Love in the Form of a 600 Pound Hunk of Metal, or- we embark on a remodeling adventure

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Over the next few months, we are going to be remodeling our kitchen. Or, as I now like to think of it, “restoring” the kitchen.

As I’ve mentioned before, our home was built in 1945. Before we bought it, everything was gutted and replaced with “new things” (i.e.- cheapest things from Home Depot) in order to make it look shiny and new to sell. It looked like almost every other rental I had lived in (except awful poorly laid and grouted tile counters instead of awful laminate, which after having these tile counters, its amazing to to think laminate was better. Anyways…). While it is all still relatively new, its not functional for someone who uses the kitchen so much (there is only ONE ceiling boob light, NO stacks of drawers, I could go on…) and there is nothing special about it.

the current kitchen, complete with a pup dog peering around the corner

the current kitchen, complete with a pup dog peering around the corner

The past few months have been spent going over details and planning for an upcoming remodel. We’ve secured an equity line, our awesome contractor has taken lots of measurements, I’ve gotten bids, mapped out the floor plan, spent hours on online for inspirations, blah bitty blah blah…. After spending probably too many afternoons at the local appliance place, we were dead set on getting a 6-burner Wolf. We based our budget around it, and planned all the surrounding cabinets and counters around it. It was going to be the “one big thing” of the kitchen. While our current stove isn’t bad, there is nothing special about it. Its the cheapest gas stove that they sell at Home Depot. The crappy “vent/microwave” that sits above it makes it so that I can’t fit my canning pot on the back burner, highly inconvenient when I’m trying to process jam or tomatoes. A 36″ range would be large enough for both my canning pots (get this- AT THE SAME TIME!), and the commercial ranges are significantly simpler and have less technology (ie- have less stuff to go wrong) than the lower priced 5-burners and new standard stoves.

But then, the other weekend, I was pursuing cragislist, and saw a listing for an O’Keefe & Merritt stove.

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 11.00.22 AMMy heart literally started to beat faster. Suddenly I realized that I didn’t want to just replace the cheap Home Depot crap with other new shiny things, I really want to restore character back to the house. While the mid-century modern aesthetic isn’t my style, I’d love to achieve a vintage/farmhouse/eclectic vibe. I want to create a warm, beautiful and hardworking kitchen. And the heart of the kitchen is always the stove. I got that feeling of nervousness and giddy glee that only happens when you want something REALLY REALLY bad but there is a chance it won’t happen. This stove looked like it was in good condition, the ad claimed that it was in working order. I made the dear husband pause the movie we were watching and word vomited all the reasons why this stove would be amazing and should I email and see if its still available.

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The reason I was so excited is because I LOVE vintage stoves. Over half of the kitchens on my Pinterest have a vintage stove in them. Classic to the style of the 50′s, with clean white enameled porcelain and shiny chrome, I think they are just beautiful. If your not familiar with vintage stoves- here is a quick run down of why they are awesome: There is no electronic circuitry to break or replace, something almost unheard of these days in modern appliances.  The stove doesn’t need to have electricity to run. If the power goes out, you can still use both the stove and the oven. The functions are basic- you can take apart pretty much every single part with just a screwdriver to clean or repair it. You can adjust the burners down so that you can get an uber low simmer, and the ovens are double walled and keep consistent heat. Along with most other things made “back in the day”, they are well built and made to last. To this day, these stoves are still considered one of the best quality ranges.

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O’Keefe & Merritt’s were built in Los Angeles until the company was bought in the early 70′s, so they are relatively easy to find in my part of the world. The 40′s and 50′s look similar to the classic cars of the time- with rounded corners and the chrome stylings. The ones from the 60′s changed with the style times and got a bit more boxy. There are quite a few places that sell them refinished and working- but at a price that rivals the Wolf or Viking ranges. They pop-up on craigslist now and then, but almost always need work. Needless to say, these stoves are a beast and they are a bitch to move. Long before we owned a house, I’d casually check craigslist and we had looked at one before, but it was missing parts and there only way to get it out of the house was though the living room, down back stairs, and though the back yard. Obviously, we didn’t take that one.

