to South Austin that transformed front yards into food gardens.

The presentation inspired a couple of good friends of mine, Courtney Morris and Martin Perna, to rip out the front yard of their East Austin home and fill it with vegetables. Last February the yard – before the gardens – had several established trees but not much topsoil.

Martin has a gift for inviting his friends over to perform hard labor and somehow making it into a party. We engaged in a series of wheelbarrow races, quickly emptying a truckload of compost into the newly created garden beds while Courtney removed some of the remaining weeds.

The partial shade in the front yard inhibits the growth of fruiting crops such as tomatoes, but has proved to be an excellent location for kale and other greens. The summer canopy provides some relief from Austin’s intense summers.

By October, the garden had come into its own.

Luckily, Courtney and Martin have an ample backyard with room for the rest of their garden and chickens. However, in the same spirit of the Fritz Haeg gardens, their front yard garden has led to conversations with neighbors about gardening and food.

Geoff and friends at Cobrahead. Thanks for the love and support in setting up our garden. We’re off to Nicaragua in February and are taking our short-handled Cobraheads with us down there for future garden adventures…gotta make sure not to pack it in my carry-on, though!
# Posted By Martin Perna | 1/21/09 3:47 PM

We began the conversion of our front yard into a bountiful garden last year. It isn’t providing a significant amount of square footage, only 500 or so, but the strawberries are prolific with a few dozen heads of garlic over wintering.

For anyone who are going to be living in there home for more than a few years, tearing up the front yard and putting in food is a great investment. It is also a great conversation piece for when friends and family stop by. Inspire by example!
# Posted By Scott | 1/22/09 8:32 PM

As an Arthouse employee, I loved reading this post! It’s extremely gratifying when the work we do – through the artists we commission – makes a direct impact on someone’s life. Art and culture do matter – and thanks so much for sharing your experience. I’ve forwarded to Fritz.
# Posted By Jenn Gardner | 1/26/09 5:12 PM

The Miracle of Dried Vegetables

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

As I used a handful of our fantastic dried tomatoes in last night’s veggie sauté it brought to mind the very thought provoking book that I read a couple years ago by Barbara Kingsolver, ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life’. This is a story of how the Kingsolvers lived and ate as locally and as seasonally as possible growing much of their own food and raising their own animals. My local book club recently discussed this so I had the opportunity to re-read and enjoy it a second time.

We’ve been gardening for decades (did I really say decades?). We’ve dried and used all kinds of vegetables but I was re-inspired to dry lots more tomatoes (in a food dehydrator) and use them in many different ways after reading her book.

I’ve always made lots of sauces and salsas and either canned or frozen the end result. The over abundant small cherry and yellow pear tomatoes were usually sieved and cooked down into paste. What wasn’t used in the salsa was frozen into ice cube trays and then bagged up for use as flavorings in soups, etc.

While my tomatosicles still come in very handy we’re using more and more of the dried tomatoes on pizzas and pastas, in sandwiches and soups – you name it, and for just pennies.

If you get the chance ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’ is a very readable book and may inspire you just a little bit.

I loved Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I’ve never had enough produce to consider canning, dehydrating, etc., but I do have one cherry tomato plant, some rosemary and some basil that make me very happy! So far, the cherry tomato and the basil have been very good about self-propagation, and I now have three cherry tomato seedlings!
# Posted By Dreamybee | 1/19/09 10:14 PM

CobraHead is Now on Twitter!

Friday, January 16th, 2009

In an effort to keep up with the times, CobraHead has set up a Twitter account. The rest of the CobraHead team has appointed me the designated Twitterer, and I’ve already started posting updates.

Feel free to follow us at I will post occasional tweets about gardening, events we’re attending, and the occasional link or story that I think others might be interested in. I promise not to inundate you with lots of random or pointless updates.

GBBD Update — I Found One!

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

I have some blooms after all! The flowers on our potted Tradescantia are so small that you can’t even see them unless you’re quite close. Seriously, that little flower is barely over 1/4″ across. I had quite a bit of trouble getting my camera to focus on it.

I’ll be honest though, I’m still more excited about the sweet potato buds.

