Disaster Averted

Whew! That was close! For a week or so I’ve been irritated by the sight of what I thought was a young wild carrot, or Queen Anne’s Lace, growing up against a large rock next to our pond. Today, planting potatoes in the large garden beside the pond, I decided I’d seen it one too many times. I marched over, weed-digging tool in hand, prepared to uproot the nefarious imposter. True to my distractible nature, however, my attention was caught by a pinkish, decidedly non-carrot-like outgrowth near the base. I took a closer look…and dropped my tool in horror at my near-fatal mistake. I had nearly destroyed a bleeding-heart plant whose existence I’d completely forgotten. IMG_2812-0.JPG

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Creamy Coconut Hand Scrub

It’s that time of year when gardening hands become permanently begrimed, even through gloves, unless serious action is taken. Around this time of year, I usually mix up my first batch of simple olive oil-and-salt scrub that I keep on the kitchen sink for post-gardening clean-up. This past year, though, I’ve been less satisfied with that basic remedy, and this spring I began experimenting with a better mixture that would be creamier, more moisturizing, and easier to rinse off. I’m happy to say that I finally hit on just the right combination!

This dirt-busting scrub incorporates coconut oil and liquid hand soap, and it really is just about perfect. I use it on my hands as well as Niko’s and Sofie’s. It’s gentle enough to use on little ones, but tough enough to scour off even our iron-rich, clay-based soil. It’s also excellent for cleaning off engine grease and tree sap, and scrubbing off leftover sticky labels from jars! On my own hands, I like to use a bit extra for massaging my cuticles before rinsing it off, because the coconut and olive oils are great for giving dry cuticles a moisture boost.

The recipe I’ve given here makes a small batch. I recommend starting small until you see how fast you use the scrub, especially if you’re making it during warm summer months. It doesn’t happen often, but I have had a similar mixture turn rancid after a couple of months in a hot kitchen without air conditioning. I recently made a batch about three times this one, because our family uses it pretty fast.

I like blending salt and sugar because the crystals are different shapes and sizes, so they pack an extra punch as they get into all the crevices of hard-working hands and feet. You could experiment with other crystal sizes, like fine canning salt and coarser sea salt.  Be prepared to adjust the amounts of oil needed. It will fill in the spaces between larger and smaller crystals differently: the finer the crystals are, the more oil you’ll need.

Crystals of different sizes: fine canning salt, coarse sea salt, and table salt.
Crystals of different sizes: fine canning salt, coarse sea salt, and table salt.

To make this easy hand scrub, start by blending one tablespoon of coconut oil with 1/2 cup of salt and 1/4 cup of sugar. Blend till there are no lumps of coconut oil left, and then add 1 tablespoon of liquid hand soap and 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Blend thoroughly. It should look smooth and creamy, with maybe a little olive oil pooling around the edges if you stop stirring. The pooling is just fine — if you use less oil, it will settle below the surface, making the scrub harder to scoop.

A creamy scrub.
A creamy scrub.

Before storing the scrub in a bowl or jar with a firmly-fitting lid, you could add a few drops of essential oils for scent or for extra cleaning or healing power. My go-to oil mix is a few drops of lemon, which is a good cleanser and has a fresh, cheerful scent, and a couple of drops (not too much!) of lavender, which will soothe dry or irritated skin. With my most recent batch, I used DoTerra’s OnGuard blend, an orange-cinnamon blend that’s supposed to boost your immune system’s efficiency. The orange oil, like lemon oil, is an excellent cleaner, and the warm cinnamon smell makes it perfect for a kitchen scrub. In addition to the essential oil, if you have jojoba oil on hand, a drizzle of that will be even more moisturizing and healing for chapped skin.

An assortment of ingredients for a creamy hand scrub: olive oil, hand soap, coconut oil, salts, essential oils, and jojoba oil.
An assortment of ingredients for a creamy hand scrub: olive oil, hand soap, coconut oil, salts, essential oils, and jojoba oil.

This creamy scrub is getting some heavy use in our house! I hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Strawberries

I’m trying to restrain my hopefulness levels, but last week’s strawberry planting endeavors have me very excited.

