Bessie the Returning Box Turtle

(No, that's not me, above. But note, below, where the blue gazebo is today. That's the same spot that's pictured here. In front of my late friend, Donnie, is my late German shepherd, Pebbles.

The year was 1983 and my garden was in its early beginnings. Back then I had to borrow a tractor and remove a fence in order to plow the garden each spring. Over time I have turned the entire half acre into raised beds.

Raised beds allow specific areas to be adjusted for specific plants and they are also easier to tend. I can sit on the side of the bed and weed and it only requires a small, easily moved tiller to prepare the beds each spring, allowing for adjustments of compost and soil amendments required for each crop.

That year, in 1983, my friend, Donny came to visit, saying he needed to work off some depression. He was approaching the age of forty and hadn’t accomplished all he thought he should by that time. He wanted some work to do on the farm to take his mind off his worries.

Donny was one of those people who liked the idea of gardening more than the actual work of it. He liked to read theories and tomes about the garden and had been reading about, “French intensive” gardening. He was excited about the idea of double-digging beds, in which you remove the old top soil and combine it with soil from deeper underground. You would first dig down about twelve inches, put that aside, then systematically dig the next twelve inches and put that aside, as well. Next you would put the first soil back in the bottom of the bed and add the second batch on top, mixing it all up as you go with compost and soil amendments.

That’s probably useful for people who live in areas where there is soil. We have almost no soil in the Ozarks. What we do have is clay and rock, covered with a thin layer of so-called topsoil of about one inch. The idea of double-digging anything in my garden seemed completely ridiculous, but Donny was intent and so I pointed him to a spot where I was planning to build a raised bed.

Donny, not being accustomed to actual physical labor, spent parts of two days, digging out the first twelve inches of soil for a bed of about two feet by seven feet. On the evening of the second day of digging, Donny said he had discovered some eggs in the soil and wondered what they might be. I recognized them as turtle eggs, so after Donny had finished his double-digging project, he put the eggs back under the last inch of soil. In a few weeks, there were six baby box turtles emerging out of the bed and scurrying rapidly away.

Over time that bed has evolved. The double-digging left a lot of clay and rocks, so I put another layer of better soil on top. I surrounded the bed with rocks and eventually made the bed about fifteen inches tall with stacked rock sides. I discovered that every year, a turtle was laying her eggs in that same spot of soil and in mid summer, I saw more baby turtle falling out of the tall bed.

It was a mystery to me how the mother turtle managed to climb the sides of the rock wall into the bed each year. I never did actually see her do it, but I’d find her nestled down in the bed under the mulch, laying eggs. Then in a few weeks, the little turtles would jump, climb or fall out and go on their way. I decided to build some stairs for the turtle we dubbed, “Bessie.”

This year again, for the twenty sixth year, Bessie appeared in the bed and nestled herself under the mulch. Box turtles are territorial and don’t range far beyond where they were born. It’s claimed that box turtles can live for twenty to forty years from people who have marked their backyard turtles.

Box turtles are on the decline nationwide. The loss of habitat, wide freeways and fast traffic has caused the numbers to decline rapidly. Turtles haven’t adapted well to the changes in modern life.

People often mistakenly think they are “saving” box turtles by picking them up on the road and taking them home. Because they are fiercely territorial, putting a turtle in an unfamiliar location may mean it will have to compete with other turtles in that area. Or it may not find enough food and will starve. The better thing to do is note the direction the turtle is headed, and carry it off the road and to the other side where it can go on it’s way naturally.
That's the Bessie bed, above with the fisherboy looking down into the goldfish pond. It doesn't look it, but the bed is 16 inches tall, stacked rock, so Bessie as she's getting older, really does need steps!

Each season we look forward to Bessie’s return and glad she uses the stairs in her older years. One evening recently, after observing Bessie in the “Donny” bed, I found her swimming in a little pool nearby. She had walked into, or fallen into the pool. The rock edges were preventing her from getting out and her leg was wrapped up in a piece of string that was attached to a little floating pool toy. Had I not found her, she would likely have drowned. I pulled her out of the water, removed the string that was caught on her leg and sent  her on her way. I thought I saw her turn her head to say thanks just before she disappeared under the foliage.


