Sunday, December 30, 2012

Planting Calendars

Last year, I was consistently late in planting seeds and seedlings. This year, I'm making a calendar to keep track of what I'm sowing when.

Kathy at Skippy's Vegetable Garden created a great program that will generate a planting calendar automatically, based on your average first frost date.

Kathy has two beautiful garden sites with lots of space and sun. I have a shady backyard and am growing in containers. Because our lists look so different, I created my own planting calendar, complete with some tips that I otherwise might forget (like thinning the spinach). Check it out.

I'm especially excited about the Mexico Midget tomatoes from Seed Savers Exchange. I am ordering these heirloom tomatoes as seedlings, so they will arrive ready to plant. Not only do I get to skip the labor-intensive process of starting them from seed, but also the hardening off. To accustom delicate seedlings to the outdoors, gardeners put them out for progressively longer periods each day, hardening them off over the course of a week. I find this near impossible to do correctly with a full-time job, so it's nice to have that burden relieved.

I'm also looking forward to growing as many alpine strawberries as possible this year. They caught my interest because they require less sun than their mainstream cousins. But since then, I've been reading about their delicious, intense flavor. I can't wait to snack on them while gardening.

What plants have you been drooling over in the seed catalogs?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Harvest: What I Grew and What I Made

What I grew...
Three cloves of garlic

Piles of oregano
One calendula plant gave me a couple of handfuls of dried petals for a salve
Three basil plants, including a couple of purple heirloom varieties

Cherry tomatoes and more calendula and basil
Pole beans
And what I made...

Tomato, basil, and goat cheese salad
Pickled green tomatoes
Fried yellow tomatoes
Pesto, which I froze in an ice cube tray and locked into a freezer Ziploc bag
What did you grow and make this year?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Size Matters (Containers Part 2)

A promising start with a sad ending
Containers are tricky solutions to growing vegetables. One of my first experiments in growing vegetables garnered grape-sized beets.  After weeks of fertilizing and watering, I ate the world's smallest beet and goat cheese salad.

This summer, I tried growing cherry tomatoes in a self-watering Trader Joe's container, 11" diameter, 11" deep. The plant didn't fruit and ended its sad life in the compost bin.  My problem, I realized, was container size.

Obviously, big plants need big pots. But how big?

Container Size Recommendations
Jeff Gillman and Meleah Maynard, the authors of Decoding Gardening Advice, say that most vegetables need to be grown in a pot at least 20" wide and 16" deep. Their recommendations:

Most fruiting plants (such as tomatoes, beets, carrots, and peas)
20" diameter x 16" depth

Some less-thirsty fruiting plants (such as peppers, eggplant)
15" diameter x 10-12" depth

Greens (such as spinach, lettuce) and herbs
10" diameter x 10-12" depth

Jessie Banhazl at Green City Growers recommended slightly smaller minimums. She told me to plant fruiting plants in a minimum of 12 inches depth, or more for larger plants.

For tomatoes, zucchini, or summer squash
2 square feet

For cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, tomatillos, chard and collards
1 square foot
(I've also grown both peas and beans in square foot containers)

Consider the plant too, Jessie said. Leafy greens need more surface than depth to grow well. So a short windowbox is much better suited to arugula than to carrots.

For every plant there is a container
My grape beets were in a long, narrow plastic container only 8" deep. Their tap roots hit the bottom and they stopped growing. That container is now used for spinach and lettuce. And the Trader Joe's pot? My heirloom basil flourished in it for the rest of the summer.

Other Container Tips
  • Water (and drainage!)   Everyone knows it's easy to forget to water your plants. But drainage is important too - I'll be drilling a few extra holes in one of my containers to avoid water-logged plants next year.
  • Fertilizer: Frequent watering (or rainfall) will wash nutrients out of the soil. Remember to replace with an organic fertilizer, like compost tea or Neptune's Harvest.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Let's set the scene of the crime.

August 4:

August 5:


The usual suspects?
Flea beetles eat leaves, but I haven't seen them eat that quickly. They leave little holes that are perfect circles. Cabbage moths also eat leaves but leave ragged edges. Again, though, I haven't seen them eat a whole plant in a day.  Maybe it was another creature with a voracious appetite...

