Saturday, June 18, 2011

Gardening Part 5: Mary, Mary, quite contrary, why doesn't my garden grow?

     What is so hard about lettuce and spinach? Everyone I talk to seems to be able to grow lettuce and spinach no problem. "I plant seeds in the fall and I have bunches ready to go right NOW!" "I plant on St. Patrick's Day, and I have bunches ready to go right NOW!" OK, fine, you can plant these seeds while it's still cool or gets below freezing at night. We did that. We actually got some seeds to pop up, both leaf lettuce varieties and our spinach. Little dime-sized lettuce leaves and 2" long spiky spinach leaves. We were excited, thinking we were masters of the universe of gardening. Then, there they sat. Not growing. Then, after a couple weeks of not budging in size, they started to slowly wilt. First, the lettuce went. It just wilted into lettuce-vapor, and went away. The spinach was almost worse, because you can still see it.

Sad, sad spinach
     What went wrong? We're still trying to figure that one out. Meanwhile, back at the snap peas and pole beans, the seedlings we so tenderly cared for in the house, gently planting after the freeze was gone and babied endlessly--well, probably 75% of them are gone. Maybe two cucumbers lived out of about a dozen. Even the zucchini, the stawart of the soil, the vegetable that everyone brings to the office because they are overloaded; even most of those seedlings failed. ???????
      The next step, then, was to basically buy starters for some vegetables, and just pop seeds into the garden beds, knowing we'll have a late harvest, for others. Doing both was like eating sand; it was exactly what we tried to avoid when we invested in starting from seed. We had no choice. I found some wonderful zucchini and yellow squash starters at a local nursery, and starter tomatoes (which we had always planned on doing) and cucumbers from our Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) farmer, Lorraine, who runs Moonrise Farm. We still had some cucumber seeds (along with pole beans and snap peas), and I went crazy, poking seeds wherever I could. I figured what the heck, with the mortality we've been experiencing, the more the better. So here's where we stand:

Pole beans and snap peas, some stragglers from our seedlings and those growing from seeds we planted:
Pole beans, both the leggy seeds that were
started indoors, and two from direct sowing, which look
alot better!
Snap peas, again, a few stragglers from our effort of starting seeds indoors, and from direct sowing into the garden bed:

 Cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash:

 Yellow summer squash from starters bought at a local nursery. They look great!

Cucumbers, from starters (on the left), and cukes, started from direct sowing, on the right.

And, one zucchini that made it through our seed-starting experiment. We didn't think it'd make it, so we stuck it in our tomato bed just for kicks, and it's a survivor.

      So, there you have a description of our more troublesome vegetables. There are a few bright spots, though. One is our short row of radishes, and our second planting of them (last weekend), starting to pop up. Radishes = easy. Then, our tomatoes seem to be plugging along; all have flowers, and three or four of them have little green balls of jucy goodness getting ready to be part of a BLT sandwich:
Radishes, from big to small

     We can't forget our flowers. We have perennials going (like the below photos of larkspur and some sort of Salvia species), they will likely peak at the end of this month, with others to follow. And, we also plant a fair share of annuals for color, including two whiskey barrels that flank our garage, and containers/pots everywhere, most on our back deck. Here are a few samples of all:

Annuals, bright spots on either side of our garage

Delphinium (Larkspur) just getting going;
Red-hot pokers int he background.

Some sort of Salvia that for some reason took over
one side of our pond. The color here is not what you
really see; they are a beautiful lavender/purple color
that carpets the ground.

Clematis vine; obviously we love purple!

