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D’Ni Tame Cat

DNi-RailSittingToday, January 7, is the anniversary of the date D’Ni Wild Cat became a house cat.

The year was 2001. We were out in our back yard when we spotted her – a little black furry thing hiding under the asparagus. At first we thought soft furry Duncan had gotten out – but this cat was smaller. And much more scared. We named her D’Ni: a name starting with a “D” because she looked so much like Duncan; and D’Ni after the people inhabiting our favorite computer games, Myst and Riven.

That fall it became apparent to us that D’Ni was pregnant. Being the cat–loving people we were, we started feeding her. Her favorite hiding spot at that time was under all the flowers next to the fence. That’s where I took her food.

One Sunday morning in September we heard pathetic meows coming from the neighbor’s garage. No one next door was yet awake so I went over there and tentatively tried the door. It was unlocked. The minute I opened the door a small furry black bullet flew off the rafters, shot through the door, and raced away to the house two doors down. For the remainder of the day we heard the plaintive heartrending cries of a mama cat that had lost her kittens. We never found out what happened to the kittens. Did the kittens die because she got shut in the garage and was not able to feed them? We only knew that little black cat was no longer pregnant, but no kittens were ever found.

DNiOnPorchWe still fed her. Pete, despite saying he did not encourage such behavior (that is – feeding a stray, feral cat), began, instead, feeding her on the back porch.

And so began the experiment. Was it possible to tame a feral cat?

We held out our hands to her. By November she began sniffing them.

The weather outside was getting cold. We lined a cardboard box with soft towels. The winds were getting chilly. We took a hard–sided cat carrier out to the back porch, lined it with blankets, wrapped it in an old down coat.

At the beginning of December, all thoughts of kittens gone, D’Ni went into heat. Cats from all over Goshen began showing up in our back yard as we tried, unsuccessfully, to catch her. She was wild; she did not trust humans, and she was fast. The moment she heard us approach the back porch she was out of the crate and running away. We were getting very anxious – December is no time to have kittens.

On Christmas Eve, we were making breakfast – eggs, bacon, toast. We were still in our pajamas. I stepped outside to check on D’Ni. She was in the crate. I crouched down. She stayed in the crate. I slammed the crate door shut and she exploded. All thoughts of breakfast forgotten, we threw on some clothes and took crate and the enclosed struggling wild animal off to the vet. A few weeks earlier, I had already warned them that we were caring for a feral cat and that, whenever we could catch her, we would bring her in to be spayed. It was time.

When we picked her up a couple of days later, the deed done, her chart was coded “feral cat”. I had warned them. But perhaps they did not take me seriously. Apparently the kid taking care of the kennels had opened up her cage and she flew out, claws outstretched. They had to catch her with a net.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll winter we fed her outside, attracting raccoons and opposums to our back porch as well. We started trying to feed her in the kitchen. We closed off the kitchen from the rest of the house, opened up the back door, and coaxed her in. She started eating right by the back door, then further in. But we couldn’t close the door behind her. So we would stay there, shivering, until she was fled back outdoors.

When summer came, D’Ni became bolder. At feeding times, we opened up the door between the kitchen and the rest of the house. One day she rushed into the living room, grabbed a toy, and rushed back outdoors. It was great to see her actually playing instead of always hiding and running away.

By the next winter, she was regularly eating in the kitchen, though she still did not want the outside door shut.

Finally, in January, 2003, we decided to try to keep her inside. At dinner time, she came in as usual. We fed her, then shut her inside.

P1010002Oh the howling that ensued! For hours she howled. We went to bed and buried our heads in our pillows while she howled some more. Finally at 3:30am, unable to sleep, unable to stand the noise any more, we let her go back outside. The next day, we tried again. More howling, then silent resignation. She was so frightened that she became totally pliable. We could pick her up, carry her, snuggle her, and she did not struggle.

As she became more accustomed to the house, her wild habits came back. There was no more picking up and snuggling. She now knew where to run and hide. Claws out, she twisted out of our grasps and fled to her hiding spots.

But she got used to being indoors. And then she never really wanted to go back outside again. As the years have gone by, she became more and more tame. Now we can pick her up and even trim her claws. Now she loves climbing on Pete’s lap to sleep while he watches movies.

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No more D’Ni Wild Cat. Now it is D’Ni Tame Cat.

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Planting Tomatoes 101

poakley_0402aMarch 20 was the vernal equinox, so it is officially spring. More and more days are certainly feeling like spring. With the onset of spring comes the promise of growing gardens, and thoughts of seed starting are in my mind.

We have been starting seeds at Clay Bottom Farm for a few weeks now. Lest you worry that you have missed some important gardening window, do not fear. These starts are destined for planting in the greenhouses, not outside in the field. There is still time to start seeds that will go into an outside garden.

