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Rural Roots Blog
Exploring the world outside our windows through gardening, farming, cooking, decorating and more.

Starting seeds on a budget
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Starting seeds on a budget

April 12, 2018 | 11:46 AM

With winter-like winds still howling, a lovely vegetable garden still seems a long ways off but now's the time to be planning for a bountiful harvest; specifically, now's the time to purchase seed while quantities and varieties are still available even if it's a bit early to stick them in the soil. I purchase most of my vegetable plants from the greenhouse mainly because I don't have the space or gear to start seed myself but it's a fun thing to try and, with most packets costing less than $5, it's not an expensive project.

Nevertheless, those $3 packets can add up quickly if you grab one of everything. If your gusto for gardening starts to wane as the season develops, many might never get opened. Case in point, I rifled through my seed bin and found untouched packets of spinach, kale, sunflower and snap bean seed. I guess I overbought! Although most seed is still viable for about two years, the quality is usually reduced if it's not used the same year it's sold.

With those factors in mind, I like the suggestions the Home Garden Seed Association offers in their seed starting guide. Aside from tips on light and water requirements, they give a listing of what seeds should and shouldn't be started indoors. Considering my situation, my eyes were drawn to that "either or" list. It includes:

•lettuce (plus other salad greens)

•kale

•herbs like basil, parsley

•chard

•cucumbers

•melons

•squash

•flowers: sunflowers, zinnias, nasturtiums

It's good middle ground in terms of growing on a budget. If you don't get the seed started indoors or the crop fails for some reason, there's still time to push that seed into the ground once the conditions are ideal.

Likewise, it makes financial sense to purchase seed for those plants that grow best from seed. Sure, you can get just about anything at local greenhouses these days but transplanting things like sweet corn and carrots doesn't work so well. Going from a balmy greenhouse to the colder spring ground can be a tough transition.

This list includes:

•carrots

•beans

•beets

•corn

•peas

•radishes

•arugula

•parsnips

•turnips

•herbs like cilantro and dill

Happy planting!

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
Arctic bird stops for a visit
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Arctic bird stops for a visit

March 29, 2018 | 02:43 PM

The setting sun was shining just so that the light made the owl's feathers almost glow. I just so happened to see the bright white body out of the corner of my eye. Before I even got a good look at what was perched in the tree, facing east, I knew it was a snowy owl. Grateful that I had my work camera with me, I turned my car around and inched up the road's shoulder, hoping I wouldn't scare if off.

My five year-old was trying to engage her little brother in the excitement too and point his attention to the tree. "Hello penguin," the two year-old said from the backseat. Close, I guess.

The bird watched me slowly walk toward him with my camera in hand but wasn't too concerned. He watched cars going by and something in the field to the north…maybe a rabbit? That amazing head/neck of his swiveled from side to side with ease.

I tried to capture those seconds when the owl and those piercing yellow eyes were looking my direction. I hopped back in the driver's seat, turned around for a second time and slowed down to get a few other photos through the car window this time.

The next morning he was still in that same tree, along Graham Road in Imlay Township, and still watching the cars pass by with interest. Later in the day he was gone.

My boss, who's a lot more familiar with creatures of the north country, takes a look at my pictures.

"It's probably a young male," Randy said. He's seen snowy owls on one of his hunting expeditions to Saskatchewan.

Photos from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology confirmed his opinion. This bird is almost nearly all white with a few dark brown feathers by his feet. Females and immature males have barring or dark spots all over their body, except for the face.

It's rather common for some snowy owls to spend their winters in Michigan and New England. During the breeding season these birds call the arctic home….what a trip! Many have obviously felt the need to come south this winter. News agencies from across the state are reporting that there have been many sightings of these amazing birds since December, including downtown Detroit. This event is called an irruption and, according to scientists, happens following a strong breeding season. Previously it was thought these birds came south in winter to look for food but that's been disproven since researchers, including citizen scientists, found that the majority of these migrants had above average body mass.

