Ghost in the Machine, Life on the Balcony

Balcony is just two letters too many to spell, “bacon.” And bacon is yummy!

Now that I got your attention with bacon, I’ll share my ghost story.

A couple of weeks ago, I disconnected my phone from the charger in the kitchen to learn that a series of things had happened. A) a map app was open and on magnify, B) my music app had been entirely deleted, and C) my main browser had been moved from my home page to the back page of apps. Not only that but in the map app letters had been typed in.

It goes without saying, I had not opened the map app myself, I hadn’t moved my browser or deleted my music app (like serious d’uh), and I hadn’t typed anything. Everyone at home denied touching it. Even the cat. I’m no stranger to butt-dialing or -clicking, but this was pretty over the top even for that.

Really, my phone should have been locked in its normal, run-of-the-mill home page, plugged in & charging, and not much else. But that’s not at all how I found it. Because not only did all of what I already mentioned happen, but the letters that had been typed in to to the map app were the initials of someone I know who has passed on.

I’m normally pretty logical about this stuff. But that was a lot of stuff. All at once. I’m sure there’s a non-ghost explanation, right? Hackers? Super accidental-clicking? And the framed photo that spontaneously flew off my daughter’s shelf when nobody was near it probably had nothing to do with any of this. Right?

Well, ghost or not, such things have a way of making me think about life.

With my music app deleted. I had plenty of space to update the iOS on my phone. That was helpful. So I should update life more often.

And life goes on. School has been out for about three weeks now for my daughter. I managed to carefully avoid over scheduling her summer with summer camps. She finished her last dance recital for the year. She was beautiful! Now she’s relaxing. Doing yoga, science and math in Khan Academy, and generally enjoying the summer. Plus she’s learning to prepare more of her own food including cooking salmon and making beautiful yogurt parfaits which she’s happy to make for others too.

Still life with yogurt parfait and coffee goop

My balcony garden is slowly going strong.

I decided to plant only one or two tomato plants this year. They’re a lot of work. Growing a decent yield of full-size tomatoes is tricky in containers and especially so when you have to carry all the water. There’s no hose hookup on the balcony.

Balcony Garden 2018

The 2017-2018 winter was harsh which meant that a lot of plants that had come back year after year previous years gave up the ghost. So I had to replant several plants. But some hearty plants laughed in the face of winter’s sting and returned to warm in the beautiful summer sun. Some plants always need replanting anyway.

Growing strong are an orange variety of sumptuous cherry tomatoes. Hot peppers. Strawberries. And I have a lot of herbs. Basil is one of those herbs that really loses something in dried form. Fresh is amazing though! Three varieties in five different containers are growing strong. Plus there’s parsley, chives, sage, and oregano. Sweet mint (which came back from last year) and a tasty surprise called Strawberry Mint which has tiny leaves that smell fruity like minted strawberries.

The bee balm from last year popped back up and this year even sprouted a flower.

Strawberry mint blossoms with bee

Bee Balm flower without bee

I had to replant the curry plant (helichrysum italicum). Mine had been growing for years! But then winter. It’s not the kind of curry used for cooking, but I enjoy the smell when I run my fingers along the silvery leaves. Something about it is so soothing and healing. The comfrey shocked me by sprouting leaves out of what looked like a totally dead pot of soil and then sending up long stems dotted with buds that bloomed into clusters of jellyfish shaped, lilac colored flowers.

Lemon Balm grew back from last year too and it has tiny yellow and white flowers this year. As do the Japanese giant mustard greens which replanted themselves from seed.

Sweet basil and Thai basil

I love being able to grab a handful of fresh herbs and adding them to whatever dish I’m cooking or tea I’m steeping.

Ghosts are wild, but a flavorful life is living!

 

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The Visitor

Over the past few days one of the pumpkins on our balcony has been nibbled more and more.

I got the pumpkins and winter squash partly because they’re pretty, but I also plan on eating most of them. I’d rather they weren’t pre-eaten. I’m glad the visitor is sticking with only one.

