More cold weather

I guess I shouldn’t complain so much about the cold considering what’s happening in the northeast and most of the country. What makes it so frustrating here is that it isn’t supposed to get this way so you don’t prepare for it or have the coping materials. Our blood never thickens so we’re in constant summer mode internally. My biggest problems are not temperature but wind. Half of my frost blankets had blown off the garden and/or endured more rips and tears. Some of my pvc support structures were laying over so that wasn’t a total success either but I’m for sure on the right track. There was no frost Sunday night because of the wind but there was plenty Monday night and Tuesday morning when the winds calmed. It didn’t get any colder this time than last week and I survived that ok so I’m hopeful now. Rather than having Nancy sew up the frost cloth, going to try my old favorite, duct tape. And I’m going to make a trip to Harbor Freight to get some welding clips to use instead of clothes pins. A welding clip has a much stronger spring and wider lips so it should be more effective at clipping the cloth together. I also need to get more concrete weights on standby down at the garden to secure the edges and keep the wind from getting up under the cover. I ran out of concrete blocks and used garden tools – shovels, hoes, rakes, etc but the wind was strong enough to just lift those up and off. I have plenty of time to get all that together since it looks like we’re in for a 4 day stretch of uber cold. That makes the second 4 day stretch this month and probably the 10th day to hit the freezing point – but who’s counting. I just need to buy a book entitled Gardening in Alaska or something along those lines.

Did get some citrus tree damage this time around. Not sure how significant but got the curly leaves which means at least dead foliage. Won’t know for a while whether or not that has any implications for next season. Certainly it’s early enough in the season that there were no blossoms or new leaves yet to be damaged but not sure how deep into the wood this goes.

There could be one silver lining to this cold, particularly in the southern part of the state. It should kill off some of the non-native predators that have been introduced by dumb asses. That would include the Burmese pythons and iguanas that are now living in the everglades and any place they can crawl or slither from there. This year should set them back quite a bit. Unfortunately the snook which have migrated this far north will probably also be hammered.

And of course the lake continues to drop as the fern growers pump to protect the crops. This is the lowest I’ve ever seen the lake in December. I have seen it this low before but this is March low not December low. We have two more months of potential freezing weather and three more months of dry weather. The drier than normal summer and fall with not even a close call on hurricanes left us starting the dry season with a deficit. If it really gets as low as I anticipate, I’m going to take a shovel and dig out some deep holes to attract fish when the water returns to normal levels. Wonder if the lake bottom muck would be good for the garden?


Reprieve – after the frost melted and we had two days of sunny, 70 degree kind of weather, all the plants recovered. But this coming week I get to try out the new cover scheme in earnest. Supposed to have three straight freezing nights but there’s nothing in the garden that is not fairly well hardened at this point. My only concern at this point is trying to get the covers on tonight. The wind is absolutely howling and trying to handle a 30′ x 50′ cover in the wind is really a challenge. I’m hoping that it lays down before dark so we have a fighting chance.

We had a nice Christmas at Tom’s house. As usual the food was good with a smoked prime rib being the crowning achievement of the smoker to date. It was a beautiful day and we were a able to eat out in the screened porch. And Tina put together a very impressive spread of cookies with a coconut encrusted, lime flavored morsel that hooked me – and I’m decidedly not a cookie or sweets person. Or maybe it was the cranberry pistachio beauties. I liked the texture of those more but the flavor of the coconut/lime was killer. I wanted to be sure so I ate enough of both to confirm that it was a dead tie.