Way to go! Every little flower helps.
# Posted By Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening | 1/15/09 8:24 PM

Thanks Kathy! That Tradescantia is one of a number of plants in our sun room, and I can’t say it gets a lot of love. I guess that’s why it’s so surprising to find it blooming!
# Posted By Anneliese | 1/15/09 11:20 PM

What a little flower!!
# Posted By Darla | 1/16/09 2:27 PM

Hey, a real flower! That looks kind of like the tiny blooms on the Tradescantia geniculata growing in my woodland border – but I haven’t managed to get as good a closeup Anneliese!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose
# Posted By Annie in Austin | 1/16/09 3:32 PM

Yes, they’re really quite tiny — that’s why I didn’t realize they were there!

I don’t know what the species or variety name of this Tradescantia is. The label was taken out of the pot a long time ago. I’m actually surprised I even remembered the name "Tradescantia". I think it’s because I looked it up when we first got the plant.

It took a few tries to get the pictures to come out OK. I had to fiddle with my camera’s settings so it wouldn’t automatically focus elsewhere. I worked hard to keep my hands steady!
# Posted By Anneliese | 1/16/09 5:18 PM

I have a terrible time trying to get my camera to focus in on little things like that too-good job getting that picture! I would be totally excited about the sweet potato buds too, I definitely think that counts!
# Posted By Dreamybee | 1/18/09 6:37 PM

Does This Count as a Bloom?

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

I have never participated in Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day for a few reasons. First of all, I’m an infrequent blogger, and remembering to post on the same day each month never felt like an important priority. Also, I travel a lot, especially in the spring during garden show season, so I’m not always around to see what’s coming up outside. And probably most importantly, I don’t really care that much about flowers. I know, sacrilege!

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I like flowers. I’ve just never really bothered to worry about what’s blooming on any specific date. I’m more concerned about what’s being harvested and eaten. On that note, does anyone know if there’s an edible equivalent to GBBD? Would it be called Garden Blogger’s Harvest Day?

There are certainly a number of months when there is no activity whatsoever happening in the garden, but we continue to enjoy the summer and fall harvest throughout the winter and even into the spring. I’d be happy to report on that.

Oh, and if you hadn’t figured it out, the picture above is a sweet potato with a few leaf buds emerging. Over the next few months, those buds will get bigger and leafier. They’ll eventually be cut off so they develop their own roots, and finally we’ll transplant them into the garden. You can read more about the process here.

It is hard to remember to post on paticular dates.
I do believe that potato qualifies, LOL!
# Posted By Darla | 1/15/09 10:20 AM

Thanks, Darla! It was -14F this morning, and everything outside is under a thick blanket of snow. We have a few houseplants, but I figured the budding sweet potato was the most interesting and the closest to an actual bloom.
# Posted By Anneliese | 1/15/09 10:58 AM

I totally understand. I’m more into the vegetables too. But I figure I devote 29 days to my veggies and one to my flowers – OK maybe a couple more, but mostly veggies.

As to memes that are veggie related. started one in the fall. She wanted to post one every Monday and invite others to also. The fall is probably not the best time to start such a meme since in a lot of the US we quit harvesting then, and I’m sure Ottawa is not much different. However I’m hoping it takes off in the spring. It would be a nice way to bring vegetable gardeners together.
# Posted By Daphne | 1/15/09 12:48 PM

Daphne, thanks so much for the link. I was hoping someone could point me in the right direction.

I can’t say I’ll devote a day a month to writing about blooming flowers, but I’ll let you know right now that I plan to start paying more attention to them.
# Posted By Anneliese | 1/15/09 1:28 PM

The purple sprouts are as colorful as some flowers, Anneliese – it counts for me! Stay warm if you can – my son told me the high in Chicago is -6F. Not the record, but pretty darned cold.
Happy first GBBD!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose
# Posted By Annie in Austin | 1/15/09 2:09 PM

Thanks, Annie! I thought they looked pretty cool, too. I’m doing my best to stay inside today — at least it’s sunny.