I’m pretty sure the little visitor is a squirrel, not a bird. Something also dug into one of the flower pots. Birds don’t dig.

Most squirrels can’t make it to our balcony anymore.

It used to be an easy climb. The exterior siding of our building was artificial stucco. It was rough and bumpy and the squirrels could scale it like furry little Spidermen. Ravenous Spidermen that would eat all my tomatoes and some of the plants including strawberry plants (not just the fruit). Sometimes there would be two or three critters on the balcony at one time. (Like they were having a party and laughing at us just a little.)

Now we have smoother siding, and the squirrels can’t scale the walls. So we’ve been mostly squirrel-free.

But there is a tree not far from the balcony. The branches have been growing a little closer each year.

Last year, I saw one squirrel on the balcony one time. We scared each other.

Our cat Fletcher had gone out on the balcony a little earlier. I went outside to let him in and check on plants. I was on the far side of the balcony when I heard a strange noise. I turned around and a squirrel was sitting in the middle of the balcony. He looked as surprised to see me as I was to see him.

I think the squirrel must have been hiding from the cat (maybe behind a plant), and when the cat went inside the squirrel thought the coast was clear. That’s when we spotted each other.

I thought I might be able to chase him off if I ran toward him. I took two quick steps forward.

The squirrel had the same idea at the exact same time. (That’s right, I must be squirrel-brained).

So the squirrel and I ran straight toward each other. Which scared us both, again. We each stopped dead in our tracks and looked at each other for a few long seconds. I thought, “oh, crap.” And I’m pretty sure the squirrel did too.

I stomped my foot a couple of times thinking that might get Mr. Squirrel to leave. He stood frozen.

I thought the squirrel would just run off the side of the building. But, it turned out, that wasn’t the way he got there, and he couldn’t just climb down. He was stuck.

The squirrel needed to get back to the tree which was on the other side of me. He pondered his options as I pondered mine (the door back inside was on the other side of the squirrel).

There are bricks around most of the edge of our balcony. After a few deep breaths, Mr. Squirrel jumped onto the bricks and ran, as fast as his little squirrel legs could carry him, past me and flung himself out into the tree from which he came.

The branch bounced so hard I thought he’d be launched back into the sky. But he held fast and then ran, jumping to another branch and then another. Each swinging in his wake as he chattered away.

That’s when my daughter walked outside. She was laughing. Apparently she could see my shadow from inside (like a giant shadow puppet) and saw the whole episode. “Was there a squirrel or something?” Yep.

Mr. Squirrel stayed away for a while after that. In fact, I didn’t see another on the balcony for the rest of that summer. (The branch he jumped too may have cracked a little.) I could see several squirrels in the tree nearby twittering away.

Well, at least one of the furry little critters has figured out how to get on the balcony again. I saw one squirrel earlier in the summer (he promptly ran back to the tree). Now it appears he’s back. What’s more, he found food, so he’s returned several times now. We appear to be his new favorite fast-food place.

I’m hoping the green tomatoes still on the vine will be left alone. Squirrels usually leave hot peppers alone after the first bite or two.

It’s just the one pumpkin that has been nibbled. But first it was a tiny nibble. Now it’s bigger (and bigger). I’m a little worried that Mr. Squirrel will be bringing friends along for a winter feast. Hopefully, they won’t all be such good jumpers.

But I am worried about next spring and summer. I may have to learn to prune trees (from ten feet away and four floors up).

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Nibble, nibble little, squirrel. Who’s been nibbling on my pumpkin?

 

Copyright 2016 Deb L Kapke

Size Matters: Notes from the Balcony Garden III

In my balcony garden I’ve established that you’ll have better results if you use larger containers. It’s a good idea to use plants that won’t grow too large too (though you can sometimes break that rule). And full sunlight is best for most edible plants, but a few tolerate some shade.

Tomatoes and peppers especially need lots of soil and sun. 

Greens might be a little forgiving with some filtered sunlight. They’ll perform better — grow larger with larger leaves — in larger pots, but some will survive in less-than-ideal containers. Swiss Chard is nutritious and pretty easy to grow.

