Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Apple Tree Killer

Two summers ago, my husband and I planted four dwarf apple trees in a neat little row across our back fence.

We had just been forced to cut down an ailing elm tree, repeatedly damaged in recent ice storms, that had twice dropped large branches directly on the power line to our house. It seemed like the right thing to do to plant some new trees in its place.

But they had to be trees that were destined for shortness, so that they wouldn't grow into our power lines the same way the elm had. And I wanted something that would flower and smell nice, and not drop nuisance seeds all over our yard like our neighbors' silver maple, or our own towering sweetgum. And what a bonus it would be if our new trees also made something we could eat, right?

So apple trees seemed like a good fit.

What I did not understand at the time, as a novice fruit tree gardener, was that apple trees are susceptible to several airborne diseases, including cedar-apple rust and apple fire blight. Nor did I realize that many common surburban animals, like rabbits, raccoons, and squirrels, consider apple tree bark to be a delicious winter snack.

In other words, these were no plant-them-and-forget-them trees I'd ever so carelessly plopped into my back yard. These were veritable garden divas. Getting young apple saplings to healthy maturity requires some pretty serious vigilance, effort, and luck.

I've sprayed my little trees with diluted copper to kill cedar-apple fungus. I've cut off fire-blighted branches and leaves. I've sealed injured bark with wax, with tar; I've wrapped injured branches trunks in fabric and aluminum foil and plastic animal guards. I've checked them and rechecked them for infections and infestations and animal damage at least once a week since we planted them. For years.

The first summer, the trees were hit with cedar-apple rust; the first winter, we lost one that was girdled by a rabbit or squirrel, despite my efforts to protect its bark. The remaining three fought through a three-punch combo of bark damage, cedar-apple rust and a bout of fire blight to produce a few perfect fruits, which were promptly eaten, while still green, by squirrels.

This past winter, determined to protect my three remaining trees, I wrapped the bark thoroughly in special fabric designed for bark-wrapping and put sturdy plastic guards around each trunk.

But as the first hints of spring began to show in my yard, something was eating the tree bark above the guards. Stripping whole lower branches, in fact. I was perplexed. Rabbits can stretch themselves pretty high, but a rabbit standing on its hind legs would not have much leverage to rip off whole strips of bark. A squirrel could have done it, but in order to get the undersides of the branches, it would have had to be hanging upside-down as it chewed.

Then, one day, I came out to the yard to discover that one of my trees' trunks had been bitten (snapped? cut? sawed?) cleanly in half. No gnaw marks. Just a clean, almost surgically precise separation. The inverted crown still lay in the yard, many of its branches stripped clean.

What could have done this?

My husband was convinced it was the rabbits.

"It couldn't be rabbits," I insisted. "Rabbits don't bite trees with three-inch trunks in half."

"Maybe we have big rabbits," he said ominously.

For weeks, the mystery persisted. Had a raccoon or a stray cat climbed into the tree and snapped it with too much weight? Had a neighbor child broken our tree in the middle of a the night for a prank? That didn't seem likely. I know most of the kids in our neighborhood, and they're nice kids. Besides, as far as they're concerned, I'm the Cool Mom Who Lets Us Play Soccer in Her Front Yard and Always Has Lemonade. And you don't go snapping trees in the yard of the cool mom who gives out free lemonade.

Could it really have been the rabbits?

Might we have acquired . . . some Rabbits of Unusual Size?

Just the mental image of gigantic, sap-thirty rabbits devouring my trees had me eyeing even the most adorable lagomorphs bouncing through my yard with suspicion. Then, one day, as I was out adding mulch to my new raised vegetable garden bed, a neighbor I rarely see much of, one whose backyard just touches mine at the corner waved me over to talk. She said:

"You know there's a beaver living in your storm sewer, right? About this big?" She spread her arms to indicate a beaver roughly the size of a small human child. "Looooong tail on him."

