Friday, December 18, 2009

Holiday joy

Todd was "helping" me with a Christmas present.

My friends and family seem pretty good-natured about the fact that all their gifts come covered with cat fur. This one wasn't quite done (it's quilted, but the edges haven't been bound) when Todd burrowed into the jumbled project. I did wash it before it was wrapped and mailed. I had to leave it in the laundry room for the week between finishing it and mailing the package, so it was (somewhat) unfurry when it left here.

The kittens have been a joy since we found them, and, like young kids experiencing Christmas for the first time, they're reminding me about just how much fun the holidays can be. A friend sent me a (fortunately very sturdy) tree-shaped ornament made out of beads on a pipe cleaner.

"What you mean, is not toy?" says a shocked Todd (the orange kitten, pictured above).

"Best toy ever, actually," says Jazz (the calico), bouncing up and down in her enthusiasm. "Our human even knows the rules of the game. First, she puts it in a hidden spot. Then Todd digs it out, and I chase it."

"Oh, but the best part is after that," says Todd. "Our human screeches louder than a mouse, and then she plays keep-away with us, and then she hides the toy away again, so we can start the game all over."

Here's wishing that everyone will recover the joy of simple toys this season.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Squash pie

I've had better luck growing butternut squash than pumpkins, so I tend to make squash pies instead of pumpkin. I may not have sufficiently sensitive tastebuds, because once the spices and sugars are added, I can't really tell the difference between pumpkin pie and squash pie.

I read once that squash (butternut) is better nutritionally than pumpkin, although the difference is pretty minor, especially once they've been made into pies. According to, a serving of (plain) butternut squash has only 82 calories, plus huge amounts of vitamin A, and a substantial amount of vitamin C. Pumpkin, on the other hand, has fewer calories (49), but also half the vitamin A and C.

The filling for the pie (and its twin) above consists of:

  • 2 cups of cooked, pureed butternut squash
  • 1 can of evaporated milk (not sweetened condensed)
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 or 2 Tablespoons molasses
  • 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice mixture (from Penzey's Spices)
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 eggs

Mix together and bake (350 degrees) in two partially pre-cooked piecrusts for 30-40 minutes.

The recipe is supposed to make just one pie, but I've always found that it makes too much for a single pie, and it cooks more quickly, with less mess (I always spill some of the filling over the edge, messing up the pie plate and the oven), if I divide it into two pies.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Late crop

The swiss chard is still growing strong and looking gorgeous in the otherwise dreary landscape.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

2009 Season Summary

Despite the bad growing weather that wiped out virtually all of the tomatoes, we had some successes this summer.
Onions: about 200, some as big as half a pound
Garlic: about 30 heads of German Extra-hearty (and we saved 10 as seed for the 2010 season)
Herbs: all the oregano, sage, dill, chives and dill we could use. The basil was less prolific, but we don't use much of it, so it was sufficient. The thyme and rosemary were okay, but we should buy an extra plant of each next year.
Green beans: I'm the only one who eats them, and I only eat them fresh (not canned or frozen). We picked 4 to 6 cups, and probably could have had more if we'd picked them more frequently.
Asparagus: We were over-cautious in deciding when to stop harvesting, so we only got somewhere in the 2 to 4 cup range. We could easily have doubled that if we hadn't stopped picking so early. We could have eaten four times as much as we had!
Summer Squash: A mediocre year, probably due to the weather. Probably 15 or 20 yellow squash harvested. Many of the female flowers failed to set. The zucchini (which we like less, of course) was more productive. The same number of fruits, but on fewer plants.
Winter squash: These did reasonably well. About a dozen each of spaghetti squash and butternuts, despite both varieties getting a late start (again, due to the cold, wet weather).
Cucumbers: The early crop did okay (less than a dozen cukes, total) but petered out quickly, and the late crop produced only a couple mis-shapen fruits.
Peppers: These did great, which is surprising, since they're in the same family as tomatoes (and therefore at risk of catching the late blight that killed the tomatoes), and they also prefer hot, sunny, dry-ish weather. Before I stopped counting, we'd harvested at least 100 banana peppers from just six plants, and I'm guessing we had twice that many fruits by the end of the season, many of them made into pickles. The green peppers (18 plants, I believe) were equally productive and larger than usual, probably because of the extra water available to them. At the end of the season, after we'd already been harvesting a couple a day, on average, we picked at least enough to fill a five-gallon pail. And then after the frost, we picked another gallon or two.
The absolute best things to come out of the garden, though, were Jazz (calico in picture), Todd (orange in picture), Sophia (calico), Olivia (orange) and Moses (tiger with double paws). Yeah, I know they're not really garden-related, but they've lifted our spirits in a dismal growing year. Plus, if you look closely, there's celery printed on the quilt they're lying on.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Garlic weekend

This is garlic weekend. A little later than I'd hoped, but the weather has been dismal. And, as noted a couple days ago, the peppers keep hanging on, and they're in the bed that will be garlic and onions next year.

For the main garlic crop, we have ten heads of the German extra-hardy garlic that we've grown in the past (which should produce about 50 cloves, and thus 50 heads next year). We also have a new-to-us variety, Chinese pink, which should produce about 30 heads next year.

We've already planted the scapes, in about a 4' x 6' plot, followed by five closely-spaced 4'-long rows of transplanted first-year cloves from previous scapes, and then three progressively closer and more chaotic patches of the first-year cloves.

My fellow gardener did the first five neat rows, with the cloves spaced 3" to 4" apart, and I got to toss the rest randomly. Our excuse is that it's an experiment: will the neatly planted rows produce sufficiently bigger or otherwise better cloves that it's worth the effort to plant them that way?

Really, it's just that I'm a lazy gardener. And it's fun to throw things without getting arrested for it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

First frost

We had several days with frost last week, and not just frost but a freeze too, with overnight temperatures in the twenties.

I went out afterwards to pull up what I was sure would be shriveled-up pepper plants (we'd harvested most of the fruit before the frost, and covered them with light plastic in case the frost was minor), and was stunned to find that most of the plants were thriving. Sure, there was some damage along the edges of the bed, where some branches had been fully exposed to the cold, but most of the plants were in great shape.

And there were several good-sized peppers that we'd missed during the rushed pre-frost harvest!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Busy, busy

The first frost is late this year, but I expect it to happen in the coming week.

We harvested the last of the banana peppers a couple days ago and made four quarts of pickles with them. The spaghetti squash will come indoors this weekend, along with the basil and zucchini. That just leaves the bell pepper plants, which have a lot of small-ish fruit on them, so we're trying to give them every possible remaining moment in the garden.

Bell peppers are perennials in the right climate -- not here! Someday, I'd like to try to transplant one or two of them into huge pots to overwinter indoors. They wouldn't produce much, if anything, in the way of fruit during the short days and minimal sunshine, but in theory they'd be big and sturdy and ready to produce heavily when they're returned to the outdoors in the late spring.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wild cucumber

The mystery volunteer from earlier in the season has been identified (again, but for sure this time).

It's a wild cucumber.

Check the link for better pictures than I could take.

We noticed the fruits today while doing some weeding. We're moving the bed where garlic grows wild into an unused corner of the garden, where weeds and grapevines and these wild cucumbers had taken over.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pickled peppers

Despite the cold weather, we've had excellent peppers this year.