I had to share my pictures with Daryl Bernard, director of Seven Ponds Nature Center, who I had just chatted with for a story about the center's most recent birding tour in Texas.

Daryl said that he and other birders have been combing farm fields in northern Lapeer County this winter in hopes of seeing a snowy, but they've not had any luck so far.

"It has been a very good winter for snowy owls, and I've seen many - but none in Lapeer County," Daryl said in an email.

I'm usually hoping that some unique bird will visit my feeders at home but this chance spotting was probably better that anything I'll see out my kitchen window. It also doesn't hurt that I had my camera ready and kids in tow.

Email Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown

By the numbers: Farming in Michigan

March 29, 2018 | 02:42 PM

It's report time in the world of agriculture. When the growing season comes to a close, the statisticians employed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dive into production and price numbers and over a period of several months their findings get published in a steady stream of news releases. Unfortunately, that news hasn't been too positive of late.

The farm value of the state's field crops dropped by nine percent in 2017, the USDA reported last month. According to figures calculated by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, wheat values saw the biggest decline, dropping 28 percent to stand at $151 million with an average price of $4.50 per bushel. Both corn for grain and soybeans saw their values drop by nine percent with overall production values for corn topping out at $1.01 billion and $897 million for beans.

In 2017, Michigan farmers raised fewer cattle, sheep and goats and received less money for what they did raise. Dairy production, a staple of Michigan's ag economy, is hurting too because of low milk prices.

Last month the USDA also reported that 2017 came to a close with 500 fewer farms in the state than 2016, dropping to 50,900. Although the number of operations declined, the amount of land in farms was unchanged at 9.95 million acres. As a result, the average farm size grew by one acre to stand at 195 acres.

The feds define a farm as "any establishment from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold or normally would have been sold during the year." Nearly half of those 50,900 farms fall into the smallest sales class-$1,000 to $9,999 per year. That sales class also saw the biggest drop in farm numbers, falling by 1,000 from 25,500 to 24,500. Maybe some of them moved into the next highest sales class ($10,000 to 99,999) which grew by 500 farms-the largest increase seen among all classes. Likely several just dropped out of the mix after trying their hand at growing something. Lots of well intentioned folks dream of making a living off the land but the demands and lifestyle just aren't for everyone.

It was somewhat surprising that the amount of land in farms didn't decline from one year to the next. With a depressed farm economy and healthy housing market (those two are often opposite one another, farm economists note), it would seem likely that new construction would gobble up at least some of those ag acres but, then again, take a drive around the Tri-City area and you'll note most new houses are being built on land that's been advertised for development for years. Not surprisingly, the land in farms by sales class saw the biggest gains in the highest class-those operations that sold $1 million or more in 2017. Yes, the big farms are likely getting bigger despite a push by retailers and consumers to recognize smaller scale producers.

Currently, commodity prices aren't so awful it's that land rents and some crop inputs remained inflated after the markets became more settled.

Governor Rick Snyder had lots of positive things to say about the state's ag economy in honor of March, deemed Michigan Agriculture and Food Month, but he seems to acknowledge there's room for more growth.

"The food and agriculture sector is one of our state's critical economic drivers, contributing more than $101 billion to the state's economy each year," Snyder said.

"There is a tremendous opportunity for food and ag businesses to take a national leadership role in research and development, food processing, and exports from Michigan."

It's hard to say where the local or state farm economy goes from here. Fortunately, the 2018 growing season is just around the corner and that seems to put a spring in every grower's step. As Will Rogers said "The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn't still be a farmer."

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown

It's the Year of the Beet!

March 01, 2018 | 03:40 PM

The countdown to spring has begun. My social media feed is filled with pictures of other gardeners' seedlings under grow lights and I'm getting a slew of emails everyday with seed and plant suggestions.

Although I'm looking forward to the 2018 garden season, I'm still content to hibernate indoors and enjoy the slower pace of life that comes with winter. I might change my tune once this week's balmy weather lures me outside.

