Row Covers to the Rescue for A Changing Climate

Row covers are the desert gardener's secret weapon for growing in a harsh climate with minimal water.

A changing climate challenges every gardener to rethink the way we grow vegetable gardens.  Everywhere the extremes of the growing season are hotter, colder, wetter, drier, and nature is responding in ways we never anticipated.  Bugs don’t die and their eggs or pupae live into a second year to infest plants.  Abnormal cold late in spring or early in fall shorten the growing seasons so some crops can’t mature fully.  Drought stresses plants so much their normal resistance to heat, pests and disease is diminished.  Only one thing is for sure: unpredictability is the new normal. Organic market gardeners who can’t afford to lose their crops drove development of problem solving fabrics called row-covers.  These materials allow rain and air to pass through, but keep everything else out.  They sit upon hoops over vegetable rows to create temporary Quonset hut-shaped affordable greenhouses that both protect the plants and enhance their yields. The basic row cover set-up is about four feet wide and is of infinite length. It’s composed of support hoops made of wire, PVC plastic or metal grids sold for reinforcing concrete.  Row cover fabric is laid over the tops of the hoops, the long sides anchored to the ground with rocks or earth or a long piece of salvaged lumber.  The ends are gathered like a pony tail, tied closed and secured with a stake.  Inside this Quonset hut the plants are protected from weather and pests and cold.  When they grow older and less vulnerable or too large, row covers may be partly or completely removed to allow pollinators to reach the flowers.  The same or different covers can be replaced at any time of the season depending on the crop’s unique needs, or to solve both expected and unexpected challenges. Row cover fabrics vary in purpose and weight.  The most valuable to home gardeners is the super lightweight “floating” row covers made of spun polypropylene designed to keep seedlings protected from insect pests.  Preventing the start of these problem bugs early in the season using a row cover shelter allows plants to thrive and grow more quickly to a size better able to protect itself naturally. Row cover material increases in weight and density with each increment of frost protection.  Using row covers to plant earlier in spring reduces the amount of time you must tend small seedlings indoors.  The row cover can be removed after temperatures warm, or you can replace it with the light weight floating covers for insect protection.  During the depths of summer a row cover can provide ideal shading in very hot southern regions. Then in the fall as temperatures fall, frost-preventing row covers go back on the garden to keep plants productive long after the rest of the garden is lost.  In mild climate regions row covers can mean fresh produce throughout the winter months. Row covers also help to maintain humidity around plants and to reduce evaporation of moisture from the soil.  This is a big help for areas
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The Complete Guide to Organic Gardening Without Wasting Water

Jumping the Fence

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Stay tuned for the upcoming release of Maureen’s latest book, the true life story of a mixed race French Quarter Creole family during the turbulent years of Civil War, Reconstruction and the era of Jim Crow. www.jumpingthefence.net  

Mexican Truffles

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In polite company they call it the Mexican truffle, but in the American corn belt it’s nothing but smut. In fact, the USDA has been trying to eradicate it for a century. If you have ever seen a smut infested ear of corn, you’d know why this bizarre sooty looking fungus freaks people out. No doubt backyard gardeners in the Midwest will see it often this flood year because this fungus thrives in warm, wet weather. But in other cultures the fungus is cherished like a rare and delicious mushroom truffle. First appreciated by the Aztecs, they incorporated it into many of their ancient dishes where it goes by the name huitlacoche (wee-tlah-KOH-cheh). Translation from the Nahuatl language means “crow excrement”, describing its unsavory appearance. Yet this food is still a big part of Mexican cuisine today. In fact, it is canned and sold in indigenous marketplaces, and is also preserved by freezing. It’s integrated into tamales and soups. When fresh, the puffed up kernels are boiled for ten minutes then sautéed until crispy in butter. The traditional time to harvest Mexican truffles is when the infected kernels are in their early state. This puts them in the same condition as mushrooms before their gills open. Some say they should be soft as a freshly ripening pear. At peak the flavor is described as sweet corn and smoke. Waiting too long results in a truly smutty flavor because the inside turns from delicious flesh to a mass of black spores. When the kernel splits open the spores are released, traveling on the wind to land in soil where they remain viable for three years. In the wet central highlands of Mexico and Guatemala, small farmers search their crops during the rainy season for signs of the developing fungus. These infected ears are relished in home cooking and adds to their sparse early season diet. This probably protects their crops from larger smut infestations as well. They sell the excess huitlacoche ears at fifty times what a standard ear of corn costs. In the markets of Mexico City over 100 tons of Mexican truffle are sold each season. Interest in pre-Hispanic ingredients has risen among the organic gourmet world. One famous dinner held in 1989 by the James Beard Foundation featured huitlacoche in many dishes in an effort to bring this new yet old food to light. As a result, the USDA began allowing selected farms to intentionally infect corn with huitlacoche fungus. The irony here is that scientists at the USDA working to eradicate smut in the past discovered effective ways to infect corn with the fungus in order to test their various cures. The Aztecs simply scraped the plants on the ground or with dried fungus to infect the kernels. Despite the fact that it’s a delicacy in Mexico, this black fungus has a hard time catching on in the U.S. and Europe. Perhaps it’s the black juice exuded from the kernels as they are cooked, or maybe it’s
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Galleries

