Wednesday, August 29, 2012


            Oak Island’s August has been an exceptionally wet one, overflowing the rain gauge with 15.5 inches to date, compounded by a 70% chance of heavy rain tonight, and a 40% chance of showers tomorrow, depending on what Hurricane Isaac chooses to do. Out of 29 days, only 13 came and went without measurable precipitation. Even those “dry” days were damp and steamy, not conducive to gainful labor for Fitzgeralds Gardening. If it wouldn’t add insult to injury, I’d weep.

Tomatoes finito
            Toadflax Farm looks as disconsolate as I feel. Already stressed by the merciless heat of July, the garden hasn’t handled August’s incessant rain so well. Harvests have been small and less than gorgeous. Split, leaffooted bug-speckled tomatoes and brown-spotted peppers dribbled in. While the tomatoes planted in the ground have pretty much tanked, I’m hopeful for a second spurt from the ones in containers. The peppers may revive, too. The cucumbers gave up all together and died outright weeks ago. The eggplants, probably because neither Tim nor I eat them, remain unblemished of foliage and fruitful in the extreme.

'Fireworks' globe flowers & zinnias
flank peanuts' new growth
The big surprise has been the peanuts. When I pulled the zinnias off them this afternoon, I discovered they’d put on a ton on new top growth and even bloomed again. Does that mean a redoubled harvest? Don’t have a clue, because I know bupkis about peanuts. I’ll keep you posted.

During various breaks from downpours early in the month, I planted seeds for late-summer/fall crops: three varieties of pole beans, one row of which lost its competition with the aforementioned zinnias; seven heirloom varieties of melon; a hybrid mini-pumpkin; more cukes, in the ground instead of container this time; carrots; and beets. The beans are well up, and the melons and pumpkins put up sturdy sprouts. The cukes seem to lack enthusiasm. Only ‘Cosmic Purple’ came up out of the four cultivars of carrots sown, but, in their defense (like they care), those seeds were several seasons old. The beets—also from old seed—never showed at all. Perhaps they drowned.

The beans patch
Melons and pumpkins


           Ah, well, out with the old, in with the new. For Fitzes’ autumnal vegetable experimentation, hope will arrive in our mailbox in the form of a manila envelope from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. A week ago, I ordered 14 packets of seeds packaged for 2012 with names to inspire the soppiest gardener: ‘Chioggia,’ ‘Crosby Egyptian,’ ‘Detroit Dark Red’ and ‘Lutz Winter Keeper’ beets; ‘Danvers 125,’ ‘Chantenay Red Core’ and ‘Scarlet Nantes’ carrots; ‘Australian Brown,’ ‘Granax’ (allegedly one of the best for the South) and ‘Yellow of Parma’ onions; ‘American Purple Top’ rutabaga; ‘Amber Globe’ and ‘Purple Top White Globe’ turnips; and ‘Seven Top’ turnip greens. I’ll compost the dead and non-producers and start over with root vegetables and lettuce.

            Take that, August.

First attempt at weaving
             To stave off the psychic doldrums, I took my first weaving lesson yesterday. I’m convinced my teacher is actually myself from a parallel universe. We met serendipitously at Joann’s Fabrics in May and clicked instantly over color choices in yarns. Turns out she’s a weaver. Turns out learning to weave is on my bucket list. It’s all so familiar and comfortable. Isn’t it lovely how kindred spirits find each other? 


            Friday's full moon is a blue one, in case you've been waiting for something for a long time. The phrases "Once in a blue moon" and "Only when the moon is blue" have basis in astronomical fact. The Naval Observatory's Sky Guy--back from his annual August sojourn on Fishers Island--says we only get seven of them every 19 years. Nit-picking astronomers cavil over whether the term refers to the fourth full moon in a normally three-moon cycle or to the occurrence of two full moons in a single calendar month. Either way, step outside Friday evening and enjoy it. If it's not raining.

            Thanks for dropping by.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012


             We’ll get to the vinegar in a minute. I’m feeling quite vinegary myself at the moment because Tim just cyber-sent me a news clip that I find so astounding and at the same time so depressingly political business-as-usual that I have to share and comment.

