Saturday, May 8, 2010

In with the New

For the record, the Red Sails lettuce seedlings were planted Saturday, May 8. The wire frames are for draping shade cloth over on warm days.

Here is the installation with shade cloth (an old lace curtain) in place. In the foreground are the going-to-seed Black Seeded Simpson plants.

We are still harvesting lots of lettuce and have enough on hand in the fridge to provide salads through the week. But it's not at all certain the Red Sails will reach harbor in time to make a continuous supply. What I can find out about Days to Maturity is six to seven weeks -- but is that from germination or from planting out of seedlings? I hope the former because this is not just an intellectual question. Fresh garden salads are at stake!

This Bronze Arrow seed stalk has its own spiky beauty. I will let the various lettuces go to seed and see if it's possible to establish some lettuce generations. It's always a thrill when plants start coming up on their own and it's always interesting to see which plants are willing to do that. Black Seeded Simpson seems to like our yard, but that's the only variety so far that comes up on its own.

Potatoes: 40 Days and Counting

Both sets of potatoes grew enough last week to require layers of compost and straw. For the Russian Fingerlings (at the top of the photo), it was the second application; for the Yukon Golds (lower left), it was the first. The Fingerlings are mounded up so high now in their basket planter that the whole thing looks like some kind of giant muffin with weird green decorations.

It's been forty days since planting. There's a month to go -- if all goes well -- until Fingerling potato salad, and two months to go until Yukon potato pizza. Maybe I should start X-ing off the days on the calendar. . . .

Weed of the Week: Sow Thistle

Sonchus oleraceus or Common Sow Thistle is a close cousin of lettuce and will be eaten by livestock in preference to grass. It can grow over six feet tall and it reseeds profusely, with clear plans for world domination, a fact I will attest to, having seen it first hand in this yard.

The specimen pictured above is about three feet tall and you can see the zillions of seeds about to take off in the next breeze. However, once again, I have to change my attitude now that I know more of the story behind this weed.

The Latin term "oleraceus" means "really good to eat and good for you too." Those livestock are no fools (except, of course, for the ones that like to chew on black locust bark). The plant is also called "Sow Thistle" because it was fed to lactating sows to increase milk production -- in olden times plant properties were often judged by appearances, and this plant gives off a milky sap when broken or crushed. It makes good fodder for bunny rabbits too.

The leaves are bitter, albeit tasty in salads if picked young, and the bitterness is supposedly good for you. Too late in the season now to try it out, which is something of a relief.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Lily of the Valley

My dear sister R. sent me this sweet photo on my birthday. Lily of the Valley is the flower for May. These are growing in her garden back in Virginia. She gathered them from our family home after Dad died and the house was being sold. I will think of them along with the wild violets I gathered from our front yard years ago at the time of our mother's funeral. I still have them, encased in waxed paper and pressed between the pages of a treasured hardback book. Clearly, we are both flower sentimentalists.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Runaway Lettuce

Somehow the lettuce got away from me when I wasn't paying attention. All of it is putting up seed stalks as fast as the warming days and nights will allow.

The Black Seeded Simpson is farthest along with its pretty buds -- some of which have already opened into bright yellow dandelion-like florets which will eventually turn into dandelion-like puffballs composed of tiny white parachutes with black seeds attached.

The cycle of life moves forward and any inattentive salad eaters will be left behind.

The photo above doesn't do justice to the dramatic spikes of the Bronze Arrow lettuce.

And even the Forellenschluss, which I thought was going to tide us over until I could get some replacement plants going, is putting up flagpoles and signaling its intention to turn things over to the next generation.

I've got some seedlings of Red Sails -- a slow-bolting, heat-tolerant variety -- ready to go in the ground. And there is a bed available. Time for action!

In the meantime, we can keep picking leaves from the bolting varieties, for a short time. The problem is that once the plant puts up that stalk, the number of leaves suddenly becomes finite. No longer will it simply grow more leaves to replace the ones that are harvested. All energy goes into making seeds and passing on its precious DNA.

Will there be enough leaves to last until the new plants grow! Will there be a Lettuce Gap?????

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Parliament of Bees?

We had some real excitement in our quiet yard this weekend.