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Satellite Dish Shade Structure

A recycled satellite TV dish becomes a simple rustic shade structure.

Desert Ephedra Medicinal Tea

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If the dreaded flu breaks out in your house, there is a natural home remedy growing all over the desert. You’ll find it in botanical reference books between cypress and pines, but this scrubby native of our desert foothills is nothing like those big coniferous trees. Yet it is a conifer nonetheless, which gives Ephedra californica and its closely related species a unique place in the natural world. Also known as joint fir, this plant’s foliage is easy to spot due to its long, segmented needle-like leaves. Our native Ephedra is related to, but not the same as Ephedra sinica, the Chinese native known as ma-huang, a stimulant antihistamine used there for centuries. California ephedra lacks the stimulant ephedrin, so it is not part of the pharmacopeia. However, it was in the Cahuilla materia medica, prepared as a medicinal tea. Barrows, a turn of the century Ephedra californica growing on a cliff face in the Indian Canyons above Palm Springs, Californica. ethnobotanist claims bundles of this stuff were “almost universally found tucked away among the thatching of every jacal, or packed away in basket and olla.” He also notes that the plant was harvested in the late summer and fall when considered the most potent. This may indicate there are other components in this plant with antihistamine qualities that have yet to be discovered. According to one source, it’s prepared by boiling fresh or dried twigs in water until a “wine-colored” brew was achieved. However, among early tribal interviews it was never used long term, suggesting a potential for side effects when consumed in large quantities. Another use for our ephedra was as a treatment for venereal diseases, and was named early on as Ephedra antisyphilitica. Other common names, teamster’s tea and Mormon tea, suggest this plant was in widespread use among settlers too. Ephedra tea was served in brothels throughout the west. One source claims its common name was the result of a frequent visitor to one house of ill repute named John Mormon, while other groups claim it was popular among Mormon settlers who did not drink caffeinated drinks. Local ephedra plants have just begun the process of blooming. Remember, this is a true gymnosperm so its flowers are tiny cones. It is diecious, a Latin name for “two houses”, meaning that ovary and pollen are carried on different plants. On hikes early in the year you’ll notice the difference between male and female plants with very different looking reproductive structures. Often ephedra is the only evergreen plant to make it through the dry season without defoliating. This makes it a great choice for larger desert landscapes that are looking for shrubs that bear unique, fine textured foliage that won’t wither with extremes of heat or cold. The stems grow very thick and gnarled, and over time they may resemble an aged grapevine. When creatively pruned to reveal the most twisted parts of trunk and branches via “windows” through the foliage, you’ll better appreciate its growth habit. The
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Native Ephedra Natural Medicine

