Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spring is Here

Spring has arrived in the garden:  we have had several meals of asparagus, and my daughter has picked the first ripe strawberry, a blessed event she's been waiting for since last spring.  The chickens lay an egg nearly every day, which means we take deviled eggs to family gatherings and share eggs with others.  The apple trees are blooming, as are the blueberries and dogwoods.

If I do say so myself, the garden is beautiful.  The potatoes have sent up their beautiful green shoots, as yet unmolested by potato beetles.  Spears of asparagus poke out of the mulch and stand tall among the peas.  Broccoli and cabbage plants reach toward the sun, and little beet and carrot sprouts stand in rows. 

I have nearly finished mulching the garden, and weeds are under control.  The weather is still relatively cool, although it's warm for this time of year.  The plants aren't showing the exuberant growth of summer where I can barely walk because of the tangled flurry of vines and leaves. 

I am visiting my parents' house near Spartanburg, SC.  Their garden, like mine, has suffered the effects of drought over the past few years, and the last time I visited their house, winter had browned the grass and made the plants dormant.  Now, clouds of green grass in the pastures keeps the cows happy, and the spring flowers stand tall above their bed of mulch and appreciate the regular rain they have been getting.  Azaleas are in bloom, and spring is here.  I just try not to think too much about the hot, dry, weather that will be here soon.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Save Seeds from your Grandparents

Last week, I sowed tomato and pepper seeds in flats of potting soil, and they are busy germinating inside my house under grow lights.  I haven’t seen any green leaves sprout above the soil’s surface yet, but I expect to see some soon.

My mother and my aunt have been cleaning out my grandmother’s house, and they rescued some seeds from a dark closet where they have been sitting for nearly 20 years.  I sowed some of them thickly along with my new seeds.  I know, I know, there’s no way they’ll germinate because they are so old, but I could not resist trying to germinate seeds of “Frank Carruth’s tomatoes,” “yellow tomatoes,” and “Moon and Stars Watermelon.” 

Thrifty children of the Depression, my grandparents used the payment envelopes that came with their power bill to store the seed.  According to my aunt, the Frank Carruth, for whom my grandparents named the tomatoes, owned a furniture store in the South Carolina town, Landrum, where they lived.  People knew him for his “green thumb,” and he accepted payments for the power company, where my grandmother paid her bill. 

Although I don’t know exactly how my grandmother got the original seeds, I like to imagine him handing over some seeds, a plant, or a few tomatoes, with her change from paying the power bill, and admonishing my grandmother to save some seed for the next year’s garden.  According to my uncle, the seeds are a German Pink tomato, and Mr. Carruth might have brought the seeds to the US from Germany after he finished his military service in World War II. 

The variety still exists in heirloom seed catalogs and my uncle thinks he has some seeds in his freezer he’ll give me.  Seed companies like Seed Savers Exchange,, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds,, were started with seeds people found and wanted to preserve.  Heirloom seeds have a story, like that of the Frank Carruth tomatoes; no scientist made them in a laboratory. My favorite seed company, out of Anderson, Heavenly Seed,, carries many heirloom, open-pollinated seed varieties as well as hybrid seed that do well in South Carolina.

In hopes of preserving seeds from the very plants my grandparents grew, I’ll plant these seed and see what happens.  As I open the envelopes carefully labeled with my grandparents’ handwriting, I remember working with them in the garden, imagine what might have been happening when they removed those seeds from that tomato to save.  Unfortunately, I was busy with high school and away at college during most of the gardening years from which those particular seed were saved, and even when I visited, I was not very interested in gardening.   As I save seed from the plants in my garden, I hope I can build a library of seed that will outlive me.
If you haven’t ordered seeds or started seeds for the spring and summer, it’s not too late.   Begin sowing the seeds of peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and warm season herbs inside, even though you won’t be able to set them out into the garden for another six weeks or so.  Wait to sow seeds of beans, corn, squash, and other summer vegetables directly outside in the garden in early-to-mid April.   We have plenty of time, so look at some seed catalogs or websites, and start a garden with a story yourself

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Easter Egg Hunt was Early This Year Thanks to Chicken Antics

One of my Americana hens decided she wants to be a mama.  Lacking a rooster husband, she will not be able to fulfill her dream, but her chicken brain does not realize this minor detail will prevent motherhood.  Her desires led us on an early Easter egg hunt for her beautiful blue-green eggs. 

She stopped laying eggs during the fall, but in mid-January, I saw her sitting on the nest inside the coop,  and I planned to check on her later to see if she had laid an egg.  She let me know about her egg-laying success with a cacophony of cackling that went on so long I checked on her to make sure she was okay.  Unlike the peaceful clucking depicted in children’s books, this was a cackle, a “BA-aaaCK!” which she repeated for five or ten minutes until she was sure all the other chickens knew about her egg.
I keep them inside a portable fence, made of electrified netting, that I move regularly.  I don't let them free range because of the threat of predators and the mess they create.

My chicken was proud of her egg, so proud that on subsequent days, she flew out of the pen by flapping her way from the roof of the house across the fence and away from the other chickens to roam the yard to find places to lay her eggs.   My daughters came looking for me, yelling, “There’s a chicken under the playhouse!”  Because of the low clearance under the structure, we couldn’t get her out, and I told them she’d leave when she was ready to leave.  I looked for eggs, and couldn’t see any under there.  For weeks, this hen got out of the pen nearly every day.   I should have trimmed her wings but I never managed to find the time to clip the flight feathers, which does not hurt the chicken, to keep her from flying over the fence.

One reason I don't let my chickens freely range is that they make a mess of the flowerbeds

After yet another escape a few weeks ago, I looked under the playhouse and saw a cache of eggs.  At first, I thought there were five or so, but as I removed them, I kept seeing more eggs.  Eventually I removed 13 eggs from under the playhouse, making it the most exciting egg hunt I have ever attended.  My daughters enjoyed seeing the enlarging pile of eggs, colored a perfect Easter egg blue.
Some of the eggs I nestled among the blooming thrift as if hidden for Easter

When chickens decide to go “broody,” or decide they want to hatch some babies, they collect eggs in a nest until they believe they have enough, and then they sit on the eggs for the several weeks it takes to hatch the eggs.  My hen hadn’t accumulated enough eggs to suit her, apparently, because she left the nest to return to her house after she laid the eggs.

It doesn’t matter to the hen if there is a rooster or not, but of course the eggs won’t hatch unless a rooster fertilizes them.  Maybe, when my girls are old enough to escape an angry rooster, we’ll get one.  Seeing the life cycle would be interesting.

Everyone wants to know if we ate the eggs.  We tested their freshness by putting them in a glass of water; if they sink, they are fresh, and if they float, they are not fresh.  All the eggs sank, and we are eating them.  It was winter when this happened, and although we’ve had some cold nights we have had plenty of days in the sixties and seventies. 

Eggs are designed to hatch, and the chicken won’t sit on them regularly until she’s accumulated a pile of sufficient number, so the eggs from which chickens hatch under natural circumstances may have sat in their Mama’s nest for weeks before she began to incubate them.  In modern agriculture, where farmers ship eggs across the country by tractor-trailer, constant refrigeration is necessary.

My hen is now back inside her pen with the other chickens.  I enlarged the pen and moved the house away from the fence, and she seems content.  I remove all the eggs every day; she’s less likely to try to have more babies than if she were able to keep eggs in a nest.   Of course, with chickens, you just never know what they will do next. 
The escaped chicken, returned home and dust-bathing