Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas gift ideas for the gardener

If you want to buy gardening-related gifts this year, buy some useful tools or garden ornaments at your local garden center or at online retailers like Gardener’s Supply Company, at

I love my Fiskars® loppers and clippers.  Although they are more expensive than cheaper brands, they work better than any I have ever used and they have replaceable parts.  Fiskars® bypass loppers cut branches up to two inches in diameter and can remove branches or small trees that might otherwise require a chainsaw.

After using a friend’s electric chainsaw this past summer, I would like an electric chainsaw.  Of course, they won’t cut thick trees, but they will cut trees and branches that even the best lopper can’t slice. 

With an electric chainsaw, I can cut the branches when I want to, without having to wait for someone to do the work for me.  Electric chainsaws weigh less than their gasoline counterparts do, making them manageable for me, and they start when you push the button so there’s no need to struggle to crank them.  They tether you to an electrical outlet, but an extension cord reaches most areas near my home.
Gardeners might also appreciate portable greenhouses and cold frames for season-extension, available from Gardner’s Supply Company, or a permanent greenhouse or cold frame if your budget allows the cost.  The armchair gardener, or any gardener who enjoys reading, will devour books or magazines on farming or gardening. 

I always need gloves because I lose them or wear them out.  My husband bought me a pack of gloves that have a nylon shell with nitrile coating.  The nitrile is thin enough to allow my fingers to grasp small seedlings, but it’s tough enough to protect my hands. 

Maybe the gardener on your gift list needs a new rake, or the wheelbarrow he or she uses is either rusting or is too small.  Growers of vegetables also need buckets and baskets in which to harvest produce; just make sure they are functional and not so pretty or expensive the gardener will be afraid to get them dirty.  Some discarded 5-gallon plastic buckets are useful for carrying produce, leaves, soil, water, and other gardening supplies. Seed-starting season comes soon after Christmas, and maybe the gardener needs seeds, seed starting mixes, pots, a set of grow lights, or plant labels.

Gardeners may appreciate some sturdy, water-resistant shoes to wear in the garden, or they may want kneeling pads, raised beds, or other devices designed to help elderly or disabled gardeners continue gardening.  Perhaps your elderly grandmother had to give up gardening because she can no longer bend and kneel; a bed raised to waist level might allow her to resume her hobby.

Flower and vegetable beds can always use another application of compost and mulch; buy a truckload and help the gardener spread it.  Sharpen and oil tools; they become dull and ineffective with repeated use and the gardener will appreciate a tool with a like-new edge.  Perhaps the gardener on your list would appreciate your going through their storage area, with their permission, and removing trash like empty bags and broken pots, organizing the tools, and sweeping up spilled soil.    

Folks who love to garden can always find a spot in the garden for a beautiful garden ornament, bench, or trellis.  Beautiful urns, pots, and window boxes can bring color and structure to an arrangement of flowers.  Remind the garden-lover on your list that the dreary, cold weather of winter will not last all year with some inspiring gifts for Christmas.  

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Cows...chickens...rabbits...what's for dinner?

Over the past few years, my father has stopped the traditional method of growing beef cattle, where the farmer has cows and a bull, nature takes its course, and the cows have calves, which the farmer sells when they are old enough, and the next year the cycle repeats.  Now, he buys calves each fall, fattens them over the winter and spring, and sells them in the late spring or early summer, so that he has some time with no responsibilities for cattle. 

On our drive to visit my parents this past weekend, early in the morning, we passed by farms, and my girls and I noticed that the cows all faced the same direction.  In one lovely field, the frost sparkled on the grass in the morning sun and the forty black cattle all faced the same direction like soldiers on parade.
Cattle are herd animals, and in a group of mixed ages, one cow asserts herself as the “lead cow.”  She decides which way they will stand in a field, when they should go to the creek to drink water, and when they should move to a new pasture.  In my father’s fields, he has several areas of smaller pastures, and the cows rotate among them based on their daily schedule.  The bull is not really in charge, although he might discipline the cows if necessary.  Calves follow their mothers. 

