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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Lessons Learned

Yesterday was a learning day for me. Well… every day is a learning day, but some days you learn more stuff than on other days.

Lesson #1

I learned that most garden hoses contain lead. Other folks may have known this, but it was news to me. I was watering in the greenhouse with the ancient hose that’s been patched and mended once too often, when it suddenly decided it had had enough and decided to split right at the end. So there I was, holding a watering wand with no hose attached as the force of the water popped the coupling completely off. And there was the hose, writhing on the ground, spewing water all over me and everything else.

Once into dry clothes, I trotted off to the store, bought a hose, and took off the packaging. There, on the underside of the packaging ,in small print, was a warning: "This product contains lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. Do not place your hands in your mouth after handling the product. Do not place the product in your mouth. Wash your hands after touching this product."

Now that is scary! I figure some of that lead has to leach into whatever I'm watering-so much for organic gardening! Since I use the hose to water the greenhouse and garden, fill the little water garden on the deck (which the dog sometimes drinks from), and fill the chickens' water
trough, I don't feel like using a lead-heavy hose. Come to find out, hoses that are made from PVC have lead in them as a stabilizer. But some hoses, according to Consumer's Report, contain lead levels far in excess of EPA standards. This is very disturbing-
and to make matters worse, I might have been leaching lead for years
and not known it! No wonder Sam is so darn ornery- he’s probably gotten more than the recommended amount of lead in his diet/

Lesson #2
The reason some dogs have green eyes instead of red eyes in photos is that the flash brings out all their green-eyed, jealous monsteriness.
Case in point: Jack

Jack is the latest addition to our dysfunctional menagerie. He wandered into our household unexpectedly a year ago. I put his photo up on the Jack Russell Rescue site, but nobody claimed him. Despite some pretty rough going in the early months when we discovered he had severe separation anxiety, could chew his way out of a crate, and would destroy anything within reach when left alone, he’s grown on us and is now a part of our lives.

He and Patches can’t stand each other. We have to take special pains to insure they aren’t both in the same place at the same time- which takes some juggling, believe me. But our efforts have worked so far and Patches is smart enough to avoid being anywhere near Jack.

I was very concerned about what Jack might try with Sam and the girls since Jack Russells view most anything that moves as prey, and are so good at digging under, jumping over and gnawing through, any barrier between them and their goal, whatever that might be at the moment.

Turns out that Jack doesn’t mess with the chickens- he can be in the back yard and not pay any attention to them. He’s even been back there with them a few times when they’ve been out for their evening walk-about and they just avoid each other. There is one caveat though. Jack and I cannot both be out in the back yard with the chickens at the same time. If I’m out there, it’s a whole different situation-- as I learned yesterday.

I let Jack out with me when I went to work in the greenhouse. Now something about the sight of me and Jack together must have gotten Sam upset, because he started crowing. Jack, thinking who knows what, saw that as a threat or a challenge, or something and decided he should take action. He flew off toward the chicken run, barking and yapping, ran around and around it, flung himself against the wire, tried to dig under it. The whole time, Sam was crowing and carrying on, rushing about with his hackles out, making the most god-awful noise. Then the girls got in the act making high-pitched clucking sounds and running around like crazy, too. The more noise they made, the more determined Jack was to get in there with them, barking, yapping, digging. I finally had to turn the hose on Jack and give him a good soaking to get him to stop. Finally got Jack back in the house and Sam and the girls all quieted down. I think Sam and Jack are jealous of each otherand don't like to see me with any other critters. Next time I take a pic of Sam, he’ll probably have green eyes, too!

Here's Jack sans the green eyes- He isn't always a green-eyed monster. Most of the time, he's a pretty smart, playful and lovable little rascal.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Spring Sprigs and Shuttles

Spring is a season of gifts from Mother Nature, as trees and plants awaken from their winter sleep, unfurl their leaves and petals, then burst forth in glorious riots of color against the brilliant spring sky. The redbud out front woke up a few weeks ago. In fact, it burst awake suddenly,its empty limbs suddenly awash in deep pink blooms.