I prefer planting vegetables that are direct seeded in the garden, rather than those I need to start indoors from seeds. I do not have a proven track record for successful indoor seed starting. But some vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers, need a longer growing season and should be started indoors while danger of frost remains outdoors. (Yes, I do know that tomatoes are, technically, a fruit.) Furthermore, if I want particular heirloom tomato varieties, I cannot always rely on being able to purchase plants of those varieties. So I do need to start some tomatoes from seed. One thing I particularly wanted to learn during my apprenticeship was how to more effectively start tomatoes from seed.

Growing Medium: Seeds should be started in a high-quality potting mix, preferably organic. Seed starting mix can be purchased or made. Jean-Martin Fortier, in his book “The Market Gardener,” gives a recipe for a homemade potting mix consisting of peat moss, perlite, compost, garden soil, blood meal and lime.

To start tomatoes, the soil should be damp but not too wet. For most of the vegetables we plant, we test the soil by grabbing a handful and squeezing. If we can squeeze some drops of water from the soil, then that soil has the proper amount of moisture. However, tomatoes require the soil to be a bit drier than that. It should still feel damp, but you shouldn’t be able to squeeze water out.

poakley_0402cPotting Up: At Clay Bottom, tomatoes are grown using a multistep process. The seeds are planted in 10 or 20 row seed-starting flats. We fill these flats with the potting mix, making sure the soil fills each row completely to the brim but not packing down the soil. The tomato seeds are placed about 1 inch apart on top of the soil and then vermiculite is spread over the seeds. This helps keep moisture in the soil.

Then the flats are put into the germination chamber. The germination chamber, with a heating element submerged in water, provides a warm (78°F) and humid environment for the sprouting seeds.

Once the seeds have sprouted, the flat is moved to a heated mat under fluorescent lights in the “mini-greenhouse in a greenhouse.” This small greenhouse is also kept at around 75°F and can be opened up in the daytime and closed up at night.

The first leaves to appear will be the cotyledons. At this point, all tomato varieties look alike. When the seedlings are about two inches tall and have sprouted their true leaves, they are transplanted into a 50-cell seeding flat. The 50-cell flat is kept in the mini-greenhouse until the plants are about 4-5 inches tall. Then the plants are transplanted to 4-inch round pots and the pots are kept on tables in the greenhouse until the tomatoes are transplanted into the ground.

This process of germinating seeds and then transplanting the seedlings into bigger and bigger pots is called “potting up.” Tomatoes need to grow a long time in cells or small pots before being transplanted in the ground. Potting up gives the plants extra root space and new fertile soil in which to grow. At each stage of transplanting, the plant should be big enough that its root clump holds together. If we find that many plants in a flat have roots that are not holding together well, those plants are left to grow a bit more.

poakley_0402dWarmth, Moisture and Light: Most home gardeners do not have a germination chamber or a greenhouse of any sort, let alone a “mini-greenhouse in a greenhouse.” But some principles can still be applied to the home gardener.

The seeds need heat and moisture to germinate. Since my house is usually kept pretty cold, this is why I have trouble starting seeds. I would need to use something like a heating pad underneath my seed-starting trays to provide adequate heat. I would also need a clear dome over the trays to keep the moisture in.

Once sprouted, the seedlings need light – lots of light – otherwise the plants will become leggy and spindly. In our northern latitude, a window with a southern exposure does not provide sufficient light. To get the necessary “daylight” conditions of 16 hours, it is necessary to grow the seedlings under lights, hung only about 3 inches above the plants.

Watering the Seedlings: The seedlings do need to be watered – but not too much. The soil should be moist but not wet. Overly wet soil could cause wilting (“damping off”) due to fungal diseases. When the top of the soil is dry, we use a watering can to water the seedlings, trying not to get water on the leaves.

Transplanting Tips: When transplanting tomatoes from flat to flat to pot to the ground, you can (and should) bury part of the stem. Tomatoes can grow roots all along their buried stems. Planting deep will help the seedling grow strong, substantial root systems.

The stems are flexible and can be bent in order to plant the seedlings deeper. One caution however, when handling tomato seedlings, is to take care not to damage the little hairs along the stem. These little hairs, when buried in soil, are what will develop into roots.

Hardening Off and Planting in the Garden: Finally, at some point, the plants in the 4-inch pots are transplanted into the ground. We have not done that yet, so I may yet learn new techniques for this final transplanting.

I do know that the plants need to be gradually introduced to the outdoors: to be “hardened off.” The seedlings, in their pots, are placed in a sheltered, somewhat shaded, place during the daytime for a few days, then overnight for a few more days.

After hardening off, the tomato plants are laid on their sides in a shallow trench with only the topmost leaves above ground level. Just as in the potting up process, burying the stem will encourage more root growth. In addition, the soil will be warmer near the surface, and a warmer environment will also help build a strong root system. With a strong root system, the tomato should grow straight and tall.

poakley_0402bLast Frost Date: The last frost date for our area is in mid May. I tend to plant my tomatoes in the garden later than that, toward the beginning of June. Given that I should start seeds about 6 to 8 weeks prior to planting out, I should start my tomatoes from seed in a couple of weeks. Hopefully, with what I’ve learned so far, I will finally grow sturdy and strong tomato plants.

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