I was extra surprised to unwrap a dream surf reel compliments of the Lake Mary Carbones. Since I was a fairly young guy, the ultimate salt water reels were made by a company call Fin Nor. Originally they were machined from solid blocks of aluminum or magnesium or some exotic material with each gear and part hand crafted. Aside from ultra smooth operation, they were famous for the stability of the drag system which means you could hang a very large fish that spooled off lots of line and the drag pressure would remain constant no matter how long the run. Most drags heat up, then tighten, then snaaaapppppp. When Tom and I visited the Outer Banks a few months back, I spotted one on sale at a tackle shop we visited but even though it was the best price I had ever seen, I just couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger on something that I didn’t really need. When I got home I told Nancy that I screwed up and should have gotten it. So I was blown away to unwrap a present and find the Ahab 8. I need to fill it with a line commensurate with the reel and this is more than likely going to cost me a new rod. I have plenty of rods but …………. you just can’t put this reel on any old rod. I think everybody else got plenty of stuff too but I wasn’t paying all that much attention after the Fin Nor hit the air.

The other thing I really enjoyed was having the now grown up grandkids around for a few days. I can carry on adult level, interesting conversations with them and just relish watching their personalities mature as they diverge into their own areas of interest and expertise. I loved teaching them things when they were little but now love learning from them and being able to kid with them as emerging adults. They all have a nice sense of humor so we can work on each other in a playful fashion.

Wipe Out

The garden is history. An unforecast frost nailed it last night. The thing that destroys me is that I spent the week preparing for the cold predicted for Sunday so it would have been a nothing deal to cover it. I think I’ll box up the ruined stuff and send it to the weather guys at channel 2.

Leaf mulcher craters

Got a small surprise when I went out this morning to turn the compost pile. Not to get too scientific but composting is an exothermic process – meaning it gives off heat. I’ve always known that. It’s what you want to happen and is why you turn the pile regularly – to replace the oxygen the process is consuming. It was about 40 degrees out and I noticed that when I turned the first pitchfork full, it was a bit steamy. Either that or it was powder from the wood ash I had piled on the other day. I put my hand it in expecting to feel warmth and instead got a nice burn. Believe it or not, it was hot enough to burn the skin. Nothing to worry about but a good reminder of what’s going on with those microbe critters and confirm that the process goes on no matter what the outside temp is.

Spotted a large otter in the lake today. He was suspiciously cruising the area where I catch the most spec’s. Since I’m the only human that really fishes for them in this lake, I guess I can split the catch with otto.

The Florida Maple tree has turned from green to yellow almost overnight and, if history holds, will drop all the leaves within a week. Break out the leaf mulcher. This particular tree was the inspiration or driving force behind getting the mulcher in the first place. Over the course of a year, most of the leaf mulch is oak – and lots of it – so this will give the mulch critters a nice change of pace to munch on. This season has to be a giant thanksgiving for them with a wide variety of vegetable leaves and citrus hulks to go along with the usual fare. This batch will have a distinct tomato flavor since the plants that froze were loaded with unripe, damaged fruit and made up a new layer on the compost pile.

This particular tree drops a massive load of leaves but the mulcher cratered after only three loads. The thermal breaker stopped the machine and the smell of burning electrical matter was wafting in the air. I took it all apart to see if it was jammed but it was totally clean. Started it again, more smoke. I love the mulcher but this is the second problem with it. The first was the impeller blades which was certainly my responsibility – driveway rocks tore it up. But I’ve been very careful to suck up only leaves and maybe an occasional twig so this one is on them. I will say something for Shop Vac – when you call customer service a human answers the phone, no push one for English routine. I explain to the person that I need to speak to a service tech on the MV35 and she says ok, hold on while I transfer you. The guy that answers – on the first ring – is indeed the service tech and is quite knowledgeable on the product. I walk him through my symptoms and troubleshooting and he concludes that the motor is history. He asks how long I’ve had it – about a year. There’s a two year warranty so he says they’ll send me out a new motor – what’s your address. No further questions, no discussion about proof of purchase. Boom, it’s done. So while I’m less than satisfied with the product reliability, I’m 1000% satisfied with the service policies and personnel.

