Friday, July 14, 2017

Growing Things

July 14, 2017: My garden as it appeared this morning.

Everything is still growing! Which is still something like a miracle to me, especially considering the continual challenges that keep arising. You can see how much larger everything has grown over the past almost-six weeks, especially the tomato plants, by comparing the above photo with the one below.

For comparison: How my garden looked back on June 4, 2017.

I even have several young tomatoes growing on all four tomato plants, as well as one bell pepper that's getting big quickly. The other pepper plants have blossoms that have curled in and are starting to form into adorable little bell peppers.

Infant tomatoes and a transitioning tomato blossom.

More little green tomatoes.

Not that everything is going perfectly smoothly, of course. Yesterday, while pulling weeds at 7 a.m., I noticed how many itty-bitty holes there were in some lower leaves on both my tomato and pepper plants. I looked at the undersides of the leaves and found little dark spots that I thought might be aphids. I'm no expert, obviously, but I remember my mother battling them in her gardens. She was a master gardener who clearly did not pass on the gardening gene to me. I don't think there's a problem of epidemic proportions yet, since the plants appear quite healthy and are producing, but just in case... I went to the hardware store yesterday and bought a bag of diatomaceous earth to eliminate any pesky pests. Death by dehydration!

Little bell pepper blossoms preparing to transform.

Also yesterday, while I was weeding around the bell peppers, I heard a snap! and one of the bell pepper blossoms flew off the pepper plant. It didn't drop. It didn't land beneath the plant. It flew or was flung, literally, several inches from the plant. I was stunned. What kind of critter would have the strength to snip off a relatively sturdy little stem and toss it out of the plant? I searched the pepper plant immediately but found nothing. How can I fight an enemy I can't see?

My lone, tiny bell pepper. So adorable!

My bell pepper plants have doubled in size. The strawberries beyond are
also doing well, although I've finally realized I bought two different species!

The strawberries are a lost cause, I think. Oh, they're doing great, producing blossoms galore and making dozens of little green berries. It's just that I never get to see those berries turn red. They disappear as soon as they make a thieving-critter mouthful.

Green and white berries adorn most of the strawberry plants...

...and then they don't. Four of the five berries on that stem were bitten off whole.

Well, there was that one time... One morning last week I was surprised to see a tiny splash of scarlet amidst the emerald plants. It was a lone strawberry! The stem had held five little berries, but four of them had vanished, snipped off whole like all the others before. I presume they're being enjoyed by rabbits or squirrels, since birds don't shear them off neatly like that.

Nonetheless, one minuscule berry remained, small as my thumbnail but bright red. I knew if I didn't claim it now it would be gone by morning. I plucked it off the vine, carried it into the house like a great prize, washed it off lovingly, and savored the tiny burst of perfect sweetness in my mouth. No store-bought strawberry will ever match the perfection of that tiny berry's delectable flavor!

One brave little berry plant valiantly fights its way back from oblivion.

On the bright side, the one little curled and crumbly strawberry plant that had fizzled away to nothingness has staged a comeback. It seems determined to rejoin its eleven siblings, growing larger by the day. You've got to admire that kind of tenacity.

As for the vanishing berries, I'll keep trying, but I'm not going to throw myself on a grenade over it. I have a plan for next year that involves netting, which I hope will resolve the issue so we can enjoy the rewards of our labors.

My pole beans are climbing their tower! The tallest one,
the one farthest left, has curled all the way to the top of this photo.

Speaking of netting, I'm very pleased with the progress of my little green bean plants, which began as seeds buried at the base of a very tall bean tower. After a couple of bunny attacks that destroyed a few of the newly emerged plants, Dylan and Jake helped me cover them with netting, which completely stopped the vandalism. However, they've been growing so quickly that they began to outgrow my netting this week. Their little vines, searching for something to grasp, found the tower and began climbing it quickly. During their search, several of the little clinging vines got themselves entwined in the netting itself and had to be gently disentangled and urged toward the tower. I felt like their mommy teaching them to walk.

