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Garden Journal Journey

Loretta LiefveldAll of the gardening advice articles recommend keeping a gardening journal so you can keep track of what worked and what didn’t work. But to me, it has always seemed a little more like ‘food logging’ – everyone hates it, but it works.

I’ve tried for the last couple of years, using different methods. I tried a ‘diary’ version. A page (or a paragraph) for every day. I would write down whatever I planted or whatever I observed. But after I have a few pages filled, I wondered how on earth I could ever find anything again. I tried a couple of computer versions, so I could do a search. I kept it up for about one week.

Well, here I am again, looking for a solution. I scour the internet for ideas. I get gardening templates from seed companies. Nothing sparks an interest. Finally, I make my own from scratch.

I decided what info I really wanted to capture:

  • What vegetable I planted (e.g. tomato)
  • Vegetable variety (e.g. 'Brandywine')
  • Where I bought it (seed company, if seeds; store, if seedling)
  • What year seed was packaged for
  • Leftover seed? (I’m sure I’ll change this.)
  • Planting info
    • Date planted and how many
    • Date germinated and how many
    • Date transplanted to garden and where
    • Date of first bloom
    • Date of harvest
    • Notes

Now to fit the info into a format that would work. I decided that instead of keeping the journal by day, I should keep it by the variety I’ve planted. That way, I can see all of the info for that planting at a glance. This is what I ended up with:

Page Detail

I decided I wanted the journal to be a half-sheet width and height. So I created two on a portrait page, like this:

Two to a page

Because I want this to print back-to-back, I made another page exactly like the first. Then I used the duplex feature, flipping on the short side, to print a bunch of them. Now…. how to put them together in some pleasing way.

Again, I scour the internet, and I find several articles and YouTube videos of making a leather journal/diary. Perfect. I have leather and all the tools and supplies. The instructions are a little confusing at first, making several ‘sets’ of pages which are stitched into the leather one set at a time. I made many mistakes in the stitching pattern, having to undo it and redo it. But it was SO worth it!

I now have a totally customized garden journal! (My son says it looks like something from the 60’s. I thought that was cool. Then he said “clearly not your best days.” Haha. He loves to punk me.)

Front Cover
Front Cover.

Back cover
Back cover.

Spine
Spine.

I’ve successfully used it now for several weeks. I see I definitely need to change the information sections. You can see here that I’ve scribbled all over the pages. But that’s totally okay with me. It’s not for some kind of corporate presentation – it’s just a record for me to look back on.

Filled in Page

This is the second year I’ve tried to grow my own seedlings indoors, and my journal has really helped me realize what the true germination rate is and how my seedlings react to different environments. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I will keep it up. Since I put so much work into making it, I think that will be an incentive.

Worm Turn

Loretta LiefveldJanuary. Winter. Can’t do much in the garden because the ground is frozen solid. A little too early to plant seeds indoors, because the last frost date is still 3-4 months away. Seed catalogs invite me to buy, buy, buy, so I read them cover to cover and make list after list of what I want to plant. Of course, I don’t yet have the amount of prepared space to be able to plant everything I want. Enthusiasm for planning wanes after a while.

I think it’s the perfect time to assemble my ‘new’ Worm Wigwam that I purchased at a Mother Earth News Fair last August!

I already have one of those stackable tray things for my worms. The one I have has 5 trays, and I’m currently on tray #3. It works very well, looks reasonably nice, is easy to maintain, and I like it. But I can only harvest a small amount of vermicompost at a time.

Stacked worm trays
Stackable tray worm system.

Vermi-What, you ask? Vermicompost is compost made by a special kind of earthworms. It contains worm ‘castings’ (worm poop), which are highly nutritious for plants, as well as discouraging many insect pests.

To give you an example of the power of worm castings, I once had a blue hibiscus bush that became inundated with spider mites and white fly. The nurseryman suggested putting worm castings all around the bottom of the plant. Although I was extremely skeptical, I tried it, and in no time at all, the spider mites and white fly completely disappeared! Apparently, there is some natural chemical contained in worm castings that the plant takes in and is repellent to these insects.

Vermicompost is more than just worm castings. It also contains composted plant matter such as kitchen vegetable waste (peelings, cores, overripe produce). A large enough system can also compost garden prunings in a very short time. My small system is barely enough to handle our kitchen waste, and my garden prunings pine away for months and months in my lazy-man’s compost pile (it just sits there and gets added to, hoping that someday it will decompose).

