Dragonfruit have to have the most incredibly sensational color of any fruit. Their blooms are wild, showy and no better than they ought to be, and the fruit has colors so loud they bedazzle the eyes. Also known as pitaya or pitahaya, dragonfruit grow on either columnar or vining cactus plants. Their history is recorded with the Aztecs, and now they are grown in Vietnam and parts of Malaysia. Due to their soft texture, the fruit isn’t conducive to shipping and handling, so finding them at Asian marketplaces or Farmers’ Markets would be your best bet. However, the popularity of this plant is catching on and since they take up little room, can be grown at home.
I have two vining dragonfruit, which I’ve propped up on the trunks of two Washingtonia palm trees for support. They receive sun there, but some protection from the intense late afternoon sun, and it is a frost-free area. One morning in late summer I went out among the small cosmos and other English-style flowers of that yard, and suddenly noticed this enormous tropical flower looking so out of place. It was gorgeous, fragrant, and sultry next to the prim annuals. The flower of the dragonfruit has a nocturnal bloom, relying on bats and moths for pollination; apparently even those that are self-fertile, as this one evidently is, needs some interaction with bats and moths to set fruit. To insure pollination, growers will make an evening event of hand-pollinating, paint brushes and flashlights in hand. The flower slowly faded during the day and was limp in late afternoon; I’m glad I was lucky enough to see it in the morning at its most sensual state.
I didn’t think that the flower would set fruit, but the plant surprised me again when I glanced over last week and saw a red dragonfruit. This particular dragonfruit has red skin and crimson flesh. Some have red skin and white flesh, or yellow skin and white flesh. The most dramatic I’ve seen was a bright green skinned fruit with crimson flesh! All have small black seeds inside.
Dragonfruit is famed where it grows for its health benefits which are extensive, as well as the fiber and vitamins it contains. Dried dragonfruit is supposed to be more potent than fresh in some ways, and is a better eating alternative for those who don’t care for the texture of the fresh fruit. A good website honoring the nutrition aspect of dragonfruit is http://dragon-fruit.biz/ .
Propagation can be done by seed, which is slow, or by one-foot-long cuttings from fruit-bearing plants. Allow the cuttings to harden off before planting, just as you would any cactus or succulent. Plants will need support, especially the vining kind. They are tropical plants, so enjoy warm weather, regular watering without standing in water, and some humidity.
For sheer spectacular showiness, you can’t beat the neon colors of dragonfruit. Eat out-of-hand, in fruit salads, blend in smoothies or for sherbets, or dry to slightly chewy bits that are packed with nutrition. You will certainly impress your neighbors; in fact, invite them over for an evening pollination party! That ought to get the homeowner’s association all worked up!
Okay, so… my chickens are currently in a deluxe San Diego summer unmovable chicken tractor. The tractor is too heavy for me to move, and the wheels (reused) have literally crumbled apart. Now it is November and the nights are becoming chilly, and we’re on the weekend rain schedule, unlike our other dry years. (Normally it rains the weekend after Thanksgiving when all the holiday events are happening, which gives the weeds time to grow so that everyone is mowing just before New Years.) My hens are cold. I know, it isn’t Minnesota; the nights are in the 40′s, but that is nippy to Southern California-bred chickens. I’ve been pondering what to do for some time now, and my Libra self has vacillated so much that now I’m up against it. Yesterday I devoted to trying to build a warm place for the chickens. I ended up with a go-kart.
I am not one to cut wood. I go out of my way to find matching pieces of wood in my huge and glorious scrap pile just so that I don’t have to measure and cut wood, because invariably I will cut it the wrong length. Fabric, too, (I have some interesting curtains). Determined to make a warm, cozy hen structure that was safe from predators (a coyote jumped the fence and killed Kakapo and took Linnet on Saturday. I was and am heartbroken and angry. I have three hens left. Oh, and Emerson.) I found a huge wooden crate that was used for a sculpture of a rodeo rider, which belonged to my parents. This thing has been taking up space for maybe twenty years in various locations. It looked the perfect size for three hens. I dragged it down the hill to the newly-straw-covered area in front of my new two sheds.