Thus I had to remove the netting two days ago. The vines had reached the point where we'd threaded the netting through the tower, and I didn't want it to stop their climb. I'm pleased to report that nothing has bothered them since they've been exposed, but I don't want to take any chances. While the stalks of the tomato and pepper plants have grown thick and sturdy, and therefore unlikely to be destroyed by marauding rabbits, the bean plants are still fairly delicate. 

A closer look at the vines winding their way up the tower, as well as
tiny holes cut into the leaves of a couple of plants below. I'm thinking ants.

So I clipped garlic pens on the lower rungs of the tower and sprayed a foul-smelling liquid around the base, which is supposed to drive away small animals by offending their sensitive noses (I'm trying to avoid chemicals). And then Mark helped me surround the plants with a scat-mat, which is studded with plastic spikes to hurt but not harm the animals' feet, discouraging them from getting too close. I don't know if any of these solutions will work, but this is my season to learn.

Thankfully, I've seen no signs of aphids or other destructive insects on the bean plants. All of them look perfectly healthy, with the possible exception of one or two that have some small holes cut into some of their leaves. And I do mean cut, with squared-off precision, so I'm thinking it was probably done by ants. Nothing recent, though, so I'm not going to worry about that for now.

Mark helped me install this scat-mat around the bean plants today.

My cucumber plants, on the other hand, have become my greatest headache. Early on, after the rabbits had chewed up my pepper plants twice, they abandoned the pepper leaves and turned their full attention to my cucumbers (with an occasional foray into the bean plants). I was so sad, because the cucumber plants were getting so big and beautiful, covered with large, perfect leaves. At first it was just a few leaves here and there, but then the invaders began stripping the plants of nearly all their leaves. I didn't see how they could survive.

However, I soon noticed that the rabbits came to feast on them only once every three or four days, and during that time the plants were quick about putting on new leaves. Maybe there was hope. That's when I bought the netting, and Dylan and Jake helped me cover the cucumber plants the same night we covered the beans, more than two weeks ago. Somehow, the vermin got through the netting and chewed the cucumber plants up again, three nights after we installed the netting, but they must have decided it wasn't worth the trouble because they never came back after that. That gave five of the six plants time to recover and fill out with new leaves again. (One of the plants still looked pretty denuded, with just a couple of new leaves.)

How my cucumber plants looked when I left them at 8:45 this morning.

The biggest issue I had with the netting was trying to weed the patch under it. Everything got tangled in it and it was basically in my way. So I ordered six bell-shaped cloches to put over the cucumber plants at night until they were larger and tougher. This morning I removed the netting and prepared the area for the cloches, which I planned to put over the plants after watering this evening. The plants were looking pretty healthy when I went back in the house around 8:45.

This afternoon, six short hours later, I walked back out to the garden and was horrified to see that some nasty culprit had already shorn half the leaves off my biggest cucumber plant. I gaped at that mass of bare-naked stems and wanted to scream "Murderer!" This brazen vermin had committed planticide in broad daylight!

How they looked when I came back out at 2:30, just 6 hours later!
(Compare to the two plants on the far right in the photo above.)

That means the cloches will have to stay on the plants whenever I'm not with them. I'll monitor them closely to see how it's working out, but clearly I'm not going to have any cucumbers this year if I leave them open to predators. Hopefully they won't get overheated. I would think the increased humidity would be beneficial--unless it causes mold... There are air holes on top, and I'll remove the cloches when I water or otherwise work in the garden. Other than that, I don't know what else I can do.

The cucumbers under their new cloches, where they'll likely remain for a while.

Gardening has been quite the experience thus far. I'm pretty committed to giving it another try next year, so I can apply what I've learned this year. Beyond that...well, the jury is still out. I can't say I've found much peace through gardening, though there is a great sense of satisfaction in what successes I've seen already. Conversely, the frustrations create a lot of stress, and it doesn't always balance out. I've spent a lot more time and energy and pain (very hard on my knees) on this project than I'd expected, to the extent that other projects have had to be postponed, which is also stressful.

