Archive for March, 2009

While I was Gardening…

March 28th, 2009

Actually I was turning compost…

When this harmless lizzard grows up he will lose that beautiful blue color, and be a rather plain looking 5 lined Skink.

When this harmless lizard grows up he will lose that beautiful blue color, and be a rather plain looking 5 lined Skink.

I imagine it was a shock to be uncovered like that in the middle of March, but I put him back in a safe spot after taking his picture.

Lizards like this Juvenile Five Lined Skink (sounds like something from “Harry Potter” doesn’t it) are extremely beneficial and other than the single rare exception of the Gila Monster (found only in the desert South West of North America) are completely harmless to humans.  That also goes for the vast majority of snakes.  Please don’t kill them just because you were taught to be afraid of things with scales.

During warm weather reptile metabolisms soar and lizards and small snakes eat vast numbers of insects while doing exactly zero dammage to you or your garden.  Larger snakes also eat rodents.  Our most common large snakes here in central Tennessee – the king snakes – also eat other snakes including poisonous species.

Five Lined Skinks grow to about 5 or 6 inches in length and live 5 years more or less if they aren’t eaten by a hawk, other bird, or domestic cat.  The females lay a clutch of eggs late in the spring in decaying organic matter (such as compost) and guard the nest until the eggs hatch.  Newborns look just like the one in the picture above, but are only around 2 inches long.  When they grow up they lose the blue coloration, and males turn red around the jaw and throat. In older adults the stripes will also fade away leaving a rather bland brown lizard with the glory of youth only a fond memory.

If they aren’t cold lizards in general are very hard to catch – being wary and fast.  If caught, skinks can shed their tale which wiggles about distractingly while the rest of the lizard makes a break for it.  If they escape with their life they will grow a new tail – although it’s usually kind of stumpy looking.

Lizards are interesting, beneficial, harmless, and usually too small to make a helping – so please leave them in peace when you find one.

Starting Early in the Garden

March 25th, 2009
A simple cloche made by cutting the bottom out of a milk jug my be all that is required to protect early garden plants from cold weather.

A simple cloche made by cutting the bottom out of a milk jug may be all that's required to protect early garden plants from cold weather.

By April in zone 6 we’re experiencing some really nice Spring weather.  A few people (me) are already setting out tomatoes early in the month and covering them with milk jugs until they get going.  Some even started planting in March – potatoes, brassicas, and garden peas especially.

I’ve often heard the opinion that starting your garden “too” early is a waste – plants which are set out later will quickly catch up to those which have had to suffer through erratic spring weather.  I accept that this might be true, however I like to get an early start anyway for these reasons:

  1. I just LIKE to get an early start.
  2. The weather is fine and makes the work much more enjoyable.
  3. It’s easier to harden off the plants during cool moist weather than it is once it starts to get hot.
  4. You don’t have to be as vigilant about watering as you would later.
  5. If you wait until later to plant everything all at once the job can be over whelming – so an early start allows you to spread out the work load.
  6. If you get the opportunity to plant early in the season you might want to take it because wet weather (or life)  might prevent you from working in the garden when you need to later.
  7. In my completely anecdotal and unscientific experience – Gardeners who start early have more overall success.

Starting early is a gamble, and you must remain vigilant and prepared in case of cold weather – frosts and overnight temps below freezing are a distinct possibility in April.  As a general rule your plants will survive those late frosts without a hitch if you cover them with anything – sheets, buckets, plastic, mulch, anything – so be prepared with sufficient materials to do so and watch the weather reports.

Even so, every once in a while a really freakish late cold front will blow through and kill a few things – but not very often.

A few things really should not be planted until the soil warms up – notably corn and beans* – these seeds are likely to rot in cool wet soil before they germinate.  However, you can get an early start even with those by planting them under a simple plastic tunnel to warm the soil and protect them from cold and too much rain.

So maybe my tomatoes won’t ripen any earlier, but I’ve never regretted getting an early start in my garden, and I have regretted a late one.

Happy Gardening!

* Fava Beans are different and can be planted much earlier – you should give them a try!

Stevia – Zero Calorie Sweetener that you can Grow

March 14th, 2009

Stevia (stevia rebaudiana) is a new world herb that you might have only recently heard of.  Stevia leaves – while having zero calories – are claimed to be 30 times sweeter than sugar, and in fact one of the common names is “candy leaf” – the extract is supposedly 300 times sweeter than sugar!  Stevia is also reputed to have several health benefits including the  prevention of tooth decay and diabetes.  I don’t know about that, but I would guess that using less sugar probably would have those effects.

Is the idea of growing your own natural organic zero calorie sweetener intriguing to you? » Read more: Stevia – Zero Calorie Sweetener that you can Grow

Simple Plastic Tunnel Cold Frame or Row Cover

March 3rd, 2009
This plastic tunnel is being used inside of the greenhouse to protect tender plants against a late hard freeze - very effectively I might add.

This plastic tunnel is being used inside of the greenhouse to protect tender plants against a late hard freeze - very effectively I might add.

A simple plastic tunnel like this can serve as a cold frame to grow salad greens  all winter long, to grow out tomatoes and other tender plants, to extend the season for an early Spring start or a late Fall harvest, or even as a screen house to keep birds off of your strawberries or vine borer moths off of your squashes.  You can also use one of these to dry out water logged beds and warm up the soil so that you can begin planting  in early Spring. These devices are so useful, cheap, easy, and quick to build that everyone should have at least one – it’s almost as good as having your own polytunnel greenhouse. » Read more: Simple Plastic Tunnel Cold Frame or Row Cover