Heading off to the Lake Mary Carbone’s for Christmas. Tom bought an electric smoker on Black Friday and has been smoking his little heart out ever since. We got a taste of it last week with pulled pork. It was as good or better than any I’ve ever had. I think Baby Back Ribs and Prime Rib are on the menu for the holidays. Got my fingers crossed that Little Tommy makes it home from Missouri. There’s a large snow event headed that way and I hate to think about him spending Christmas in the St. Louis airport.

Garden Economics

Did a dummy run on the new frost covering scheme last night. The weather folks decided at 5 PM that there was a reasonable chance of a “light freeze” in our area. Normally I would have just blown it off because the forecasters typically overstate the issue but since my erector set pieces were all in place, why not try it out. Nancy and I actually covered it in about 30 seconds, slick as a whistle. It helped that there was no wind at all, but still, it was orders of magnitude better than previously. I plan to reposition a couple of the supports and make it all a bit more stable for the season but all in all, very nice. As it turns out, sure enough there was a light frost on the cloth first thing in the morning. Not enough to damage anything but gave me a nice test of my system.

I mentioned planting beet seeds in the last post and just blew past it. Beets have been an annual frustration. I’ve tried several varieties and just haven’t had much in the way of success. At this point I don’t have soil or nematodes to blame so if I bend my pick again, we’ll have to stick to Publix in the future. I pulled out all the stops and planted 4 patches in 4 totally different garden locations. I used Miracle Gro soil mixed with bone meal, blood meal, and epson salts. Soaked the seeds for 12 hours before planting to accelerate germination. So if I bomb out again, that’s it. I’ll just chalk it up to some climatic condition or soil chemistry we have here that beets hate.

I ordered all the seeds for next season. These seed catalogs are designed by people cleverly targeting me. Each year I get the new catalogs secure in the knowledge that I have plenty of seed from the last season and don’t need any more. And I’m correct. But instead of just throwing away the catalog without opening a single page which would be the smart thing to do, I go through it, item by item. And before it’s over, I’ve ordered $60 in seeds I really didn’t need. These guys just keep coming up with new varieties and make them sound irresistible. I can’t believe it but I actually bought one new tomato variety that cost $5 for 25 seeds. What was I thinking?

According to the experts, the average return from a garden is $1/square foot. In Florida with our extended growing season, it should be at least double that. I reckon I have about $500 in it from the get go – 3 years – but more than half of that is in non-recurring costs, such as the frost covers, the pvc erector set, tools and garden expansion material. I guess if you count the tiller and the leaf mulcher, it gets closer to $800. But who’s counting. The regular annual consumable expenses seem to run about $100. So with my 1200 SF garden, I guess it’s a good ROI, considering only the cash investment. If I throw in my labor at three cents an hour, maybe it’s not such a good investment. To justify the whole thing I have to throw in the exercise I get that eliminates a gym membership – which I wouldn’t get anyway. And the gas savings from Nancy driving 15 miles to buy veggies. She still drives the 15 miles but doesn’t buy veggies so can I really amortize that gas? How about the savings in vitamin D supplements which I don’t need because I’m out in the sun working the garden? or is that offset by having the dermatologist burn off those nasty little cancer things that pop up from time to time on my sun blasted skin? No, after all the analysis, the biggest savings is probably that it keeps me so busy I have no time to sit at the local pub sucking up the suds.

