Thursday, May 19, 2011

For The Birds

I have a new gardening gripe to get off my chest. And it isn’t the gripe that has to do with the May 15 frost deadline having past, but it still being too cold to plant. I know a useless gripe when I see one.

No, I would file my latest gardening complaint under the heading of “Be Careful What you Wish For.” Actually, “Be Careful How You Decorate Your House” might be better.

You see, I have this thing about birds. Real ones, yes, but also decorative ones. My house, in fact, is  populated by a flock of decorative birds.

There’s this one:

And this one:

These, too:

And then there’s those other ones:

And the one in the cage:

Did I forget to mention the ones on the bedroom wall?

I also own a bird identification guide, a book with digital recordings of bird calls, and an iPhone app that plays birdsong for relaxing soaks in the tub. It’s fair to say that, before this spring, my romance with birds was in full swing.

Then, it happened. As I waited for my backyard crabapple to dazzle me with its blooms, the house finches devoured the buds before they opened. (My local nursery-owner tells me they were after the nectar). Then, as if part of a coordinated avian attack, the quails started helping themselves to my newly planted lettuce and spinach. (Apparently, says the nursery owner, they need greens in their diet). Suddenly, I’m having a hard time loving my feathered friends. My next task: how to unfriend the birds.

Remember Beatrix Potter’s tale of Peter Rabbit? For the first time, I feel much less kinship with the radish-eating bunny, and much more with the grumpy, rake-wielding Mr. McGregor. But we don’t wield rakes at my house. It’s not good for your back. And so far, we don’t cover the raised beds with nets or plastic, because that’s just not attractive. I look at the vegetable garden through the bedroom window, so I require it to be as pretty as it is productive.

So, we make bird scarers.

I got the idea from my favorite book about gardening with children: How Does Your Garden Grow? by Clare Matthews.  Here’s a picture of a finished bird scarer from her book, made from wooden dowels, old CDs and paint:

Charming and whimsical, right? Supposedly, the birds don’t think so. The CDs twirl in the wind and throw off flashes of light that birds can do without. So we got busy making scarers.

First, we painted our CDs:

Here is the set of eight that Benny and I finished, enough for two bird scarers:

Then I used a hot glue gun to attach the CDs to a small wooden dowel:

(Matthews, who is British, actually recommended that you use PVA glue or silicone sealant. If you know what those are, I would recommend you try them. In the end, the hot glue actually doesn't hold up well to the temperature fluctuations outside. I've since rigged a solution involving fishing line, but if I were you, I'd just get some better glue)

Finally, I cut newspaper rubber bands and used them as strings to attach the CD stick to another, larger dowel. Matthews said to use elastic thread, which I've seen but wouldn't know where to buy. (But in the end the rubberbands weakened and snapped, so I bought some "stretch cord" which I found among beading supplies in the craft store.)

Here is one of the scarers hanging from an iron topiary in the top portion of the veggie bed.

Did they work? Well, I’d love to say they did. And to be fair, they did seem to work, somewhat, some of the time. I’ve seen finches veering wildly away after flying too close to the spinning discs. But the quail, well….

Yes, that's a picture of a quail scarfing down romaine lettuce with our super-duper scarer hovering at the top of the photo. And that's his lady companion down in the soil on the left having a go at the spinach. I had to run out and chase them away after all. (No rake).

So our greens, which have been in the ground for over a month now, have so far not made it on to our plates. They've all gone to the birds.  Needless to say, I need a new strategy for those darn quail.  I was starting to think a decorative metal bird to the head would do the trick. Then I remembered that, before this spring, I actually loved the quail. They’re by far the cutest, fattest, most adorable birds on the block. They act more like humans than any other bird I’ve seen. They prefer to walk rather than fly, and they run around the neighborhood in these giant family groups with children in tow. The adults are rarely seen without the company of their significant other. I don’t want to hurt the quail, I just don’t want them mistaking my veggie patch for a salad bar.

So now, I’m going to deploy a Super-Duper-Ooper-Schmooper Scary Scarer. 