In the meantime, I'll peruse those emails, posts and catalogs and make plans for the growing season ahead. If you're in need of some inspiration or just need to narrow down an enthusiasm for anything that grows, consider some suggestions from the professionals.

My attention was piqued when I saw 2018 has been christened as "Year of the Tulip." There's nothing that naturally ties the tulip with this calendar year other than the National Garden Bureau declared it so. Actually, the NGB has announced that 2018 is also the Year of the Coreopsis, Year of the Beet and Year of the Calibrachoa. In fact, every year, this organization selects one annual, one perennial, one bulb crop and one edible for their "Year of the…" program.

"Plants are chosen because they are popular, easy-to-grow, widely adaptable, genetically diverse, and versatile," the organization says on their website.

Tulips are one of my favorite flowers and probably the most popular spring bloom. To say they are genetically diverse is an understatement. According to the NGB, there are over 150 species of tulips with more than 3,000 different varieties and are classified into 16 divisions by type. Essentially, if you're looking for a very particular hue or style or leaf type, it likely exists.

If you've recently bought one of those mixed hanging baskets at a greenhouse, chances are that it contained calibrachoa. It's easiest to describe them as miniature petunias, although technically, calibrachoa are a separate genus. According to the NGB, these flowers do better in containers than the ground. That fact contributes to their popularity since container gardening is the "in" thing right now. Kind of the like the tulip, garden center buyers are attracted to calibrachoa for their range of colors, including variegated hues.

"Some colors will even change based on the temperature, deepening as it gets cooler, or fading as it gets warmer. Calibrachoa is really like the orchid of the bedding plants, the closer you look into each flower the more intricate the colors become," the organization states.

Coreopsis, also referred to as tickseed, is one of those hardy perennials that's ideal for that hot, full sun corner of any garden. It's also ideal when it comes to critters too in that it attracts pollinators but deer don't care to eat it.

"Most cultivars will re-bloom when old flowers are removed. This can be accomplished by removing individual spent flowers or by shearing the plant to 50% of its original flowering height. Re-blooming will occur within a few weeks," the NGB reports.

I think the NGB's choice for beets certainly hits on the popularity aspect. Beets are everywhere—fresh and processed in the produce section and in every new cookbook that comes out.

"Beets are high in fiber, vitamins A and C and have more iron than most vegetables. They are also rich in antioxidants, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and folic acid. A beet's red color comes from an antioxidant called betalain," the NGB experts note.

Beets can tolerate cool soil and temperatures so if you're eager to get gardening, consider planting this seed first.

Some people don't care for the earthy flavor of beets but the experts note that new hybrids have a milder flavor thanks to higher sugar content.

What are you inspired to grow in 2018?

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown

The feeder season has begun

January 09, 2018 | 03:24 PM

The cold and snow has made for a busy and interesting bird watching season so far this winter.

There's a constant flurry of activity at my seed and suet feeders at home as the birds fuel up to stay warm.

So far there seems to be fewer types of birds visiting the feeder…maybe it's early in the season. It seems like the sparrows—a gang of a few different species—would mob the scene on a daily basis. They've made sporadic visits so far. The same can be said for the usually bold starlings and grackles.

I've seen more goldfinches flit through than usual and the juncos are regular staples. Of course, the blue jays are ever present but their group is smaller than in past years and one is curiously missing its long tailfeathers.

As for those regular suet feeders, it's been dominated by boys. There are two downy woodpecker females, but all the rest—downy, hairy, red-bellied woodpeckers and a northern flicker—have all been males.

Then there are the cardinals. They always appear at the feeders with their mates in tow unless they're preoccupied with chasing off other male cardinals.

Those interactions, particularly what species yields to another, has been studied in depth by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Using Project FeederWatch data, they've created a ranking of the the "toughest" birds and, not suprisingly, size does matter. The results from more than 7,600 documented observations shows wild turkeys are the toughest feeder birds out there, largely because no other bird is big enough to displace them!