Fifteen years ago, at another house, in another life, I built a movable chicken coop that was gosh-darn good. I didn’t cut any wood for that one, either. Anyway, I still had the casters left. Pulling two long and two short pieces of 2×4 (notice I don’t give a length) out of the wood pile, I hammered them together and attached the casters, although not in that order, which made the hammering together more difficult. I purposefully didn’t use screws: I wanted to bang away with something hard on something yielding. I attached the crate after scraping out the spider webs. Now I wanted a caged area for the hens to be able to graze and get some sun. I still wasn’t completely sure where I was headed with all of this, but I was driving anyway. I dragged down an old large animal cage, which used to support a heat lamp for my African Spur Thigh tortoise until he outgrew it and tore the door off. I could fit it onto the front part of the… thing… and the casters would go through the holes in the bottom with a little help from a PVC hacksaw. (Cutting PVC is NOT the same as cutting wood, by the way, and I have oodles of experience with it. Red Hot Blue Glue nearly runs in my veins.)
I found some brackety-gizmos that made an L shape, and attached them to the bottom so that the cage hung down closer to the ground so that the hens could get at the grass.
I attached two pieces of wood in a ‘T’ as a handle (trying to hammer it onto the frame through the cage), and then found an old dog choke collar with some lead still attached, and wrapped that around to help pull.
So, what if it rained? It needed a roof. There happened to be three of these triangular things left from the shed removal. I’m glad they were put to use. They had been a failed attempt to put up cat fencing (to keep them in the yard) on top of the shed roof by a friend who was a contractor. (He’s also the reason why the 8-foot wooden fence I asked for turned into a 5-foot fence up on bricks with a teal slanted cap running along the top… which makes a nice foothold for the cats.)
I nailed these suckers on the crate, (ever try to nail something triangular?),
then pulled out a piece of corrugated aluminum that wasn’t too sharp (and was also conveniently on top of the pile). It was too long, and not wide enough, so I grabbed some big scissor things I’ve had in the shed for years and cut the aluminum in half (they were tin snips!). Roughly. On purpose. Of course, the piece I cut didn’t fit, so I had to bend it in half, stepping on it, and drape it over the triangles then nail it on. The larger of the two I used towards the front, to give a little shade. The sun was going down and I had to hurry.
Then stuffing straw in the gap for insulation, adding a milk crate and straw inside for eggs, I stepped back to enjoy my creation.
Well, it wasn’t quite a chicken tractor, and it wasn’t quite a warm and cozy house. It was a go-kart.
I had thought to move it and the hens up into the relative safety of the tortoise and cat yard, since the cats were not allowed into the yard right now because two naughty individuals escape (so everyone else has to suffer, just like in school). With much pulling and pushing, I managed to get the kart around to the front of the hen house, and there it stayed overnight. I couldn’t get it any farther. The casters would work fine if the mulch wasn’t so thick, and if I didn’t have to pull it uphill. There was no way I was going to be able to get the kart uphill through the mulch into the tortoise yard.
Today I managed to move the kart over some grass, and one by one brought the hens over and popped them in. I got some very curious looks back from them. The chickens thought it was pretty fun, and enjoyed pulling at the tops of the grass sticking up through the cage, but after awhile they set up a chorus that couldn’t be ignored. And I still hadn’t solved the problem of their being cold at night! It was again about to be dark.
Grabbing a rather stinky dog blanket, an old flowery sheet and a pillowcase (they were there, all right?) and the staple gun, I went to work. I stapled the blanket all across the back of their regular hen house loft, across the roof and let it dangle down in front of where they roost at night. Sticking my head in there (and holding my breath…. very doggie-smelling) I noticed a slight breeze still, so I stapled up the sheet and pillowcase. Emerson was quite baffled as to what I was doing next door.
Then I brought the hens back, and figured it would have to do until after the holiday. A day and a half’s work and I have a heavy fowl go-kart and taudry drapings around the hen house, but I think the hens are warmer tonight. And, I must say, I think the kart is pretty cool-looking.
I’m going to cheat on original material in this link, and urge you to watch Roger Doiron (of Kitchen Gardeners International) talk about the gardening revolution. The important points are about the famine, obesity and monoculture problems and how we can save ourselves with backyard gardening… no different a message than Geoff Lawton’s, who says that all the world’s problems can be solved in a garden. The Doiron video is entertaining as well as informative, so please take a few minutes to watch it. I found it on a link from Treehugger.com, which has today several good articles about the Occupy movement, having a beehive, making a rocket stove and a wedding dress made of rubber gloves! Scroll down this link to watch the Doiron video here: http://us.mg201.mail.yahoo.com/dc/launch?.partner=sbc&.gx=1&.rand=7do57p67k7bh0 .