In the past, the banana peppers have been ignored once the bell peppers started maturing, but this year we found a recipe for pickled banana peppers that everyone likes and is incredibly simple.

Start by putting a bay leaf and a couple chopped cloves of garlic in a quart jar. Fill it up with slices of banana peppers (or, as in the photo, mixed with strips of other peppers). Generally, about a dozen peppers will fill the jar.

Combine a cup of white vinegar, 1 1/2 cups of water and about 1 1/2 Tablespoons of pickling (or kosher) salt. Mix until the salt is dissolved and then pour into the quart jar (adding a little extra water if necessary to top off the jar).

Crumple up a piece of plastic wrap and stick it on top of the jar to keep the peppers submerged. Cover the jar and refrigerate for at least a week to let the flavors develop. Reportedly, they'll keep in the fridge for 6 to 8 weeks, but ours have been eaten long before that.

This recipe was inspired by one in Linda Ziedrich's book, Joy of Pickling.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ripple effect

I was chatting with the plumber while he was fixing a broken faucet, and even he has noticed how bad this year's growing season was.

He's not a gardener himself, but he's used to receiving excess veggies from friends and customers. Nothing this year, though. "It's terrible," he says.

When the gardens suffer, everyone feels it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Next year

We've been more fortunate than many in our region, but this was not a good year for hot-weather crops. The tomatoes were the main failure, but the basil plants remained smaller than usual, and both the cucumbers and the summer squash were less productive than usual.

Still, we're looking toward next year. Among the items on the wish list already:
  • more asparagus, possibly the purple variety
  • more garlic (there's never enough)
  • another thyme plant or two
  • a lemon balm plant
  • strawberries, perhaps the Alpine variety
  • bigger rhubarb!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Growing garlic

The easiest way to grow garlic is simply to get a head (the clump of cloves) of garlic in the fall (for us New Englanders, other times elsewhere), break it into individual cloves, plant the cloves (pointy end up) in rich soil, mulch them well and then weed, as needed, until harvest time.

We grow some of our garlic that way. But we're also cheapskates. Or at least I am, and my co-gardeners are garlic-lovers, and are willing to go along with whatever gets them the most garlic.

The harder and more time-consuming way to grow garlic is to grow it from what amounts to seed. Garlic sends up a stalk with a head on it called a "scape." The scape, if allowed to grow to maturity, consists of dozens of miniature cloves (the smaller examples in the photo).

The standard advice is to cut off the scapes before the heads mature, so that all of the plant's energy goes into forming the garlic head. I don't know if there's ever been any real scientific study of the issue, and I've seen anecdotal evidence that it doesn't really make any difference.

If you cut them off, you can eat the miniature cloves in the scapes pretty much the same as regular garlic. It's a little milder and, obviously, you're not going to roast such itty-bitty things, but they work great in stir-fries or sauteed and added to anything you'd add regular garlic to.

Otherwise, if you've got some space and some patience, you can use them to grow more garlic plants. Let the scapes mature, and then dry them until they crumble into individual cloves. In the fall (or other appropriate planting time), broadcast them in a prepared bed. In the spring, you'll see little green sprouts, looking almost like a newly seeded lawn. Just ignore them. (Here's where the lazy gardener and the cheap gardener coincide in me.) You don't even have to weed, other than to remove anything that would become invasive over the long term (e.g., briars, tree seedlings or pokeweed).

Over the summer, each sprout will form a single clove (like the larger examples in the photo, about the size of a nickel, although some can be barely larger than the miniature cloves in the scapes). If you wish, you can thin them out a bit in the summer, eating the small cloves, which, like the scapes, will be a bit milder than garlic grown the traditional way. At stome point, the sprouts will fall over and disappear (with the cloves still underground), but the next spring will come up with even more vigor, eventually sending up scapes, just like traditionally grown garlic. If harvested that summer, they will likely have two cloves instead of the initial single clove, or if left another summer, they will have 2 or 3 cloves.

They never get as big as traditionally grown garlic, but they have the advantages of being: a) free, b) care-free and c) just the right size for cooking a meal for one or two people. The disadvantages is that they're a) slow to produce a harvest, b) space-hogs for gardes with size limits, and c) a nuisance to peel if you're trying to make a meal for six or more people.

For our Recovery Garden, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, since we have more space than we need, and we can sow 'em and forget 'em without having to sacrifice some other crop. We've found that they actually seem to thrive when competing with weeds. This summer, we decided to clear out the bed where they've been growing for at least five years, so we could plant something else there next year, and the biggest clumps of them were tangled up in the roots of briars and tree saplings.

We have between five and ten pounds of these first-year garlics to be planted in a new bed (still being prepared), along with a few thousand of the miniature cloves from this year's scapes. The plan is to divide the new bed into thirds, with one-third ready for harvest (second or third year cloves) each year. The one-year-old cloves will go into the first third of the bed this fall, the miniature cloves from the scapes into the other two thirds. Then, next summer we'll harvest the transplanted first-year cloves and replant that bed with new miniature cloves from next year's scapes. After that, we'll just keep harvesting and replanting a section each year.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hives, not the bee kind

I've been absent, at least in part because I got hit with my own, human version, of "late blight" -- hives, presumably from a spider bite.

Meanwhile, the garden, including new growth on the tomato plants, is thriving. We've eaten a few million (slight exaggeration) cherry tomatoes, and have been requested to make sure we grow the Matt's Wild Cherry again next year.

The onions have been harvested and dried. We probably have somewhere between 35 and 50 pounds of them to carry us at least through the fall. The yellow squash hasn't produced as much as I expected, perhaps because we're letting them get fairly large, which may discourage the plants from setting new little squashes. I harvested one huge zucchini, which produced 6 cups of shredded material, enough for three times the basic zucchini bread recipe. Peppers (both bell and banana) have been amazing, and the bells are even turning red, something that seldom happens in this relatively short-season area. The swiss chard is coming into its own, and should continue through to somewhere around Thanksgiving. The first planting of cucumbers is dwindling, and the second planting is starting to blossom. The basil, still shorter than usual, is at least growing vigorously in the recent heat.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

White pizza

Given the tomato blight, we're experimenting with white pizza. The latest version follows. Everything except the flour, olive oil and cheese came from the garden.

Pizza dough (enough for two 12" diameter pizzas)
6 leaves of (white-stemmed) swiss chard (from the Bright Lights variety)
A tablespoon or two of fresh oregano
2 heads of garlic, roasted
olive oil
pizza cheese

Briefly cook the swiss chard in boiling water and drain well. Puree with the oregano, roasted garlic and a splash of olive oil (enough to make it spreadable).

Shape the pizza dough and spread with the chard/herb puree. Top with onions and peppers and cheese. Bake in hot (400 degrees +) oven for aobut fifteen minutes, until cheese is melted and crust is cooked through.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bluebarb jam

During the recent rhubarb taste-testing, the consensus was that the best treat of all was the "bluebarb" jam. (Much easier to say than "blueberry rhubarb.")

The recipe is from a wonderful little book by Madelaine Bullwinkel, called Gourmet Preserves Chez Madelaine. I particularly like the way she relies on natural pectin, rather than the commercial variety.