"No," I said. "I didn't know that." No, in fact, I had not known that there was a beaver living miles and miles away from the nearest river, lake, creek or even crick in my suburban storm sewer. I had not known, and had I known, perhaps I might have taken appropriate action to contain said creature before it ate my apple tree.

I'm actually glad, though, that it turned out to be a Mutant Ninja Beaver eating my apple trees. Because before I knew the tree-killer was a beaver, I was really starting to develop a pretty strong streak of paranoid anti-rabbitism.

And I just wasn't comfortable with hating baby rabbits. Baby rabbits are ridiculously cute.

As for the beaver, well, you can't really hate a beaver that lives in a sewer. I mean, it's a beaver. In the sewer. That there is some pretty hardcore urban habitat reclamation action.

I did put a sturdy grate in front of the storm sewer drain in my yard, though. Sorry, Mr. Ninja Beaver — you'll have to use another exit from your secret underground lair from now on. I'm sure there's one that opens onto a park with lots of non-native invasive Japanese honeysuckle, just waiting for you to rip apart with your sharp, sharp teeth.

(What's next? Alligators? Maybe I need a stronger grate.)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rome Was Not Built in a Day. But Your Vegetable Garden Could Be.

Here is my family's Earth Day project: We put in a second vegetable raised garden bed, the same size as our first one. We used the newspaper method, for speed's sake and because we are lazy. I've never tried the newspaper method before, and I'm starting a bit late, but we'll see how it goes. I already have a fully-functional raised bed dug the traditional way, so I intend to plant my more deeply-rooting plants (like tomatoes) in the existing bed, and put plants with a shallower root system in the new bed this year; by next year, the grass and newspaper beneath the new garden bed should have completely decomposed.

First we laid out our wooden border. Then we covered the sod beneath it with several layers of newspaper, and covered that with topsoil:

The new bed is the same size, shape and layout as the old bed. We're going to enclose both beds with the same style of chicken-wire-and-wood-frame fence we used last year, and put a rock mulch path in between them, using biodegradable corn-based landscape fabric beneath the gravel.

I'll have more pictures of the garden up soon. For now, more work while the sun shines!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Beginnings of a Suburban Tomato Jungle

The Brandywine, Beefsteak and Juliet tomatoes I've been incubating in my basement on a homemade plant light shelf have grown so large their leaves are nearly brushing the fluorescent light; I'm going to have to adjust one of the shelves down to make room.

Three of these plants will go into my own home garden. Considering that in the past two summers I've grown tomatoes at this house, my plants have consistently passed the six foot mark before being weighed down with fruit, I won't really have room for more than three.

My first impenetrable tomato jungle grew so big I felt compelled to name it:
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

The surplus plants will be going to my neighbors, for free, with growing instructions. Three households near mine have already claimed a plant.

I figure, give a neighbor a tomato, and she'll eat salad for a day. Teach a neighbor to grow tomatoes, and within a year or two, she'll be trying to pawn her extra zucchini off on you, and you'll just have to start taking your own surplus fresh veggies to the food pantry. Which would not be a bad thing.

Do you have extra plants this year, from seedlings you started, or a flat you bought on sale? Before you try to find a place to cram them into your garden, compost them, or, ahem, leave them to languish next to the garage while you rather guiltily avoid looking at them because you can't bear to throw them out and yet cannot think of what to do with them, check and see whether any of your neighbors who don't currently garden might be willing to try growing a bit of fresh produce if they were given a plant and some basic gardening advice for free.

After all, it's hard to turn down free food.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Edible Surroundings: Wild Garlic

You know that annoying tall grassy stuff that pops up in clumps in yards at this time of year?

It's wild garlic. And it's safe to eat. At least, in my yard it is, because I've lived in my house for more than two years, and in all that time, I've never once sprayed any herbicides around to try to kill it. There's a better way to deal with it, if you don't like the way it looks.