My father now has a group of calves with no adult supervision, and they must figure out how to be calves with no adult direction.  They are disorganized, face all directions in the pasture when grazing, and generally behave in the way a classroom of students does when the teacher leaves.  They identify my father as the source of food, and run to him when he enters the yard.  As they mature, they’ll figure out who is in charge, but my mother says they never seem as organized as the cows in a traditional system.    

Cattle require extensive work; my father is always busy mending fences, baling hay, feeding them supplements, or working on machinery.  He mentioned that chickens give you more output for your input than nearly any other animal.  His parents had chickens that free-ranged and destroyed my grandmother’s flowerbeds until sometime in the 1960s when industrial chicken farming made it cheaper for them to buy “them old embalmed chickens,” as my grandfather called them, at the grocery store than to keep their own.  I do wonder why they preferred to eat something they referred to as “embalmed,” than a fresh chicken, but my grandmother was glad the chickens no longer dug in her flowerbeds, and I am sure they were pleased to have some relief from their farm chores.

I told my father I’d heard that rabbits produce more meat for the amount of work and feed you give them than any other animal.  I have never eaten rabbit, and I am afraid they’d become too cute to eat.  He said he missed having a good fresh wild rabbit, something he ate as a youth, and that the taste of rabbits grown in captivity didn’t compare to wild rabbit.  He seemed wistful about the taste of wild rabbit.

I asked him why he didn’t shoot a rabbit to eat now, and he said that when he got married my mother informed him that she was not going to cook any “cute little bunnies,” and, apparently, didn’t want him to either.  I can imagine my sister’s and my trauma if he’d brought home a bunny for dinner.  I guess it’s all in what you grow up with, though, because Laura Ingalls Wilder, of the “Little House” books, and many other rural children grew up hoping father would bring home a rabbit for dinner.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Look Forward to Spring by Planting Bulbs

Over the years I have lived at my home, I have tucked hundreds of bulbs into the clay soil.  Some I dug from overcrowded beds at the homes of my mother and grandmother.  I dug some out of the cow pasture where my grandmother tossed them after she removed them from her overcrowded beds.  I purchased many bulbs. 

Digging into the hard clay underneath tree roots is free aerobic exercise and weight training for me: I use a large mattock to dig the holes in the forest floor.  In the spring, swaths of white and yellow flowers reward me for my work.  My gravel driveway meanders across a creek and through some woods before it terminates at my house, and I enjoy seeing the bulbs bloom with the dogwoods in the early spring.  
Baby holding a daffodil

Originally, I planned for the bulbs to multiply and to produce wide swaths of yellow and white through the woods so that eventually yellow and white flowers would carpet the forest floor in the spring.
The bulbs have not obeyed my orders to multiply, but I enjoy the survivors.  Living among tree roots is difficult; the large trees gobble spare nutrients and water.  In my flowerbeds, however, where the bulbs are able to grow without competition from overwhelming opponents, yellow and white flowers signal the arrival of spring, and the bulbs are so happy that I need to divide them.

When I plant bulbs, I dig a hole about twice the length of the bulb, and I space the bulbs three to six inches apart.  In new beds, I put in some bone meal, an organic source of the potassium bulbs need.   I put the bulb in the soil with the pointed side up, and I cover it with soil and mulch.  After the blooms fade, I allow the foliage to die naturally; bulbs obtain nutrients through their leaves to support the next year’s flowers.
Baby trying to eat a daffodil

Although it’s a little late to plant bulbs this year, there’s still time, and garden centers have bulbs for sale.  I finished planting my garlic this past weekend; it’s also late to plant garlic, but I followed the same method of planting I did for the flower bulbs and I expect a harvest in the summer.  Many gardening recommendations to plant bulbs in September are written for gardeners who live where the ground freezes and prohibits gardening during the winter.

No babies actually ate any daffodils, although they wanted to taste them, of course.