Here's the gist of how to make your own bluebarb jam (but do check out the Bullwinkel book for more information):
Simmer, uncovered, on medium-low heat for about twenty minutes: 1/4 cup of water, a pound of blueberries (about a pint) and a pound of rhubarb chopped into 1/2" pieces.
Add 2 1/2 cups sugar, half a cup at a time, stirring well, and bringing the mixture to a simmer between each addition. Add 1/2 tablespoon of lemon juice and the zest of the lemon.
Simmer for another fifteen minutes, raising the heat to medium. Toward the end, it will splatter, and may be covered between stirrings. Makes 4 1/2 cups. After it's cool, keep it refrigerated unless you process it according to standard canning procedures.

I'm not particularly finicky about the gelling -- if the result is thick, I call it jam; if it's runny, I call it ice cream topping -- but for those who are so inclined, the jam should gel when it reaches 212 degrees Fahrenheit. You can also test more informally by putting a little bit on a plate and putting the plate in the freezer for a minute or two, and seeing if it gelled, which also gives you an excuse to taste-test it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Late blight

Apparently we've been hit with "late blight." (Don't worry -- the wilted swiss chard is just the standard mid-day reaction to hot weather, not some sort of disease.)

The cool, wet weather we had this spring was a factor in its catastrophic spread.

The only tomato that did not get the blight was a "Matt's Wild Cherry." I had grown this variety years ago, and it hadn't done all that well. As the catalog says, it doesn't yield many tomatoes for the amount of space it takes, and I'd grown fond of the grape tomato varieties that are available now, so I'd stopped growing the wild cherry in favor of the grapes.

This winter, I decided to get rid of seeds I never use, and I had a few of the wild cherry seeds, so, on a whim, I started them indoors. One sprouted, and it went into the garden. Apparently, it has innate resistance to late blight, because it's surrounded by dead plants, and there isn't a single spot on it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bit of a setback

So, I was feeling kinda' proud of our gazillion tomato plants and how healthy and fruit-laden they were in a year when the weather has been rotten and lots of people were bemoaning their pitiful plants.

And then the blight struck.

I've never seen plants die so suddenly or so substantially. We're getting some fruits anyway, but many are rotten and the greenery is brownery.

Note to self: Don't count your tomatoes until they ripen.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Tasting rhubarb

When I was a kid, with the robust rhubarb, we frequently made it into a crisp. The main thing I remember is the shocking contrast between the crunchy/sweet topping and the mushy/sour rhubarb. I was fairly sure the sweetener was white sugar, and most crisp recipes call for brown sugar.

The recipe was lost, though, and I've been trying to recreate it for years. I'd tried a few white-sugar toppings, and they never came out the way I remembered, but were more like soft sugar cookies, rather than crunchy bits.

Apparently, I forgot to check my standard resource: The Joy of Cooking. That recipe calls for brown sugar too, but substituting white sugar produced exactly the result I remembered from childhood.

I made the recipe both ways (shown in the August 2 picture), and held a tasting. The majority opinion (okay, so I was the only hold-out among the five of us, so it was probably more about nostalgia than tastiness) concluded the brown sugar was better.

Take 4 cups of rhubarb, cut into pieces and slightly sweetened with a tablespoon of honey, and spread in a pie pan. Sprinkle with a few bits of lemon zest and a tablespoon or two of lemon juice.
For the topping, cream 1/4 cup of butter with 1/4 cup of sugar (brown or white), and then mix in 1/2 cup of flour. Stop mixing when it's crumbly, and then toss on top of the fruit. Bake at 350 to 375 degrees for about half an hour.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Of zukes and porches

Tomorrow is "Sneak Zucchini onto Your Neighbor's Porch Day."

It's a sign of how late the growing season started this year that we don't even have our first zucchini yet.

If your garden is providing more generously than the pictured pitiful plant, consider donating the excess to someone who's less fortunate.
I recently spoke to a couple people who volunteer at a small church-run food pantry. Where they used to serve about a dozen people in critical need on any given day, they're now serving 40 or more. Multiply that by the ten food pantries in their city, and the numbers are shocking, and that's before you multiply the numbers by all the municipalities in their state (which isn't particularly large) and then by all the states in our country.
Why not sneak an entire basket of food -- the good stuff, too, not just the things that grow in such abundance that no one's excited about them -- onto the porch of a neighbor who recently lost her job or is struggling with medical bills or is worrying about how to pay for the kids' education? You'll be helping your community, and you'll still have all the fun of sneaking around in the dark.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Now THAT's rhubarb

We visited my mom's cousins yesterday, and after showing us their amazing garden (including the rhubarb patch that does, indeed, make ours look sad in comparison), they gave us a bunch of rhubarb to take home.

Today, I made rhubarb pancakes for breakfast, then two rhubarb crisps and 4+ cups of jam. And there's still a stalk or two left over to be frozen for later.

For rhubarb pancakes, cut the fruit into 1/4" dices, and toss into a basic pancake batter. Make sure the batter is fairly thick, not crepe-thin, so the rhubarb will cook long enough to soften. I topped them with maple syrup, but fruit topping would have been good too.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Another weather rant

The humid weather is making me cranky, even as it makes the garden explode with goodness.

What's really irritating me today? Forecast teasers on television.

You know what I mean -- the meteorologist does a ten-second spot that says "the weather has been bad/good/whatever recently, but will it be better tomorrow? Stay tuned for my forecast after this show, and I'll tell you."

No. No, no, no.

Coyness does not suit you. Either tell me now, or don't say anything. If I want to know the answer right now, I can just go online and find the answer. If I don't want to know, well, then I've got no incentive to stay tuned, so all you've done is irritate me. I'm cranky enough already.

And don't get me started on the way that some newscasts now offer a mini-forecast during the evening news, which is actually a retrospective: it was sunny/rainy/whatever today. I KNOW that. I want to know whether I need an umbrella tomorrow, or whether I should wear a sweater instead of a tank top. That part of the forecast comes much later in the show, trying to make me stick around for the whole thing. That might have worked before the internet, but now I don't need to stick around and listen to news I don't care about. I just go online.

On the other hand, if the ten-second spot was a useful announcement like, "It's going to be hot/cold/dry/wet/whatever tomorrow. Stay tuned for the details," I might actually stay tuned. And not be so cranky.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


We have bunches of the highly prized baby-sized yellow squashes, but according to my fellow gardener, we're of peasant stock, so we tend to pick them full-sized.

We did pick our first yellow squash yesterday, a larger one that was hiding, just out of range of the camera.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Pepper varieties

This year is proving to be an excellent one for sweet peppers.

Bob Thomson, in his book, The New Victory Garden (1987, but still my favorite basic resource) quoted two gardening experts on peppers, one saying that peppers were among the greatest challenges for home growers, and the other saying that peppers were so popular for home growers because they were so easy.

There are two factors that can make peppers harder or easier: weather and choice of variety.

You can't do much about the weather. We lucked out this year, and the too-cold-for setting temperatures increased just in time for the first cycle of blossoms. Banana peppers (in the background of the picture) always tend to set in bunches like real bananas, so I'm not surprised by how many we have already, but regular green pepper plants can be a little stingy with their fruits. Not this year, though. I counted at least eight little peppers on the Ace plant in the foreground.