Garden Erector Set Takes Shape

Finally got a look at the lake after the cold snap and lots of pumping by the fern growers. Can’t believe how far they pulled it down, maybe 2′ in the last two weeks. The lake surface area is approximately 60 acres, so that would be 120 acre-feet of water pumped out or evaporated in that period. For those who have been on the dock, the area under the new addition is mostly high and dry. So unless the winter turns out to be wetter than usual, we could be seeing the lowest levels since we’ve lived here by March or April. The only silver lining to that is I’ll be able to install a few wave boards under the dock to help eliminate shoreline erosion in the future. Couldn’t do that when we did the original job because the water was a few feet deep there.
Bought all the bits and pieces for my PVC erector set project and started cutting pipe. I want to have it all or mostly all done by the next cold spell – starting to look like the day after Christmas. The pic shows a few structures I’ve built and placed in the garden for measurement purposes – just randomly placed for now to test the concept so don’t pay much attention to actual placements. I want to be sure I can do all I want with 24”, 30” and 60” pieces. These are all nice multiples in a 10′ pipe section. When I laid out the rows, I wasn’t particularly fussy about row width so each row is different. In the future I’ll try to standardize with the frost supports in mind. I draped one of the smaller pieces of frost cloth over a set of supports to verify what spacing I’ll need to keep the cloth elevated without drooping down onto the covered plant. Wherever the cloth touches a plant, there’s a risk of leaf burn so that’s something to avoid. With this design I’ll be able to put smaller pieces of cloth over particularly sensitive plants/rows and then a top blanket covering the whole garden. Right now the forecast gives me at least the next 7 days which should be plenty of time to complete the job. Nancy repaired the two large cover cloths so we’re good to go on that front. I will be surprised if we experience another stretch like this last one which set all kinds of records. I heard on the tube that in 2010, so far, Orlando has experienced 14 hard freezes. That means we’ve probably had half again as many. There were 7 such events in 2009 and 0 in 2005. Nice trend. Supports my new Ice Age theory.

I now have lots of empty space in the garden where the tomatoes, peppers, and squash resided up until about 10 days ago. I’ve planted 4 dozen onion plants, half a dozen cabbages, beet seeds, loads of lettuce plants and cauliflowers in the last few days so it’s approaching maybe the halfway point again. Over the next couple of weeks I should get quite a few more items going, peaking at about 75% capacity. I won’t go to 100% by design because I want to have room for early spring starts. I always like to start some things way too early just in case the weather is more favorable than expected. The worst that can happen is that the early stuff doesn’t make it but the upside is nice – tomatoes in April or May. I might also give a try at using some of the frost cloth full time over a few things even after the frost danger has past to see if I can hold off the bugs longer. Usually the bugs can’t bother a full grown plant but can be devastating on young stuff. Always something new to try and now that the soil is well balanced, I can turn my attention to these finer details.

The pumpkin flag has been replaced by Santa so we’re seasonally correct.

A mixed story on the garden

The cold weather finally broke and we have seasonably warm (mid 70‘s) weather forecast for the next week. So the covers came off the garden. Recall, in the last 10 days we’ve had five below freezing and three with what the meteorologists call a hard freeze. I think that’s temps below freezing for more than 4 hours. The only really sensitive crops under cover were the tomatoes and peppers. Gone. No surprise there. I ended up with a 5 gallon bucket full of green tomatoes, some of which will ripen, others that will be fried or baked green. The bushes were full and the roots clean so no question, I have broken the code on growing tomatoes.

Some particular areas of the garden were covered with a single layer of frost cloth, other areas with a double layer. It would have all been under double cover if I didn’t have the tall tomato plants to worry about. With the tent pole affect they create, the individual covers are not large enough to do the whole garden so around the edges, there’s only a single layer.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the lettuce, spinach, and parsley planted in the side garden – an old fire pit – made it just fine. No signs of any damage. This side garden is located closer to the jungle and is much more protected from the NW winds than the main garden. So the combination of a more protected area and cold tolerant plants resulted in 100%survival, even with only a single cover.

In the main garden, kind of a mixed story. Celery, carrots,radishes, peas and Swiss Chard, no problems. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, collards and brussels sprouts – not so sure. They definitely are alive but looking like they’ve had a tough fight. Some of this might be a lack of water. It’s been very dry for a week with no way to water things under the covers so part of the problem may be just that. I watered them all well and perhaps a day or two of water and sun will revive them. I’m calling them “on life support”. Some of the cabbage is pickable – not full size but large enough for a meal.