I know it will work out in the end, and I believe it will have its payoffs. That's what keeps me going. That, and the anticipation of a flavorful harvest!

The garden at 6:45 this evening, after being watered and armed defensively!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Our Independence Day

My brother Jeff and sis-in-law Dana hosted their annual 4th of July party!
Eleven of their thirteen children were present. Left-to-right: Ashley, Hayden,
Brinley, Justin, Burke, Callie, Elsie, Jeff, Marcus, Dana, Haley, Emma, and Micah.
Missing were Amber (vacationing in California) and Jamison (who lives in Texas).

And here's a quick look at the craziness behind the posed scene...




Almost every year for many, many years, my brother Jeff and his wife Dana have invited all family and friends, and family of family and friends of friends, to join them at their home on the Fourth of July for a barbecue potluck, homemade ice cream, and fireworks. In the beginning, it probably started as a somewhat smaller gathering, but it has grown over the years. I have to applaud their bravery and endurance, because it's no small undertaking!

My nephew Burke and my brother Jeff oversee the grilling.

Besides the fun of getting together with loved ones and feasting on delicious food, a big draw for this annual event is that Jeff and Dana live right behind Show Low High School. This is where the big, local fireworks extravaganza is presented every year (except those years when we're under severe fire restrictions, of course, since we're surrounded by national forest). The show starts at 8:30 and begins with music and ground-level fireworks, which we can't see from Jeff's yard, obviously. However, right about 9:00 the sky almost directly overhead fills with a spectacular display of colorful explosions. And we get to watch from the comfort of camp chairs or blankets on the ground, rather than hard benches in the bleachers.

Among the first to start filling their plates: Ashley's husband Matt;
Dana's sister Jona; and Dana's mom and stepdad, Cheri and Dee.

The official starting time for the family gathering is 5:00-ish, but in reality people come and go throughout the evening. I'm willing to bet there were well more than fifty people there last night. Most of the attendees were relatives of Dana's, but they've become like family to us, as well, since we've known them since Jeff and Dane were married in 1983. That's a long time!

The potluck table is the place to be! The chicken was grilled to perfection!

The first event, naturally, is always the food! Along with the variety of salads and chips and other sides brought by guests, Jeff and Dana provided grilled chicken, hamburgers, and hot dogs for everyone. Dana bought forty pounds of chicken! Jeff and their son Burke (who's becoming quite the chef--I know because he's cooked for me before!) grilled it all up perfectly in Jeff's new smoker.

My contributions to the potluck: a red-white-&-blue cheesecake fruit salad
(on the left) and my mom's traditional potato salad, chock-full of vegetables. 

Once the food was ready, we all filled our plates and settled in for a nice long visit until dark. While the adults chatted, the many children in the group (along with some of the young-at-heart adults) played games and chased each other around. I loved to watch them. It brings back so many memories of playing with cousins and friends at similar gatherings during my growing-up years.

Dana's mom, Cheri (otherwise known as "Nana"), and Dana's sister Kara.

If you know me, you know how I spent those waiting hours. I chatted with everyone here and there, too, but I also wandered around with my camera to capture some of these memories. I tried to catch everyone I could, but I know I missed some. It's unintentional, but I always seem to miss someone. It's hard to keep track of who all was on the other side of the lens throughout the night. To those I missed, my apologies.

Dana and her daughter Hayden find a moment to sit.

Mark and Sarah find a place among our many grand-nieces and -nephews.

My son-in-law Chris takes a seat to chow down.

My nephew Micah (on the left) with his friends Daine and Martin.

Three of my lovely nieces: Emma, Hayden, and Haley.

My nephew Justin and his wife Jessica.

Dana's niece Emily, her husband Michael, and their two sons.

