Tag: Gardening

What We Do: October 2017

What We Do: October 2017

When I write blog posts here they’re always for you — the Michiganders who support our existence by eating locally and well, the fellow small-scale farmers and homesteaders who like to share in our experiences and earned knowledge, the ag and food-enthusiasts who share our […]

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The Tao of The Fall Cilantro

The Tao of The Fall Cilantro

Spring cilantro is difficult in Michigan. Even with slo-bolt varieties — those that can withstand higher temperatures for longer periods before they begin to “bolt” or set seed, which makes the flavor of the leaves bitter even to those of us who otherwise love the […]

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On Soil Temperature and Seed Germination


The last time the soil was as warm as it is right now, this early in the season, was 2012. That year we didn’t have a proper winter at all, and I had been harvesting lettuce from the garden until well into the middle of January. Last year at this time the ground was still frozen. This year the frost laws have already come and gone, and the soil temperature is climbing — both at two and four inch depths — into the low fifties. Today, as if by clockwork (it’s wet and the weather is nasty to boot) the county came by and graded our road into a soft, red-dirt mess.


A couple of years ago while talking to Maasai elders they assured me and the other journalists I was traveling with that they no longer used their traditional Maasai calendar, but had instead transitioned entirely to a western method of time and season-keeping. Later, the woman who ran the NGO nearby said that she was almost certain they do still use the Maasai calendar, but that they also always deny it in the presence of westerners. Western methods are viewed as more legitimate, more scientific. The modern western world doesn’t suffer famine and the traditional African tribal men do not want to be seen as lesser; as being at fault for the hunger and poverty that wracks their communities. So they tell people they have abandoned the folk wisdom passed down through their generations full stop for a “proper” calendar with twelve months, three hundred and sixty-five days, four seasons.

By the time the woman at the NGO had confided in us we were a couple beers and a whole-roasted-goat-over-an-open-fire away from the days meetings. The elders were asleep in their bomas; a short hike over a dusty hill slung low out into the black sky west of Kilimanjaro. There was no going back.

To this day I wish that hadn’t been so; that I’d had the opportunity to tell them about our folk wisdom. About how the western calendar that adorns my wall tracks the phases of the moon, as well as the days of the month. About the racks of Farmer’s Almanacs in every Tractor Supply Company in the country. Maybe even the common saying in my neck of the woods that you shouldn’t plant until the leaves on the oak are as big as a squirrel’s ear, if only I thought I could figure out how to translate “oak” and “squirrel”. Not to make the point that scientific methods of production shouldn’t be embraced — this is a post about soil temperature and seed germination, after all — but that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive; that often the old folk wisdom has a little science behind it, too. The leaves on the oaks around here tend to be about the size of a squirrels ear just about the same time the soil temperature is just right for planting our major summer crops — corn and soybeans. The old farmers might not have known that connection, or maybe they did, but also understood that, “don’t plant until the soil is fifty or sixty or seventy degrees (depending on the crop)” wasn’t as memorable.

A lot can happen to a seed in the ground. Left too long and too wet it can rot and decompose. Left too long and too dry it can shrivel and die. Left too long under almost any circumstances and it can become dinner for the local pest population from varmints to birds to insects. I once lost three plantings of green beans to a very hungry family of shrews, before I turned the dogs loose in the garden and the Schnauzer brought me their heads (and bodies, she’s not a total barbarian.) The sooner after being planted a seed germinates the less risk there is of the crop failing before it even begins.

Most seeds need two things to germinate well: moisture and warmth; water and heat, the two fundamental elements of life as we know it. For seeds started indoors or in greenhouses both are easy enough to come by, but outdoors is a little trickier. You can go by the size of the leaves on the oak, or you can use a soil thermometer. A little of both probably never hurt. Many universities — especially in agricultural states — also have weather stations scattered throughout the country with the data they record daily available online. I usually watch the data from a local weather station online (which is what I have charted above) until it consistently records a reasonable planting temperature. Then I use a combination of a soil thermometer, my own judgement and folk wisdom about the weather we’re seeing, the forecasts of a couple local meteorologists whose work has proven most accurate over the years, plus a glance at my own schedule to see when I will have time to plant. I guess you could say while some regard an approach to planting as an absolute science, I consider it more the art of applying science to real life.