I tried some lettuce and arugula this year. I only planted a little because I wasn’t sure how it would grow in a container garden on my balcony.

LettuceLittle Gem. I think I meant to grow more than one lettuce and then didn’t. Little Gem is a small variety of romaine. It had a mild taste that would work well with any kind of lettuce mix. I let it get some shade. It may have thrived better with full sun and with more room too. Even with a little shade it still bolted in the heat of summer though not as quickly as my Japanese Giant Red Mustard plants. I should probably have started the lettuce seeds earlier in the season. 

Arugula – I planted two types of arugula. I love that taste of arugula so I was happy that it grew for so long. It seemed to be okay with a little shade too.

One type was, Arugula Rocket Salad (Roquette) which has nice peppery leaves that look a lot like the arugula I might buy in a grocery store. I love the taste of arugula. These grew larger than the other variety. So I guess that’s good. It resisted bolting for a while. I think it started to bold, but has slowed down now. It’s still growing a few small and tasty leaves. 

The other, Arugula Wild Rocky Organic (at least the seeds started organic and I mostly grew the plants that way). This is a fast growing arugula with a strong flavor that I happen to really enjoy. The leaves grew smaller and finer than the other variety. This made the plant look almost frilly or lacy. It adds pretty texture in a salad with other greens. It grew similarly to the other arugula as far as growth and bolting, but more of this variety bolted. But I’m still getting a few small leaves. 

Overall for container gardening I’m not sure the lettuce was worth the fuss. Space is at a premium. I may try it again though because I love the idea of walking out and picking a salad or a few leaves for sandwiches. If I do, I really need to plant earlier.

I love the taste of arugula, so I enjoyed picking a leaf or two for snacking as I did other gardening. I didn’t grow enough to make whole salads for the family, but it was enough for a few leaves added to mixed salads. Since it grew for longer, it was enjoyable to have in my balcony garden. (And it’s not dead yet.)

Arugula – two varieties Rocket Salad (left) and Wild Rocky (right). Picked this morning.

Next I’ll cover herbs.

(Corrected the caption since I had my right and left backwards. You’d think I’d have mastered that by my age. Oops.)
This post is also for NaBloPoMo.

NaBloPoMo November 2016

Size Matters: Notes from the Balcony Garden II

In my previous notes on balcony gardening (here), size matters in container gardening which is pretty much the only way to garden if you want to grow stuff and don’t have a yard or land. Container gardening is also helpful if you have a yard but poor soil or no sunny spots where you do have soil. 

Containers allow you to put your plants in the sun on a patio, balcony, deck, or front porch or even move them (within reason). You can extend the growing season by bring cold-sensitive plants indoors for the first couple of hard frosts.

Along with craving large containers full of soil, some plants are hungry for sunlight. Sun is especially important for tomatoes and peppers. Most edible plants need full sun. But there are a few plants that don’t mind a little shade. 

Greens and some herbs can be a little forgiving if they don’t get all-day sunlight. I usually put the tomato and pepper plants where they will get the most sun, then let the other plants fend for themselves with the scraps of sunlight that fall elsewhere.

I tried two kinds of greens this year along with some lettuce and arugula. I didn’t grow tons of any of them. This year was mostly an experiment to see what will grow and what we’ll enjoy.

Greens

Japanese Giant Red Mustard – This is a variety of mustard plant with a reddish tinge on the large green leaves. It’s pretty. One pot looked more like a decorative plant then an edible. The flavor has a spicy mustard kick which I enjoyed. Leaves can be eaten raw in salads or sandwiches or cooked like Southern greens (which will mellow out that kick). 

These seemed to want larger pots. While they want good light, they will bolt in heat. So strong, hot sunlight can make them bolt faster. Bolting is when a plant sends out a flowering stem that will go to seed. Too little sun and they won’t flourish. But a bit of shade from a tomato plant, for example, can stretch the growing season. Once Mustard goes to seed the leafy parts stop growing and get bitter. But the seeds can be used for seasoning or grinding into mustard paste or powder. 