     That's the status of our garden and yard. We are learning from our disappointments (spinach, lettuce especially), and think that part of the reason is that we simply had a late start to our garden this year due to it being our first year and things simply had to be built; a windy, windy spring that continues well into the summer (witness our horrible fire season this year), and in general, pretty cold temperatures.
     Speaking of fires, we are still dealing with the Wallow fire up here, with the Monument fire going strong outside of Sierra Vista, and the final days of the Horseshoe Two fire getting contained in the incredible Chiricahua mountains. The Wallow is now over 500,000 acres (it is staggering); the Horseshoe Two is over 200,000 acres, and the Monument reached the 20,000-acre mark today. I had an opportunity to get into part of the burned area this past week, visiting Alpine and Nutrioso. It is a mix of bad and uncanny good luck. One thing that is apparent, however, is that our thinning treatments have worked immensely around the communities that we treated, virtually saving all from no doubt an even greater loss of homes. Forest restoration is a complex issue, and I am now even more impassioned to do something about it. I have a few photos, but they are technically through my employer, so I will not post them here, but if you have a chance, you can visit here to see an interview I did for our website, and here to find out a bit more about the fire's anticipated impacts to wildlife. And, if you have an interest, my husband ventured into the world of "social media" this past weekend and started a Facebook page for the Arizona Game & Fish Department's Pinetop office (search "Arizona Game and Fish Pinetop Region") or go here to get to it, and please, "like" it! It needs friends! The page offers up all regional wildlife information related to the Wallow fire as well as general information on what's happening in the region.

     My next blog entry may end up being a longer one devoted to the recovery effort following the Wallow fire. Depends on what I feel like writing about. Suffice it to say, dealing with this fire has consumed both Bruce's and my life for the past three weeks, which is one of the reasons I haven't had time to write a blog entry. Media interviews, helping with the recovery effort, assessing damages, outreach efforts, and even working with our Senator and Congressional representative staffers to help make the point that our forests are important, and they must be restored. We have a long way to go. It is an exhausting process, and coming home to a garden (even though it has its challenges), our flowers, and our dog, who loves us despite our brown thumbs, reminds us that it is good to have a home, and to chase life and hold on to it whenever you can.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Earth, Wind, and Fire: Struggles with gardening and wildfire

     Over Memorial Day weekend, Bruce and I made a command decision that our seedlings, which have been growing wildly and becoming rather high-maintenance, had to get into the ground. Period. They were getting too "leggy," turning slightly yellow at the leaf-tips, and generally becoming a pain. That Saturday, however, it was really windy. People who don't live in northern Arizona don't understand what that means. I'm talking seriously windy, red-flag alerts, 30-40 mph sustained, gusts up to 50 mph, etc etc. Common for our spring weather, but generally these winds subside by Memorial Day, certainly by June. Not this year. We put off planting on Saturday, knowing that these leggy babies would be blown over and dead within an hour. Sunday, the wind was worse. Again we waited. Monday, well, that was it. The wind did subside a bit, and we got everything in the ground, and propped up the leggiest of them with pipe cleaners.
     We were quite excited, our garden was basically planted!!! After months of preparation, we were ready to go. Snap peas, pole beans, zucchini, yellow squash, butternet squash, tomatoes, and cucumbers were carefully tucked into the ground, watered, and fertilized. These would be added to our already-planted radishes, carrots, beets, spinach, and lettuce, which had started to sprout:
Spinach! Grow baby grow!
     Monday night rolled around, and sure enough, it got down to 30 degrees. The next day, panicked, we apprehensively tiptoed to the garden, but it appeared that most everything made it through. Over the rest of this past week, however, the wind never subsided, and perhaps combined with that touch of freezing weather, most of our snap peas are gone, several pole beans, nearly all of our cucumbers (we're down to two or three out of 11), most of our yellow squash, and most of our zucchini. Gone. I'm too sad to even take pictures! Suffice it to say, I had to rocket around town visiting anywhere that has plants, and picked up a few each of zucchini, yellow squash, and cucumber. We'll be planting our snap peas directly from seed, which we still have, and we have some last germinating pole beans we'll use to fill in the gaps. But again, we must wait; the winds have not subsided in the least and we're beginning to wonder if there is such a thing as TMW syndrome (Too Much Wind); didn't pioneers go nuts in Kansas because of the wind? Is there a pill I can take? Needless to say, we're a little sad to see that our seedling experiment just didn't quite work out.