Two pregnant ladies at the buffet: Dana's niece Emily and Dana's sister Tahna.

Lots of eating, chatting, laughing, and playing fills the afternoon.

Sarah loves those babies! This is Ashley's baby, Adelynn.

My nephew Burke dishes out the ice cream: pistachio or cherry?

As dusk fell upon us, the ice cream freezers shut off and the ice cream was dished up. I don't care that much for store-bought ice cream, but homemade ice cream is something else altogether. Just try to keep me away! It was warm enough outside that I didn't hear anyone complaining about brain-freeze or getting a chill from their cold, creamy cups of goodness. And it's a great way to pass the time until the fireworks begin.

Hanging out in the dark, waiting for the fireworks to start.

Finally, at exactly 8:59, the fireworks began bursting in the air overhead. It was a wonderful 25-minute program that we all savored, with "Oohs" and "Ahhs" heard all around. The only thing that would have made it better for me would have been if my son Dylan could have joined us. He didn't get off work until 9:05, so he didn't make it. Otherwise, it was perfect. (But my pictures were far from perfect, so no fireworks photos on the blog this year; at least, not from me...)

Meanwhile, in Utah...
Danielle and Jacob at an Independence Day Celebration in Lehi, Utah.

Not long before we were enjoying the fireworks extravaganza in Show Low, Arizona, my son Jacob and  his wife, Danielle, were watching their own local fireworks presentation with her family in Lehi, Utah, at a place called Thanksgiving Point. Danielle thoughtfully sent us these photos to enjoy.


Fireworks at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah.
(A much better capture than the shots I got...)

Monday, July 3, 2017

Not Dead Yet

July 2, 2017: Blossoms on my pepper plants started opening yesterday!

Tomorrow it will be four weeks since I planted the first part of my garden: the tomatoes, the cucumbers, half the strawberry plants, and the pole beans. It's been three and a half weeks since I planted the pepper plants and the other half of the strawberries. Not only are they still alive, but they are growing and blossoming!

The strawberries have been blooming like crazy since I planted them.

In all honesty, I'm a little surprised when I go out everyday to water the garden. I always half-expect to find every plant wilted or dead, but instead they seem to be thriving. Well, except for the one of my twelve strawberry plants that just seemed to wither away into nothingness. And, as beautiful as the strawberry plants have been--putting out big leaves, pretty white flowers, and tiny green berries--I don't really expect to see a harvest this year. As soon as the berries start to blush, they mysteriously disappear.

Our scarecrow owl, whose head spins slowly in the breeze or rain, and
the young bean plants that survived the rabbits (two or three of them did not).

I bought a big owl statue to, hopefully, scare away the berry-eating birds (and maybe the bunnies?), but apparently they don't take him too seriously. I'm already plotting on how to handle next year's crop differently. The battle for the strawberries will rage!

Blossoms have been covering my tomato plants for the past week or more.

Seeing all the cute little blooms on my tomato, strawberry, and pepper plants has been satisfying and gives me hope for at least a small harvest starting in August. However, I didn't expect to start seeing actual "fruits" (except for the berries, of course) for a while yet. So imagine my surprise when I was watering last night and saw an adorable little green tomato dangling from a branch!

The first little green tomato I spied yesterday!

After the watering was done, I hurried into my house for my camera to capture the moment. Then, the closer I got to the plants for their moment in the spotlight, the more little tomatoes I discovered! I did it! Okay, I admit there's still plenty of time for things to go wrong before the harvest begins, so I'm not exactly a farmer yet, but I'm on my way!

And then I found more!

And my battle with the neighborhood rabbits is just heating up. After an initial attack against my pepper plants, the bunnies haven't bothered them again. And the rabbits never have gone after the tomatoes or strawberries (I've wondered if it's because they don't like the plastic devices I have around each of those plants), so those plants are all progressing well.