I see that you have quite a lot of color down there in Austin! I was in your neck of the woods just last month, and we had a lovely 80F day.
# Posted By Anneliese | 1/15/09 2:36 PM

I had never participated in Bloom Day before either, but it has been fun to bounce (virtually) around the world and see what people have come up with in a usually not very bloomsome time. I like the sweet potato buds, I think they count! I’m going to read your method for sprouting/planting them, I don’t know if I can grow them here in Seattle but I’d like to try if so. They are my favorite spud.
# Posted By Karen | 1/15/09 7:45 PM

Thanks for visiting, Karen. We’re in zone 4b here in Southern Wisconsin. We’re able to extend the growing season for sweet potatoes by starting the plants indoors and then using black plastic sheeting over the raised bed where we plant them to keep the soil warmer. I’m hopeful that in the future we can find a more environmentally friendly alternative to the plastic, but for now it seems to be the best method for us.
# Posted By Anneliese | 1/15/09 11:34 PM

In January, an Old Man’s Fancy Turns to Seed Catalogues

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

It was about 20º F when I took this picture of the garden yesterday afternoon. The snow has covered up the precise delineation of the beds. I’m looking north. The raspberries are to the left. I won’t cut those back until late February. In the back center are the dried asparagus fronds in the north beds. Those aren’t cut back until a March thaw takes away the snow.

We’ve had about three feet of snow so far, but thaws have taken the snow depth back to only about a foot. Under the snow, the beds are covered in leaves. For now, I have no worries about weeds or insects. The prevailing garden issues are what new seeds to order and when do I plant my starts.

There are many excellent catalogues out there. We sell our garden tools to about fifteen seed catalogues and it would be good business if I could give all our customers some seed orders, but I’m only buying from two. That’s to keep things simple, but it’s also based on my gardening philosophy.

I’ve saved seeds almost as long as I’ve gardened. My mother and our great gardening neighbor Mrs. Martin saved seeds. For them it was an economic decision, but seed saving connects us to the cycle of life as much as anything. For tomatoes, peppers, beans and many other crops, it is close to foolproof. Cross-pollination almost never occurs. I’ve had good luck with pumpkin and squash, although those apparently are riskier. I’ve never tried to protect the blossoms or segregate crops, but I’m not re-selling my seeds, so purity is not imperative.

Many herbs also lend them selves easily to seed saving. Cilantro, dill, anise hyssop, and lemon balm are all close to weed-like in their seed propagating abilities. However, for some plants, seed saving is an elaborate and time-consuming process – alliums and coles for example. I’ve saved them, but it really is easier to start anew each year. And those are some plant types where I will often grow hybrids, even though I’m an open-pollinated grower at heart.

Growing open-pollinated seeds is in a small way, a gesture against big agriculture, and if you don’t know it, big agriculture has big problems. Our agri-business farmers are locked into a very dangerous loss of plant diversity that affects the environmental health of us and the planet. Years ago there were far more varieties of vegetables grown on a commercial basis. When it comes to crops, the gene pool is shrinking, and I’m sure that is not a good thing.

My two current champions of open pollinated seeds for home growers are Fedco, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, – Fedco for their huge variety, their politics, and their excellent prices, Baker Creek for their beautiful and exotic collection of the unusual.

Fedco is a co-operative in Waterville, Maine. They’re popular with small organic farmers and they really walk-the-walk in avoiding GMO’s and those companies that try to push GMO’s.

Baker Creek is the life’s work of Jere Gettle of Mansfield, Missouri, who started his catalogue while still in high school. His company is dedicated to preserving the enormous variety of wonderful open-pollinated vegetables from around the world.

Over the next few days, I’ll take inventory of the seeds I have and go through these two catalogues to put together my 2009 seed order. I’ll also augment my starts by trading with friends, picking up some seed packs at the trade shows we do, and by buying live plants at the farmer’s market in Madison and elsewhere.

Writing about seeds is increasing my enthusiasm for the coming gardening year. This year will be the best garden I’ve ever had. Hmmm, I may have said that before.

I think, every year we plant…we plant the best garden ever…

# Posted By Nancy | 1/16/09 1:04 AM