Yellopig Is Free

Or, Recreating A Life From Scratch

Hole #2: Breaking Ground

I do learn, slowly. Here’s the first lesson I learned when digging the first garden bed: water is my friend. Well, sort of. While digging the first bed, I noticed how much easier it was to chip out the dirt after it had rained. So I began watering the hole at the end of a day of digging, hoping to soften it up for the next day. Unfortunately, by the time I figured that out, some parts of the hole were much deeper than other parts, so the water would all run into those spots, and I ended up with deep soft spots alternating with hard mounds where the water just ran off.

And I really don’t know why it took me so long to buy a caliche bar either. “Caliche bar” is the local, modern name for a tool that is only a tool in the most basic sense of that word. An alternate name for this tool is “digging stick”, and I’m pretty sure the design of the tool hasn’t changed much in about twelve thousand years. The modern digging stick is a 6′ iron pole that has a square blade on one end for chipping and a sort of flattened knob on the other end for tamping. It weighs somewhere between 10 and 800 pounds. (It becomes heavier as you use it: ✨Magic!✨) The idea is that you pick it up vertically, then let it fall, blade end down (and hopefully with some directional control), and it embeds itself a tiny way into the dirt. You then repeat that several thousand times, or until your arms fall off. Next: go inside and have a nice cold drink. Or three. Take a shower. Read a book. Or three. Have dinner. Watch several hours of TV. Go to bed.

I’m kidding: I don’t have TV.

The next day (or whenever the arms have been reattached), it’s time to scrape out the dirt that has been chipped up. Unless, of course, it has rained since you stopped chipping, in which case there is now an inch of mud in the hole. Do Not dig up that mud! Mud is much heavier than dirt, and you’ll end up going in for that drink way sooner than you had planned. Moreover, it’s very messy trying to sift the stones out of mud, and that mud will form a nice, thick, hard crust wherever you temporarily put it, making it more difficult to deal with later. So really what I’m saying is that if it rained after you chipped up the dirt, you should just find something else to do today. Like laundry or something. Once the dirt is dried out, you can go chip it all again. It’s easier the second time, honest!

And it eventually took a bit over four months to dig out the first garden bed, mostly with just the spade: 4’x6’x2′, or 48 cubic feet of dirt.

The next lesson is also about those deep soft pockets among hard mounds of dirt: the whole project will go easier if you don’t let that happen. I started the tree moat at the highest edge, hoping to make it an even depth all around. It was a good plan, and mostly worked. that hole is now 17′ in diameter, and about 8″ deep. That took about a year, and I find that the higher edge is still higher than the rest, and so there is some continuing effort to level the bottom. I had to wait for a good rain to find that out, because I am reluctant to flood the moat with the hose to find the high spots — seems like a waste of good water. Anyway, I think I mentioned before, the dirt from the tree moat has been moved out to shore up the walking paths through the back 40 (well, the back 6 as it happens).

All those lessons for this:


Once the new bed was marked out, I tied a string around the corner stakes and chipped out the edge of the bed, and then chipped out reasonably-sized blocks within the bed that will allow me to track progress every day (or week, whatevs — I don’t stress myself much about schedule). As it turned out, it took three days to get the first layer of dirt out:


Nice, eh? OK, a little too nice: that’s my slight case of OCD showing, I think. I’ll accept that and move on. And just for added entertainment, you can see that I tripped over the marker string and broke it along the back edge. Harrumph.


Ha! I can already see big rocks lying in wait. Anyway, one last lesson from the first garden bed: sift the dirt as you go. It was a little distressing that when I finally got that hole big enough, the resulting dirt pile was full of rocks and stones that still needed to be removed before putting the dirt back in the hole. I think the whole last month-and-a-half of digging the first bed was taken up with sifting the dirt. I’m better prepared this time.


There’s my first pile of dirt, sifted and ready to mix with soil amender and put back in the hole, probably around Yule. I hope it doesn’t take that long, although the hole is bigger this time: 4.5’x2’x8′ or 56 cubic feet. I have to keep that number in mind when I buy the soil amendment, which should be a third of that, or ~19 cubic feet.

Summer Critter Roundup 2015

Well, I have to clear out the critter clutter now, because with the real arrival of the monsoon rains, a whole new crop of them has emerged.

So this first picture has been the hold-up all along. I found this Arizona Walkingstick (Diapheromera arizonensis) sitting upright on the wall. But an upright picture doesn’t work well here, and it took almost forever for me to get around to rotating the picture.


When I did rotate it, it seemed like the poor bug had lost one of its legs. Fear not! The missing leg is hidden behind the bug’s body from this angle.

The many flowers on the recovering mesquite tree provided nectar for a whole village-full of insects.


Including this Tawny Emperor butterfly (Asterocampa clyton).


But mostly for herds of baby Mesquite bugs. Officially, they’re “Giant mesquite bugs”, but at these early stages they’re fairly small. These are mostly 3rd and 4th instars. (Instar is a stage of bug nymphs’ development.) When the sun shines on them, they look like those translucent red dice. That makes them really noticeable, because you wouldn’t expect to see a clump of dice hanging from a tree. See how the little spots of direct sunlight make the bugs’ red bits really glow:


My guess is that this next one is a 1st or 2nd instar. See how it doesn’t have the little disc at the end of its antennae yet.