My new worm system has a 3-foot diameter and is about 4 feet tall. It’s a continuous-flow (also called flow-through) system. This means that vermicompost is ‘dispensed’ out of the bottom of the bin, where it can be shoveled or scraped out. This method completely eliminates the step of sorting out the worms in a more contained system. It’s also large enough to handle garden waste and should provide plenty of vermicompost to use in my garden and as an ingredient in seed-starting soil.

It looked easy enough to assemble, but it weighs about 85 pounds, empty. Finding a permanent location for it is key. I was going to put it on top of a pallet, just in case we decided we needed to move it (you know, Murphy’s law), but my husband talked me out of it. My first thought was to put it inside my greenhouse/garden shed, because it needs protection from the rain and snow, and shade from the hot sun. My husband had another idea – the chicken coop. Perfect. In the winter, the heating element on top of the worm bin and the heat from composition of materials will provide some small amount of heat to the coop. In addition, it will be convenient to move the chicken litter into the bin.

The coop is fairly small, so I began the assembly on our concrete patio. Easy-peasy, I thought… until I got to the 2nd step (okay, so I didn’t get very far by myself). Once enlisted to help, my husband pretty much took over the majority of the assembly, and I was the one helping. Although online reviews indicated it only took about an hour to assemble, it took us about 3 hours before we were done. Of course, that included backing into the chicken roosts and hitting our heads a couple of times.

Worm Wigwam ready to fill
Worm bin ready to fill.

It’s now waiting to be filled. The instructions recommend 6 inches of finished horticultural compost as worm bedding to start. Next, add the worms, another 2 inches of compost, and then worm food, covered by another thin layer of bedding. From that point on, it’s a lot easier, layering worm food with worm bedding (to keep pests down). After 90 days, the first harvest of vermicompost can occur.

Filled Wigwam
Filled bin, ready for heater.

Underside of worm heater
Heater with thermostat for winter.

Looking down at worm heater
Heater installed, ready for cover.

I’m super excited to get this going. I’ve ordered OMRI (certified organic) compost online with free delivery, because my lazy-man’s compost pile is not even close to being composted yet. I’ll use the contents of my existing worm system for the final layer of bedding and the worms. Worms sometimes try to escape when they are moved from one environment to another, so we set up a temporary light over the worm bin. The light encourages the worms to burrow down, instead of trying to escape.

My chickens, however, don’t exactly know what to think about this gigantic ‘thing’ in their coop. They are now roosting outside on the fence.

Fall-ing into winter

Loretta LiefveldI stretch to pick that one, huge, perfect apple, just barely out of reach.  It’s so much larger than the other apples on the tree and looks so beautiful.  I know I should get down and re-position the ladder, but it seems like so much trouble for just one more apple.  My 5-gallon bucket is almost full.  It’s just one more.

But what's wrong with this picture?

Feeling the ladder start to give way, I briefly think about grabbing the branch in front of me.  Just as quickly, I realize that the branch is old and probably brittle.  Grabbing it would only add more debris under me, over me, beside me.  The ladder is going to fall under me.  I kick away from it, not knowing if I’m kicking the ladder away from me, or kicking myself away from the ladder.  It doesn’t matter.  We are now separated.

I’m not that far above the ground.   It only looks that way.   It’s a 6-foot ladder, so my feet are only 4 feet above the ground.  I could probably land on my feet.   I’ve landed on my feet from higher elevations than this.  But the ground is sloped, and it’s covered with apples that could roll under my feet.  I could easily break my ankle.  I should try to land on my butt.   It’s the most padded, and least likely to break.

All of this took mere seconds, surprisingly.  I successfully landed mostly on my butt, but also on my back, knocking the wind out of me for a minute.  But in only a few more seconds, I was sitting up, holding my left wrist tightly, as excruciating pain radiated through my consciousness.  I could hardy breathe.  How odd--the pain is in my wrist, but it’s so intense, that I can’t stand up or walk.  I’m not sure where my husband is, and I didn’t bring my phone out with me.  It takes 5 minutes or so, before I can stand.