Unfortunately, though, they really, really like my little bean plants and cucumber plants. Both were thriving and filling out nicely with fat green leaves when the bunnies launched a night attack, chewing several of the plants down to nubs. It's been all-out war since then. Dylan and Jake helped me cover the plants with netting, which seemed to work well for several days. And, so far, the bean plants that survived the early attacks are still untouched and doing well.

Little tomatoes everywhere!

However, night before last, the rabbits somehow got through my defenses and ate up my cucumber leaves again. Luckily, the plants aren't dead and they seem to regenerate new leaves at an incredibly quick rate, but that won't continue to be the case if I can't find a way to keep these critters off them!

My poor, mangled cucumber plants. Will they make it?

When  I got home at 6:00 from dropping Mark at work this morning, there was a small rabbit hopping around my front yard, nibbling here and there (the garden is in back). I thought to myself, "Of all the nerve...!" and I marched through the gate and toward the rabbit. I hoped to scare the heck out of him, but he didn't seem too worried. He just kept slightly out of my reach.

Then the wildest thing happened. I remember my second husband telling me years ago, while we stood in this very garden, that the rabbits could go right through our chain link fence. Not under it, but through it. I gave him a doubtful look (expressing doubt aloud was not allowed, as that apparently meant I was disrespecting him, which always led to more ugliness), and I silently figured it was merely an optical illusion or an exaggeration.

By golly, if he wasn't telling the truth. It didn't even happen so fast that I distrusted my eyes. This little rabbit did not wiggle under the fence. He didn't even slow down to squeeze through one of those tiny diamond-shaped spaces. He strolled right through the fence without breaking stride, as if it weren't there. And then he looked back at me from the other side, through the wire.

That wascally wabbit paused just on the other side of the fence.

I was dumbstruck, unable to comprehend what I'd just witnessed. It was like seeing the greatest David Copperfield magic stunt ever staged. I even took a few steps forward to be sure the rabbit really was on the other side of the fence, that it wasn't simply an illusion. How do you fight an enemy with such incredible superpowers?

Yesterday I went online to my favorite garden supplier, Gardeners.com, and ordered an arsenal to launch against my cuddly bunny enemies. There will be a three-pronged attack, and it won't be pretty. It's on now, Mr. Rabbit. It's on.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Teen No More

July 1, 2017: Dylan poses with his gifts on his 20th birthday.

That's it. As of yesterday, all of my children are in their twenties. Dylan just turned 20, Jacob turned 26 five days earlier, and Sarah is 27 (she'll turn 28 in October). I suppose that's a little unusual. In two months, I'll be 63, when most people my age have children in their thirties and forties. Many even have teenage grandchildren, and even grandchildren who are starting their own young families. Great-grandchildren.

What can I say? I got a late start. Sarah was born when I was 35; Jacob was born twenty months later, two months before I turned 37; and I was 42 when Dylan was born six years later, exactly two months before my 43rd birthday. And how grateful I am for all three of my wonderful children! (Definitely a case of "better late than never...")

Jake prepares two pans of lasagna for dinner.

As it turned out, almost everyone had the day off on Saturday, so we were able to celebrate Dylan's birthday on his actual birthday. Mark had to work, but he got off about 2:00 and Sarah was able to pick him up on her way to my house. Jake also had to work, but he got off at 3:00. Waiting until Sunday wouldn't have made a difference, since both guys worked then, as well. 

Dylan surprised me by showing up earlier than expected, with a bag full of his Nintendo Switch equipment. It seems he had challenged Sarah to a rousing game of the latest Mario Cart 8 Deluxe. I watched him play my personal favorite, Zelda, until Sarah arrived. Then they battled it out for about an hour before Dylan went home to meet Jake and then go shopping for dinner supplies.

Two lasagnas, ready to go in the oven.