Meet my new decoy hawk:

Bird-B-Gone Hawk Bird and Rodent Deterrent - 17in.H, Model# MMRTH1

It set me back $15 and should be arriving in the mail within two days (All Hail to Amazon Prime).  I was tempted to purchase a motion-activated decoy owl that rotates it’s head and hoots, but the hawk actually got better reviews. Hawks are also more numerous in our area, and unlike owls, they hunt during the day, which is when the quail come a callin'.

Now, am I going to love seeing a plastic hawk out my bedroom window? I’ll have to get back to you on that one. If this doesn't work, I'll have one last tactic to try:  Buy my greens at the grocery store.

Anyone else have bird problems that they solved in an aesthetically pleasing way?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Tomato of One's Own

A funny thing can happen when a city-dwelling, flower-growing, farmers-market-frequenting gardener like me decides to buy vegetable seed from the local nursery. I think it’s best likened to a trance. Or perhaps a spell. Some sort of hypnosis, maybe.

But standing before those glorious seed racks, I become transfixed by the perky packets. I listen intently to their promising rattle, and gaze at their colorful, come-hither pictures. One packet shows me peas bursting from their pod. Another, plump tomatoes clinging to a vine. Somehow, I come to believe these envelopes contain a special magic, some rare substance whose provenance is distant, romantic, and charmingly agrarian.

It’s only once I’m home, shaking the seeds into my palm, that the spell breaks. Then I stare, in quiet disbelief, as a simple question crowds my mind:

Did I really think tomato seeds from a packet would look any different from the ones on my plate?

Another open envelope leads to another, alarmingly-obvious realization:

Pea plants are grown from… well… dried out peas!

And finally:

Why did I just spend $2 on a packet of coriander seeds when I have a jar of them in my spice drawer?

The disconnect is as ridiculous as it is real. Part of me is embarassed, and another part says, well, can you blame me? I can’t be the only gardener ever to have fallen into this bizarre trap-- what I've come to think of as the Vortex of Consumer Kitchen Gardening.

When you’re in the vortex, it seems like the “stuff” of starting a vegetable garden is some “special stuff” you can only get from a store, rather than the “ordinary stuff” your kitchen happens to be filled with already.

Though I don’t know how this disconnect happens, I imagine grocery stores have something to do with it. After all, when produce is piled, Wharhol-like, in neat, monochromatic stacks, it suddenly becomes a strange object unto itself, a beautiful article of food, rather than something that was ever connected to a plant, or a field, or a seed.

But never mind. The point is, if you love fruits and vegetables enough to want to grow your own, then you probably have a lot of the raw material you need to get started.  Like in your refrigerator.  Or maybe in your fruit bowl.

As for me, I took one look at those tomato seeds from the packet, and instantly knew what I had to do. After planting the Better Bush seeds that cost $3.49 for the envelope (from which I only used 6 seeds,which were thinned down to two plants.) I grabbed the last soft Campari tomato from our kitchen fruit bowl and sliced.

I mean, what did I have to lose?
I removed the seeds, let them dry out on a paper towel, then pushed them into a peat soil pellet. I placed them, in a baggie, under the lights with my other seedlings.

A few days later I had this.

Today, after thinning and repotting into a 4 inch peat pot, my kitchen tomato plant looks like this:

After doing a minimal amount of web research, I’ve found there is some debate as to whether Campari tomatoes from the market can be mined for seeds and grown at home. Some claim that, because it’s a hybrid tomato, it won’t produce a true copy of itself from seed. But at least one other gardener has claimed success as you see here.

If it works, it really provides some food for thought, so to speak. After all, a container of Campari tomatoes costs roughly the same as the envelope of tomato seeds, and contains far more seeds. And since I buy the tomatoes already, the seeds actually cost nothing.

But seeing those tomato sprouts gave me all sorts of other ideas.

Here’s my infant Gala apple tree, sprouted from a seed I plucked out of an organic apple before eating it.

If this sprout succeeds, I think I’ll pot it up along with my Arbor Day Foundation trees.

Then I started thinking about the Organic sweet peppers I pay $4 per package for.

Yum, right? Seeds from these took a while to germinate, but if you look closely, you can see the greenish/purplish stem emerging.

The only factor that might rain on my produce parade is our relatively short growing season in Northern Nevada. If these babies require many, many months of warmth and sun before producing a harvest, I could be in trouble. I’ll keep you posted.

Any readers out there have successes or failures to share after using kitchen seeds in your garden?