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Old stoves like this hold a soft spot in my heart because I had one growing up. While I’m probably romanticizing my childhood in my head, I’m very nostalgic for how I grew up. Until I was 18 and moved into the dorms at UCSC, I lived in an A-frame redwood house, that my grandpa built from redwood my dad fell and bartered to have milled. We had no electricity or other city services, and all our appliances where old ones that had been converted to run propane. Water was pumped once a week by a generator into a tank and gravity feed down into the house. The O’Keefe & Merritt stood right next to a 1950′s Servel refrigerator. Every morning for school I would come downstairs and get ready by candle while Mom made toast in the toast pan that perpetually sat on the back burner. Every evening, my mom would make dinner and have it ready for me and dad by 6:00. On this stove, I learned how to bake cookies, make spaghetti carbanara and could cook up a mean pot of rice. Looking back, I view my childhood as rural and simple (although I know that it was difficult for my mom), and now I strive for more simplicity in my life. I feel that having a stove like in my own home helps replicates my childhood home. 

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an old picture of our old O’Keefe & Merritt in the background of mom and my uncle, at a Christmas dinner. Look at my mom’s beautiful pie!

When the guy contacted me back the next morning and said it was available, I was ecstatic. After a more detailed conversation, it turns out that the oven would light, but not stay on. The burners, including the griddle, all worked great. There was only 4 stairs to move it down. Matt went to go look at the condition while I was at home and did some furious research on repairs and found someone in the area who worked on vintage stove. My dad did miscellaneous repairs to ours, so I called him to ask if he ever had to fix the oven. He said no, but reminded me that it was easy to fix the problems he had. The appliance guy who specializes in vintage stoves called me back and wouldn’t give me a price over the phone but said it “didn’t sound to bad”. My mom called me and reminded me that she hated ours because the oven wasn’t big enough for when she cooked the Thanksgiving meal. Matt and I had long conversation about our baking lifestyle and if the smaller oven, the main drawback to these old stoves and apparently my mom’s pet peeve, would work for us.

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We decided to get it. I called up our friend Rick to recruit some help to move it. With a rented appliance dolly, Rick’s motorcycle ramps, assorted tie-downs and come-alongs, they managed to get it from the original house, on the back of the truck, and into our house. I’m pretty much useless when it comes to heavy things, so did a great job of being the cheerleader.

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The appliance guy was able to come out last weekend, so we temporarily pulled our current stove out, hooked up the O’Keefe & Merritt. Mark, from Grift’s Appliances, hooked it up to the gas then took things apart, tested things, and adjusted things. The hinge on the oven door was broken so he used miscellaneous metal bits to repair that. There was nothing wrong with oven, the pilot just had to be pivoted to be aligned with the gas pipe. Mark showed us how to adjust the air flow for the stove burners, and how to take apart everything to be cleaned. He also took apart the knobs and oiled the bits that regulate the gas flow. He told us that the knobs we had were actually Westwood, and that the bottom oven plate was from a different model- because parts are hard to find, pieced together parts is something that is common on old stoves. Reminds me of my dad’s old trucks that he’s rebuilt- and one more reason to not throw anything away! He was here for over an hour, charged us only $120, then gave us his cell phone and email in case we had other questions on how to do something later. He said he probably wouldn’t see is for 10 years or so.

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For now, the stove is just hanging out in the kitchen next to the kitchen table. While we remodel, it will get pushed into the living room until it can be installed into its permanent place and be the star of my kitchen. Now at a total of $620, plus some beer and gas money, we are well below our original stove budget. Besides, I never was comfortable with spending 30% of our equity line on a new stove!