Butterflies in the Garden

Ozarks Gardening
Jim Long

Butterflies in the Garden

Our open house for readers of this column last week was a huge success. I was pleasantly surprised to have visitors come, just to visit my garden and talk plants from as far away as Wichita, Kansas, Oklahoma, Joplin and St. Louis. Thank you, it was a pleasure to meet and visit with so many of you who read my columns, blog and books.

Butterfly season is upon is. The monarchs returned weeks ago, about the time the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) started flowering. Tourists were out with their pocket knives and trowels along the roadsides, trying to dig up a piece of the brilliant orange-flowered plants. (Plants don’t transplant well when in bloom and besides, the root of butterfly weeds go down sixteen to eighteen inches between the rocks).

I hosted a group of visitors in my garden last summer and as I toured them through the herbs, I stopped beside a big clump of fennel to point out a caterpillar. Just as I pointed, a woman spoke up and said, “Oh I hate those nasty things. I keep a can of kerosene in the garden and a pair of gloves beside it. Every time I see one of those black, green and yellow stripped devils, I put on my gloves and toss them into the kerosene and watch them die.”

I noticed the gaping, open mouths of others in the group but before I could respond to the lady, she pointed in the air and said, as if on cue, “Ohhh, look at the butterfly. I just love butterflies, I wish I had them in my garden.”

When she finally quit chattering, I again pointed at the stripped caterpillar on the fennel. “Ma'am,” I said, “see the butterfly? See the caterpillar? They are one and the same thing.”

She gasped, and literally went pale. She had never made the connection between the stripped caterpillar and the black swallowtail butterfly, and promised she would never hunt them down and douse them with kerosene again.

The black swallowtail butterfly is one of the larger and more beautiful of our summer butterflies. Granted, the caterpillar will eat a leaf of fennel, or of dill, or even a leaf or two of parsley. But they never eat an entire plant, nor do they even harm the plant as far as I can tell. And the benefit you get from having another pollinator in the garden is worth a leaf or two. You’ll find swallowtails on many flowers, including zinnias, sweet peas, daisies and more. When they visit those flowers, they are sipping the nectar and in turn, pollinating the flowers. Butterflies are a benefit as well as one of the most decorative things you can have in the garden. Let them be, don’t spray to get rid of the caterpillars, they truly do no harm. And the beauty they add to a summer morning is a bonus.


Basil, America's Most Popular Herb

Ozarks Gardening
Jim Long

America’s Most Popular Herb

Twice in the past dozen years I’ve conducted a nationwide survey of retail nurseries and wholesale plant and seed companies, asking what the ten most popular herbs were, by sales. Twelve years ago, in writing the herb chapter for the Ball Red Book, basil was at the top of the list of most popular, and best selling herbs. The second survey, two years ago, revealed the number one herb was still basil. Those surveys resulted in my little book, Growing and Using the Ten Most Popular Herbs (available on my website: www.LongCreekHerbs.com). Some of the other herbs had changed places in the ratings, but basil, year in and year out, remains the most popular herb in the United States.

I’ve been harvesting basil nearly every day for meals for several weeks. The basils I’m growing this year are: Genovese, sweet, Thai, lemon, lime, boxwood, spicy globe, clove (also known as Indian sacred), green pepper, Greek columnar, and a couple more I can’t remember. Whether you’re growing one or one  hundred basils, it’s important to start clipping them back now.

If you don’t keep basil harvested the leaf flavor changes from sweetly basil, to somewhat bitter. The goal of most basils, from the time you plant them until frost kills them to the ground, is to bloom. Some kinds bloom in late summer, but most begin “thinking” about blooming about now. Their strength starts going into producing large leaves that can support flowering and ultimately, seed production. To prevent that, and get the most use and best flavor from  your basil plants, it is important to keep the plant clipped. Think of it as a hedge. If you are just picking a leaf now and then, afraid you will hurt the plant, change your thinking. The more you harvest basil, the faster it puts out new leaves with the best flavor. Don’t be afraid to harvest sprigs, even limbs, it’s not hurting the plant. But if you let the basil just grow and grow, you are probably going to be dissatisfied with the flavor of the leaves. (This is true of most herbs, the best flavors are in the new leaf growth and the more the plant is clipped and  harvested, the better the flavor).