Would you trust anything this man says?
            Good news, ladies! According to the medical men Missouri congressman Todd Akin hobnobs with, we girls have the ability to shut down our ovaries during legitimate rapes. Not the illegitimate ones, mind you, so don’t go getting too excited.

Pity we can’t exercise this amazing ovary-control ability all the time—the abortion card, as played by the ignoramuses masquerading as our leaders, would just fall off the table. I wish Rep. Akin’s (and friends’) mothers had known. Think of the embarrassments they’d have been spared over the years.

Alas, Mr. Akin is far from alone in his educated witlessness. How about the angry numb-nuts who shot up a bunch of Sikhs because he thought they were Muslims? My dentist’s 30-something partner admits he’s never heard of Chairman Mao. And here’s another your-tax-dollars-at-work idiocy: the Brunswick County School Board recently decreed every school must hire a “literacy coach.” Putting aside for the moment the whole ridiculous “coaching” trend-du-jour, wouldn’t you think teachers already fill that bill? Well, no, not according to administrators who apparently can’t distinguish between a child and a bag of elbows. The local elementary school has hired—after last year’s slashing of teacher and teacher-aide positions—a girl with about 35 seconds of classroom (not to mention life) experience to “coach” people who have spent a quarter-century teaching. The phrase “like a fish needs a bicycle” comes to mind.


             Okay. Having indicated that I am full of piss and vinegar myself, let’s away to the topic at hand.

Pricey white vinegar
            The Bizarro-World Suzy-Homemaker thing that’s assumed control of my brain hit a high note this past weekend. For the first time in three (maybe more, but who’s counting?) years, every mini-blind and all but two windows in our house are sparkly clean. Layers of greasy dust, cat nose-prints, mystery finger marks, salt build-up—all gone. Both blinds and windows rank second only to ironing on the loathed chores list, especially blinds. I’ll tell you true, there is no easy way to remove the accumulated crap of years from those bendy, rattly, difficult-to-balance window coverings. (Blinds are all we’ve got between us and prying eyes: I gave curtains the heave-ho a decade ago. See anti-ironing comment above.) 

Squeaky clean blinds & windows
            Before the astonished silence turns to thundering kudos, I should probably mention our little house only has three double and two single windows, so the whole endeavor took just three hours, from take down to put back up. Nonetheless. What gave me the impetus to undertake the nasty task? The understated power of vinegar.

Pickles made with less pricey vinegar
I’ve always liked vinegar, the way it smells, the way it tastes. It’s my first choice for salad dressing. Time spent in British Commonwealth countries led me to prefer it over ketchup when it comes to chips/French fries. Vinegar is a key ingredient in pickles, some of my favorite foods to make as well as eat. Heating up pots of vinegar to boiling will clear anyone’s sinuses: I dimly recall Momma splashing some into the ubiquitous vaporizers of my childhood.

The cats' bathroom floor
gets a vinegar treatment

            Yes, plain ol’ white vinegar is good for spiffing up stuff around the house. Pour one cup into a gallon of water and you’ve made the cheapest and best cleaner ever. Vinyl floors, windows, bathroom fixtures, countertops, appliances, the stove’s exhaust fan all benefit. And there’s no cloying scent remaining after it dries. 


Ooh, that smells like... nothing
Tim maintains that the sink drain in my bathroom emanates unpleasant odors because I use mostly cold water. He says that, instead of melting away into Oak Island’s ticking time-bomb of a sewer system, the soap and toothpaste harden on the pipe above the elbow and rot. Not to worry—a dollop of vinegar straight out of the bottle kills the smell for a more than a month.

Better'n Downy

             Vinegar is also a lovely alternative to commercial fabric softeners. A quarter-cup of vinegar per load works just as well, while saving money and packaging waste and without additives, artificial colors and perfumes.

Vinegar for driveway weed control
I thought this blog was supposed to be about gardening, I hear you thinking. Guess what? Vinegar serves multiple purposes outside, too. Got weeds in the cracks of your sidewalk or driveway? Instead of spraying Roundup, douse them with full-strength white vinegar. It’s just as effective, ’way less expensive and environmentally toxic, and doesn’t do anything to benefit the maleficent overlords at Monsanto.