When I looked closer, I saw a black head lift up out of the dirt, making a dash for the edge of the pot. I scooped it up and tossed it in the compost before I thought to get a picture. Fortunately, blogger and photographer Rob has taken some gorgeous pictures of various critters at

And Rob even does his research. Please meet Spodoptera Ornithogalli, commonly known as armyworm (though it's actually a caterpillar). It's a truly elegant little creature, camouflaged black with racing stripes down its back. Apparently its good looks are enough to let it get away with murder. (Or, I'm just squeamish about killing anything larger than an ant.) Still, if it finds its way back to my basil pots, it will not survive to tell the tale.

What pests are you dealing with this summer? And on a scale of 1 to 10, how pretty are they?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Pickled Green Tomatoes

In my last post, a dying tomato plant resulted in a little less than a pound of green cherry tomatoes.

I wanted to pickle them, but wasn't in the mood to can. I found this great Italian recipe on Public Radio's Splendid Table for pickled green tomatoes, no processing required. I added some chopped onions because a lot of other pickling recipes call for them, and because I had them. The mint and hot pepper were out - I didn't have any on hand.

I sliced the tomatoes, laid them in a single layer, and sprinkled a bit of salt on top.

A layer of onions was followed by more tomatoes, each layer sprinkled with a bit more salt.

At this point, the plate was covered in saran wrap and went into the fridge for 24 hours. When I removed it, I rinsed the mixture with cold water.

I tossed the tomatoes and onions with minced garlic, minced sundried tomatoes (the dried kind, not the kind in oil), and some basil chiffonade. (I love that word. Makes me feel French.)

Tomato mixture packed into jars and filled with 7% white vinegar. Result: 2 pints
Aren't they pretty? I'll marinate for four days and then they're ready to be sauteed with vegetables or tossed into scrambled eggs. Yum!

What concoctions would you like to make this summer?

Powdery Mildew

Look closely at the image below:

See the gray fuzz on those tomato leaves? I think that's powdery mildew. This is what it looks like when it's further along:

Yellow, withered leaves, curling up on the tomato plant. I attended a workshop at BNAN City Natives this morning and learned that the powdery mildew is unusual for most home gardeners in the Northeast right now, because it has been so hot. But because I have been growing these tomatoes in self-watering containers, they always have access to water. And so does the fungus that causes mildew. It doesn't help that my backyard is shady, getting maximum 5-6 hours of sunlight.

My fix:
I started by plucking the affected leaves, but this wasn't effective.

The mildew started to spread from its original hosts to its neighbors, so I decided to harvest the green tomatoes and pull the two plants most heavily affected.

Erica, garden educator at BNAN, recommended that I spray the less affected plants with a copper sulfate spray, available at hardware and gardening stores. She said to look for a spray certified by OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute).

Prevention for mildew would be better drainage - next year, I will introduce more sand into the soil mix, and maybe drill a couple of extra drainage holes.

What diseases have you had in your garden and how do you deal with them?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Harvesting the Fruits of Spring

The seeds and seedlings I planted this spring are finally coming to fruition. Pun intended.

 The garlic cloves I planted last November turned into fairly large bulbs, considering they're grown in a container. I had three. The third was delicious :)

I planted peas on April 16 (late) and harvested them July 5 (also late). Only one pea plant came up this year, probably because I planted the second in uncured compost. I got 7 pods, and a handful of peas. Their flavor was good but the texture a bit woody, so next time I will pay closer attention to the calendar and harvest earlier. This dwarf variety requires 65 days to mature, but I harvested them after 80.

I am also starting to harvest from two Red Robins. They are dwarf cherry tomato plants and heavy producers. The limbs were bowed over with the weight, but the plants are too short for my store-bought tomato cage, so I have a crazy staking scheme to keep them out of the dirt.

Of course, every harvest should end in a meal. With a bit of olive oil and salt, I made myself a summer salad.

What are you harvesting from your garden this season?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Case of the Fake Clover...A Weed in Disguise

This spring, I was thrilled to find clover growing next to my garlic. I rubbed my hands to think of all the nitrogen being fixed in the soil. (I'm a gardening geek.) But then the yellow flowers came out. It dawned on me that they looked nothing like clover flowers, white or red. This sneaky plant tricked me.

What I had growing in my container was not clover, but oxalis buttercup. (Yes, I just linked to Wikipedia.) Oxalis pes-caprae is an invasive plant and spreads ferociously through tiny bulbs that are difficult to get out of the soil without tilling, and sticky seeds that travel well via animals or cars.