Adjusting to the Ice Age

Wonder what’s going on under the frost blankets. According to the weather folks, we’ve been below freezing for hours and hours for three days – a record stretch – so conventional wisdom has it that I will join the ranks of Florida farmers who have lost the whole crop. Looking at the fruit trees from the warmth of the house, they seem to have made it so far. You can tell if a tree’s been hurt because the leaves curl up and these haven’t. I really don’t know what to expect. I mostly have hardy veggies which, in years past, have survived temp’s on this order so it’s possible that it won’t be a total loss. Looks like things will return to normal on Thursday after one more record shattering night and I’ll remove the garden blankets. No matter how things turn out, we’ll have a bit of repair work to do on the blankets themselves. The wind has been howling for a few days and caused a few rips and tears but this is the third season for them and they’ve more than paid for themselves with saved veggies. The gov declared a state of emergency which I think means we get some kind of fed money to help cover the lost crops. Wonder where I sign up and will it cover some new frost cloth?

The inside of the house has taken on the look of a plant nursery. Anything that could be moved inside, has; Lots of new veggie starts that would normally be out on the porch are inside. That’s the stuff going into the garden as soon as it looks safe to replant. The guest bathroom is now a full blown arboretum.

Now that I’m convinced we’re entering an ice age, I need to do something a bit more aggressive with the garden so I’m designing a system of PVC pieces that will allow me to set up a variety of structures within the garden depending on exactly what crop needs what level of protection. And to make the whole job of covering, easier and less subject to ripping. My concept is to cut 1/2” schedule 40 PVC pipes into 30” pieces and then to use combinations of elbows, T’s, connectors, and caps to create a wide variety of shapes and functional pieces. Sort of a garden erector set. I’m going to start with a dozen or so 10′ pipe sections and 50 each of the various connecting pieces. In addition to use during the winter, I’ll be able to make tomato cages, pole bean trellis, and cucumber support structures during the warm season – different configurations for different seasons and crops.

A new ice age starts

I’m getting nervous that 2010 is going to go down in history as the start of the next ice age. I’m waiting for the more subtle signs, such as elephants starting to grow hair as their tusks get longer and more curved. Or the front fangs of tigers growing noticeably longer and more saber like. I can see me trading in my 0.5 oz garden cover cloth for the 1.0 oz grade.

Went out and made one last rescue harvest on the citrus and created an incredible blend of juice. It mixed red and white grapefruit, tangerines, and satsumas. The result looks like a light orange juice but tastes as good as it gets, maybe better. We’re having company for dinner tonight and I can see a few vodka and juices starting the evening off. And probably finishing it as well. It’s like that last batch of spaghetti sauce Nancy created – this blend of juices can never be duplicated. Even by me since I didn’t write down the exact mix. One fear I have is that it’s scheduled to get so cold tonight that it could take out one or more citrus trees. What a heartbreak that would be.

Sometimes I think my bride has a screw loose. When you come down our driveway you are greeted by a flag hanging off a tree mounted pole. We (she) have different flags for different seasons. Nancy loves to buy them but then it becomes my responsibility to change them as the time dictates or to repair it when the UPS guy loses it careening down the driveway. She got a new Christmas flag last week so I guess that means it’s time for the pumpkin and scarecrow flag to come down. So this morning, as is my custom, I headed up to the road to get the paper and about halfway down the road I hear Nancy yelling and waving the flag. That’s a clue that she expects me to come back, get the flag, and hang it. Trouble is we’re experiencing 35 degree temps and gale force winds. That means the wind chill factor is -1000 degrees. Is it sane to expect me to get involved with a flag hanging project under these conditions? I think not. I’m really just fine with pumpkins; it is still fall you know, frigid temps notwithstanding.

I did manage to get out spec fishing for a few hours Saturday between cold fronts. Got four keepers, a gar, and a mudfish. It was too cold for me to mess around with cleaning fish so I let the specs go and kept the rough fish to become fertilizer in the garden. The good news is that the spec’s are on the move and back in the same spot I nailed them big time last year. Now if I can get a day on the lake without whitecaps…………….