Holding my wrist tightly seems to alleviate the pain somewhat.  I find my husband, who wraps it with an elastic bandage.  Two aspirin and an ice pack that I keep in the freezer also hold the pain at bay.  But an hour later, I decide I should see the doctor.  X-rays show that no bones are broken, but it seems that I have torn a ligament in the area between the ulna and the radius (the two major bones coming into the wrist).  I will be in a cast for 6 weeks... well into winter.

All of which brings me to ladder safety. I do know better than to do what I did.The ground was sloped. The ladder was not stabilized. I was depending on shifting my weight on the ladder to compensate for the lack of stability. I stood on a step higher than was safe, and finally, rather than getting down and moving the ladder, I stretched to reach.

Just to remind everyone, here are some safety rules for harvesting fruit (do as I say not as I did):

Use the right ladder for the job

Stepladders are the kind most people think of when they think of ladders. These should only be used on flat even ground.

Stepladder

An ‘orchard’ ladder has a tripod design and is only for orchard and landscape maintenance, such as pruning and harvesting fruit. It is lightweight, portable and is intended for uneven ground.

An Extension ladder is a long, straight, non-self-supporting ladder, that must be supported at the top by leaning it evenly against something.  This type of ladder is good for painting houses or getting up to a high place, like a roof.  But it is difficult to use in an orchard setting, since trees rarely have sufficient places to evenly support the top.

 

Extension ladder

 

 

A multi-purpose ladder, also called an articulating ladder, has joints that can be locked in place to create a stepladder, an extension ladder, or a step ladder that is shorter on one side. This kind of ladder is good for placement where the ground is on one side, but isn’t as good if the ground slopes in two directions.

Make sure the ladder is properly supported

  • The legs of an orchard ladder should sink slightly into the ground.For uneven ground, the next best choice is an articulating ladder. If the ground slopes in two directions, place a solid piece of wood under the ‘short’ leg.  Make sure the wood is large enough that the ladder won’t slip off of the wood, and make sure the legs are now even                                                                       
  • Do not use a stepladder if the ground is sloped or uneven. It is extremely difficult to properly support a stepladder under these conditions.Do not step on the top of the ladder. It may look like a step, but it’s not.  
  • As a matter of fact, standing on the step next to the top step is even questionable.  The closer you get to the top of the ladder, the more unstable you will be.
  • Do not reach sideways or diagonally above you. Reaching will change the point of stability.  Just take the extra time to get off the ladder and re-position it correctly.

Finally, it’s a great idea to let someone know when you are going to be on a ladder.  Better yet, have a household rule – no one gets on a ladder


Photos courtesy of Loretta Liefveld

Foraging Treasures

Loretta LiefveldIt's hunting season now, and we've been trying to figure out where all the elk are, since we're new to the area. So, a few days ago, we decided to take a drive specifically to find a good hunting spot.

We loaded the ATV into the back of the pickup truck (a feat in itself) and took off into parts unknown. Robby had found a hunting app that he downloaded to his phone, showing all the forest roads and trails and indicating public vs private lands.

As we drove along unfamiliar forestry roads, we noticed an enormous number of elderberry trees along the side of the roads. The umbrella-like heads of elderberries were gigantic!

They were much, much bigger than the ones I've managed to find on our property We finally decided to stop and gather some.

Most of the best heads were at the top of the trees, so Robby, bent the branches down, and I cut or broke the branches right where the heads were. Soon, we had a large pile at our feet.

Since we didn't plan on this activity, we had no container for them. Ah, but we DID have the ATV which has a bed. I started loading them into the ATV.

When we had finished one tree, we saw several others within just a few feet. Of course we had to get those as well.

Then we started back on our original journey. But now, those gigantic heads of berries just jumped right out at us from the side of the road, saying "pick me, pick me. Of course, we just had to stop and pick those too.

When we got home, I emptied them out of the ATV bed and filled two 5-gallon buckets and half of a large Rubbermaid rectangular container.

It seemed like a lot more than I thought we had picked. But, we had lots of leaves and branches. Surely those took up a lot of room.

The next morning, Robby brought the berries into the house, rescuing them from the chickens, which had discovered them and decided they were a real treat. I spent the next three hours getting the berries off the branches.

My previous experience had been with very meager heads, and this was a completely new experience.