We've been watching the dogwood outside the window for a week now. It's been a little groggy and slow to fully wake, but this morning it greeted the day with a mass of white blossoms bobbing in the breeze.

I've always thought of dogwood as only an ornamental tree because of its small size and delicate features. I was surprised to learn that it was once widely used in industry, where its hard, strong, smooth wood was used to make weaving shuttles and spools for textile mills, as well as small pulleys, mallet heads, jeweler’s blocks, and turnpins for shaping the ends of lead pipes. In earlier times, according to a 1973 pamphlet from the USDA Forestry Service, dogwood root bark was used to treat fevers and a scarlet dye was made from its roots.

I now have a new appreciation for this beautiful little tree, and wonder how many early settlers wore clothes fashioned from fabric woven with help from a dogwood shuttle then dyed with dogwood root dye.

Mouse Seeds

I convinced Patches the cat that she should spend more time in the greenhouse, thinking she might be the better mouse trap I'd been hoping for. She would actually rather sleep all day, but she reluctantly agreed to spend some time in there with me as I set about planting more seeds to replace those destroyed by mice last week.

She looked like she was enjoying herself- staring intently all around the pots, creeping stealthily along the staging. Every once in a while, she would stop, her eyes fixed intently, as though she was about to pounce. (Notice the dead brown leaves on the lantana? I'm reluctant to prune anything for fear mice will come pouring out of the pots again and run up my arms).

But alas, Patches was just pretending to be interested in eradicating the dastardly little rodents. Or maybe she's just getting too slow for such tasks in her old age. As it turns out, she is not a better mouse trap at all. There are still mice in the greenhouse, as I discovered when I went to open the greenhouse this morning.

There on the bench were what had once been peat pots. They must have been very tasty peat pots, because something had nibbled ragged holes in them-a LOT of holes! The culprits left other signs of their nocturnal nastiness, too: there were what appeared to be mouse droppings all over the potting bench. But there were so many mouse droppings! And then I saw it- a seed packet, left on the bench - its edges gnawed and torn, its contents scattered. I had forgotten to put it away. But wait- are those seeds or are they something else? I had never noticed before how much chive seeds and mouse droppings resemble each other! There's no telling what might pop up in the seed flats now. Or how many mouse droppings I've already planted!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lazy Loafers

I had visions of chickens pecking around in the yard, keeping down the population of grubs, bugs and other threats to my struggling plants. Sam and the girls were good at that once and there seemed to be a definite drop in pests. But they've gotten lazy in their old age. They dig in the yard now and then, pulling up a sweet morsel here and there, but when two years of drought turned much of the back yard into a hard clay surface akin to concrete, pecking seemed to be more work than they wanted to do. Last year they discovered that the compost bin was an excellent source of worms and such. And they didn't need to work hard to get them-- the compost was nice and fluffy and offered up treats with minimal effort on their part. We've had quite a bit of rain so far this year and the ground is actually soft enough to dig without needing a jack-hammer, but Sam and the girls are spoiled. When they come out of the run in the afternoon, they head straight for the compost bins. Meanwhile, the grubs, slugs and other nefarious critters are thriving in the garden, secure in the knowledge that they have nothing to fear from a flock of lazy chickens with an aversion to hard work.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter Eggs

It occurred to me that we have never tried to dye brown eggs. Even after the girls began to lay, we bought white eggs at the grocery store to dye. Long after the kids were grown and gone, we continued to dye eggs because it was one of my sister's greatest pleasures. My sister, Jo, was born with Down syndrome. She came to live with us when our mother died over thirty years ago and was always responsible for at least half the eggs in our family Easter basket. Jo attended a day program at the local Arc for many years but began to develop Alzheimer's about six years ago. Finally her symptoms became too severe for her to continue in the day program and it became increasingly difficult to care for her at home. Jo moved into a group home late in 2006 and seems quite happy to be among the other residents- and they dye eggs there, too! Here she is at our last egg dyeing session at home in 2004. See how proud she was of her lovely eggs?