When we moved to our new home at the end of March last year, one of the beds in the wheel-shaped garden next to the house was planted with strawberries. They were so overcrowded that the babies at the ends of the runners were sitting on top of other plants, and I worried the strawberry bed might not do well. So, with my mother-in-law’s help, I dug up about two-thirds of them and transplanted as much as we could fit into the next bed over (and gave away the rest to friends, thus sparing my conscience some pain). They seemed to adapt to their new space, but they didn’t produce as well as I’d hoped they would.

This year, that original bed was nearly as crowded as it had been last year. I decided to entirely renovate it. This time I paused to do a little research. I discovered that younger plants — the ones at the end of the runners that mature plants send out — are the ones that should be transplanted. They’re supposed to produce better than the older ones, which might be nearing the end of their productivity.

So I dug up the entire bed, lifting out all the plants and keeping them covered with burlap in a big feed container so they wouldn’t dry out. When I finished, Aaron tilled the bed for me, and then I used my handy bulb transplanter to make perfectly cylindrical holes. Niko helped me fill them with compost (a step I missed last year), and in went the babies. I’m hoping that the combination of fresh tilling, composting, and selecting the youngest plants will yield better results. I was a bit worried that they might have dried out too much while waiting for about a week for our family to recover from the flu between digging and transplanting, but now, a week after planting, they’re looking green and putting out new leaves.

But that wasn’t the end of the strawberry saga. Last year we discovered, via farmer’s markets and roadside stands, the most delicious strawberry: the Hood River strawberry. In the fall, in hopes of finding some to plant this spring, Aaron prepped two more wheel bed sections with mounds of compost covered in landscape fabric. And find some we did! We ordered them from a nearby company called One Green World and picked them up from their Plantmobile, and last weekend I planted those babies out, too.

Planting the new ones in the mounds Aaron had made was a little trickier than planting them without landscape fabric. I cut evenly spaced slits in the fabric, scrabbled around through the slits with a tiny spade to make a hole, and then attempted to place the babies into the holes. Their roots spread out, wormed upward, and made themselves into octopus-like tentacles that refused to stay put. Finally, I tried winding the delicate baby roots in a spiral around my fingers before fitting them into their small new homes. That effectively tamed them, and I was able to push the soil back over the roots without leaving any exposed. They’re looking green and perky now, putting out new leaves as they peep up above the fabric, so I think I did just fine.

The instruction sheet that came with our strawberries suggested waiting a full season before harvesting fruit, pinching off the blossoms all through the first summer. This helps the strawberries establish stronger roots. I thought that sounded like a terrible idea. Wait an entire year to enjoy fresh, juicy berries? I turned once again to my faithful friend, Google. Only one article I read mentioned waiting a year to harvest, and it was written by a nursery owner who said that she herself never does this even though it really is best. Who can resist the temptation of a crop of strawberries? Not her, and certainly not me. I haven’t that kind of fortitude. No, I have every intention of enjoying those strawberries as soon as possible.

Cody, NO GARDEN!

Our puppy, Cody, is sweet and tries so hard to be obedient. He’s pretty good about not going into the gardens to play, mostly. But he’s developed a bad habit that is having unpleasant consequences. He likes to take shortcuts across the corners of the flower beds, or take flying leaps across the raised beds next to the house. Sometimes he plants his back legs mid-garden for extra leverage, rather than going up and down the steps that are conveniently placed at intervals through the beds. Occasionally he likes to explore the garden beds with less exposed soil and more plants, especially the ones with bark mulch — maybe he thinks of them as belonging to a different, non-garden category. And his big, strong puppy paws are churning up the soil, tearing up plants, and leaving muddy paths across the corners. Not a good thing.

So I researched “puppy deterrent” and discovered that dogs really dislike citrus scents. Who knew? Not me. I considered what I could do to make the gardens citrus-scented. I was also making slug deterrents at the same time, including a cornmeal trap, and I thought: Aha! I can make scented cornmeal and scatter it around. It shouldn’t hurt the garden, and it just might keep Cody out.