An interesting fact, especially for those of us in low-rain areas: An inch of pH neutral, nutrient-freeing, perfect rain falling on one acre of land is the equivelent of 27,154 gallons of water. Yep. Where does it go? For most people, it runs off into the storm drains and eventually to the ocean where it becomes salty and unusable without treatment. Then a couple of weeks later, on come the sprinklers delivering not-so-good quality expensive domestic water, further locking up the nutrients and killing the microbes in the soil. How can you capture that wonderful resource of natural rainwater? Water barrels are alittle help, but mostly what you need to do is shape your soil to catch the runoff. Swales, deep loam, and strategic planting can quickly take all that water… even the amount that pours off of your roof, and capture it in the soil. The water slowly sinks and moves the way it was going before, but without taking the topsoil with it. As it moves, the plant roots absorb it over a long period of time, along with all the nutrients that pH-neutral rainwater has freed up in the soil. Your landscape will be stunning, your water bill can eventually be reduced to zero, and if you grow food plants, the nutrition level in them will rise. Here is a video from permaculturalist Geoff Lawton with graphics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFeylOa_S4c.
This is the essence of permaculture. Simple, logical effort to use what we already have to return the soil to the sponge it was before we compacted it. So how large is your plot of land? Nine acres? A back porch with pots? You can still do the math and see how much water you can capture. Look up rainwater harvesting videos on YouTube and see plots of land in the desert that harvest rainwater and are oasises of food, habitat and beauty, without supplemental water. Here is what Lawton has done with ten acres in Jordan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvmx4lcqQVw. If they can do it on that scale in that poor an area, any homeowner can do it.
I finally was able to work in the vegetable garden today; me and my helpers, that is.
I am by no means done, but I did some major cleaning out of old veggies. Out went the tomatoes that aren’t producing, dead squash vines, weeds, a volunteer avocado tree and the two enormous zucchini plants which, although having been cut in half, abused and ignored, have still been putting on a squash a week. I have one more zuke plant left, but these big guys had to go. The compost heap is… well… a big heap.
As I study Permaculture, I’m more aware of the millions of microbes in the soil and the fine network of fungus that enriches plant roots. The less I disturb my garden soil, the better. After pulling the weeds, I sprinkled on GardenAlive’s soil enhancer, which are more microbes, as well as their organic Roots Alive fertilizer. I used a trowel to lightly work it all just under the soil surface, then topped it with compost from my compost bin. Having soil that is healthy, rich smelling and alive is any gardener’s dream. All those microbes free up nutrients in the soil so that your plants can suck them up and use them, which makes your veggies not only healthy and more resistant to bugs and diseases, but produce … um…. produce that is loaded with vitamins and minerals. Its like the old gardener’s joke: A gardener asks a man what he puts on his strawberries, and the man answers, “Cream.” The gardener shakes his head in disbelief and says, “I always put manure on mine.”
Potatoes from spring, which I’d stored in a dark cabinet under the house, decided they didn’t want to wait any longer.
Fall is a good time to plant potatoes, as long as you keep their greenery protected from frost. Since potatoes can be grown from cuttings (as well as tubers and seeds), and to produce more potatoes you slowly mound up compost or straw around the stem as it grows, I tried something with these long white fingers. I lay each potato on the soil, with the long white stem laying flat, and covered them all up with light mushroom compost.
I’m betting that the stems will all take root and send up greenery along the nodes, using phototropism. That will multiply the number of potato plants by a lot. Then as the greenery grows, I’ll add more straw and compost around them. If all works out, sometime early next year I should be Potato Queen of Fallbrook! Of course, I had lots of help with the project.
A few months ago I planted pieces of yam that had started to grow in the house. The vines flourished outside of the bed. Now that I’ve cleared the massive zucchinis out of the way, I’ve pulled the vines back into the bed, layed them out so that they (mostly) touch the soil, and have dumped mushroom compost on parts of them. The object is to allow them to root along the vines and make more yams. I’ll let you know if this works or not.