Even when the weather doesn't cooperate, the choice of varieties can improve the odds of getting a good pepper crop. Banana peppers, with their smaller size and commensurately shorter time between setting and harvesting, offer the impatient gardener an early crop of peppers in good years, and guarantee at least some mature peppers in a bad year, although their flavor isn't as intense as regular green peppers. Last year, a critter (woodchuck, probably) got into the garden and ate the banana pepper seedlings down to the ground, while mostly leaving the other peppers alone. (That's another good reason to plant more than one variety.)

For the main crop, I've found Ace peppers to be the most reliable here in the Northeast U.S. The fruits of this variety are generally smaller and less thick-walled than the varieties found in grocery stores. As a result, the Aces mature more quickly, and more of the peppers can reach full size in an area with a relatively short growing season. Some years, they're uniformly small, but in other years, they can be large enough to use for stuffed peppers.

I've never had any luck with pepper varieties specifically grown for the colors they eventually turn, and I've tried them all (red, yellow, chocolate). I don't bother with them any longer, since I'm aiming to lower my blood pressure in the Recovery Garden, not raise it with frustration!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Onion update

I'd been wondering if the onions would grow after their initial bulbing.

At least with the rain we've been having, the answer is an emphatic "yes." We've been noticing how they seemed to growing substantially, but didn't have empirical data until today.

The first onion I picked ten days ago was about 3 1/2 ounces, and it was one of the biggest I could find at the time. I picked another one a few minutes ago, and while it was on the large side, it wasn't out of the ordinary. Weight: just under 7 ounces.

That means the fifty pounds of onions I'd previously calculated for our harvest has doubled to closer to one hundred pounds!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Maitilda's greens

Maitilda (1995-2009) was an exclusively-indoor cat from just about the first moment after she strayed into my yard and I adopted her.

It took a while for her to adjust. In the beginning, she desperately wanted to go outside, and I tried putting a harness and leash on her, so I could take her out in the garden with me. She always got too excited, though, and wound herself up in the leash as she rolled in the dirt.

The only "green" she really cared about was grass. Over the years, we reached an agreement: she wouldn't try to follow me outside, and when I came in, I'd bring her a blade or two of grass to eat.

She's going to miss this year's harvest, and I'm going to miss her.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Resistance is futile

The onions have been taunting me for the last couple weeks, ever since they suddenly started to form bulbs.

Imagine 200 excited donkeys from the Shrek movies, all shouting, "Pick me! Pick me!" That's what I've been hearing and trying to resist.

I haven't grown onions often enough to know whether they've maxed out already, with the remaining time in the ground only required for curing purposes, or if they'll actually continue to get bigger until the tops fall over.

In any event, I couldn't stand the temptation any longer, and picked a couple. The first one weighed 3.7 ounces, and the second was slightly larger, around 4 ounces. We have something in the vicinity of 150 onions this size, plus another 50 small ones (ranging from an ounce to perhaps 2 1/2 ounces) for a total of at least 50 pounds.

In the grocery store today, red onions are selling for 99 cents a pound, so our crop would cost us $50+ to purchase fully grown, and the seedlings cost us a little under $30. Not a huge return on investment financially, but factoring in the better flavor of these onions, it's a worthwhile crop.

Monday, July 13, 2009

It's raining snails

Yesterday, I was pruning some of the brambles encroaching on the garden, and started to hear the pitter-pat of heavy rain hitting the landscaping fabric at my feet. Except it wasn't water: it was snails!

Friday, July 10, 2009

LOLgarlic or garLOLic

I swear, this is how they grew, without any human help.

They're garlic plants in love. Holding scapes, instead of hands.

I probably shouldn't anthropomorphize them too much, though, because, even as I'm thinking, "awww, how cute," I'm also looking forward to the day (soon) when I can tear them out of the ground and devour them.

At least we haven't named them.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Not rhubarb

The swiss chard is almost as big as our pitiful rhubarb plant.

These plants are the Northern Lights variety, although this picture doesn't do the colors justice.

We also have some basic ruby chard to use as filler as spots open up in the garden, but for the moment, until the onions and garlic are harvested, the garden is stuffed to its limits.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Sun (a little)

While I wasn't looking (because the rain kept me indoors), the garden grew.

In no particular order, today I found a 2" banana pepper that's already set (while many more pepper plants are flowering, both bananas and Ace); yellow squash on the verge of blooming; and grape tomatoes that have set. The swiss chard is starting to look good too, while the basil is struggling in the cool dampness.

For a while, the onions were threatening to be very large scallions. It's more than time for them to have started bulbing, and as of a few days ago, they looked like leeks (except they were red). We'd have found a use for them anyway, but I was pleased to notice a definite trend toward globe-shaped root tops. I still think they're going to be late, but they could turn out hugely magnificent with all this rain.

We've harvested about a quart of sugarsnap peas so far, most of them eaten before they leave the garden. Many of the pods are extra-long and empty of peas, though, more like snow pea pods. I'm attributing it to the rain, which may be causing the pods to grow too quickly, sort of the same way sudden, excessive rain leads to cracking tomatoes.

Monday, June 29, 2009


Rhubarb was a constant in my childhood gardens, first in Connecticut and later in Ohio. The plants were robust, the stems thick and red, and the flavor sourly perfect.

I've been trying to recreate that memory for the past fifteen or twenty years, to no avail. Above is this year's rhubarb "patch" (consisting of one pitiful plant).

I'm not sure what the variety is, just something I acquired on a whim at a big box store. It starts out early and substantial, but quickly goes to seed, gets eaten by bugs and produces anemic, green stems. I'd need forty-two plants to make a single rhubarb crisp.

There used to be another variety in the recovery garden, something I bought through a mail-order catalog. It was smaller and slower to emerge in the spring, but the stems were intensely red and flavorful. They weren't particularly winter-hearty, and disappeared within a few years.

I'd been blaming the failures on myself: I should have mulched the cold-susceptible variety better, I should have weeded and de-bugged the hearty variety better, I should have done something. I've come around to believing that it wasn't entirely about me.

The rhubarb in my childhood gardens was pretty neglected. Plunked into unimproved ground haphazardly, weeded occasionally, and harvested ruthlessly. No fertilizer, no babying, no angst. It still thrived.

I'm hoping to get a new variety for the recovery garden for next year's crop. Not just any variety, either, but a division from the original source of the plants grown in my childhood gardens!

Friday, June 26, 2009


It's still raining, with nothing to report in the garden. I'll just have to post cute kitten pictures instead.

I ended up adopting the two kittens that I was fostering: Jazz (calico) and Todd (orange).

They're incredibly cute, which is apparently a survival trait, because they're even more talented than newborn humans when it comes to preventing a good night's sleep.

I'm working on recovering the virtue of patience.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rain and rabbits

There hasn't been anything to blog about, because all we've got in the garden these days is rain and rabbits.

I definitely can't do anything about the rain, and the rabbits,well, the rain is limiting me there too.

The organic (and non-lethal) ways of dealing with rabbits basically consist of sprinkling the edible plants with stuff that the rabbits won't want more than a single nibble of, like hot pepper, or surrounding the plants with scary stuff, like blood meal. Except for these things to work, the distastesful stuff needs to stay on the leaves or on the surface of the ground, and not be washed away in the chronic, daily downpours.