My lettuce quit producing about ten days ago and bolted (gone to seed). I pulled all but the red varieties, which can take more hot weather, and put the rest in the compost. Instead of lettuce on my daily sandwiches I pick several basil leaves. I like to make basil salad, which consists of a bowl full of mixed basil leaf varieties, a handful of halved cherry tomatoes, and a couple of teaspoons of balsamic vinegar, all tossed together.

The Springfield Herb Club came yesterday for what has become their annual visit to the garden and one of the appetizers I served was stuffed cherry tomatoes. These are easy to make and just about everyone likes them and asks for more. Use either large cherry or small Roma tomatoes, halved, seeds removed and dried inside with a paper towel. Set aside and mix the following: 8 oz. softened cream cheese, 2 French marigold blossoms, chopped (petals only, no green parts) and a tablespoon of chopped, fresh basil leaves. Add 1 tablespoon chopped pecans and mix together. Stuff the tomato halves with the cream cheese mixture and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.

Our open house to visit the garden is Saturday, June 26. Call 417-779-5450 if you plan to come; you’ll need directions and we’d like to know in advance how many to expect. See what’s happening in the garden this week at jimlongsgarden.blogspot.com. Questions or comments always welcome at Longcreekherbs@yahoo.com. Happy gardening!


Read the Label

Ozarks Gardening
Jim Long

Read the Label!

Besides writing and gardening, my main occupation is curing people’s nail fungus problems. If you garden or injure your nails, you will most likely get nail fungus. Years ago I created a formula that gets rid of this problem for most people. That is, if they read the directions. I ship my product all over the world and for the people who read the directions, it works. But I never cease to be amazed at the number of people who won’t take the time to read my very simple instructions.

This is true for pesticide labels, as well, people just don’t take the time to read the directions. In the last few years, pesticide companies have added more and more information to their product packaging, to the point that many bottles come with pages to read. Worse, you have to read much of the material before  you ever find, the actual directions for using the product.

You know from reading me over the years here that I always recommend using non-chemical controls for garden insects if at all possible. I strongly believe that if you put something on your vegetable crop, you are going to eat it, eventually. I’m not totally opposed to using pesticides when absolutely necessary, but if there is any other means of controlling the bugs, I will.

Reading the label is important in products like carbaryl, which you will know by the name of Sevin. Some gardeners look to Sevin for solving all their bug problems, even though it kills the beneficial ones that often can control the pests. Just spraying to get rid of a pest, doesn’t mean you are being safe. The directions have some specific instructions for the length of time from spray to harvesting the vegetable (it’s called the PHI, or pre-harvest interval).

The amount of time you should wait between spraying a crop and harvesting, or PHI is only one day for asparagus, but it is 14 days on turnips and mustard. The PHI for tomatoes and eggplant is different than for something like potato beetles or corn. (And one pesticide often only works on some pests, not all of them).

The other issue when using chemical insecticides is the amount to use. I’ve heard people describe using a pesticide and not being sure they used enough, so they simply added a few more tablespoons of the concentrate, “just to be sure.” That’s dangerous for a number of reasons, and the most obvious one would be the time between spraying and safely eating the vegetable would be greatly extended. If you double or triple the amount of chemical you are using, you are making the crop less safe for you to consume. (Using more than the recommended rate also guarantees you are killing off bees and other beneficials that pollinate your crop; without pollination, there would be no crop).

If you can pick off potato beetles and smash them with your foot instead of spraying, you’ve saved money (potato beetles seldom do serious harm to potatoes). If you can pick off a tomato worm instead of spraying the whole patch, you’ve saved money and made your tomato crop safer to eat. Use as little chemicals as you can because in the long run you are going to eat whatever you put in your garden. And most important, read the directions, it’s there for a purpose.

Every summer I get lots of requests from people who would like to come and visit my garden to see what strange and unusual things I grow. We occasionally accept specific groups by advance reservation, but this year we have an open house day, just for readers of this column. If you would like to visit and talk gardening, we will be open for you on Friday, June 26. There’s no charge to visit that day, all we ask is that you call 417-779-5450 and let us know you are coming (and to get directions because you will need them).

To see what’s happening in my garden this week: jimlongsgarden.blogspot.com. Questions and comments always welcome through my website: www.LongCreekHerbs.com. Happy gardening!


Safer Lawns

Ozarks Gardening
Jim Long

Safer Lawns

According to the National Garden Bureau, there is an expected seven million first time gardeners this year. That’s a lot of new folks thinking about growing their own food, and I think that’s a good thing. I hope it will mean, also, people who grow their own gardens, in their own backyards, will consider the implications of the chemicals they put on their lawns and plants.