Elderberries with leaves

For the first bucketful, I snipped the small bunches of berries off the main head. They grow much like grapes do, with tiny stems connected to another tiny bunch, and then connected to a 'main' stem.

The result of this method wasn't very satisfactory. I ended up with tons of tiny stems mixed in with the berries, and it was very difficult to get them out.

I changed my approach, and just pulled the berries off the entire head with a rolling or pulling motion.

The small, dark ones didn't come off easily. The big dusky ones practically fell off.

By tasting them, I realized that the small, dark berries just weren't as ripe. So I concentrated on the ones that came off easily.

Elderberries cleaned and washed in sink

By the time I was done, I had two 8-quart pans and several 4-6 quart pans filled with berries. I estimated I had 30 quarts of berries!

Do you have any idea of how much that is? I had run out of containers.

Elderberries cleaned and washed in pot

My 'treasure' was beginning to look more like a disaster.

I decided to make juice with some, using it later to make pancake syrup. The remaining berries would become ice cream topping or pie filling.

I filled my 8-quart crockpot and set it on low to start one batch cooking. I took my 8-quart stockpot filled with berries, added some water to keep them from scorching, and started cooking that batch on low.

The rest of the berries just sat there — waiting their turn.

The next day, one of our apple trees, which were all extremely prolific this year, distracted me. We've been taking 2-3 buckets of windfall apples out to the meadow every day, and yet the branches are still bending from the weight of more apples.

Robby really loves apple pie, but I have to confess, I've never made a pie from scratch. I decided with this 'treasure' of apples, I should learn.

The berries sat, while I dealt with the apples.

I picked about 2/3 of a bucket of fairly good apples. Since there are wild apple trees everywhere, unattended, wormy apples come with the territory.

For some reason, this tree had a lot of apples that had no worm holes.

I don't have one of those corer/peeler things. I had one once, but it just didn't work well with lopsided apples.

So I peeled, cored, and sliced those apples totally by hand. I ended up with about 13 quarts of raw apple slices.

I cooked them in a sugar syrup for 5 minutes, packed them into quart-sized jars and filled the jars with the syrup. My canner holds 7 quarts, so the rest of them will become apple pie tonight.

Whew! Now that the apples have been dispensed with, it's back to the elderberries.

I had accidentally left the crockpot on low this entire time, so that batch is scorched. But I managed to can four jars of berries in syrup, for either pie or ice cream topping.

It's now been almost a week since picking the berries. After all this work, I'm briefly questioning whether this was a foraging treasure or a foraging nightmare.


Photos property of Loretta Liefveld.

In Search Of The Perfect Plant Label

Loretta LiefveldIf you're anything like me, you gaze in wonder at those cute little plant labels made of wrought iron, ceramic, wood, or painted rocks, wood, "whatever." You know — the ones that just say "Basil," "Tomatoes," "Sage," etc. You wonder if it's possible for you to make something like that says "Purple Basil," "Thai Basil," "Beefsteak Tomato," "Roma Tomato." After all, it's pretty easy to figure out that a plant is a tomato plant — there's nothing quite like it. Zucchini squash is pretty easy to figure out, too. But if there are three different varieties, well, that's a different story.

There are many, many homemade plant label instructions and ideas online: painted rocks, spoons with a decoupage of the seed package in the spoon bowl, seed packages inside plastic zip baggies placed upside down on a stick, permanent markers on sticks, etched aluminum or copper tags. But they all have their drawbacks. Too short, too tall, too hard to make, not durable, fade or fall apart by the end of the season/harvest, or just plain ugly. I've tried many. But I think I've now hit on the perfect plant labels. They are tall enough to see over most mature plants. They last at least two seasons (so far), are easy to make, inexpensive and easy to store. Let me share my experience with you.

materials

Items needed:

  • Wide, wooden plant label sticks. They aren't easy to find, but I found some that were 6 inches long and 3/4" wide. Popsicle sticks aren't quite wide enough, unfortunately, but they could be used in a pinch.
  • Labels made using a label maker. The one I use has a cartridge, and the laminated tape comes in 2 different widths. I found that labels printed on a laser jet printer from the computer just don't hold up. No matter what you do, the ink eventually fades, and it takes way too much work to put enough sealer on the paper to make it last outdoors.
  • Metal plant sticks. I like 28" simple metal stakes with the end bent into a flat circle. Some are also available where the bent circle is angled back a little, for easier viewing. The 28" height allows it to be pushed into the ground to hold it and yet still tall enough to be able to see it above a mature plant. I think mine are powder-coated... it seems more durable than just paint.
  • Liquid Nails or other glue that bonds wood to metal. I haven't tried glue sticks yet. If you have used glue sticks to bond wood to metal for outdoor use and it works, please comment.
  • Spar Urethane. There are several brands, but all of the ones for outdoor use must be applied by dipping or with a brush. None of the clear spray sealers will hold up for long-term outdoor use!