So -- rain and rabbits. All I can say is that they're a lesson in recovering the ability to accept the things that can't be changed.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A matter of substance

I used to read every issue of a couple gardening magazines from cover to cover, study gardening books and watch gardening shows. Today, not so much.

A lot of those old books and magazines were simple, some even printed on newsprint and written largely by amateurs, but stuffed with information and personal experiences. They had life, they had personality, they had substance.

The last few times I looked for inspiration or information in a garden magazine (other than GreenPrints, which I highly recommend) or tv show, everything was sanitized, Botoxed and airbrushed beyond all recognition.

Gardening is about dirt, people. Dirt and bugs and sweat. It's about real people doing real things and producing real -- and therefore always at least a little flawed -- results. It's about succeeding against the odds (Mother Nature is a fearsome antagonist) and also about failing, sometimes spectacularly.

It's time to recover our sense of what matters, of what is substance and not just form. We don't need perky hosts or glossy pages. We need real people, shared experiences and the hope of sustenance. That's what I want to read about.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Q: What's cuter than zucchini, but every bit as prolific and even harder to find a good home for?

A: Kittens.

Yep, we found another one.

Nothin' but rain

The chilly spring continues, and now it's damp too.

Bean seeds are busy sprouting (weeds too, most likely), lettuces are thriving and onions are fattening.

The gardeners, however, aren't doing much in the mud. I have a feeling we'll be playing catch-up once the sun returns.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Chills and thrills

It's been a chilly spring, so when I planted some nasturtium seeds recently, it took more than a week for them to sprout, even though they were in peat pots indoors, where it's marginally warmer than outside.

I like cool weather, but I'm also anxious to try a new (to me, at least) variety of cucumbers, called Rocky. They're a seedless, baby (3 1/2" long) variety that the Johnny's catalog describes as having "very early maturity with high yields."

These seeds were a bit of a splurge ($5 for eight -- yes, 8 -- seeds), but they looked so amazing I couldn't resist. What I didn't notice when we ordered them was that they germinate best at 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit! My house is running about 60 degrees right now, and even with a heat mat under them, the soil probably wouldn't hit 70 degrees yet.

Fortunately, the plan is to take advantage of their early maturity, and grow them in the bed that will be vacated by the onions in July. I'm just hoping we'll hit temperatures in the 70s indoors before then so I can maximize the germination of these expensive seeds.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Sweet, sweet peppers

As far as obsessions go, mine is pretty tame. I love peppers. Especially the green ones, fresh from the garden.

We have about thirty pepper plants in the Recovery Garden. Six are banana peppers, and the rest are Ace green peppers (which will turn red if the season is hot and long enough, but are usually picked before that happens).

My obsession with peppers spills over into other areas of my life besides gardening. Friends gave me a pepper print fabric, which I turned into a quilted table runner. And, of course, the only soda I drink is Dr. Pepper!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Supporting recovery

Some things can't be healed by a garden. Sometimes, people need to go to the hospital, and everyone who loves them is left feeling helpless, needing to do something for the patient, but not knowing what to do.

What we've done in recent years is to create a pre-packed travel bag for the patient to take to treatments. The idea is to keep it packed, ready to throw in the car for both expected and unexpected trips, or treatments that are supposed to be a couple hours and turn into a week.

Start with a sturdy but inexpensive duffle bag. Sturdy, because it will get a lot of use, but inexpensive so it can be trashed, guilt-free, when the course of treatment is over.

Then fill it with things that will come in useful during treatments, and fun surprises that the patient (or family/friends) will enjoy. Some of the basics are:
  • socks (for chilly feet)
  • lap quilt/blanket/afghan (for color and chills)
  • flip-flops or shower sandals (for showers)
  • hard candies (for treatments that may produce dry mouth)
  • chocolate
  • non-perishable snacks (e.g., nuts, trail mix, granola bars)
  • books (especially anthologies of short stories for short attention spans)
  • magazines
  • playing cards
  • puzzle books
  • CDs or DVDs
  • subscription to Netflix or an itunes card
  • heavy-duty hand cream (e.g., Neutrogena)
  • anti-bacterial gels for visitors' hands
  • high-quality tissues (softer than the hospital brands)
  • notepad
  • pens and pencils
  • art supplies (e.g., small sketch pad and colored pencils)
  • travel-sized toiletries (e.g., toothpaste, shampoo, shaving supplies)
  • disposable camera
  • something for the patient's family members
  • scrapbook or album for collecting cards with good wishes

A somewhat expensive addition, but nice if you can get several people to contribute to the cost, is a digital picture frame, to which you upload as many pictures as you can collect from friends and family.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Mystery volunteer

We've got two volunteer plants that initially I thought were butternut squash. Their true leaves were too small, though, so I had to think about what else could have been tossed into the garden to decompose. Best guesses are cucumbers or beans.

We'll find out for sure when they start producing whatever it is they're going to produce. So far, anything that looked like it might be a flower has turned into another viney branch. Meanwhile, we keep wrapping them around tomato cages to keep them from overwhelming either the path or the onion plants, where they're growing and are too large to transplant.

Also, we bought a packet of green beans to replace the seeds that I failed to water. It was $1.22, bringing the total to $169.16.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Worth every penny

A few more things will add $19.80 to our tally:

  • Nasturtium seeds ($1.99 with tax)
  • mulch
  • fish emulsion

Prior balance: $148.14

New balance: $167.94

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Four million tomato plants

We may not have trouble meeting the goal of 141 bushels, after all. Thanks to a seed-starting-run-amok friend of my co-gardener, we planted four million tomato plants this week.

Well, not quite that many, but far more than the 18 we'd planned (6 each of grapes, paste and Celebrity), which was already a lot.

My co-gardener says, "You can never have too many tomatoes." I'm not a nice person, sometimes, so I'm already planning to remind her of that in August.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Spear by spear

No one would ever call me an optimist. I can find the down side to ANYTHING. But growing asparagus can make even me believe in the impossible.

Just like the experts advise, for two weeks we snapped off every single sign of life from the plants and gobbled them up, and when only a few teeny-weeny scraggly stragglers were coming up, we declared the harvest over.

Pessimism strikes. Surely we'd killed the plants, sapped them of all their energy, and the scraggly bits were going to shrivel and die, and the roots that hadn't sent up any final stragglers were already dead. It was absolutely impossible that they'd survived.

Asparagus, however, has more faith in itself than I do. New spears emerged from every single plant, even the one we didn't know existed, buried at the far end under mounds of weeds.

Spear by spear, I'm recovering a sense of optimism.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A spear is to a bushel

The asparagus harvest is over for the season. The plants had been neglected for several years, so they're unevenly productive. What we got was excellent -- sweet and tender enough to eat raw (which is what happened to most of it, although I did steam a few of the tougher stalks over a rice pilaf for dinner one night).

I'm guessing we got about two dozen spears. I have no idea how to attribute that toward our total harvest. Very few made it to the kitchen for cooking, let alone weighing.

If we're ever going to figure out how close we came to our 141 bushels needed for our vegetable self-sufficiency this year, we're going to need more detailed conversion tables. I suspect we're going to have to create our own, though, if it's a matter of converting "X spears of asparagus" to "Y bushels."