Dr. June Irwin, a doctor in Hudson, Quebec, has been on a campaign in her town for almost 20 years to reduce and eliminate lawn chemicals on residents’ lawns. Why? Because babies, children and pets, all play on, roll through, eat and sleep on lawns, and many of those chemicals are not safe for skin contact. Additionally, lots of the chemicals that are sprayed on so-called, “perfect” lawns and golf courses, wind up in the water supply. There’s a lot of evidence, according to Dr. Irwin, that many kinds of cancer and diseases can be traced to these chemicals in local water supplies. (Plus fish die offs and grotesquely-formed fish in streams below gold courses, apparently has a direct connection to chemical run-off from the courses).

A new feature-length, award-winning documentary called A Chemical Reaction tells how Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual and founder of http://www.SafeLawns.org, discovered June Irwin's story as he campaigned on behalf of a kinder, earth-friendly method of maintaining lawns.

Tukey documents Dr. Irwin’s efforts to remove the chemicals in her town, making it safer for children, pets and the town’s water supply. What Dr. Irwin accomplished was her town, Hudson, Quebec, became the first town in North America to ban all lawn chemicals. The town was subsequently sued by the world’s largest lawn care company, but the town won all court challenges all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court in 2001. Today, lawn chemicals are now banned in more than half of Canada and are not sold in Home Depot and other major retail chains in that country. (The same lawn chemicals are still sold in the U.S., however).

This new documentary, A Chemical Reaction, is available on DVD for $19.95 each from http://www.safelawns.org/chemical-reaction.

You may not have noticed after your lawn was treated for “weeds” and lawn insects, that lots of your songbirds were dead in the street. You may not even care, but the people whose water supply is downstream from you, may care.

Don’t pound on me saying I’m anti-chemical. I’m not. I am, however, concerned about the enormous amounts of needless chemicals people put on their lawns, and the effects those chemicals have, for wildlife, children, pets and the rising incidence of cancer and other diseases. There are safe, effective alternatives to dangerous chemicals for the lawn. Consider looking into safer ways of having an attractive lawn instead of blindly dumping chemicals you are afraid to touch or breathe.

To read more about the effects of atrazine and other chemicals on lawns, the proof in the demise of frogs in our streams, check out Grumpy Gardener's blog post. Surely we can do something good to stop this ongoing problem, besides just sitting by and waiting while our wildlife dies and our population's cancer rate grows.


Late Winter Snowstorm

The Ozarks Herbalist; for The Ozarks Mountaineer magazine.
Jim Long

Early Spring Snowstorm

For many years I made annual trips to Tennessee, buying landscape plants from the wholesale nurseries there. It was a trip I looked forward to, driving a truck across Arkansas and Tennessee to the Warren County and McMinnville nurseries. I’d choose the plants I would use for the season in my landscape work and take a bit of time to visit the countryside around central Tennessee.

One year, in preparing for this annual trip, I waited a bit late. It was March, the weather had warmed, the jonquils were in bloom in drifts along the side of the house. It felt solidly like spring.

I had two half grown calves at the time, which required a five gallon bucket of water twice a day. I had two goats to milk, a dozen chickens to feed and water, along with six geese, a dog and cat. In order to be gone the six days it would take for the trip, I had asked a friend to house sit.

He, being a vegetarian, would bring his own food, so I intentionally used up the groceries in the house, not wanting to leave a stray ham bone or a pound of hamburger around in his way. I purposely didn’t buy groceries of any kind, not bread nor milk or even potatoes. The friend would live on rice and beans, tofu, soy milk.

Since warm weather seemed to be firmly settled in, I hadn’t cut any wood, either, which was my only source of heat. I was down to nine sticks of wood and it wasn’t even necessary to have the woodstove fired up at night.

I remember the afternoon well. It was in the 70s and I was shirtless, working outside making some repairs on the wellhouse. The radio was on, the music keeping me company. At noon newstime I listened to the weatherman who said, “Storm warnings and possibilites of heavy snow for Stone and Taney Counties in Missouri.” I laughed. In fact, I swore at the weatherman. “Look outside you moron,” I remember saying out loud. “It’s 70 degrees. Snow? Are you crazy? I already have early garden planted!”