I haven't dyed Easter eggs since these pics were taken, but thought I might try it next year with natural colorants. I was poking around the internet looking for information on using natural dyes for eggs and found some absolutely beautiful eggs here. I just might try that on some of our brown eggs next year.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Rodent Rant

While Henrietta was recuperating in the greenhouse she must have invited some friends in to share her meals. Every morning I would see mouse droppings around her feed dish, but never saw any mice. I didn’t want to set traps in case she might step on one and trip it, and I refuse to use poison. Besides, since watching Ratatouille I had begun to view mice in a more favorable light.

I had cut way back on watering the plants we'd moved into the greenhouse during the winter to keep them sort of dormant, but with the weather warming up this month and with me itching to start some seeds, I decided it was time to get busy in the greenhouse again. The plants were beginning to look quite thirsty, too. So I dragged the hose out, aimed it at one of the big pots and began to water. All of a sudden, critters began pouring out of the pot – a kazillion little mice, tripping all over themselves to get away from the water. They scurried over and under the benches, ran along the beams, across the floor, out the door, everywhere they could run to get out of the way. I was afraid they would try running up my pants leg or something and that I would run out into the back yard screaming like a banshee. But that didn’t happen and I was able to maintain my cool. The mice seemed to have gone away in search of drier ground, and all was well. Or so I thought.

So I gathered up the gear needed and seeded some herbs and veggies- Bright Lights chard, tomatoes, parsley, chives, basil, lettuce, clary sage, miniature cabbage, squash and a few other things to plant in the garden.
I have a big mortar mixing box that I put up on one of the benches and fill with sand. I bury a heating cable in the sand, then put in the seed flats, which in my case are a variety of plastic containers with holes punched in the bottoms. I use margarine tubs, the bottom of milk jugs, frozen food containers- if it looks like it can be used for seeds I save it for seed starting. I fill the containers up with vermiculite, then use a big plant flat without holes for sub-irrigation. When the vermiculite is good and damp, in go the seeds, and I pop the containers back in the mortar box, cover the whole thing with a big sheet of Plexiglas, then use a fluorescent shop light on chains to keep the light just above the seeds for 12 hours at a time.

I always get as excited as a kid at Christmas when the seeds begin to sprout- I even talk to them and tell them how beautiful they are. These sprouted beautifully. They began to put on their first true leaves. The chard was especially pretty with all its lovely brightly colored stalks topped by tiny leaves.

So imagine my shock when I went in the greenhouse one day last week to discover that I had forgotten to put the Plexiglas cover in place when I’d turned the lights off. There in the box, a scene of total devastation. Plant markers had been knocked out of containers, the lettuce looked as though a miniature tank had driven through the middle of it, and my beautiful Bright Lights Chard was reduced to nothing but stalks. Not one leaf was left. The cabbage had also been chewed on, and the clary sage that had been so slow to sprout was completely destroyed. I was devastated!

I had begun to think the little mice had been kind of cute, scurrying about when I first disturbed them. And Ratatouille, as I said, made me somewhat sympathetic to rats and mice. I was half-thinking that maybe they had just gotten an overabundance of bad press. I know now that I was completely wrong. They are evil, destructive, beady-eyed little fiends. I’m still debating whether to set traps, since anoles are beginning to show up in the greenhouse and I don’t want to catch one of them- they are excellent at insect control. But woe betide the next furry little rodent who dares to show himself when I’m in there from now on!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Then there were three

Sad news- Emily died about a month ago, so now there are only three- Sam, Monique and Henrietta. We don't know what killed Emily and I just wasn't up to performing an autopsy. I suspect that Henrietta might have put a hex on her. But anyway, Henrietta is now back in the coop with Sam and Monique and all seems well- no more fights. At least not yet. Henrietta is laying again now that she's all recovered and the days are getting longer. Monique has decided not to lay any more, it seems. Mr. G says she should go in a stewpot. I think he says things like that just to aggravate me.