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Since we're aiming for financial recovery in the garden, I just love volunteers -- the plants that grow from compost or simple self-seeding. We've got two plants that are probably in the squash/melon family that sprouted about a month ago and are growing like Jack's beanstalk. We also have a couple that I'm pretty sure are butternut squash seedlings, since they sprouted in the area where we composted last fall. Whatever they are, we have plenty of room, and it's like getting free (and often care-free) plants.

We also have another kind of volunteer -- Paul -- who tilled the two extra-weedy beds that we'd almost given up on. Okay, so he was volunteered by someone else, but he was great about it and generous with his time and energy and tiller.

Despite all the planning and the investing and the science, really, it's the volunteers that make a difference in the recovery garden.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More weather

We had a frost warning last night, but, while it was definitely chilly, there was no actual frost.

Memorial Day is early this year (25th), but planting weather is arriving late. With night temperatures predicted to be in the 40s and 50s this week, I'm reluctant to put the tomatoes out yet, even though the holiday weekend is the traditional planting time for them.

In the garden, weather trumps tradition.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


It's peak preparation time for the garden. Lots of digging and clean-up work without much immediate reward other than the satisfaction of a job well done.

The garden had been somewhat neglected for a few years, so brambles and wild grapes and weedy trees have formed a hedge all around it. I like the privacy that it offers for the urban garden, but the wild things have gotten out of hand and are blocking the sun, so we've been cutting them back and piling up the debris in massive heaps all around the yard. The paths need redefining, and the beds need turning, and the compost needs spreading.

Bit by bit, the prep work is all getting done, though, and it's starting to look like a real garden. Even better, it's starting to produce food. Not really quantifiable amounts, but asparagus has been eaten, the branches of sage have been collected before they could flower, and chives have been added to dill bread.

The onion seedlings have settled in nicely and resumed growing as if they'd never been transplanted, the sugarsnap peas are sending out runners to grab onto the fence, and the dill and swiss chard have sprouted. We have some volunteers that I thought were butternut squash, but now that the true leaves have come in, I'm not sure what they are. And we have some other volunteers that I'm pretty sure really are butternut squash.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bun warmers

We burned some garden debris the other day, in a barrel that was still mighty hot when we were done.

The night turned damp and chilly, and I had visions of the bunnies collecting around the barrels filled with red-hot coals, wearing fingerless gloves and holding their paws up to the heat. Or maybe, as my co-gardener suggested, singing campfire songs and making s'mores.

Monday, May 11, 2009

New tally

Add another $19.90 for plants:
  • 6 grape tomatoes
  • 6 San Marzano tomatoes
  • 6 Celebrity tomatoes
  • 24 Ace peppers
  • 6 banana peppers
  • 1 pot of parsley
  • 1 pot of lavender
Previous balance was $128.24

New total is: $148.14

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The garden's mom

Some people are natural-born mothers. Me, not so much, but my neighbor and co-gardener definitely is a mom.

She, along with her husband, have raised a couple great kids. She mothers me, her co-workers, her boss, pretty much everyone she comes into contact with. She adopted two of the kittens we found, and is mothering them to the point of teaching them to swim backstroke while giving them their first bath.

She even mothers the garden. We have a somewhat shady, largely abandoned corner where a solid stand of garlic has established itself from the bulblets that form on the top of the stalks (that are supposed to be cut off, according to experts, but we never seem to get around to it). The plants are so thick it looks like a putting green.

Today, we were working in the garden (because a mom's work is never done), when we noticed some weeds were flanking the volunteer garlic patch. The garden's mom went after those weeds with a hoe and a vengeance. The garlic patch is safe now, all tucked in with a bit of landscaping fabric between them and the closest weeds.

Happy Mother's Day!

Saturday, May 9, 2009


The lilacs are at peak, despite heavy rains and cold temperatures.

My first experience with really healthy lilac bushes was when I was in college. There were lilacs outside certain dorms, and in the spring, I could have navigated the curvy, hilly campus blindfolded, guided just by their fragrance.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bushel full of hope

Turns out, the one kitten we rescued the other night has three siblings!

They're all healthy, chubby, friendly little creatures, happy in their new homes, a good omen that we're going to have a particularly fertile season in the Recovery Garden.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Wild thing

Check out what the garden produced today:

Okay, okay, it's just an excuse to share a cute kitten picture. Although, she did kinda' sorta' come from the garden -- she'd been living in my yard, just out of reach, for weeks, until we caught her tonight. She's going to the vet in the morning and then to a nice, loving home.


When did "weather" become synonymous with "bad weather"?

Forecasters now say things like, "Don't get used to the mild temperatures; we've got some weather coming." By which they mean "bad weather." Not just a change, but a negative change. No one ever says, "It's been tough with sub-zero temperatures lately, but don't worry -- there's some weather coming."

The thing is, any gardener knows -- we've ALWAYS got weather coming. Sometimes it's plant-friendly weather, sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's people-friendly weather, sometimes it's not. But it's always weather, and it's always here and it's always coming.

The last few days' weather has been rainy and chilly. Not people-friendly weather, but it's just what the garden needs right now.

Good or bad, though, it's always weather, and it's always on a gardener's mind.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Extended season

Here in the northeast, our peak growing season is mere 90 to 100 days, from the end of May to the beginning of September.

I've read about, thought about, daydreamed about maximizing and extending that season. About the only thing I've actually ever done is mix radish and carrot seeds together, the idea being that the radishes germinate and mature much faster than the carrots, and as the radishes are pulled, they automatically space the carrots properly.

This year, though, I'm committed to carrying through on things like succession planting. We have an early crop of lettuces growing in assorted containers (where we can cover them in the event of unexpected cold weather). The greens in the picture are a mesclun mix, but the seeds are somewhat old, so only a few of the varieties are germinating.
We also have some new, single-variety plantings, of Black-seeded Simpson and a red-leaf lettuce, much like Red Sails.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Early crops

The sugarsnap peas are sprouting in the garden, and look like they'll be leaving the transplanted pea seedlings in their dust.

Note to self: don't bother starting peas (and most other crops except tomatoes and peppers) indoors, since the direct-seeded ones always do better for me.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Pollen and showers and moles, oh my

A few days of rain, followed by unseasonably warm weather, have produced a blanket of pollen. The wasps are happy; me and my allergy-stuffed head, not so much.

The onions have been re-planted several times. Seems we've got some kind of critter rummaging around in the onion bed. Each time, several plants are unearthed, but not eaten or otherwise harmed, which is why I suspect it's birds going after earthworms, rather than evil woodchucks.

On the other hand, it could be the moles. We've got a family of them, right smack dab in the middle of the garden. They don't seem to realize that they're virtually on the surface, instead of several inches underground where they're supposed to live. They're underneath a large piece of thick black plastic (50 times the thickness of landscape fabric). When I picked up the plastic, it's like peeling back the top layer of dirt, or like looking at an ant farm, with a maze of little paths leading to and from the nest.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


I graduated from Middlebury College quite a few years ago. It's not where I learned to garden, but it's where I learned to care about our environment. I bundled newspapers (the Middlebury Campus, known affectionately on April Fool's Day as the Middlebury Compost) for recycling and turned out the lights during the black-out concert.

The school has come a long way since then. For at least the past ten years, recycling bins have sprouted everywhere, for paper, plastic and glass. Five or six years ago, the college began sponsoring an organic garden that provides the foundation for both nutrition (the harvest is used in the dining halls) and education (students and faculty undertake studies based in the garden).