I poured about three cups of cornmeal (all I had left after making slug traps) into a plastic leftovers container, and added all the citrus-scented things I could find in my cupboard. I sprinkled about three tablespoons each of TrueLemon and TrueLime powder, several drops of orange flavoring, a couple of drops of OnGuard (an essential oil blend from DoTerra with orange oil as its first ingredient), and some squirts of lime juice. I have a glass container of orange zest that I collected to use for extracting essential oil (no, I haven’t gotten it to work yet, but they make GREAT garnishes for cosmos), so I tossed some of those in. Then I sprinkled handfuls around the perimeter of all the garden areas.

It worked. Cody would trot down the gravel path, pause at the edge of the garden, sniff, and continue on his way without venturing into the garden. He still took occasional flying leaps over the raised beds, but didn’t take any more leisurely strolls through the middle of any gardens. As a helpful bonus, the slugs loved the mixture, so in the evenings I could walk along with a jar of salt water and just pick them off. Yes, it was disgusting. But it was worth braving the foulness in order to rid the world of another dozen or so slugs.

And then it rained. And Cody stopped caring about the smell, and resumed taking shortcuts through my tender crocus shoots.

I’m out of cornmeal and ideas. And after nearly a month of everyone in this household being sick, one after another as well as all at once, I’m also out of energy. So, dog people: Help! What are your tried-and-true pet deterrents that are also safe for small children? Yes, I do realize that the most logical answer is to buy a bunch more cornmeal, make a big batch of my amazing homemade Bad Puppy mix, and sprinkle it after each rain. But I’d love to hear laziness-friendly ideas, also.

The Only Good Slug Is a Dead Slug

Over the last few weeks I’ve been on a relentless crusade to eradicate slugs from our yard.

I should point out that typically I don’t enjoy killing anything. I’m filled with guilt when I swish a spider down a drain. I mourn when I find a mouse in a trap. I hesitate before flattening a fly. When I find stink bugs or moths inside, I take them outside and release them. Once upon a time, this reluctance to kill applied to slugs as well. They’re almost cute, with their dainty little horns. Their slow glide along the ground is nearly graceful as they prowl in search of food. And occasionally I’ll discover one with lovely bright colors — so close to being pretty. When we first moved to Oregon, living in a rental house with a small yard and no garden, I called Niko over to watch in amazement as a large orange-spotted slug devoured a blade of grass. I thought of them as harmless.

Sliming along a raised garden bed.
Sliming along a raised garden bed.

But now? Now I am filled with a deep passion of hatred for these destructive nibblers. Last year I saw slug-holes in my nasturtiums and basil, oregano and baby cucumbers, and I was sad. But this year, witnessing the chunks eaten out of the tops of hyacinth buds, new dwarf irises, and baby daffodils, I am enraged. Those slimy thieves are going down.

Slug-eaten iris. Last straw!
Slug-eaten iris. Last straw!

So, a couple of weeks ago, as you can read here, I set out both cornmeal and a honey-yeast mixture in jars throughout the garden, and waited.

The cornmeal was immediately effective. The slugs loved it. They didn’t seem to be immediately incapacitated by it, but they were distracted from the plants and easy to catch. The side of the jar acted as an umbrella, keeping the cornmeal dry — until we got a driving rain that splashed in. After that, it was less effective. My gardening New England aunt told me the cornmeal needs to be dry in order to catch the slugs, and the evidence in my garden certainly supports that. It seems that both water and slime from previous slugs renders the cornmeal an ineffective trap. I picked up some more cornmeal in the bulk section of the grocery store, both a coarse polenta/grits grind and a finer grind (I plan to mix them), so I’ll be making new traps soon.

Why does the cornmeal work? My knowledgeable aunt explained that, in order to move over the rough, dry cornmeal, the slugs have to produce more and more slime, so much so that they become dehydrated. Result: dead slugs.