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A Year Ago We Bought a House- a look at accomplishments, failures, and the long way we have to go

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One year ago, we bought a house. Matt and I embarked on our first experience as home owners, and we began the first year of turning our newly purchased half acre and 1940′s house into a home and an urban farm. This is a reflection of the past years accomplishments, failures, and what I hope this second year will bring.

buying the houseThe house purchase it self was a huge accomplishment. Our fabulous relator found us this place after only looking for a few weeks, but the buying and mortgage process was horrible. If something could have gone wrong, I’m pretty sure it did. The appraisal fell short of our offer, making us have to re-negotiate with the sellers half way though. A loan we were counting on didn’t get approved, and we had only a few hours to come up with thousands of dollars or we had to back out. Our mortgage company was the biggest ass and would go weeks without returning our emails. When everything finally worked out, and we got the keys, we had less than 48 hours to move out of, and clean, the apartment. The first night we were in the house I got super sick, and spent the next day of trying to move and clean while throwing up and with a fever.

Our house had renters for a few years, until it was put on the market, and we bought it. During this time, and probably long before it, the half acre of land basically sat abandoned. Blackberries, weeds, and naturalized bulbs took over. Rose and fruit trees sprawled unpruned. Sheds rotted and leaked away. But the weekend we moved in the yard was beautiful, despite its neglect. The fruit trees had started to bud and everything was green. I looked past the flaws and saw the vast open space and visualized what the yard could become. Since then, we’ve cleared, built, removed, trimmed, and generally made a mess. Its a constant work in progress, and while I wish that magically it was “all done”, each day brings us closer to what we visualize.

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back of yard, now.jpgThe first big project of this first year was to eradicate the blackberries. They took up a significant section of the East side of the property. After months- MONTHS- of clipping and hacking and perpetually having scratch marks and puncture wounds, then digging and pulling up the roots, we had the main mass gone. Then we discovered we also had trumpet creeper, another super invasive plant. Easier to clip than thorny berries, but harder to dig out. In their place, we built the hen house and chicken run, knowing that the hen’s constant scratching would any missed sprouts at bay. We used the back wall of the run as the back for the compost piles. Now, particularly after the rain, we have a handful of blackberry sprouts that have emerged from missed roots, but we are able to dig them up with relative ease. The trumpet creeper is coming back with a vengeance, and needs significantly more work.

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Another big project was to put up a fence along the East property line. On this side, we have 3 neighbors. The front house has a nice, solid professionally done fence. The middle neighbor had a ridiculously old and janky ‘fence’ that was being held up solely by the blackberry mass. Once the berries were gone, the boards fell over. The back neighbor had a stretch of no fence, and then a section of older fence that was angled in from the property line, but it was standing. We built our fence continuing from the nice front fence back to the standing section of the back neighbors.

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From the first weekend we moved in, I started the observation period. We had no plan to do any major permanent garden until I knew where the sun shined and the shadowed dwelled, ideally observed for a year. But I wasn’t going to wait a full year to have homegrown produce, so I put in a temporary garden. We dug holes in the ground, filled them with compost, planted our plants, and surrounded the area with straw to “keep the weeds at bay”. It was a complete failure. Turkeys ate or trampled any starts that managed to come up, the weeds overgrew everything, what food was produced with bitter or tough, and pests- like corn earworms- devastated crops. By August, we gave up.

After accepting defeat and letting the hens take over, I tested our soil, and I realized we were lacking nutrients. So in the Fall, we built some temporary raised beds from fence scraps and miscellaneous bits, in the location I thought we would do our permanent beds, and filled with compost. I planted garlic bulbs and a variety of winter veggie starts. Except then it never rained, and I didn’t water, so our crops of cabbage, garlic and broccoli never took off. Garden failure, round two. We finally got some rain, and our cover crops and veggies thrived. The broccoli has long bolted, but we’ve been eating off the spinach, kale and chard for the past few months. In January, we planted bare root trees and started building our permanent raised beds. Our temporary, short fence board beds are still here and are planted, but we will eventually replace with taller, permanent beds. We got the permanent asparagus bed up and planted, and another permanent bed made that currently has with potatoes growing. I’ve also got carrots, peas and salad crops, plus calendula coming up. In the next few weekends, 2 more permanent beds will be built and filled with compost to plant tomatoes and the other summer veggies.