While it's frustrating to think how much we could have done if we'd started taking these steps back when I was a student, at least we're on the right path now. As one intern at the Middlebury garden wrote, "if there’s anything I’ve learned from gardening it’s that change takes time and you must be open to collaboration and innovation."

Monday, April 20, 2009

Asparagus, at last

It's up.

Well, one tip is up. But it reassures me that I haven't killed them all off, and more should follow in the next few days.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Two hundred onions

That's how many we planted on Saturday.

I'm not sure how many bushels of onions that will be, toward the hundreds of bushels of vegetables we eat in a year. Instead, I figured, for two households for an entire year, it's 100 apiece, or 2 a week.

Which reminded me of a footnote in Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment, about the group's cook, who promises to make something delicious for the troop, because she has half an onion left over from their previous, delicious meal: "A woman always has half an onion left over, no matter what the size of the onion, the dish or the woman."

I hope to have more than half an onion left over, come late summer.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


The previous tally of expenses was $115.65.

A few more expenses:
  • carrot seeds $ 1.05
  • manure 11.54

Total now is $128.24

Also: The onions are here! They arrived on the 16th.

Friday, April 17, 2009

How big is your refrigerator?

Is there a rule of thumb for the right size refrigerator? The American manufacturers are making them bigger and bigger, presumably in response to demand. Sort of like the demand for bigger and bigger SUVs.

My current fridge is about 5 cubic feet. My last one was 18 cubic feet, and it was the smallest one I could find in the style I wanted (freezer on the bottom). Even so, it had to be special-ordered, because apparently most customers want 20 cubic feet or more.

When I looked at a major appliance store's on-line listing recently, the top choices were all substantially over 20 cubic feet (in the 24+ range). Compare that to a British appliance store's listing, where the 20+ sizes appears to be in the minority, and quite a few are offered in the 9-10 cubic foot size.

What is everyone putting into these huge refrigerators? Anything that needs to be chilled is likely to have a shelf life of about a week. A gallon of milk, another beverage or two, some meat/poultry, some eggs, some cheese, a couple drawers full of vegetables, and a door full of condiments. Okay, let's be generous and say that takes up about 5 cubic feet. That's only half of 10 or more cubic feet (not counting the freezer space). What's in the rest of the fridge?

Are we buying too much and letting it go to waste? Are we keeping moldy left-overs in the fridge, just because we can? Are ready-made meals taking up more than their fair share of shelf space, with their packaging?

What size is your fridge?

Thursday, April 16, 2009


The pea seedlings went outside, and more peas were directly sown in the garden. Lettuce seedlings also went outside, but in planters set up as cold frames.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Buy local

I visited the local branch of a national home-improvement store yesterday, and was startled to see a wide variety of vegetable plants for sale outside. It was obvious that they'd been out for a while because most of the tomato and basil plants had that dark, lifeless color that is the aftermath of a freeze. Only the kale and lettuce looked healthy.

Anyone who has a garden in this zone knows that warm-weather vegetables (particularly the nightshade family and basil) need protection until the end of April and well into May. Even in a good year, it's too early for them to be outside, unprotected, overnight. And this hasn't been a good year, in terms of spring-like weather.

The average last-frost date for this area is mid-April, with overnight temperatures in the 40s. In just the last week, temperatures have dropped to freezing or below several times, and may dip into the low 30s again this week.

Local growers know the local climate. Trust them and support them.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Every April I become convinced that, surely, this year, my neglect has killed off the asparagus plants.

Fortunately, I have the New Victory Garden book to reassure me that, in this horticultural zone, May is when I should be looking for the spears.

Monday, April 13, 2009

I'm okay, the garden's okay

The moniker "recovery garden" may be a little misleading.

The garden itself is doing just fine. It has everything it needs: water, boundless solar energy, and a variety of pollinators. It may occasionally suffer some stress in times of drought or excessive heat, but it doesn't suffer from anxiety. It sleeps through the night (except when the woodchucks invade), doesn't worry about its future and doesn't dwell over its past mistakes.

The garden doesn't need to recover from anything. The garden is recovering us.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Step by step

A twelve-step program for growing a recovery:

1. Acknowledge the need for more locally grown food
2. Believe that we can make a difference by growing our own food
3. Surrender the desire for exotic or processed foods
4. Prepare the soil with compost, hold the chemicals
5. Choose the crops, acknowledging the limitations of local climate
6. Plant the seeds and seedlings
7. Recognize of the power -- both positive and negative -- of Mother Nature
8. Share with the wildlife (except for woodchucks, who don't leave anything behind)
9. Weed and mulch
10. Harvest and preserve
11. Feed the neighbors, both immediate and extended
12. Spread the word about the value of Recovery Gardens

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Recovery, not victory

The concept of Victory Gardens is being revived all across the country, harking back to other war-time eras, when food and/or cash was in short supply.

I grew a Victory Garden last year. I was angry then. I wanted to hit something, and I didn't want to go to jail for assault. I took my anger out on clumps of dirt and tangles of weeds. It seemed fitting that I was growing a "victory garden," because I surely wanted victory, even if I wasn't sure what I wanted to defeat.

This year, I'm less angry and more scared and anxious. I need nurturing rather than violence, recovery more than victory.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


I want the onion plants NOW.

They should arrive in the next week or so. Last year, we planted them on April 18th, and I believe we received them a day or two before that.

Friday, April 3, 2009


The corpse (pea seedling):

The prime suspect: Miss Emma. In the kitchen. With her teeth.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In between time

It's too early to plant outdoors and too late to be excited about starting seeds indoors.

The pea plants are up to about 6" tall now, and should go outside this weekend. Maybe the onion plants will arrive in time for then too.

No sign of the asparagus tips yet.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thousands of cups

First, let me just say that I do not like the new "MyPyramid" nutritional guide. I prefer the simpler "eat 3 to 5 veggies a day," with none of the complicated variations depending on age, size, gender and activity levels.

On the other hand, I do like the way the newer guide breaks veggies into five categories: dark green, orange, beans/peas, starches and "other."

Using the old rule, if the recovery garden produced 100% of one person's vegetable intake, it would need to produce 1,095 to 1,825 servings of vegetables. That seems a little overwhelming.

With the new rule, for my age and gender, the recovery garden would need to produce 104 cups of dark green vegetables, 78 cups of orange vegetables, 912 cups of beans/peas, 912 cups of starches and 2,007 cups of "other" (which includes my favorites: peppers and tomatoes and onions).

We're not growing any of the starchy veggies, and we've got the orange veggies covered easily(butternut squash). That leaves almost 3,000 cups of veggies to grow for one person, or 18,000 cups for the six people in our two households.

I'm having trouble picturing that, especially since growers generally think in terms of weight, not volume, and when we use volume, it's bushels, not cups. If I did the math right, we need 141 bushels to feed the two households!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


The peas in peat pots are sprouting.

It's a luxury to have a heat mat (to keep the pots at optimum germination temperatures), but it does make a difference in how quickly the seeds sprout, especially in my cold kitchen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Peas in peat pots

Started sugarsnap peas indoors in peat pots today.

Early, early, early

The earliest backyard crop is usually some form of greens. In our garden, it will be tatsoi (sometimes called "tah tsai").