Will’s the man

I’m getting great blog material from Simon now and again. He’s my eyes and ears in Gainesville. He called me right after Urban Meyers had the team meeting where he announced his resignation but before the official press conference and was first to break the news (to me) about the replacement announcement. Simon’s roommate is a Journalism major specializing in sports journalism and maintains a blog called Gatorraid. That sort of makes him a member of the press, doesn’t it? So he, Simon and Julia hatched a plan to get them into the official press conference. Julia photo shopped a realistic looking press pass which they encased in plastic to make it official. It got them past the front door but they were nailed at the dreaded list desk where they somehow had not made the official list. Good try guys, very creative. I’m impressed.

On the Gators – Will Muschamps was certainly a surprise pick to the general public, me included, but the more I read about him, the better I’m feeling. If he was next in line for the Texas head coaching job, how bad can he be? And I’ve always liked the idea of defensive coaches becoming head coaches; don’t forget, two former Gator defensive coaches were named early on as possible Meyer successors. Personally I think this process was started last year when Urban resigned the first time and bet there were discussions with Muschamps as far back as that. I still wonder why the resignation was announced so early and not after the bowl games? It does give Will an opportunity to jump on the high profile recruits before they start straying. Why did Meyer’s really resign? My guess is health and constant pressure from his wife. I just can’t buy that you would quit coaching the Gators to see your daughters play soccer. I have trouble buying that you’d quit anything to see your daughters play soccer. I guess you might quit mowing the lawn or something.

Got my first patch of potatoes going in the few warm days between the arctic blasts. Last year’s potatoes turned out successful so this year I’m pulling out the stops. We bought 3 varieties; the little red ones (no idea what variety); Yukon Golds; and a variety called Klondike Rose, which are a red skinned fingerling style potato with a gold flesh. So far only the little red ones have developed eyes so that was the first variety planted. In a perfect world, the other’s will start sprouting in 3 weeks and 6 weeks respectively so that the harvest is spread over a couple of months. In a hard, cruel world, none of these will sprout eyes. The experience last year was that each piece planted turned into about a pound of potatoes. I got two or three pieces with eyes from each potato, a total of 15 pieces, so that could yield 15-20 pounds of potatoes in March.

Nancy made the best spaghetti ever the other night. All fresh tomatoes – a combination of Viva Italia, San Marzano, and Napa Grapes. There’s almost a 100% chance that we’re the only people in the galaxy that have ever had that combination and it’s unlikely that we could ever duplicate the exact mix. Too bad. What made it even the more incredible was that she used the special pasta Chris sent us from the small deli in Montclair which, if I haven’t mentioned it before, is hands down the best pasta we’ve ever had. It’s a brand called Pastificio Riscossa and labeled “special cut” just in case you ever happen to stumble on it. It doesn’t get any better. And I think we’re qualified to make that judgement since we routinely experiment with new pasta brands and varieties, searching for perfection. We’ve got to be close.

And you’ve probably wondered if you can use San Marzano’s to make fried green tomatoes. Wonder no more – you can and they’re great. We came up with a recipe for baked green tomatoes and tried it on the Holland Grill. Really good. I mentioned in an earlier posting that I lost one tomato plant to the cold. Well technically the plant was killed but it was loaded with green tomatoes, about half of which were big enough to eat. And we did.

Global warming – read an interesting article in the local paper concerning manatee deaths in 2010 through Dec 5 – that means it didn’t count the deep freeze last week. The grand total was 699 with 244 definitely linked to cold stress and another 269 most likely cold related. This is the largest number of cold related manatee deaths since records have been kept – 1974. 2010 isn’t over and we’re expecting more record colds in the next week or so. Interestingly the enviro wackies, who for years have jumped all over the power plants that dump warm water into the rivers, are now rethinking that position. May be a little late for that. Wouldn’t it be ironic if this critter, identified as endangered, is finally done in by the green weanies shutting off the warm water?

It’s so cold and nasty out I actually watched the Army – Navy football game this year.