At first, the yeast mixture was less successful. I followed the instructions in the article I’d read, boiling honey and yeast together, despite my worry that killing the yeast by boiling it would make it unattractive to the slugs. I was right. They weren’t interested in the least in the one jar I put out that first day. So, I sprinkled fresh yeast on top of the mixture that still filled the pitcher, and waited a day or so till it began to foam gently and smell pleasantly yeasty (it wouldn’t have taken so long if I’d had more yeast). I refilled the jar I’d set out and then placed more jars throughout the gardens. By the time I’d finished the last jar, the first jar already had its first prey. Victory. Next time I do this, I’ll add the yeast after the hot honey water has cooled, and add more than the small pinch I sprinkled in after the initial failed experiment — I was out of yeast when I refreshed the pitcher, but I now have a new jar.

The yeast and honey mixture works like a charm.
The yeast and honey mixture works like a charm.

Meanwhile, since my aunt told me to NEVER squish slugs in the garden for fear of releasing eggs into the soil, I’ve been carrying around a disgusting jar of salt water into which I drop any slug I encounter while weeding or planting or just strolling. It’s gross, but I don’t care. This is war.

Death to slugs. The only good slug is a dead slug!

Trellis for Squash Vines

As I scrolled through my Facebook feed this morning, I came across a how-to article that a friend had posted on her timeline. It was a trellis for squash vines, so the vines climb up instead of spreading out over the ground:

Squash Trellis http://www.organicgardening.com/SquashTrellis
Squash Trellis http://www.organicgardening.com/SquashTrellis

Last year, I had demonstrated my inexperience by planting half a dozen cucumbers in a small space — one end of a triangle-shaped bed about six feet long with a four-foot base — and I seriously regretted it. The vines tangled, grew on top of each other, and spread out of their bed, running into the garden path and threatening other beds in the wheel-shaped garden. I’ve been trying to think of a better way to do it, but the trellises I’ve thought of have been large, permanent structures. This one looks perfect. Sturdy but lightweight, movable from year to year. It will allow the vines to take up less garden space while the fruit stays dirt-free. Check it out:

Save space in the garden without sacrificing a single squash by making a simple, inexpensive, and easy-to-build trellis. Ours easily handles six to eight delicata squash plants and takes up only 16 square feet of garden space.

Click here to read the article.

Mystery Pond Creature!

This morning, I was delighted to see a small slithery creature, some sort of salamander — about the length of my hand from nose to tail tip — swimming in our tiny pond behind the house. This is the pond in which the goldfish carnage in November occurred, so not only was I pleased to see the mystery creature for its own sake, I was happy to see that the pond seems to be a healthy environment again.

After taking a few pictures, I started to worry that it wasn’t actually happy there. The pond has steep sides, and the water level is a little low, so it would be quite a climb to get out. It kept swimming to the edge and scrabbling at the sides with its tiny feet, but making no progress. I called Niko over so he could look at the creature, and then I reached in and lifted it out. I expected to have to chase it around, but it didn’t attempt to evade my hand. I set it gently down on a rock, where it sat and looked around. It ventured to the edge and peered over but didn’t try to climb down. So I lifted it again, and set it down in the garden. The salamander then proceeded to crawl back to the rocks at the edge of the pond, trying to fit through a far-too-small crevice. I gently directed it to a larger crevice, and it slithered through and rested there, looking down at the water. At this point Sofia realized she’d been abandoned in her bouncy seat, so I never got to see if the salamander decided to go back into the pond. I didn’t see it later when I looked, though. I suspect it was hiding among the rocks that make up the little waterfall.

I spent far more time searching for an identification than I should have, but I still don’t know what kind of salamander this is. I’m pretty sure it is a salamander, not a newt (a rougher-skinned subgroup). But none of the salamanders I found pictures of quite matched. I found a couple that were the right color and size, but they all had wormy tails, not flat ribbon-like ones as this salamander does. Any ideas?

Feathered Visitors

I love watching the birds that visit us as they eat, flutter, hop, and interact. Abiding by a policy of cautious tolerance, they mostly ignore each other: at the feeder that hangs at the edge of the porch, while dipping into the surface of our largest pond or making a crazy spray of water by beating their wings in the little waterfall, and as they stroll across the lawn in search of favorite snacks. Occasionally a big scrub jay or Steller’s jay will bully the little birds away from the feeder, and once a kingfisher swooped across the porch and scared everyone away. But usually the view from our kitchen window is peaceful.