glued wood on stakes

Directions:

  1. Print labels on the label maker with a large print. Multiple plant names can be lined up one after the other, leaving extra space in between for cutting. Two lines can be used if you want to shorten the length of the finished label, but that's more difficult if typing multiple names on a single pass.
  2. Peel the label adhesive off the label and stick onto the wooden plant label stick. If you haven't added enough spaces between the plant names when you printed the label, cut the labels first so you have enough room.
  3. Cut the wooden plant labels apart and sand the corners and any rough edges.
  4. Glue the wood labels onto the circle of the metal plant sticks. Use plenty of glue. Make sure the wood label is straight.
  5. Let dry completely. As a guide, use the maximum amount of time from the glue instructions. It may say something like "dry to the touch in 15 minutes…allow to dry 24 hours before use." In that case, let it dry for 24 hours. You want to make sure the glue is thoroughly dry.
  6. Cover with at least two coats of spar urethane. The instructions on the brand that I use say to put on a thin coat, let dry for two (2) hours and lightly sand before putting on a 2nd. These are so small, that I actually dip them into the urethane, let them drip for a bit, then wipe with an almost dry brush.

drying stakes

At first, I had difficulty arranging them to dry. Then I hit upon the perfect solution. I have a vinyl-covered wire rack with drawers of various depths. I took two drawers of different depths and put them upside down inside each other. Placing the "wire stems" of the plant labels through the same vertical space and varying the horizontal spacing worked perfectly.

sealant drying

Finally, after drying completely, here they are, ready to place in the garden.

wood glued to stake


Photos property of Loretta Liefveld.

Too Big A Bite

Winter was almost over.   Spring was coming.  Snow had turned to rain, and the temperatures were starting to rise.   My mailbox was filling with seed catalogs.   Time to seriously start planning.

This winter, I tried starting my own seedlings inside.  I bought 10 starting trays with domes and inserts, heating mats and 'smart' automatic timers.  I cleared two entire shelves of my metal shelf rack.  An existing two-bulb light provided the required lighting.  But I had zero luck.  My artichokes finally sprouted, but just sat there and didn't grow.   The asparagus sprouted sparsely.  Broccoli and tomatoes didn't even sprout until I planted seeds a second time.  Snapdragons and onions sprouted prolifically and then just died before they even got as tall as the edges of the inserts.  

I had big plans.  For the first time, I started a journal... that had always seemed too onerous before.   Every day was documented in the journal:  planted beefsteak tomatoes, 4 artichokes sprouted, etc.  Soon, my entries looked like this:  replanted asparagus, replanted artichokes, replanted onions.  It was getting very depressing.

My original plans called for four raised beds with rotating crops.  But we had managed to only build two before my husband had knee-replacement surgery in December.  I really wasn't up to building these all by myself and didn't really need them during winter.   Then spring came, and with it came a kidney donation to his niece-in-law and then ankle-replacement surgery.  Unlike the knee replacement, ankle replacement calls for eight weeks of non-weight bearing.  Building more raised beds was out.

A corner of the garden in the front was looking more inviting.  

I had already dug out a section for in-ground compost and it was half filled.  By spring, it was complete, and I had started another.   My plan was to plant asparagus and artichokes against the fence as permanent plantings.  Since my own seedlings didn't make it, I broke down and bought some.  I was sad that these were just 'generic' asparagus plants (just labeled 'asparagus') and Green Globe artichokes (instead of the varieties I thought would do better in my area).  

Store-bought broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, and bok choi sat in containers while I dug up places for those, dislodging a huge pile of basalt rocks ranging from baseball size to larger than basketball size.  Rain hindered my efforts, making the soil wet and muddy and impossible to work.  A couple of days of sun and I could dig for one day.  The rain brought out all the weeds, and soon I had to weed-eat instead of spending time digging.  Colder weather came back, which meant more time splitting and stacking wood.  New chicks meant building a coop.