I’m also planting carrots and parsnips. The ‘nips won’t be ready until next spring, having improved in flavor for any frost we may receive. I’m hoping there may be some small carrots ready for Christmas dinner, but I really should have put them in last month to be sure. In will go the brassicas: Brussels sprouts (did you ever wonder if it smells cabbagy in Brussels?), broccoli and cauliflower. These guys all like a good chill, as long as they are protected from frost. More cool-weather lettuces will go in, as well as lots of endive for my tortoise. Onion sets and seeds can go in, as well as radishes. The arugula has reseeded itself again and is coming up in all the pathways, with even an elegant specimen right next to the large pond by the rushes!
You remember the pond, which was put in to attract wildlife, right?
I still have tomatoes and eggplants producing. I tied up the lazy ferny stalks of my first-year asparagus to get them out of the way. The horseradish plant seems to be doing well; I have to consider what to serve it with at Christmas. My dad loved horseradish sauce, as do I, and I grow it as a memory of him and our Polish heritage on his side. I used to make him his favorite soup, borscht, but I would never taste it because I just don’t like beets.
Tomorrow, if I can move my joints after many days of weeding, I’ll clear out the remaining ‘empty’ bed and cover the unused ones with compost and straw to sit until spring. I am so glad that I can garden almost year-round!
If you have extra fresh fruit or vegetables from your yard or garden, or canned goods, please keep the Fallbrook Food Pantry in mind. They need fresh food as well as canned, all the time. The people who pick up weekly supplemental food are screened, given an ID card, and must prove that their income is below the Federal Poverty Level. These people are single parents, people with injuries, the elderly, school children and babies, and they all must have food to live. Instead of sending money and effort to people in other countries, why not help your neighbors? Pick your limes, lemons, oranges, gather your squash and donate to the Pantry. It is quick, easy, and helps people stay healthy and focused on getting through their day. With Thanksgiving feasting upon us, please think of those who just want to eat.
Today, the palindromic 11/11/11, was also Veteren’s Day and a day between two rainy weekends. A perfect day for spreading lots of seeds. With winter rains on their way in a month, it is important to hold the topsoil with rooted plants, and why not use a cover crop that also fixes nitrogen? My choices were hairy vetch and a tall native lupine.
I would also have liked to use white or sweet clover but sources were sold out early this year. Both my choices will have flowers that offer plenty of nectar to bees, be lovely, hold the soil, set nitrogen, and can be, if needed, sacrificed. When you ‘sacrifice’ a nitrogen-fixer, you can either turn it under or cut the tops, leaving them in place on the soil surface to decompose.
I don’t agree with disturbing my soil microbes any more than necessary, so I won’t be tilling ever again. When you cut a nitrogen-fixer, the roots release the nitrogen they hold into the soil as the tops mulch then decompose bringing lots of nutrition to the soil surface. Vetch should be a winter crop, and lupine a spring crop, if they can tell the difference here in San Diego!
My method for spreading these two was to mix handfuls of each with a bucket of mushroom compost, and hand spread it in the most bare and most unfertile areas.
Adding the compost, I thought, helped the seed distribute more evenly, gave it a little cover since I wasn’t going to rake it in, and disguised it from birds a little.
Once done, I decided it was also a good time to do something I had been looking forward to doing for years: spreading old veggie seeds. I’d done a little of this in a raised veggie bed, with some success. I have so many old packets of veggie seeds that I’m not going to use in the raised beds (I have all organic seed now), and I can’t believe that it isn’t viable. If they sprout seeds found in ancient Egyptian tombs, then I’m sure mine can sprout, too. This seeding is a very important step in the edible forest garden.
This year’s abundance of herbs, squash and tomatoes has been fabulous… I still have some ‘feral’ tomatoes putting on enormous fruit which I pick, polish and eat out of hand in the garden while I’m working.
I opened all the packages of seed for cool-weather vegetables, such as carrots, radish, dill, broccoli rabe, and lettuces. Some such as garlic chives and onion I separated out and sprinkled near roses, since alliums are a companion plant for roses and help ward away aphids. The rest of it was mixed up in a lovely crazy-pot of seeds. I didn’t mix with compost this time, as there were fewer and smaller seeds involved. I sprinkled them then covered them with soil using my foot… the professional way to plant!