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We’ve mowed down most of the cover crop, which was a huge success and significantly improved the soil. Before, I could barely sink my shovel into the ground and I didn’t see a worm for the first 8 months. Our soil still isn’t ideal, but I can dig and I’m finding worms in every turn of soil that I make. The 25 yards of compost we’ve brought in, plus a truckload of horse manure, have helped a lot. There is another 20 yards of compost delivered yesterday in my front yard right now that’s awaiting to be wheelbarrowed around to the back.

The most recent project was to take down a shed that sat directly behind the house. It acted as the temporary chicken house until we could get ours built, but it was super ugly, old and not worth saving. Based on what I have been able to glean from the random construction and things left in it, I think in the past it was used as a hen house, a tool shed, and then a laundry room. We already have a garage for storage, so it wasn’t worth trying to make water tight. So down it went. I’m still working on sorting what boards are salvable and pulling out the hundreds of nails that held this thing together since the 40′s. I’ve also been working on chipping away the concrete patio. This shed has a smaller brother right next to it, the well pump shed, that is equally as ugly and rotting away. As soon as I’ve got the wood sorted and cleaned up from this demo, that one will be coming down as well.

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shed now.jpgAnother accomplishment I’m proud of has been getting to know our neighbors and establishing relationships in our new community. I’m a firm believer that you should know your neighbors, and it pays to invest the time to be friendly. It’s always worked out for me before- I’m still best friends with my next door neighbors from where I grew up, and we regularly still visit and talk with our apartment neighbors from Petaluma. To get to know people, as soon as I moved in, I knocked on doors or simply introduced myself as people walked by. Stella now has 2 regular play-dates, I can greet people by name when I see them, I’ve got a few egg customers, and I know who I can ask to borrow a lemon or some sugar.

So what does the second year of our urban homesteading adventure have in store? I desperately want to paint the house. I HATE the 1000-island-dressing-apricoty color. I’m in process of picking out the perfect gray, but having a hard time finding the right shade that doesn’t look washed out in the full sun that beats down on the front South-facing side. The hen house still needs a bit more work- I need to finish putting up trim and painting it whatever color we paint the house. Right now their rain cover is a janky concoction of sheet metal we hauled up from the apartment’s coop, propped up on limbs and scrap wood, so thats also on the to-do list. We desperately need to re-hang the gutters on our house. We are hoping to add a rain water catchment system, both from the hen house and ours. The garden is in constant development and hopefully we can do some landscaping in the front. I’d love to get bees and rabbits to add to the flock of creatures.

The first year was aimed at planning and starting the garden. The second year will continue that, but our main focus will be to work on the house. It was sold essentially flipped- the original owner had passed away, and one of the kids gutted and replaced with Home Depot’s cheapest and most boring everything. While I wish- WISH- there was still the original 40′s kitchen and interior, I’m thankful all the windows were replaced and a central heating system installed. Our list includes upgrading the electrical system, installing an instant hot water heater, and the biggest thing: reconfigure the kitchen’s interior walls to make it larger, add a walk-in pantry, get a working dishwasher, remove the god-awful tile countertop, and OHMYGOD get better kitchen lighting that the current one boob-light.

Thanks for joining me on the second year adventure!

The Ladybugs are Back!

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Now that the days are warming back up, ladybugs are returning to the garden!

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Ladybugs, also known as Lady Bird or Lady Beetles, are the cover girl of beneficial insects. Known for their ferocious appetite for aphids, they are a welcome sight to any gardener. Ladybugs are not a true bug, but belonging to the beetle family, and there are over 450 species of ladybugs found throughout North America. Not all wear the characteristic red-and-black spots- some are brown, yellow, cream, orange, black, gray or pink. The can have lots of spots or no spots, and stripes, or bands. When the ladybug first emerge from pupation as adults, they have no spots at all.