Vinegar disinfects pruners
 When cutting away diseased or insect-infested parts of plants, clean your pruners with a one-to-ten mixture of vinegar and water to prevent whatever from spreading around the garden.

            Been bitten by mosquitoes, chiggers, horseflies or fire ants, or stung by a bee or wasp? Pour undiluted vinegar on the injury as soon as possible after it happens to decrease the itch. The pruner-cleaning bottle Tim and I keep in the truck also serves this purpose. (F.Y.I.: ammonia works well as an anti-itch agent, too.)

A non-toxic mosquito repellant?
 The wonders of vinegar never cease. To de-grime our mini-blinds, I hung them on the north wall of our outdoor shower to sponge them down. This luxuriantly grassed (the only place in the yard where the turf gets lots of water), shady area is well-beloved by mosquitoes, especially by late afternoon. As I managed to drench myself as well as the blinds with vinegar and water, I noticed the whining menaces gave me a wide berth. Is it possible that vinegar is an insect repellant as well? I’ve poured some in a spray bottle, and mean to test my theory at the next opportunity.

            Want to explore more uses for nature’s miracle liquid? Check out the website “1001 Uses for White Distilled Vinegar.” You’ll be amazed. And cleaner. And less smelly. And not so itchy.

Thanks for dropping by.


Friday, August 10, 2012


            Our newspaper recently ran an article about a prominent former climate-change skeptic who has changed his mind about man-made global warming, and published a study of lots of other studies supporting his converted views. (Your tax dollars at work.) Mankind must be the reason the world’s heating up, he says: look at the temperature changes since 1950!!!

            To instill just a soupçon of sanity to the rather inane discussion of Who Caused Global Warming, I would like to point out that:

1.      By definition, climate is always changing;

2.      137 years of even the most scrupulous record-keeping doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, as Bogey might say, because…

3.       137 years do not a geologic age make; and

4.      It doesn’t matter who or what is at fault—the task now is to assess and adjust. That’s what humans do best. Theoretically. Although we’re also excellent at the blame-laying thing, too.

I’m just sayin’.

And now government hydrologists warn us a hefty proportion of the nation’s farmland is suffering from severe to extreme drought. Who caused that debacle?

            Here in southeastern North Carolina, we’re not so dry. In fact, since the 17th of July, Oak Island has totted up 12.75-plus inches of rain (it’s raining as I write this), which leaves us only ten or so inches below Wilmington’s “normal” (average!) for the year so far. Based on my own ten-years-worth of weather observations, I posit that Oak Island generally racks up less rainfall than the Big City to our north anyway, due to sea breezes that push moisture-laden clouds inland before they dump their loads.

            Be that as it may, the availability of fresh water for the seven-billion-and-counting people on this planet is becoming increasingly problematic. Ergo, at the micro level, it behooves all of us who have automatic irrigation systems to tune them up so what we waste is whittled to the barest minimum.

            Bite the bullet and pay an irrigation guy to pop over at least once a season to check your spray heads for coverage (no point sprinkling the street or the house) and proper operation (sand eventually clogs nozzles and wears down rotational gears); and to ascertain the good working order of the electrics and pipes (solenoids, valves, pumps and clocks go bad, wires get cut, pipes shatter, crack and clog).

Tim and I shut down our overhead sprayers for good last year, when the price of water sinking into the ground became onerous on Oak Island. Of our five-zone system, only the two drip zones see any action these days. The most efficient, targeted and cost-effective aspect of automatic irrigation, driplines put water directly where it’s needed, as opposed to flinging it into the air to be evaporated and wind-blown. (Surprisingly, dragging hoses around is the least wasteful of all landscape water-delivery methods, if you don’t factor in your labor and aggravation. Which I do as summer temperatures ramp up.)

Trouble-shooting your own drip system is easy. Checking for malfunctioning emitters and breached, pinched and/or clogged lines doesn’t require a degree in hydrology. Besides, with sufficient pressure, careful zone-run timing and a few readily available supplies, a single drip zone can be extended indefinitely, a definite boon to plantaholics.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I shall show rather than tell you how to become your own irrigation guy, in 22,000 words or less.

Here are your basic materials: half-inch-diameter dripline; straight and tee connectors; emitters (these control how much water comes out per hour, usually one or two gallons); and the descriptively named oops plugs, for the odd emitter-placement boo-boo.