I am eager to see what comes up after the rain this weekend. It truely will be an edible landscape. Even if I allow the veggies to go to seed, the blooms will all be excellent bee food sources, especially the carrots and dill. None of these were nitrogen-fixers, because I used all the extra peas up in the vegetable beds this spring (see archives) improving the soil. Beans, and other warmer-weather seeds I’m holding back for February or March planting. I do have sweetpea seeds to plant out, but the lupine and vetch will be working their magic anyway.
About ten years ago I had a short story published in the young person’s magazine Cricket called Taking Tea with Aunt Kate. In it a girl lived with her mother who was a wild, messy gardener, spreading seeds all together and having veggies and flowers mingling in riots of color. The girl’s aunt is, by contrast, perfectly coiffed and takes her to a formal ‘high tea’ at a prestigious restaurant. The girl decides that she can be a little of each woman, a little wild and a little formal. I think I’m that child! I clean the dirt out from under my nails so that I can go to the opera.
I’ll be walking the garden in the next few weeks, waiting for tell-tale sprouts (and trying to figure out if they are weeds or not!), and watching the bare areas come to life. How fun!
I know, I know, I’ve been very delinquent. However I have been working hard, reading a lot and studying. I’m taking a Permaculture Design Course in San Diego on most weekends, and the information has been dazzling. Even though I know a little or a lot of what is being presented, what amazes me is how related the information is and how it all works together. For instance…
Gardeners know that the best pH for soil is somewhere around 6.5. Higher or lower than that and the soil has too much acid or alkaline. Here in San Diego we have alkaline soil. Rainwater is excellent because it has a neutral pH. What is so important about that neutral pH? Well, I’m going to tell you. There are all kinds of nutrient in the soil in the form of trace minerals, such as iron, magnesium, copper, etc. However these nutrients are bound up in the soil because of the pH… some are bound by a high pH, some by a low pH. For instance, we have adequate iron in our soil, but because of the alkalinity, plants can’t access it and become iron deficient. If you have neutral pH, then plants are able to feed themselves nutritiously. To free up the iron, you should add mature compost and water as much as you can with collected rainwater.
Okay, so you knew all that. So did I. Here comes what I think is the interesting thing.
We know that the soil is teeming with little beings such as bacteria, fungi and nematodes. Some are good, some are bad. Such is life. Picture if you will the soil in a forest, which has a lot of large materials such as logs and sticks being broken down by various fungus. The soil in a vegetable garden, however, is loamy with small particulate matter. Well, in a forest situation, with an acid soil, there is high fungus activity and lower bacteria count in the soil. The soil isn’t usually turned over or bothered in any way. In a vegetable garden, a slightly more alkaline soil is perfect because it has less fungus and more bacteria. The soil is turned over frequently. Weeds such as grasses prefer a pH range that is slightly more alkaline. By changing the pH with the addition of different kinds of mulch, you can moderate the microbes in the soil, tipping the balance between fungi and bacteria, and edging out the grasses. Cool, huh?
Fungus is extremely important where longer-lived trees are planted, because fungus travels underground, linking with the spreading roots of the trees and actually causing communication between them! Fungus, it has been said, is nature’s Internet. Mushrooms are called nature’s teeth, too, but that is an image that perhaps you just don’t want in your head. Bacteria help soil that is often disturbed by helping leguminous plants fix nitrogen (yes, yes, I know, back to the darn legumes again), and help free up nutrients for the roots, usually by dying. That’s not a happy thought but, again, that’s the way it goes. If you till the soil, you kill off the bacteria and nematodes and fungus and all the other little critters. There is a rise in fertility, but only briefly because that rise is the nutrition released by the decomposing bodies of all your soil critters! Then there is just dead soil. Then farmers pour on the salt-based fertilizers (NPK), which is just salting the land and making sure nothing can live in it. The crops grow, but since there aren’t any friendly critters freeing up nutrients, the resulting nutritional value of the produce is poor. Only by mulching, composting, and cover-cropping can the soil come alive again, which nourishes the plants, which nourish us.
There is so much life in just a pinch of soil; so much going on that we still can only guess at. To build up your soil with mulch, compost and organic practices is to give life to gajillions of life forms (yes, that many!) which all work to make your plants healthy, your food more nutritious, and gain back some of the topsoil that has disappeared through man’s blundering.
I hope this was as interesting for you as it is for me!