I tossed some tatsoi seeds in an outdoor planter a couple weeks ago and covered the planter with glass to make a sort of greenhouse. After a couple mild, sunny days this week, they sprouted despite the night-time temperatures falling well below freezing.

In addition to being cold-tolerant, the plants are pretty -- perfect little rosettes -- suitable for growing in a decorative spot. They're ready for harvest in about six weeks. The leaves can be eaten either fresh in a salad or lightly cooked (e.g., added to a stir fry or tossed with cooked pasta or steamed/wilted like spinach).

Any uneaten plants will bolt in hot weather and produce flowers with multitudes of seeds (in elongated pods, like extremely tiny peas). If they're allowed to self-seed, depending on the timing, they'll either produce a second crop in time for the late-fall harvest or will over-winter for an early spring crop the next year. If you want to control where they're growing, the casings make it easy to harvest the seeds.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Apparently, six-year-old basil seeds are no longer viable.

Some seeds seem to last forever, while others (e.g. onions, I believe) have a very short lifespan.

I had hoped to use up old seeds this year, but, at least for the basil, I'm going to need some fresher seeds.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Head count

We have thirty-one garlic sprouts now, which should turn into 150 garlic cloves at harvest time.

We may have to plant more next year.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Container gardening

Even though we have a large amount of land (by urban standards), we sometimes choose to grow certain crops in containers.

Two years ago, we experimented with growing tomatoes in upside-down buckets, with herbs growing in the top.

The results were mixed. On the plus side: harvesting was easy with everything up off the ground, and there was virtually no weeding. On the minus side: they required daily watering, and the plants were puny compared to the ones in the ground.

Last year, we reserved the hanging garden for grape tomatoes, and enjoyed the easy harvesting, but there were hardly any fruits to harvest.

This year, all the tomatoes are going into the ground. They just do better there for us.

On the other hand, we had some volunteer dill plants in one of the buckets last year, and they did great. Dill is particularly sensitive to competition from weeds, and the buckets filled with potting mix are both less weed-seed-infested than dirt and more conveniently reached than the ground.

We've also had success growing lettuces in planters on my neighbors' deck. The bunnies and woodchucks aren't great stair-climbers, and the slugs/snails dislike crossing the surrounding expanses of dry wood to get to the planters.

This year, we're planning to grow some additional crops in containers. I've already sown some tatsoi (a very hardy oriental green that can be eaten raw or lightly steamed/sauteed like spinach/chard) in a deck planter. The first set of lettuce seedlings is growing under lights indoors, and we expect to have a cold frame in place this weekend or next, so we can start a second sowing of lettuces indoors. Radishes and miniature carrots, which are as timid as dill when competing with weeds, will go into planters (probably the tomato buckets) when the weather improves.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Joy of Squash

Last year's big success was the winter squash (Waltham butternut), the majority of which were volunteers from some not-so-broken-down compost. They took over a good chunk of the garden, climbing the fence and threatening the passing lawn mower.

By the end of the season, we had thirty-two of them, mostly family-sized, but a few in the single-serving range.

Besides tasting great and brimming with nutrition, winter squash also stores well. They don't require refrigeration or freezing or canning to last through the winter. I took the picture of our remaining squash today, and they should last another few months.

Traditionally, squash is over-wintered in a root cellar, where the temperature is above freezing, but below what we consider room temperature today. I don't bother with a root cellar, since the thermostat in my kitchen area is set just below 60 degrees (although it's sometimes warmer in there, especially if the oven's been used).

Once the squash is cooked, if there's left-over, it freezes easily. The frozen squash can be microwaved as a side dish, or -- my favorite -- thawed and added to pancake batter. Just use your favorite pancake recipe or mix, but add pumpkin pie seasonings to taste, along with about 1/4 cup of the squash for every cup of flour (or dry mix), and reduce the milk (or other liquid) to get the right consistency.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Signs of spring

We have garlic!

We planted approximately thirty (forgot to count them at the time) cloves of garlic in October, and now we've got sprouts. We have 21 so far, but it's early still, and they're heavily mulched, so they're difficult to spot.

The variety is "German Extra-Hardy," the organic strain, from Johnny's Seeds. It did well in our garden last year, while the elephant garlic was unsuited either to us or our climate/soil, and either didn't survive the winter or produced anemic bulbs.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Greener than stimulus cash

Our vegetable garden will include:

  • garlic

  • onions

  • tatsoi

  • black seeded simpson lettuce

  • new red fire lettuce

  • cucumbers and miniature cucumbers

  • butternut squash

  • zucchini

  • yellow crookneck squash

  • spaghetti squash

  • honey bear winter squash

  • Bright Lights swiss chard

  • Ace peppers

  • banana peppers

  • grape tomatoes

  • paste-type tomatoes

  • asparagus

We'll also be growing the herbs to season the vegetables:

  • rosemary

  • oregano

  • basil

  • dill

  • sage

  • chives

  • garlic chives

  • lavender

  • catnip

  • thyme

  • rose geranium

  • lemon balm

Friday, March 6, 2009

Return on investment

I'll save my rant about Thoreau for another day, but for now I'll acknowledge my (admittedly begrudging) indebtedness to him for inspiration to tally up the costs of my recovery garden and then, in the fall, compare that to the value of the harvest.

I'm fortunate to be spared many of the major expenses of farming:
  • land acquisition

  • tool acquisition

  • initial clearing and cultivation

  • established perennials (e.g., asparagus and rhubarb)

  • anti-critter fencing
I could, if absolutely necessary, grow a garden this summer without purchasing anything at all. Unlike Thoreau, however, I don't see virtue in parsimony or deprivation. I'm aiming for more balance, getting a solid return on investment, not mere subsistence.

So far, and with the assistance of my next-door neighbors who are farming with me, I've incurred the following costs (including shipping and/or tax, as applicable):

  • Garlic bulbs ................................$29.10

  • Seed starting soil.......................... 4.19

  • Peat pots .................................... 18.00

  • Onion plants .............................. 28.60

  • Assorted seeds *......................... 34.75

  • Dill seeds .................................... 1.05

The total, so far, is $115.65.

We'll be buying tomato and pepper plants and a few other things from the local nursery. I'll report on those costs later.

*In case you're wondering, the ordered seeds are: black seeded simpson lettuce, new red fire lettuce, rocky cucumbers, basil, butternut squash, honey bear winter squash, spaghetti squash, Bright Lights swiss chard, and yellow crookneck squash.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Growing my own recovery

The government can't fix the economy, locally or globally.

We're the ones who have to fix the problem, and, now that the initial shock is wearing off, it's time to act. We need to get our own lives in order, get our feet solidly beneath us, and then reach out to help others who are still struggling.

It's easy to feel helpless in the face of the daily news and the enormity of the problem and the smallness of our abilities to help. I was getting caught up in the way everyone was counting on "new" things to save us: new technology, new businesses, and even new workers in old occupations. If that's true, I can't help. I'm not new. I'm an old worker in an old occupation.

But sometimes old is good. My role in the recovery will come from something as old as dirt: growing my own food.

I've planted a summer garden every year for decades, but always in a slapdash sort of way. I enjoyed seeing things grow, and that was enough of a reward, even if the bunnies and the bugs and the droughts and the floods consumed the bulk of my crops.

This year, though, the harvest matters. This year, I'm growing my own recovery.