Either way, this chart of optimum soil temperatures for germination, by crop, is (one of) my bible(s). The shortest length of time from planting to germination can be expected when planting into soil at the optimum temperature, and deviations from that temperature in either direction will delay seedling emergence until, at some point on the continuum the seeds won’t germinate at all — those are your maximums and minimums. Whatever your approach to planting I hope it helps you, too.


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Charred Sweet Corn + Zucchini Relish

We didn’t get a sweet corn patch planted this year, and it’s really a shame, because it’s been a great year for it. Fortunately, we have generous friends and neighbors who did and we’ve been enjoying the fruits of their labor instead. It hasn’t been […]

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Seed Starting 101

As of today there are ten weeks left until the average date of last frost in our area. Of the past three years there was only one where we experienced frost that late in the year — May 10, 2010 — and it was just […]

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2013 Grow List


One Robin, three gaggles of geese, and nine skunks — four live, five of the roadkill variety — have been spotted here since the middle of last week. It may not be spring-like outside, but the signs that she is, in fact, on her way have given me renewed hope in the inevitable and this weekend I decided it was time to buckle down and finish the garden planning and seed shopping for the year. Finally. (more…)

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Gardening 101: GMOs, Hybrids, and Heirlooms

A quick jaunt through the internet, making sure to skip through a few gardening blogs and communities, and you’ll quickly find two things: 1) GMOs are of tremendous concern to America’s gardeners. And 2) GMOs are incredibly misunderstood among America’s gardeners. This, of course, is […]

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Planning a Vegetable Garden

Normally I’m all over this, but somehow the garden planning season has snuck up on me this year. I think it’s a combination of exhaustion from last year, worry about this year (have you seen the latest drought map?), and just a plain old lack […]

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Miscellany: Seed Chatter, Sow Teats + Gratuitous Critter Photos


According to my editorial calendar I had intended to share a Cranberry Scone recipe with you today, and if we’re judging by the unused carton of cranberries in my fridge, that sounds about right. Unfortunately, intentions are not nickels. Because if I had a nickel for all of my intentions I’d be blogging about yachts and some kind of top shelf liquor I’ve probably never even heard of before, not random thoughts from the scrambled mind of a middle class mother.

Or, actually, I’d probably be blogging about Cranberry Scones, because Cranberry Scones would be all I had to do with my time. And frankly, that just sounds boring.

You see what I did there? Tricked myself into believing being a trillionaire would suck. Damn, I’m good.

Oh, Look! A kitten!


You see what I did there? I distracted you from the fact that this blog post isn’t going anywhere with a picture of a kitten. He could have been cuter, but what do you want from me? Cranberry Scones?

The first seed catalog of the year showed up in the mailbox this week. You’d think after the horrendous year that was this past one I wouldn’t be even the least bit giddy over its arrival, but you’d be wrong. The pages are already dog-eared and scribbled upon. The freedom of not running a CSA out of the garden this year is intoxicating. No one will notice if there is no chard, or I skip radishes altogether, or the cucumbers never make an appearance. I could plant seventy-five varieties of tomatoes and not a thing else and no one would say a word. I won’t, of course, I’m far too smitten with squashes and beans to exclude them entirely, but I might come close.

I mean, so far the must-grow-or-I-will-die tomato list stands at only twenty varieties, but the planning season is young. There will be plenty of time for me to wrack up life-savings sized seed bills after the holidays.

And that I will.


After a bit of down time we’re expecting our next litter of pigs on the nineteenth. Sows usually start bagging up — that is, showing development of the teats as the mammary glands enlarge and the teats fill with milk in preparation to give birth — a few weeks before farrowing. The teats get progressively larger as the due date nears and I generally end up feeling rather sorry for the gals in the final week leading up to farrow, but this poor sow is already quite large and her vulva has begun swelling to boot.

Watching the livestock go through gestation and birth never fails to remind me why I’m not having anymore babies myself. There are always plenty of adorable piglets to cuddle, after all, and no one frowns on it when I make them sleep outside. The same cannot be said for human kids.

Until next time…

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Miscellany: Because It’s Been a While

It’s been a while! I hadn’t intended to take a break, but before I knew it one day ran into the next and then the next and then, just like that, the only week of the entire summer that we had “off” was over. Now […]

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