Dylan requested lasagna for dinner, which I immediately passed on to Jake. I know everyone prefers his lasagna to mine, and I'm not too proud to concede! Lasagna is kind of a traditional dish in his family, whipped up for every occasion and no occasion at all. Interestingly, in New York City where Jake grew up, they don't say, "I think I'll make lasagna tonight," as we would say it here in the West. Instead, they say, "I think I'll make a lasagna tonight."

Dylan and Jake arrived around 4:30, and Jake spent the next two hours putting together two pans of lasagna. I guess my baking pans are on the shallow side, because he was horrified when he could only fit two layers of meat sauce, noodles, and cheese in the pan. He was forced to continue into a second, smaller dish. Jake said he shuddered to think what his grandmother would say, because a true lasagna must have three layers!

A pile of birthday presents waiting to be opened.

Once the lasagnas went into the oven, Dylan insisted that it was time to open his presents. He was dying to see what everyone got him. He carried the pile of gifts into the living room and waited impatiently for us to gather 'round.

He gave me a hard time for not drawing a picture on the birthday card envelope like I did for the birthdays of Chris (Olaf the snowman from Frozen) and Jake (BB8 the robot from Star Wars). I intended to, but it just got so busy! However, I saved the envelope. I have a couple of ideas...

Dylan checks out the gift from his dad.


Dylan reacts to a whimsical gift from his mom.

Dylan's whole stash (with more coming soon from Jacob and Danielle).

Here's what he got (or is getting soon):

Jacob and Danielle are sending their gift from Utah, so I won't divulge it and ruin the surprise. Jake is getting new brake pads for Dylan's Buick LeSabre, which Dylan suggested.

Sarah and Chris gave him a box of six Hershey bars (he'd already eaten two of them by the time I took the picture above!) and a $25 gift card. Earlier, Sarah had handed the wrapped gift to Dylan and asked if he could guess what it was. He actually got a paper and pencil and took a rubbing of the package, which clearly showed the image of candy bars and a gift card under the wrap. Well done, Dylan, well done.

Mark got Dylan a small emergency lantern, reminding him that monsoon season is upon us. With its frequent power outages, an emergency lantern will come in handy! From me, he received two DVDs (World War Z and War of the Worlds), plus a Bop-It! game featuring Baby Groot (we all adore that character) from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Dinner consisted of lasagna, green salad, garlic bread, and soda.

It was about 7:30 when we finally had dinner, but it was well worth the wait. Jake's lasagna was delectable (perfectly understandable why everyone loves it so much). Dylan tells me mine is too cheesy. I admit, Jake got the proportions exactly right!

Jake shields his eyes from Dylan sharing his ABC food, while Chris laughs.

After dinner, we watched my current Netflix DVD of A Dog's Purpose together. It was a very sweet story, and there were several episodes of quiet sniffling in the room throughout. The guys made excuses like, "There must be some dust in the air."

I ordered this Kit-Kat cake from Safeway.

We paused toward the end of the movie to break for ice cream and cake. We had three types of ice cream and this diabetes-in-a-pink-bakery-box Kit-Kat cake. I'd seen the cake at Safeway last year and knew I had to have it for Dylan's next birthday, since Kit-Kat is his favorite candy bar. I was relieved that they were still offering it all these months later. It was really good, but so, so sweet.

When we ordered it, Mark wanted to put "Happy birthday Dylan" on top, but I didn't think they could, since the top was all M&Ms. However, at Mark's insistence, I asked at the bakery. They said they'd work something out, and they did. I thought doing the icing banner on top was quite clever.

Dylan kept sneaking M&Ms while I tried to get pictures.

Everyone was so anxious to see the end of the movie that we entirely forgot to sing "Happy Birthday" to Dylan! Still, we enjoyed the treats and the silly camaraderie that we always enjoy when we're together. We finished up the movie and then called it a night. I sent as much food home with the kids as they would accept, so I wouldn't be left with a houseful of high-carb stuff needing to be eaten! 

I think my baby boy had a good time for his big day. Happy birthday, Son. We are so proud of you!

The birthday boy with his cake and a purloined M&M between his teeth.