Is the dreaded flu breaks out in your house, there is a natural home remedy growing all over the desert. You’ll find it in botanical reference books between cypress and pines, but this scrubby native of our desert foothills is nothing like those big coniferous trees. Yet it is a conifer nonetheless, which gives Ephedra californica and its closely related species a unique place in the natural world. Also known as joint fir, this plant’s foliage is easy to spot due to its long, segmented needle-like leaves. Our native Ephedra is related to, but not the same as Ephedra sinica, the Chinese native known as ma-huang, a stimulant antihistamine used there for centuries. California ephedra lacks the stimulant ephedrin, so it is not part of the pharmacopeia. However, it was in the Cahuilla materia medica, prepared as a medicinal tea. Barrows, a turn of the century ethnobotanist claims bundles of this stuff were “almost universally found tucked away among the thatching of every jacal, or packed away in basket and olla.” He also notes that the plant was harvested in the late summer and fall when considered the most potent. This may indicate there are other components in this plant with antihistamine qualities that have yet to be discovered. According to one source, it’s prepared by boiling fresh or dried twigs in water until a “wine-colored” brew was achieved. However, among early tribal interviews it was never used long term, suggesting a potential for side effects when consumed in large quantities. Another use for our ephedra was as a treatment for venereal diseases, and was named early on as Ephedra antisyphilitica. Other common names, teamster’s tea and Mormon tea, suggest this plant was in widespread use among settlers too. Ephedra tea was served in brothels throughout the west. One source claims its common name was the result of a frequent visitor to one house of ill repute named John Mormon, while other groups claim it was popular among Mormon settlers who did not drink caffeinated drinks. Local ephedra plants have just begun the process of blooming. Remember, this is a true gymnosperm so its flowers are tiny cones. It is diecious, a Latin name for “two houses”, meaning that ovary and pollen are carried on different plants. On hikes early in the year you’ll notice the difference between male and female plants with very different looking reproductive structures. Often ephedra is the only evergreen plant to make it through the dry season without defoliating. This makes it a great choice for larger desert landscapes that are looking for shrubs that bear unique, fine textured foliage that won’t wither with extremes of heat or cold. The stems grow very thick and gnarled, and over time they may resemble an aged grapevine. When creatively pruned to reveal the most twisted parts of trunk and branches via “windows” through the foliage, you’ll better appreciate its growth habit. The fine textured appearance of the foliage makes a great contrast against the large masses of
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Grendel

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  At least one thing won’t change, Donna thought as she slipped her hands into the alfalfa bale, pulling a flake for the horse her daughter left behind.  Thankful for the one familiar routine of twice daily feeding, she missed all the other daily tasks that composed a life as the mother of an only child who was now gone off to college to start her life. Donna carried the flake around to Grendel’s stall where the mare was always stretching her neck to steal a mouth full before the feed hit the manger.  But Grendel wasn’t at the trough nickering for the alfalfa.  Alarmed, Donna slipped into the stall then out the back into the largish paddock.  Grendel stood there in the shade of the barn, her head held low, tail barely swiping at flies. If a horse could cry, Grendel’s body language certainly showed such emotion.  She swung her head around to look at Donna, then dropped it again, disinterested. As a girl, Donna learned to beware of changes in a horse’s demeanor.  She didn’t always know what a change meant, but her grandfather had warned that anything visible in equine attitude was usually connected to something important.  “Horses aren’t big talkers”, he explained one summer at the old Langley Prairie farm when Donna was just a girl.  “You have to hear them with your eyes, not your ears. Keen observation is your most important tool for knowing if they are just conversatin’ or they’re screaming at you.” Donna felt Grendel’s sadness as she slowly approached, then began gently rubbing the mare’s withers, then crawling slowly up the mane to scratch the roots.  “Kerry was the light of our lives, wasn’t she?” Donna said in a low voice.  Grendel’s eyes flickered at the sound of a familiar name.  “I haven’t been hungry either.  There’s nothing for us mamas to do now that we don’t have a baby.” Grendel pivoted and pressed her head into Kerry’s waist.  “I know girl, I know,” she murmured.  “It’s the same for me too.” For the past weeks Donna had been wondering what to do with her feelings too.  It was empty nest syndrome all right, and she was in a real funk.  Was it time to go back to work?  Perhaps she could start a new career, or go to school for something she really wanted to do.  But there was nothing in her mind that asked to be done, and nothing seemed powerful enough to fill the void. The thoughts of equine body language brought back memories of her grandfather. “It takes age and wisdom to really bond with a horse,” he’d said once.  “Sure, you can ride the hell out of them when you’re young, but now that I’m looking eighty between the eyes, I see a lot more in them.  And I suppose I move a lot slower so I notice little things they do.  It’s the same as a horse speaking to me in their language.  When I
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Living Willow Fence – Free

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  This French gardener is inserting dormant willow whips into the ground and weaving the tops into a lattice.  They will root come spring and this will become a free living fence.  More like this at Mo’s Small Budget Gardening board at Pinterest