I finished my outdoor chores and went inside to pack. I had at that time, a little 1976 hatchback car, bought cheap, which would take me to town where I kept my truck at work. I continued to enjoy the warm afternoon, even taking a shower outdoors, just to show that it was, indeed, springtime.

Around 4:00 p.m., huge snow flakes began to fall. Then clusters of flakes. Of course the ground was warm, so nothing was sticking, but the snowshower picked up. Again I laughed and went back to my preparations for the trip.

By ten o’clock that night, the ground was covered with snow and it was still snowing. The beds of jonquils and tulips were nowhere to be seen, their heads bent beneath the heavy snow. Still, I went to bed confident that I’d arise to melting snow and head off for my Tennessee trip.

But morning brought new surprises. The first thing I noticed was the house was cold. Since I was nearly out of wood, I had not been having a fire in the wood stove. I then noticed I had no electricity, so there was no radio to hear what was happening in the rest of the world. Outside, I could see that in level places, there was more than a foot of snow, with drifts where the wind had blown over night.

I checked the telephone and found it to be dead, as well. It wasn’t until I heard the dead silence on the phone line that I realized I might be in a difficult situtation. Never before in all the years I’d lived on the farm, remote, far from town, had I ever allowed myself to be out of food. But this time, with my housesitter friend coming, bringing his own supplies, I’d seen no need to stock up. I looked around at what there was to eat.

I’d spent part of the previous summer, canning, so there were a dozen jars of grape jelly. Half a dozen plum jams, eighteen jars of sweet pickles and two jars of pickled hot peppers sat on the shelf. Candied violet blossoms were there and a half dozen jars of tomato preserves, too.

That was it for food. No bread. No meat. No vegetables. Only pickles and jelly and jam, but no bread nor peanut butter. Well, I could surely miss a couple of meals without much difficulty, I thought to myself.

Then it began to occur to me that the two five gallon buckets of water I carried for the calves, and the bucketful for the chickens and goats, couldn’t be gotten, because the well had an electric pump. No electricity, no water. In fact, knowing there was no water on hand, I was immediately thirsty. I ate some grape jelly and a few old, stale crackers, making myself even more thirsty.

I could gather snow and melt it, I thought. But I didn’t have enough wood, and the snow on the ground was now at the fourteen inch level, in big drifts. I didn’t have a chainsaw at the time, nor even a wood cutting saw. I began to panic.

Each day I would use a little of the wood, and melt enough snow to keep the animals alive. If pressed to it, they could eat snow, like I was doing. I gathered broken limbs and kept a small fire in the stove, realizing that if I didn’t, the water pipes would freeze and I would have additional problems, even if the electricity did come back.

One day passed, then two, then three and four. On the fourth day, I was getting really hungry. I’d eaten jam and pickles until I couldn’t stand to eat any more. I’d eaten snow until my tongue was numb and yet I was still thirsty. I’d tried driving my little car but got only a few feet before the depth of the snow lifted the poor little thing so high the wheels were off the ground. Shoveling the heavy, wet snow, was useless as it would take miles of shoveling, up several steep hills, to make any difference.

Finally in mid afternoon of the fourth day, I decided I absolutely had to see people, to know how extensive the storm was, and to get food. My nearest neighbor was two miles away and I hiked slowly through the drifts in the woods, falling over limbs and rocks hidden by the snow. The neighbor and his wife lived closer to the highway and had a four wheel drive pickup. The neighbor drove me to town, where I bought four large grocery sacks of food. I bought a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, five pounds of potatoes, lots and lots of canned goods.

The neighbor drove me as far as he could, but the rural roads hadn’t been cleared, so I still had about a mile to hike through the high snow, through the hills and woods, over barbed wire fences and through piles of broken trees. My brown paper grocery bags soon got wet, I dropped potatoes and canned goods through the woods, making several trips back and forth to carry home all that I had bought. But that night I ate well after draging home a few more broken branches to burn in the stove. I lit candles and ate close to the wood stove.

The next day the electricity came back on. By mid day, the telephone was reconnected. The following day the snow melted rapidly as the weather warmed back into the upper 60s. The jonquils and tulips began to slowly raise their heads and soon the world was back to normal. Never since, in the 29 years that have followed, have I allowed my pantry to become bare. One never knows when a 70 degree day might turn into a fourteen inch snowfall!