I managed to plant a second set of snap peas, and a few leeks and potatoes went into the dormant raised bed.  But I ran out of room before planting the onions and the lettuce, spinach and bok choi started bolting after only 2 days of fairly hot weather.  Relatives came to visit and my time was spent with them.  No one except me liked kale, so it was ignored and grew taller and taller.

No doubt about it.   My plans were bigger than my ability to carry them out.  I had taken too big a bite.

I’ll continue on, but the plan has gone by the wayside, and I’m not going to try to revive it for this year.   I have a little bit of space left in one of the raised beds, so I might plant one more row of snap beans.  I took all of the flower seed packets, combined them, and then just scattered them over the remaining sections of the front corner garden.  Three different types of clover are starting to sprout as a cover crop over the rest of the garden.  But I still have tons of seed packets left.  It’s time to start planting warm-weather crops, so I guess the squash will get planted, but I have to regroup for everything else.

Next year, I’ll try to be more reasonable in my expectations.   At least the areas that I dug this year will only need minimal work next year.  The piles of too-small-to-be-firewood have now been chipped, and will provide mulch over the summer and next winter.  After a larger coop has been built for the chickens (and now ducks), we can get to building the two planned raised beds (although I’m sure I’ll fill those quickly as well).

My plan for next year will be more like:  dig three new 3’ x 6’ areas, stack excavated rocks onto rock wall, build two raised beds, plan paths through garden, THEN  plant two tomatoes, 1/3 raised bed with lettuce (one row at a time), etc.

Anyone else have this problem?  Any other solutions?

20180601 front corner garden Small Custom

Winterized! I'm ready...or am I?

Loretta Liefveld 

When does winter really start? Is it a date? Is it a temperature? Is it whenever you are "stuck" inside?  My answer is that it's different for different folks.

When our nighttime temperature first got down to below zero, I said "Winter is officially here."  But that was one night. We then had twoo weeks of drop-dead, gorgeous weather. Hmm ... maybe winter wasn't here after all. Then, one day, we had some snow flurries. Wow! Winter was finally here. But it didn't even stick to the ground, much less stay for even a day. Hmm ... maybe winter wasn't here after all. We finally had a 4-to-5-inch snowfall that covered not only the ground, but laid a 5-inch layer of snow onto the top of our heat pump, and 4 inches onto our portable greenhouse. NOW, winter was finally here.

But I was prepared (or so I thought). I had made hoops for one of my raised beds out of PVC pipe and shower curtains. I had gathered what seemed like tons of pine needles to cover my herb garden in a layer about 3-to-4 inches deep. I would have used leaves as mulch, but the leaves weren't falling much at that time. I pushed the pine needle mulch especially high right around the base of the plants. I had researched the plants to see which ones might survive and learned that for some of them, I should cut them down to the ground and pile mulch completely over the top of them. 

I was ready for winter! But was it enough?

The apple and cherry trees finally started dropping all their leaves, making a deep mat of leaves on the ground.  I did rake some up into a pile, but the pile never made it onto the garden.  

We did buy a wood chipper, but before we could use it to make wood chip mulch, it rained. Trying to make chips using soaking wet wood in a brand-new chipper didn't seem to make sense.

I thought about taking cuttings from some of my most cherished herbs, ones that aren't really supposed to be cold-hardy for my 6a Zone. But I had brought them here from my central California residence, and reasoned that they had withstood snow before (albeit only 1 to 2 days of snow). Besides, I've never been particularly successful with cutting propagation.

I had read that garlic would withstand winter, so I planted it in my raised bed that did not get hoops. My hooped raised bed had lettuce, kale, spinach, and snap peas.

So, was it enough?  I'm afraid only time will tell. We now have an accumulated 6 to 10 inches of snow (depending on where I look). This is what my raised beds look like now (December 28, 2017):

3_snow on raised beds 2017-12-28

In this picture, you can see the heat pump looks like it has about 10 inches of snow on top.

20171228102322 cropped Small

Finally, my front herb garden. You can see the tops of the shovel, the top of a rolling cart ... and all those "lumps" in the snow are plants. Yikes. Will they live?

Front herb garden covered in snow







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