This last is a 5th instar, with proto-wings.


Tired of bugs? For a change of pace, here is the rear four-fifths of my friendly neighborhood gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer).


I found it sunning itself in the open while I was walking the back 40. While I ran back to the house for the camera, it tried (unsuccessfully) to hide under this prickly pear cactus. See the cute little face peering at me on the right:


I usually try to remove the twigs and grasses that might be in the way of the picture, but in this case I resisted the urge to reach toward the snake’s face.

And now let’s have some more butterflies! This is a Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole).


My wildflower database has failed me; I can’t identify that plant.

And this last one was found at the bottom of the tree moat after an early monsoon storm. It was drinking from puddles there — I’m so glad the moat is forming puddles now. Anyway, this is a Bordered Patch butterfly (Chlosyne lacinia crocale).


Hole #2: The Adventure Begins

I have more critter pictures, but I didn’t want to bore you with them while there is exciting news in excavations around the yard!

Truth: I was getting bored. The digging and sifting of dirt from the tree moat is almost finished. I walked around the stone maze about a hundred times, rearranged it and walked it some more.

20150815-123153.jpgHere’s a fun thing I did last month: the Netroots Nation conference was in Phoenix this year, so I went to that. There were so many interesting seminars & speeches & and stuff to see. Rep. Raúl Grijalva was on our trivia contest team! I skipped the Sheriff Joe Arpaio protest march, but I saw several progressive senators & representatives speak, and went to Bernie Sanders’ evening rally too. It was all pretty neat! :D

Back at home, the monsoon season started, but the rains mostly curled around my neighborhood and so I didn’t get much wetness here. Lughnasadh came, and a big prickly pear was eaten, representing “first fruits” in a climate where grains are not the totem crop. “Use what you have on hand”; that works fine. And then it was time to start digging the second garden bed. Here are the survey (“before”) pictures:



The stone maze has been picked up and the stones stacked along the far end of the yard (top left in the picture below), in preparation for the big pile of dirt that will be removed from the new bed. Next, measurements were made and the corners of the new bed staked out:



This bed will be slightly bigger than the other one. The first bed was dug before I knew what the dimensions of the fencing would be: multiples of 3′ not 2′. There will be 2′ all around the new bed for walkway, so the bed itself will be more like 5’x8′ rather than 4’x6′ like the first one.

The round black thing on the ground there is a sprinkler head. It will be several inches inside the new bed. I’m hoping I can turn it — really, the plumbing underneath it — into some automatic irrigation for the garden. In the meantime, I have to be careful digging around it so as not to crack the pipe.

The Birds and the Bee Mimics

I know what that sounds like, but I only have a few pictures and none of them are even slightly risqué. Those of you who accidentally stopped in for something else are invited to stay and take a moment to look at the critters. :D

I think I’ve mentioned that it’s been a wet(ish) spring. In fact it has rained twice more, just since the last time I complained about it. I’m starting to wonder how we’ll know when the summer monsoon starts if it just keeps raining? And that reminds me of the Country-Western song “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” I know, I know, Climate Change, el niño and all that, but overcast days make me sad.

These birds are not helping. They’re White-winged doves (Zenaida asiatica).


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Garden Update & Root Harvest, June 2015

So the spring garden is coming along nicely. We have new tomato plants:


Already showing some small fruits, under the bird netting and (that day) backed by the bed-net shade. We also have some new wax bean plants:


With many flowers! Soon there will be beans — yum! I’ll be planting more of those really soon. This is me, being “bold”: pollen dies when the temps are over about 95°F, so usually one wouldn’t expect a good bean crop in the dead of Arizona summer. But this year is turning out (as predicted) to be cooler and wetter than usual, so I think it will be a long and prolific bean-producing season. Which is good, because I really like the wax beans.

Not shown: my onion!

I buy one onion per year. OK, this is like “confession time” now: I really like just a few vegetables, and so the extremely small size of my garden is really enough to cover most of my vegetable needs for a year — in this case, one onion. So I bought an onion at the grocery just before Thanksgiving 2014, and I used half of it and put the rest in the vegetable drawer in the fridge (just in case I found a use for it around Yule — which, as it happens, I did not). Two weeks ago, I discovered that half-onion in the vegetable drawer of the fridge, and it had grown roots and a bit of green shoot. As it happens, Arizona is apparently the perfect climate for onions, in that we plant onions here at all times of the year, and they do great. So I just took that onion from the fridge and (after 24 hours of temperature adjustment), buried it in the garden behind the carrots. Now, a week later, the green top is 8″ high, and I’m thinking I won’t need to buy a new onion at Thanksgiving this year! So yay, LOL.


Last year, I planted three potato chunks with eyes on 23 February, hilling them up right away and not adding height thereafter. Two of the resulting plants were attacked by birds and died. The last plant gave me 12 potatoes, shown here. So I got 12 potatoes, and a few were quite large.