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After 4-10 days, ladybug larva, that look like mini alligators, will emerge from yellow eggs.  During its larva stage, it is completely carnivorous- eating up to 40 aphids in an hour. After 2 weeks, it then pupates in a shell and emerges as an adult a week or two later. Ladybugs reach maturity at about 4-7 weeks and live for about a year. Up to 2,000 eggs will be laid in one’s lifetime- but not all eggs are fertile. Some are laid with the sole purpose of acting as food for the newly hatched larva, if needed.

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Most species overwinter, cued as days get shorter and temperatures fall. They hide in bark, under leaves, in natural crevices, or structures. Some species, such as the native convergent lady beetle, migrate and then hibernate in mass on mountaintops in the American West. These are the type that are for sale in garden centers, and are harvested by the bucketful during this hibernation. The invasive Asian lady beetle is known for its annoying habit of overwintering inside of houses. Then, once the days start to warm up again ladybugs emerge from their hibernation spots- which is why I’m suddenly seeing so many.

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ladybug on black-aphid infested chard

During its lifespan, a single ladybug can consume up to 5,000 aphids. However, most species are generalist predators- consuming insect prey such as scale, mites, mealybugs, whiteflies, larva of pests, mites and, of course, aphids. But adult ladybugs are actually herbivores, also needing pollen and nectar in addition to pests.

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Ladybugs find pest infested plants by either the pheromones of the pest or by “help me” signals some plants put out. But to encourage ladybugs to stick around, you need a diverse plant habitat. Make beneficials happy with an assortment of plants to feed, shelter, and provide a place to reproduce.

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Right now, most of my ladybugs are found in my cover crops. Cover crops help see many beneficials thought the winter by providing shelter. What I don’t have is an herbivorous source for them. Some of the plants that provide nectar and pollen for the adults include anise, chamomile, coriander, cosmos, daisies, dill, feverfew, goldenrod, heliopsis, laceflower, lovage, and yellow cornflower. In order to encourage these lovely beetles to stick around, I’m in process of getting some of these started.

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And why called Ladybugs? Legend has it that during the Middle Ages, crops in Europe were plagued by pests. The farmers began praying to the Blessed Lady, the Virgin Mary. Soon, the farmers started seeing ladybugs in their fields, and the crops were miraculously saved from the pests. They associated their good fortune with the black and red beetles, and so began calling them lady beetles.

In which I Re-phrase the Problem, Explore Vernal Ponds, and Create a Plan

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David Mas Masumoto’s “Epitaph for a Peach” was the first books I read that made me start thinking about local food. Since the first time I read it, which was sometime in junior high, I’ve re-read it often. Each time I read it again, and take in his lyrical words, I’ll pick up a new detail that I missed before. Yet regardless of the time that passes between opening the book back up, there is one line that stays with me. When discussing his battles with the native grasses, flowers and weeds, he writes:

But now I have very few weeds on my farm. I removed them in a single day using a very simple method. I didn’t even break into a sweat. I simply redefine what I call a weed.

Mr. Masumoto did something that brings great peace to a gardener facing a daunting problem: he just rephrased it and suddenly life seemed more manageable. For me, its not the battle to maintain a sterile field like Masumoto battled with, but the fact the lake that is still present in my yard. But few days ago, while trolling permaculture and gardening forums in search of a solution, I came across a new concept to me: vernal ponds.

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My vernal pool, minus the awesome wetland creatures

A vernal pond is a type of seasonal wetland. Also known as ephemeral, seasonal or temporary wetlands, they are a naturally occurring feature once a common feature on the landscape. They are a low area that fills up with heavy rains, and then dries up. This wet-dry cycle prevents fish from becoming established, which allows critical breeding habitat for amphibians, crustaceans and insects.

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Naturally occurring vernal pool in Missouri. photo source: http://www.fs.fed.us

Suddenly, the fact that my garden was flooded wasn’t the problem. It was simply that I was trying to garden in the middle of a seasonal wetland!

a landscaped vernal pool photo source: http://www.frantzlandscape.com

a landscaped vernal pool photo source: http://www.frantzlandscape.com

While this may or may not be 100% true, as I am lacking the salamanders and the  cattails, it seems logically enough to me. Plus, it made me feel better that my issue had a name, “vernal pond” sounds much fancier than “a giant puddle”, so I’m going with this. The solution is now not to battle Mother Nature (because we know she always wins), but to work harmoniously and expand on what she was trying to do in the yard.