The photo above, taken Sunday afternoon, shows the end result, which is the absence of a huge bee swarm that gathered there on Saturday morning. It would have been hard to photograph even when present because it was high up and hidden by the leaves. I could only see it when the wind swung the branches up and the dramatic dark mass -- about the size of an elongated basketball -- became visible. I could keep track of where it was only because of the cloud of bees that constantly surrounded it.

There seemed to be nothing unusual going on when I went out on the usual inspection tour Saturday morning. It was warm enough already for insects to be flying and I wasn't surprised to hear plenty of buzzing. I assumed the bees were busy in the locust trees.

"That buzzing is awfully loud," I thought, "the locusts must be quite a draw." Then I noticed that the whole yard was full of darting specks zooming back and forth. The movement was most intense near the plum trees -- not random specks but a whirlpool of dancing motes.

I retreated to the house, bringing trusty canine companion C. with me, and then ventured out alone to watch the show from a safe vantage point. I had heard that swarming bees are gorged with honey before they take off on their grand journey and in a very mellow mood -- not inclined to be aggressive, as they are when protecting a hive. But no need to take chances.

Over the space of half an hour the whirlpool coalesced into a solid ball hanging from a plum branch. Now what?

Call a beekeeper, of course. Through previous adventures with hornets I've learned that the county beekeepers association is a wonderful group of volunteers who will help out when called. From a long list I picked Richard Wallenstein of the Lavender Bee Farm because of the evocative picture it suggested of waving fields of lavender sonorous with bees.

He was extremely nice and willing to come anytime. Unfortunately, before the logistics were figured out the bees had moved on -- they disappeared sometime on Sunday. I regret that they will not find a haven at the Lavender Bee Farm and am disappointed at not seeing first hand the gathering in of a wild swarm. But this has been a great chance to learn about the swarming process and see at least some of it close up.

A swarm is a remarkable event. When a hive gets too populous, the old queen leads a throng of immigrants to find a new home, leaving behind some royal eggs so the remaining workers can hatch out a new queen. Thousands of bees pack themselves in around the migrant queen when she lands at a reconnoitering spot.

About fifty workers serve as scouts, canvassing the area for a good location for their new home. Each returning scout does a coded dance to convey the features of a proposed site: size, protectedness, warmth, freedom from ants -- just like minuscule real estate agents talking up closet space and local schools. The more excited the dance, the more sure the scout about the suitability of a particular place. Scouts try to convince each other to come and inspect their finds.

The group of scouts, no longer a convention of real estate agents, but a decision-making body -- a parliament of bees -- takes in all the information and mysteriously, over a period of hours or even a day or two, weighs the alternatives and makes its selection. Perhaps it's really neither a convention nor a parliament, but a dance-off? Saturday Night Fever at The Swarm!

When the choice is made the throng buzzes off to its chosen spot. Unless, of course, it is collected by an eager beekeeper.

In olden times, wild swarms were the means of gaining new hives. And the earlier in the season, the better the swarm. As an old English poem puts it:

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;
(which is evidently less valuable than a load of hay . . .)
A swarm in July isn't worth a fly.

Good luck little May 1 bees, wherever you are. You are worth a lot to me. And thanks for helping me discover Lavender Bee Farm. They give tours.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Potato Update

The Russian Banana Fingerling potatoes have grown six inches or so above the soil and it is time to hill them up. In this case it means adding a layer of compost and a layer of straw to the planting basket. Easily done when the materials are on hand.

Meanwhile the Yukon Gold potatoes are coming along. The sprouts which were just peeking out of the soil last week have formed sturdy little clusters of dark green leaves.

Weed of the Week: Mallow

As far as I can determine, this ubiquitous weed, commonly called Mallow, is malva parviflora, also picturesquely known as Cheeseweed because the seeds look just like tiny wheels of cheese. Although the malva family is large and there are many types of mallows, the identification photos look just the same as the ones I took in our backyard except for some expected variation in the color of the tiny blossoms.

The ones in our yard are pale lavender.

There is a lot of interesting lore about this plant, or some type of mallow known to the ancients. It is supposedly edible and Herodotus spoke of it as part of his diet. It was planted on graves as a gesture of respect because it was such a perfect plant.

In our yard it is treated quite differently: I pull it up whenever I see it unless it is tangled in with the arugula or unless I'm busy elsewhere and the weeds gain the advantage. That's the only way the plants get as big as the one pictured above, which is about two feet tall.