Other dominant species include common grackle, red-bellied woodpecker and northern flicker...in that order. Not too far behind is the ever present blue jay.

Sounds about right!

• • •

This season I'm opting to only use sunflower seed in my feeder. I know it's what most experienced birders recommend but I was convinced to bypass the regular stuff after reading about the potential for mixed birdseeds to harbor serious weed seed.

A study by the University of Missouri has found that most commercial birdseed mixes contain Palmer amaranth, common ragweed, velvetleaf and morning glory, the Progressive Farmer reported.

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
No need to dig deep
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No need to dig deep

Plant shallow, mulch soil to protect bulbs


November 07, 2017 | 02:25 PM

I think most gardeners have good intentions when it comes to planting bulbs but then other things happen like crummy weather (happening now), a busier than expected fall (that was me last year) or a lack of energy to dig sufficiently deep holes (this is me almost every year!).

I happened to stumble across this very welcomed article about that last factor—planting depth. If you still have a few bags of bulbs to plant, take note of this research and give yourself and your shovel a break. Use that energy to spread some mulch instead!

Dr. Bill Miller of Cornell University highlighted the findings from a multi-year study in the June 2017 Flower Bulb Research Program newsletter that studied the relationships between planting depth of tulips and perennialization, that is, the tulips' return and persistence in flowering over multiple seasons.

Generally, planting guides recommend tulips sit six to eight inches below the soil line from the bottom of the bulb. Miller notes that the common thinking is that depth protects the bulbs from temperature fluctuations.

"What this fails to account for is that tulips are native to snow-covered gritty soils, moist cool spring and dry, generally hot summers," he said, referring to the mountainous regions of the Middle East where most bulbs hail from.

In the field trial, tulips were planted at depths ranging from 1-8 inches and then covered with hardwood bark mulch in a range of 0-6 inches. The trial was performed in North Carolina in a USDA hardiness zone of 5b. The Tri-City area is just one zone below that in 6a.

Miller notes that there were few distinctions between the different plots in both year one and two other than those planted at the shallowest level-one inch-were mostly dead thanks to animal activity or direct freezing.

More concrete observations were noted in year three, Miller said. First of all, those bulbs planted eight inches deep had the fewest number of blooms that third year. Those planted at just one or three inches performed the best as long as they were sufficiently mulched.

Many gardeners don't care whether their bulbs last more than one season but, Miller points out, the findings of this study apply to them too.

"Even in an annual planting system, deep planting would seem to have no benefit, as all planting depths performed well in the first flowering season," he wrote.

"What is especially interesting is that we saw no evidence of injury from ground freezing over the three years. Even shallow-planted bulbs, when covered with 2 or 4 inches of mulch did not freeze and performed well."

So, what is his recommendation, based on the results of this research?

For large scale plantings-like one big bed of tulips-till the area to a depth of 3-4 inches and then incorporate fertilizer. Using a small spade, create a 2-3 inch deep hole for each bulb. When done, rake the soil then smooth out the surface and cover with 2-4 inches of aged mulch or well-rotted compost.

To plant on a smaller scale—such as among perennials in an established bed—dig a 3 inch deep hole, place the bulb and cover with soil. Then apply 2-4 inches of mulch.

I managed to plant nearly all of my tulip, crocus and grape hyacinth bulbs two weeks ago when the weather was still pleasant. I stuck them in the ground between 3-4 inches and it actually was a pleasant, speedy task! This week, I'll be applying some mulch...obviously.

Happy planting!

Maria Brown
How did your garden grow?
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How did your garden grow?

What thrived or just survived this season


November 07, 2017 | 02:23 PM

Last week's frost meant that the vegetable garden season was officially over. Not bad, considering it meant I was harvesting peppers, squash and tomatoes as late as October 25.

For the most part everything performed relatively well.