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natural occurring vernal pool in a Virginia woodland, photo credit: http://www.loudounwildlife.org/

Now having an end goal more concrete than “get all this damn water out of the yard/into the ground/anything but the current situation”, we have come up with the steps necessary. I even had a landscaper come out and confirm this was the best idea. Once the ground dries up, we will rent a small tractor and excavate a deeper depression, about 4′ deep in the center and graduating out to a shallower depth to create a 15′x20′ish vernal pool. A series of swales (another fancy word- pretty much means a ditch) will direct water from other areas of the yard into the pool area. This will then overflow to a less deep depression in a different part of the yard, and then overflow from that though a serpentine swale. Marsh and native wetland plants will be established around the margins. Hopefully, I can recruit some salamanders, frogs and dragonflies to make their home here- they would do wonders for pest management in the garden.

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these naturalized bulbs are most prolific in the vernal pool area

Until the ground dries, there isn’t a lot we can do but plan. So far, we’ve used sticks to mark out possible locations of the main pond, and chart the swale paths. There are two locations that are the deepest, and seem to dry out the slowest, making them the logical location.

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Stella helps walk the staked out swale area

What about you? Have you ever had a problem that you re-phrased to make more manageable? Do you encounter vernal pools in your area?

The Garden is Growing & Patiently Waiting for Spring!

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If I was a plant, I’d be confused as hell on what season we are in. One day its beautiful and 75 degrees. Then suddenly its pouring rain (and consequently flooding the yard. again) followed by crazy blustery winds. We still have months before our last frost date, but the yard is pushing ahead, right on schedule for spring! Things are growing, grass is green, and despite the looming fact that half our yard is a lake, I think its looking like a thriving garden!

Here’s some of the happenings in my little corner of the world: 

In early January I planted 5 artichoke starts, probably a bit earlier than I should have. However, they are doing great and have tripled in size. This particular plant is the Opera variety.

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The section of the cover crop where we planted the fruit trees has started to flower or go to seed. Since the mass of it as already tilled under when we planted the trees, I’m leaving whats left and allowing to flower. It is attracting tons of lady bugs, and hopefully lots of other beneficial bugs!

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All of the fruit trees that we planted as bare root have budded out! Which means I didn’t kill any of them! YEAH!!!! The Santa Rosa plum even has a solitary bloom.

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The strip of fava beans, planted for food, have flowers.
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In the garden beds, the recently transplanted bok choy, kale and celery are doing well. Garlic that was planted in the fall was slow to start, as it wasn’t watered, but is now thriving. I’ve also got some lettuce, mustard and arugula seedlings hardening off, and recently re-seeded some peas (since the first flood washed away the first round of pea starts). The potatoes should be going in tomorrow. Half of the asparagus crowns, which I planted from bare root crowns a few weeks ago, have speared (branched? budded? whats the right term for asparagus?) out, but the other half are still appear to be dormant (or dead- I’m keeping my fingers crossed they are just slow to wake up).

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The broccoli bolted, but I haven’t pulled it out yet and left it for the flowers. On sunny days, I’ve seen bees foraging on it. Plus, it adds more color to the yard!
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Inside the house, I’ve got the grow light and heat mat set up and the tomatoes are just starting to sprout. There are 3 cells each of Cherokee Purple, San Marzano, Chadwich Cherry, Marmande, Striped German, Sun Golds, Principe Borghese, Bush Roma, Stupice and the Dutchman. With almost 100% germination success, I’m pretty sure many of the starts will get pawned off on friends :)tomatoes.jpg

“Weather means more when you have a garden. There’s nothing like listening to a shower and thinking how it is soaking in around your green beans.” – Marcelene Cox

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