First you place the dripline where you want it to go…


…and secure it to the ground, using less-expensive-but-more-work insulation hangers (sold in boxes of 100 or 600 in the, er, insulation aisle of your home-improvement emporium). Tim demonstrates how in three easy steps: click on the pictures because the darn things are hard to see...
Step1: Hold
Step 2: Fold

Step 3: Push down


…or opt for the more-expensive-but-less-work sod staples.


You will also need to pinch off the end of the line, for obvious reasons. Tim and I use electrical cable ties, also known as Israeli handcuffs, as shown here. Because ultraviolet light breaks down all plastics, check these closures every year or so and replace as necessary. If you have a shallow well, the inevitable dirt the pump sucks up will eventually clog the line. We suggest uncrimping the ends once a year or so when the zone is on, blowing out any gooey obstructions. 

            This is how the connectors work, connecting  pieces of pipe in straight lines or branching off a new line from another.

On to the nitty-gritty. You can’t just poke holes in the dripline—you need to maintain pressure in the line all the way to the end, which is why the irrigation gods invented emitters. You also can’t use any old sharp thing to make the holes emitters go into: size matters here. This is why we have emitter tools, available wherever fine emitters are found. (Emitters come in various shapes and colors; the ones pictured here are just two I had laying around.)

Insert the emitter tool into the dripline thus. Listen for the snapping sound that means you’ve fully penetrated the line. If you don’t hear it, you may not have broken all the way through, meaning the emitter won’t go in.


Remove the tool and push in the emitter.

Emitter on left, oops plug on right

 If you put a hole in the wrong place, or if a plant dies or gets moved, you can stop watering a spot that no longer needs it by exchanging the emitter for an oops plug, using brute force.

With your new skills, you can run water to your potted plants as well (no more imposing on neighbors when you go away). A length of aptly named spaghetti line (three to four millimeters in diameter) and some tiny straight and tee connectors are all the additional materials you’ll need.

Here’s how the line looks with the connectors in place…


…and how it attaches to the regular dripline.


Put an emitter (or two, if your plants needs more than one, by using a tee) onto the business end of the spaghetti…



…run it into the pot, and secure it to the medium. Voilà!


If the pot no longer needs watering, you simply remove the entire spaghetti assembly and insert an oops plug into the hole in the big dripline. If it’s a pot you plant only seasonally, just pinch off the spaghetti line with a cable tie, leaving it ready to flow again next year.

Now let’s look at some common dripline problems. First is the pinched line, where a plant’s stem or trunk grows so large as to close off the flow of water. (This picture was staged. Due to correct placement at the outset, we don’t have any pinched lines in our yard.)  

Driplines need to be visible for inspections, additions and repairs. If your contractor buried the dripline on purpose, throw a major hissy-fit and get him to reposition it on the surface posthaste. Over time though, driplines tend to disappear from view on their own, covered by blown-in sand or dirt, soil amendments and broken-down leaf-litter and mulch. Roots grow over them, sometimes compromising function (see “pinched line” above). When this happens, you must raise them back to the surface. Here’s a line, originally laid a decade ago and neglected since, that I’m in the process of unearthing.


If you don’t like the look of hoses running free through the shrubbery, mulch over ’em. Just don’t forget to check every other year or so that they haven’t started to vanish.

Look carefully, and you'll see the teeth marks
A third problem, especially prevalent during dry spells, is pet- or wildlife-caused breaches. The animals hear the water, and paw and gnaw away until they reach it. Squirrels routinely chew holes in our dripline, including the spaghetti line that fills the birdbath. (Go figure.) If your drip zone runs at a civilized hour, stroll through your garden when it’s on once in a while, looking and listening for spewing where there shouldn’t be any. If your system comes on unconscionably early, turn it on at a more convenient hour to scout for anomalies. A related issue is the occasional emitter that pops off. Don’t bother searching for the old one: they can travel astonishing distances. Just go get a new one to replace the one that’s gone.

If I can add and repair driplines—and I can—so can you. Like most of successful gardening, irrigation boils down to paying attention, learning a few techniques, and having the right tools. And that’s really all there is to it.

Thanks for dropping by.