As in past years, we sourced most of our plant material from local greenhouses. I just don't have the time or space to start plants from seed. This year my five year-old showed an interest in selecting plants so we came home with a few "new" things like watermelon and sweet corn.

As we anticipated, the sweet corn never had a chance thanks to our ravenous raccoons. Surprisingly, the watermelon did much better than expected...almost too good. My "try something new" was the tomatillo plant I wrote about a few weeks back.

The standard cucumber, summer squash and winter squash greenhouse plants did well. One tray (four plants each) of butternut squash yielded 12 and one tray of buttercup resulted in 5. One tray of cucumbers (the burpless kind, I believe) netted dozens of cucumbers. There are still two and half quart jars of refrigerator pickles to eat!

My bell peppers suffered through the late summer drought and weren't very prolific. The mini pepper plants that my mom started from seed did better and make a perfect, just picked snack for little hands.

As for the specific varieties we grew in 2017, here's a recap-

•Tomatoes: I went the tried and true route with Cherokee Purple, the slicing kind, and Sun Gold, the cherry tomato kind. I've sang the praises of these tomatoes before. I like them both based on taste. This year, the Sun Gold was quite prolific too, producing a bowlful from two plants right up until last week's frost.

I made a few batches of vegetable soup with the Cherokee Purples and did a slow roast of halved Sun Golds. They taste like candy after two hours at 225 degrees.

•Snap beans: We went all yellow this year. I picked up a packet of 'Cherokee' wax beans from Burpee. One packet yielded three small rows and that provided several meals worth for a period of two months. I planted the seed just before a hard rain but that didn't seem to deter them from pushing through the soil.

•Carrots: Lauren and I planted Chantenay seed in a raised bed and were vigilant about watering it regularly. The variety is meant to stay small and blunt. Unfortunately, we waited too long to harvest them and bitterness had set in. Maybe we'll have better luck next year.

•Sunflowers: I really don't think you can pick a bad sunflower. They all have their merits. I like the traditional yellow with a few other colors thrown in. Burpee's 'Evening Sun' mix fit the bill. They grew tall and strong with little attention and made for several nice bouquets.

•Watermelon: I've never had much luck with growing any kind of melon but 'Sugar Baby' didn't seem to mind the hard clay soil. It put out lots of strong vines before finally setting fruit. The variety is supposed to be of the "ice-box" size which I interpreted as being "small." I guess I was wrong. These easily weighed in at five pounds before they ripened. Obviously, I didn't read the plant tag carefully. It states "Fruit size: 6-12 lb." The taste was good but I guess we're spoiled by the seedless varieties. Slicing up these melons for a fruit salad was work intensive and finding room in the refrigerator for that bulk was a challenge.

I guess that common saying "you don't know until you try" has a fitting home in the garden.

How did your garden grow in 2017?

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
Tomatillos on a whim
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Tomatillos on a whim

October 12, 2017 | 02:08 PM

I picked it up on a whim at the greenhouse, stuck it in the garden and went about my business. A few weeks ago I finally decided to do a bit of research about the tomatillo plant that was getting gigantic and loaded with fruit.

Just about everyone says "what?" when I utter that word-tomatillo. "It's kind of like a green tomato but, in my opinion, better," is my reply.

Although the tomatillo is much different in taste and texture than a green tomato, the fruit can be used in many of the same ways as mature tomatoes. Different, but alike, this can be attributed to the fact that both, along with eggplants and peppers too, are members of the nightshade family, according to Iowa State University Extension.

The tomatillo plant is similar in structure to an eggplant or pepper but the fruit...it's very unique. The flowers turn into papery husks and the fruit forms inside of them. It's quite a pretty display and unique to the vegetable garden.

In my post-planting research, I learned that most experts recommend planting more than one plant for purposes of pollination. Maybe because my tomatillo was directly next to three tomato plants, that was sufficient? I'm not sure why, but my lone plant was very fruitful.