This year, I planted the potatoes earlier, on 20 January, and added dirt over them as they grew over the next six weeks or so. All three plants survived (thanks to the bird netting), and in the last week of May, I got this:


(Same bowl.) That’s still about 10 potatoes per plant, but they were generally smaller than last year and some really look like they were left in the ground too long. Recently, I learned that some potatoes like to be “hilled up”, and some don’t. So my take-away here is that my particular potatoes (from the grocery store) are the ones that aren’t so keen on “hilling up” (which is why last years’ crop was better), and my next experiment will be not to do that. As I took out this crop near the end of May, I planted another two chunks, over which the dirt is currently smoothed flat and on top I will add some, but not a lot, of dirt when they start showing leaves. It’s also summer, so I’ll see how they like growing in this weather.



I planted the carrots on 23 October, which is the end of summer here. I didn’t really see any clear carrot action (by which I mean sprouting) until the end of the year. As advertised, carrots take a long time to sprout, but maybe it shouldn’t take quite that long. I can probably wait until December to plant the next round.

Confusing me further, there is some information out there that says that carrots are better the second year after they are planted. Maybe those reporters live in Canada or some cold place? And then, I got word that carrots are like beets or radishes, in that one harvests them at the point when they start pushing themselves out of the ground. Finally there are those who say that you harvest carrots like onions: just before they flower.

Second year? That opinion got a low rating. Pushing themselves out of the dirt? OK, I watched carefully for that to happen, and I kinda expected that might be a good clue. But that never happened. Flower stalks? OK, that looked like a really good indicator, and you can see the tall, thick stalks shooting up in the picture above. At that point, I couldn’t wait any longer, and pulled up the carrots. And this is what I got:


Wow! Here’s what they looked like after trimming:


(Same bowl again.) The big one in the middle is the size of a sweet potato! Yow! And they are sweet, and crunchy and honestly the best carrots I’ve had in ages.

And here’s my problem: I’ve somehow lost two seed packets, the sweet bell peppers, and the carrots. ROFL, I shoulda let at least one of them go to seed I guess…

Mesquite in Recovery

OK, this is more like it!


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Wildflower Season 2015 — Part 2

Greetings from the wet and wonderful Sonoran Desert!

I mentioned that I moved to the desert because it was supposed to be dry and sunny most of the time. Clouds make me sad. I like to see that endless blue sky, day after day all spring, and the whole Milky Way at night. This year, though, not so much of that.

OK, it’s mostly sunny, most days. But we’ve been getting a shower about every two weeks — which means there are three days out of every 14 with clouds, and a half hour of light rain. Clouds! And Rain! In May! Yeesh.

As of the end of April (latest figures available), we’re six tenths of an inch above normal, making this the 36th wettest of the last 120 years! Well, yes, we measure rainfall in the hundredths of an inch here, and when the totals are so small (3.48″ average YTD), there obviously can’t be much variability. The wettest of all those years (1905) only had a bit over six inches by the end of April. Woo. Shoot, once when I lived in Florida, it rained 36 inches in a single day! Sure, it was a hurricane that day, but still. I honestly think most of my yard would wash away if it ever did that here.

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Wildflower Season 2015 — Part 1

I specifically moved to the Sonoran Desert for the weather, or at least what I imagined the weather would be: hot and dry. That’s how I like it. Other places, such as Sweden, Denmark or even Canada seem like better places to live in general, but they all look so cold and gray (in my imagination), and cold and gray sounds depressing. Besides, it’s going to become increasingly expensive to heat a house to my comfort level (say, 80°F) in any of those places, so here I am.

That said, Arizona is probably heading for a much hotter and much drier climate later in this century, and I’m supposed to be thankful for whatever rain does happen here, and rain it did this winter! I would prefer less, but then my garden likes the rain just fine. I already mentioned that we’re ahead of normal precipitation this spring, and that translates into a bumper crop of wildflowers, many of which were new to me this year.

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Winter Garden 2015

Rumor has it, Southern Arizona has two gardening seasons: the winter season when we grow root crops (potatoes, carrots, etc.) and the leafy vegetables that burn easily (such as lettuce, spinach & peas), and then the summer season, when we grow tomatoes, beans, peppers & cucurbits (cucumbers, gourds & melons). In my ever-futile attempt to learn how to follow instructions, I planted lettuce, peas, potatoes and carrots in late October.

And then I waited. And waited.

The winter monsoon started. During the winter monsoon, the clouds close in and there is drizzle for about two days per week. At least, this is my impression of the winter monsoon these days. When the total yearly rainfall is around 13.5″, it’s hard to feel like it’s adding up when the weekly value is somewhere between trace and 0.05″. Months went by. The lettuce was barely sprouted; the peas were leggy and pale from lack of adequate light.

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First Year in the Garden

According to my (spotty) records, I planted the first vegetables in the garden on 23 February last year. So it’s time to assess.

That day I planted a row of lettuce, a row of spinach & three potatoes. All but one of the lettuce plants and all of the spinach became bird food. Darn! Two of the potato plants were also lost. But the third one did eventually give me a dozen potatoes, and they were the best-tasting potatoes I’ve had in years!

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