     Over this same windy Memorial Day weekend, a couple campers tenting out in the Bear Wallow Wilderness of the Apache National Forest, east of our home, started a campfire. While it was a red-flag warning day, the Forest eased up on campfire restrictions for the weekend, probably assuming that most people would use their heads and perhaps be extra cautious about managing their fires. Bad assumption; never assume people actually think about what they do. These campers left their fire smoldering in the morning, and took off on a hike. From that brainless action, the Wallow Fire kicked in gear on Sunday, May 30. As of June 4, it is now the 3rd largest wildfire in Arizona history (our 2002 Rodeo-Chediski, to the west of us, was the largest). This fire has hit both Bruce and I harder than the R-C, even though the R-C came within about 10 miles of our house and we experienced the mandatory evacuation that others are now going through. 

     It's hit us hard because the Wallow Fire is burning in probably the most scenic spot in our White Mountains--and one of the most scenic places in the state. Mixed-conifer forests, creeks, meadows, rolling mountains--all are a welcome respite to not only desert-dwellers who come up here by the thousands each weekend to cool off, but also to the people who live here year-round. Williamson Valley, Mount Baldy, the West and East Forks of the Black River as they flow through canyons packed with spruces, aspens, and is, or I should say was, just plain gorgeous. Even more so given that most people have no clue a place like this exists in Arizona of all places. Almost every Arizonan who has lived here for any good length of time has memories of fishing, camping, and hiking in the Alpine/Hannagan Meadow areas. And now, this special place has been consumed by one of the most intense wildfires ever experienced in Arizona. To date, nearly a week later, there is no containment, and the fire is anticipated to possibly make it into Greer, get to Mt. Escudilla, and points north and eastward. People in Albuquerque and even Colorado Springs are experiencing smoke from this fire. If you want to take a look at some eye-opening photos, visit Wallow fire pics.    
     Bruce reports from his work connections that at least two, now possibly three, wolf dens with pups who had not yet been weaned have been burned over. Wild-born wolf pups are the key to a successful Mexican gray wolf reintroduction, and this is a major hit. Nesting songbirds and raptors likely lost all their young; it's still too early for birds to have fledged. To say nothing of their nesting habitat, which has now been decimated for the foreseeable future.

     It has been depressing to say the least. To my friends I know fighting this fire, I say thank you and please stay safe. It's amazing how we all pull together at times like this, too. Several towns are offering their school gyms as Red Cross shelters. County fairgrounds and other areas have opened up their facilities for people to bring livestock, horses, and other pets, where they will receive free food and care.

The White Mountains in the early morning mist, pre-fire
      So, between garden problems, this devastating fire, and the wind which seems to just not quit, it's been a week to ponder about disasters, our role in our world, and how much power nature has--from affecting snap pea seedlings to capitalizing on fuel loads, low humidity, and wind to become a ferocious conflagration that no human can control. I have a hole in my soul this weekend, knowing that a part of my world is forever changed; will I even want to re-visit this favorite place of mine, only to see the fire's aftermath? Who were these stupid, stupid people who couldn't douse their fire on a windy day, and now have affected so many people and creatures, including birds, wolves, elk, deer, bears, weasels, mice, fish, and countless other species that make up the fabric of our wild lands?
      To cap it off, and perhaps as a karmic ploy from our friend Fate, the next movie in our Netflix queue that arrived early this past week was "Avatar." Months ago, I added that movie to our queue, since we were probably two of only, what, 14 people in the world who hadn't seen that movie. I had no idea when it would reach the top of our queue, but here it was, showing up during our very depressing week. I guess many of you know the theme of the movie--ongoing destruction of a planet by one species and a violent takeover by said species of another planet for a natural resource they need, with no regard for the impacts to that second planet. Will we continue to make the same mistakes, over and over? I guess there will always be people who don't understand that what they do, a simple thing, maybe one that if done on any other day wouldn't have the same affect, can ripple into the history books (and not in a good way). A decision to lift fire restrictions, an unattended campfire, planting seedlings knowing their vulnerability in the wind--all lead to unintended consequences that, in the case of the Wallow fire, will last hundreds of years. Our garden will survive, and I know we'll learn from our mistakes and do things differently next year; but will the next camper learn? The next?

Wallow fire plume from Sunrise Lake
Photo by Barbara L. Davis

Wallow fire plume from A-1 Lake, approx. 40 miles away
Photo by Barbara L. Davis