You can use wild garlic greens as a seasoning in many of the same sorts of dishes where you would ordinarily use cultivated cloves of garlic from your garden or the grocery store. It has a sharp, green-tinged garlic flavor that mellows during cooking. (If you'd like, you can also dig up and eat wild garlic bulbs, but they tend to be much smaller than the kind you can buy in the store. I prefer to cut the greens off and allow the bulbs to stay in the ground and make more fresh wild garlic greens for me next year.)

Here is what I did tonight with my wild garlic greens:

Spanish Tortilla with Wild Garlic

Spanish Tortilla purists will, of course, be annoyed with this recipe, as it adds cheese, and substitutes wild garlic and diced garlic cloves for the customary onion. But hey — I was out of onions. And I like cheese.


Six to eight b-sized red potatoes, scrubbed
Six eggs
Hard, white cheese, like parmesan or asiago, shredded
1-2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp Black pepper
Pinch white pepper
1 tbsp dried thyme
Diced garlic (clove)
Fresh wild garlic greens

Slice the potatoes into thin rounds, leaving the skin on. Pour 1-2 tbsp olive oil into heated heavy skillet. Add 1 tbsp diced garlic, salt and black pepper, and stir for two minute. Add sliced potatoes and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes, or until translucent but not browned.

While potatoes are cooking, chop garlic greens into 1/4 inch pieces. Beat eggs in a medium bowl until yolks and whites are thoroughly mixed. Stir in garlic greens, thyme, white pepper, and some cheese. How much cheese? As much as you want. How am I supposed to know how much cheese you want?

When the potatoes are tender, pour the egg mixture into the skillet, spreading the potatoes evenly across the pan. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook, without stirring, until the bottom and edges of the tortilla are cooked and the middle beings to solidify.

At this point you are supposed to use a fancy vuelvetortillas to flip the tortilla over and slide it back in the pan, cooked side up. But I am cheap and have a small kitchen that does not have room for lots of different specialized tools, so I use a pizza pan.

(Try not to spill egg all over your stove, like this.)

When the tortilla is cooked through, sprinkle some cheese on top, and add some leaves of wild garlic for a garnish.

Cut into wedges (a pizza cutter works well). Serves 2-4.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Child's Butterfly Garden

We inherited a few clumps of Autumn Joy sedum when we bought our house; the sedum, which is drought-tolerant, and bears clusters of tiny flowers that are very attractive to butterflies, blooms in the fall, when most other flowers are spent.

Last autumn we were treated to daily visits from six painted lady butterflies, who would cluster together on the sedum plants for much of the day. The butterflies grew so accustomed to our presence that my son and I could sit inches away from them, and watch them uncurl their slender proboscises to suck nectar out of the flowers.

My son, who had previously been wary of butterflies as part of a general disdain toward insects that fly (and who had, in fact, once, after a particularly unsettling visit to the Butterfly House, suffered for about two months from a terrible recurring nightmare about innocent caterpillars turning into pretty butterflies and then transforming once more into SOMETHING ELSE that was apparently too terrible for him to accurately describe) became so entranced by these painted ladies that he asked to check out a book on butterflies from the library.

And then he asked for another butterfly book, and another, and another. And pretty soon we were purchasing a brick-sized butterfly identification guide from the bookstore, and my four-year-old child was instructing me on migration ranges and caterpillar habitats, and learning to say things like Nymphalidae.

So, I am helping my son plant a butterfly garden in front of the house this year. Last fall, we dug out the bed and planted a mixed row of tulips, hyacinths and daffodils — easy, showy perennial flowers with an early spring bloom. We're starting butterfly weed and echinacea (both native Missouri plants) from seed in our basement mad gardeners' lab. And we recently visted Sugar Creek Gardens in Kirkwood to pick up some Aromatic Aster (another native flower).

Once we've passed the frost date, we'll be adding some plants that are edible for insects and humans, including parsley (which last year successfully attracted the spectacular Black Swallowtail to my vegetable garden), pansies and nasturtiums. And of course, Isaac's chamomile.

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