Over the last month or so, we’ve had some new birds at our feeder and splashing in the pond. I was excited to see my old friend, the black-capped chickadee, whom I knew from living in more northerly places. I had thought that the presence of the chestnut-backed chickadee meant we were out of the black-capped chickadee’s range, but a month ago I glanced out my window, and there he was!

I love this cheerful little black-capped chickadee.
I love this cheerful little black-capped chickadee.

We also have a pair of varied thrushes. I thought at first they were two different types of birds, but ten minutes or so searching the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” site revealed that the bright orange male and the soft peach female are the same species. There’s also a robin in the (embarrassingly pixellated) picture with the female — they stayed all winter, but their numbers seem to be increasing over the last month, at least to my inexperienced and unscientific eye.

Another new feathered visitor, first seen about two months ago, is the spotted towhee. It’s an attractive bird with a bright orange-red breast and glossy black head and neck.

Spotted towhee
Spotted towhee

This little guy might not look exciting, but I was happy to see a familiar bird — a common sparrow. I’ve seen lots of golden-crowned sparrows at the feeder through the fall and winter, but this was my first time seeing this modest little bird.

And I’ve been seeing this Northern Flicker for some time now, but for some reason his bright red teardrop cheek markings are unusually vivid right now — or maybe I just haven’t been too observant lately.

Northern flicker with bright red cheeks
Northern flicker with bright red cheeks

My most exciting photo triumph isn’t from a new bird, though, but from birds I’ve consistently failed to get a photo of for nearly a year now. We have a family of California quail that roam our property and the adjacent fields. They’re really shy, and though they’ve visited our porch to get dropped seeds, I’ve never managed to get a picture. Until this moment a week ago, when the whole family came strolling up the lawn to idle around the pond and snack on the seeds fallen from the hanging feeder, as if they were visiting a favorite cafe. Finally, finally, finally, I captured them! Aren’t they beautiful?

Slugs, Begone!

We have a slug problem. I first noticed while doing a pre-spring weeding in the flower and vegetable bed, when I kept turning up the slimy little nibblers in the soil. Then I noticed chunks bitten out of new shoots. Recently, I saw flower buds with bites. But Thursday’s transgression was the worst yet: dwarf iris’s first delicate blooms, the year’s second flowers (hellebore beat them by a week), bitten to pieces! Unacceptable.

Slug-eaten iris. Last straw!
Slug-eaten iris. Last straw!

At lunch, I broke our house rules, opened my iPad at the table, and did a search for “slug deterrents.” I found an illustrated article at WikiHow that gave me several ideas, two of which I put into practice.

The first one I’m trying is the cornmeal method. Very easy. Dump cornmeal into a jar. Lay it on its side. The slugs smell it, crawl in, and die, because…I’m not sure why. The article says the texture is too rough, but I’m not sure if it cuts their bodies up or if they die from eating it. Either way, it’s so easy I had to try it.

The second approach I decided on is the yeast-and-honey method. I boiled yeast and honey together, about 1/2 cup each, in a half gallon of water.  I hesitated over the boiling instruction at first, since it would kill the yeast. But then I concluded that this might be a good thing; otherwise we’d have yeast bubbling all over the garden.  I poured the mixture into jelly jars (I wanted to use plastic disposable cups, but we had none). Then I dug a hole in the garden near a patch of tender shoots using my nifty transplanting tool, and sunk a jar into a hole. The idea here is that the slugs will be attracted to the smell of the mixture, crawl in, and be unable to escape, drowning. I only got to place one jar, though, because it was at this point that Sofia did a face plant into a patch of mud and had to be taken inside. Ah, the hazards of gardening with babies on rainy days…

We shall soon see how these are working out! Already, taking Cody out for a bedtime potty venture, I noticed that a cornmeal jar near the back door had attracted two slugs. I’m hopeful that I can save my emerging blooms. To see how these methods worked out, click here.