I might have liked Japanese Giant Red Mustard more if they grew well for longer. They were fine through most of spring but were done by late spring and early summer. On the upside some of the seeds self-planted and are now growing in one of the nearby tomato pots. I’ll see how they do. They aren’t very big yet, so they may not get big enough by the time cold weather kills them. 

Swiss Chard – Bright Lights Variety – This is a variety of Swiss Chard that comes in different color variations. Red, yellow, white, and purple stems have green leaves some of which can be tinged with red. Swiss Chard is in the same family as beets and generally tastes like spinach. It can be eaten raw or cooked. Once they get really big, the stems are best cooked. Or you can cut the stem out and use the leafy parts raw. 

Swiss Chard was by far the best surprise of my leafy greens experiment.

I planted these from young plants in early spring and they are still alive and didn’t bolt. They’ll grow bigger in larger containers, but I left one in the small plastic container it came in and it’s not dead yet. So these are hearty plants! (Maybe they’ll just never die.) 

I’ve purchased Swiss Chard in the grocery store, but find that it doesn’t last long in the fridge. That makes growing this nutritious plant extra nice, I just snip a few leaves for sandwiches, adding to salads, or chopping into soup or rice dishes. Plus its absolutely beautiful! 

Swiss Chard can be fairly cold tolerant (I think), so I’ll see how long it lasts with winter soon upon us.

Young Swiss Chard and a mustard plant that had already bolted by late spring.


it’s not dead yet. Swiss Chard picked today.


Additional posts will cover herbs, lettuce, and arugula.

The Garden and the Hair

I’m pretty happy that there’s a little life left in my balcony garden here in autumn. It makes a fun contrast to the changing trees. And means we get a few more ripe tomatoes before I pickle all the green ones that are left.



And practicing a classic Princess Leia ‘do for, ya know, an upcoming day that  I might want to wear it like this. I should try it around some kind of form to give it a bit more size. (These are much better buns than my nine-year-old self could muster, though, so I feel a sense of accomplishment.)



We visited my mom’s old house today. It will be torn down and replaced with a larger more modern house. We weren’t sure what we’d find — house or no house, trees or no trees. We held our breath as we got close. 

The house and trees are still there. One rose bush has been dug up along with most of the butterfly bush. Not sure what the builder is doing there. A white pipe is sticking up from the dirt nearby. But there’s one rose bush left, and it’s covered with roses!





And that’s it for Day 5 NaBloPoMo.

What the Storm Takes

Tuesday’s storm blew over one of my tomato plants. It was a little top heavy. That’s the risk of not being rooted in the earth or tied to the balcony. I’ll have to fix that. Two hard green tomatoes flung off the plant and rolled under the table & chairs on our balcony. Maybe they were ducking for cover.

I’ve been hoping the few tomatoes we have left would ripen and be yummy. Now I might have to look into green tomato recipes like pickled tomatoes or the classic fried green variety. I hope I can still coax some to ripen on vines or the windowsill if nothing else. 

Bonnie Plants just posted on their Facebook page that now is the time to pick green tomatoes still on the vines. “Nooooooo!” Where? Everywhere? Or just up North? I still want to leave some on the vines to grow and ripen, but Mother Nature may have other ideas for them. Maybe I’m a little ahead of the times with my two green tomatoes. 

We’ve had more rain here this week than most of the summer combined with the exception of early on when it seemed to rain every single afternoon. It’s like bookends.

Hurricane Joaquin may hit inland near here in the next few days. Or not. Who can say. The rain seems to be announcing it’s approach as if a red carpet were rolled out. But winds change. The scruffy superstar may not show up inland. It may only rain a lot.

I’m both a little relieved and a little worried that my mom and stepdad have moved out of their old house and into a newer house that’s farther away. The new home isn’t yet storm-tested but the old had a beautiful large oak with branches over and behind the house. It is somehow both protective and precarious.

In the meantime, I’ll need to move our table & chairs to someplace less exposed just in case part of the storm reaches us. Our balcony gets very windy. I’ll also need to move or tie down any remaining plants. The rest remains to be seen.