The deer seemed curious about this new plant and browsed the top leaves from time to time but the damage was minimal. The year's one and only tomato hornworm was gorging on the tomatillo in mid-summer but we quickly took care of him.

When I decided to trade my blissful ignorance for actual facts, I was a bit too late. The first fruits I harvested were cracked. It wasn't a huge deal but the blemishes make them spoil sooner.

Here's what I determined when it comes to maturity-pick the tomatillos when the husk just starts to turn a yellow or tan color. Those that are ready will easily release from the stem. Depending on the variety, the fruit might not actually fill the husk by the time it's ready and that's okay because quality trumps size. I lost my plant tag but I think mine was a 'Toma Verde.'

The tomatillo is native to Mexico and is used in a range of traditional Mexican dishes. I opted to go the traditional, familiar route and make salsa verde with my crop and, wow, I'm glad I did! The result is a tangy but refreshing salsa that goes well with just about everything. I've had it on chips, quesadillas, scrambled eggs and with chicken tenders. My husband slathered it on leftover turkey the other day and gave it rave reviews.

According to the Iowa State experts, fresh tomatillos in their husks can be stored in the refrigerator in a paper bag for up to two weeks. Remove the husks and they'll last for an impressive three months in the fridge. The fruit can be frozen or canned for future use.

Here's my version of Salsa Verde, inspired by several recipes, but tailored for our tastes:

•15 medium tomatillos, husks removed

•2 small jalapenos, stem removed

•Half of a white onion, cut into thin slices

•1 tsp. chopped garlic

•12 cilantro leaves

•Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse and dry the tomatillos. Place them, the jalapenos and onions on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast in a 425 degree oven for 20-25 minutes or until the tomatillos have started to brown. Let roasted veggies cool slightly.

Add the jalapenos and half of the tomatillos and onions to a food processor along with the garlic and cilantro. Process until smooth.

Coarsely chop the remaining tomatillos and onions by hand and add to sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste.

For a smoother salsa verde, process all ingredients in a food processor or blender.

So what's the moral of my story? Don't be afraid to try something new each season. At a mere $2 (or less, I don't recall the exact price), my tomatillo experiment was cheap, whether it lived or died.

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
Summer, fall or what?
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Summer, fall or what?

Gardeners, farmers might appreciate more heat


September 28, 2017 | 11:43 AM

Spring often gets a back rap for having such fickle weather but the summer transition into fall can be turbulent too if you use this year as an example. It's like September came into sight and August decided to check out early. As a kid I remember sweating my way through the first few weeks of school. This time around, my kindergartener and I had to do calisthenics in the morning to stay warm while waiting for the bus. Temperatures in the 90s this weekend....what happened?

A new record low of 36 degrees was set in Flint last Saturday the 9th, surpassing the 1995 record of 38 degrees as reported by the National Weather Service (NWS). According to Enviroweather, the thermometer dipped near 32.5 in Lapeer that same morning. Five new record high temperatures have been recorded by the NWS in Flint since last Thursday.

The mild temperatures were certainly comfortable but, for the sake of my garden and many farmers, I'm glad that the mercury has risen again. Still, overall in terms of growing degree days, we've seen less heat than last year. According to Enviroweather, both the Lapeer and Emmett weather stations are reporting degree day figures below the five-year average across the board. At a degree day base of 45 degrees, the Lapeer station is 216 units behind the five-year average. For specific crops, like alfalfa, the Emmett station is 85 heat units under the six-year average and 96 fewer for corn development as of Tuesday.

This heat has hopefully helped our late planted soybeans can fill out those pods.

Most things in my garden developed normally although my Cherokee Purple tomatoes took longer than usual to start ripening and my basil plant hasn't gotten very big.

I was grateful for the slow down in cucumber production when temperatures dropped. I've brought veggie and dip trays wherever I can, made a batch of refrigerator pickles and pawned off quite a few on co-workers (thanks Rita!). In recent years, my plants have succumbed to disease mid-season so I'm not used to this kind of bounty.

Some crops, like apples, are actually ahead of schedule when it comes to maturity. Michigan State University Extension educator Bob Tritten, who's based in Flint, said that this is due to an early and extended bloom period this spring in most of eastern Michigan. Many apple varieties have been ripening up to a week ahead of their normal harvest dates.

At this point, precipitation or the lack thereof, is the most pressing issue both gardeners and farmers are seeing. This growing season seemed to feature several extended periods of no rain that obviously stressed crops, landscapes and gardens.

The Lapeer weather station shows a 2.12 inch deficit compared to the five-year average as of Sunday. In Emmett, the difference was just a half inch.

Although the heat helped pump up production in my garden once again, the dry conditions have slowed it down once again.

Believe me, fall is one of my favorite seasons but I was grateful for one last bout of summer-like weather before the snow starts to fly.

Now, where's that rain?

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown

An ode to August

September 19, 2017 | 03:14 PM

I haven't always liked summer. For a time in my early teens, the hot sun and I didn't get along. I had a perpetual headache that started in June and lasted through August so I chose to stay in the shade or vegetate indoors with a book. It wasn't an awful existence but as someone not so fond of winter, I really wanted to soak up those warm rays when I had the chance.

Eventually, my eyes adjusted to the brightness and my head stopped throbbing due to the summer environment. Technically, I had a new headache trigger by then-college exams! Getting to like summer again as a newbie gardener was fun and now, experiencing the season with kids is an even greater thrill. And I've decided that August has to be best the summer month. Essentially, everything in my life aligns to this place where there's peace and satisfaction.

Work-wise, things are usually pretty quiet this time of year. The festivals and fairs are over and everyone's finding some last minute summer fun before the school bells ring. I get fewer phone calls and emails and that's okay. It gives me the chance to wander outside and write columns (like this one!).

Obviously, it's a great time in the veggie garden. Most plants are hitting their stride, a gardener can plan on incorporating the harvest into meals and we're not tired of zucchini...yet.

There's no excuse to not have a fresh vase of flowers on your table. Perennials, annuals and weeds—all are in full bloom right now. Just about anything and everything pairs well with some Queen Anne's lace, goldenrod and some sprigs of sage.

In general, I don't mind mowing the lawn but I'm rather grateful when the grass' enthusiasm wanes in this eighth month. It seems like the only "outside" time I get in May, June and July involves a mower or weed whip so I welcome the chance to spend a Saturday afternoon doing something else, even if it's also a futile exercise, like sweeping three inches of pine needles off the patio.

Early summer feels like a constant game of catch up in the yard too. Weeds are popping up everywhere, shrubs grow out of their bounds and require a trim, and it seems like every plant needs dividing. Now, plants and trees are settled and just being.

I love to see our field crops in full stride this time of year too. The field corn is reaching toward the sky and obscuring the landscape, in a mostly good way. It becomes this green screen that provides a temporary privacy fence of sorts along our yard. The soybeans are blousy and putting their energy into pod and bean production. The sugar beets are transitioning from pushing out leaves to storing the sweet stuff in their roots. By now, at least one crop is harvested-wheat-and the straw is baled. There's hay to cut but...there's always and forever hay.

It's all an indication that the fall harvest isn't far off but that's a September thing.

The thought of sipping a cup of coffee outdoors some morning feels like it could become reality. When that opportunity comes, I'll scan the backyard, start to make a mental list of what practical projects I should tackle post-Labor Day and then daydream about some not-as-practical ones. Wouldn't a water garden be nice?

The sun in its course seems a bit more hospitable right now. Sleep in on a Saturday morning in June and you're assaulted with brightness once the shade opens. Now my bleary eyes get a chance to adjust. It's certainly easier to corral children and point them towards the bathtub since the August sun starts to set at a reasonable hour.

Yes, more reasonable things will dominate life as the days march toward September but, for now, I'm savoring the easy breezy days of August. Popsicles for breakfast? Why not!

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
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