The silver lining is that oxalis leaves have a delicious sour taste. That makes it easy to distinguish from real clover, which isn't sour at all. And best of all, I get to have my revenge on this sneaky weed by eating it in my summer salads. Take that, faker.

A reminder to those who compost - never add weeds that have gone to seed to your compost. That includes oxalis with bulbets in the roots!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Self-Watering Containers, part II

Last year, I wrote about building your own self-watering container to grow happy plants. Self-watering containers have a water reservoir at the bottom of the container. Water is wicked up into the dirt, while roots reach down to get at the moisture. Plants grow strong and healthy, and you spend less time watering plants.

I was looking for a more flexible self-watering container than the two large bins I have. I wanted one I can take indoors or outdoors, and that is easy to clean. A plus would be one that is easy to make!

Allison Fastman, author of Cantabrigian Farm Girl, taught a fantastic workshop last summer on indoor gardening projects, including how to create self-watering containers out of Trader Joe's flower buckets. You've probably seen the buckets holding cut flowers. At closing, the buckets are sadly tossed into the dumpster - or better yet, the staff will hold them for you to pick up the next morning. Because the plastic isn't too thick, you can cut through them with scissors, making them easy to work with. So even if you have just a superglue gun and a set of scissors, you can still DIY.

Materials (for one self-watering container):
  • 2 flower buckets from Trader Joe's
  • Rope (natural, not synthetic)
  • Superglue gun and glue sticks
  • Weedblocking material
  • Scissors
  • Optional: hardware cloth, screwdriver
  • The rope and weedblocking material are sold in larger quantities than needed. Share with a friend!

Do It Yourself!

1. Start by supergluing rope around the bottom third of one bucket. When you slide this "inner" bucket into the second bucket, the rope will prevent it from fitting completely, allowing space for a water reservoir.

2. Cut a hole in the center bottom of this bucket, large enough to slide rope through. If you are pushing the point of the scissors down to start the hole, add pressure slowly to avoid cracking the plastic. Do I know this from experience? Yes. (I used a combination of scissors and a screwdriver.)

3. Cut weedblocking material to fit in the bottom of the inner bucket, then cut a hole in the center. For structural integrity, you can also add hardware cloth at this point. (The hardware store can cut it down to size for you.) The weedblocking material will keep the dirt in your top bucket and keep it from falling through into the bottom bucket.

4. Tie a knot in the end of another piece of rope, then cut to about 6 inches. Pull the rope through the holes you've just cut in the bucket and weedblocking material. The rope will act as a wick, moving water from the reservoir up into the dirt.

5. Poke two or more holes in the second "outer" bucket, a few inches up from the bottom. The holes should be just below where the bottom of the first bucket will end. If your plants are outdoors, this will prevent them from drowning in a rainstorm.

The bucket sat too high when empty, but sank lower when filled with dirt.

6. Fill the bottom bucket with a few inches of water, and the outer with soil. Then, plant!  And remember to add water as needed.

Red Robin cherry tomatoes

If you need any containers, feel free to ask - I got about 20 from Trader Joe's. Happy planting and let me know how it turns out!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Spring Salad

 I celebrated a mid-week day off with a spring salad. Bon appetit!

Asparagus (steamed 7 minutes) and chive flowers


Spinach and grape tomatoes


Spring Salad

In future, I will not be combining the onion-y chive flowers with asparagus. (I liked the colors, though.) A better choice would have been the clover flowers I have out back.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mark Your Calendars

Last Saturday, in the shade behind the Harvard Co-op bookstore, I found a flock of chickens. 

Yes, chickens, 6 months old and adorable. Beside their coop, there were information booths from Grow Your Own Stuff on hydroponics, Fresh Pond Reservation on invasive plants, City Sprouts selling seedlings grown in schoolyards, the awesomely helpful Green City Growers on building a raised bed garden, and more.

This was the Get Growing! Festival, part of Harvard Square's MayFair, with information for anyone interested in creating a container garden or raised bed garden, backyard chicken coop, rainwater catchment system, or just about any other urban homesteading project you can think of.

I walked away from the Get Growing Festival with free seedlings, a handbook on hydroponics for my soon-to-be-built window farm, and supplies for making a self-watering container. (soon to be new blog posts!)

I also brought back leaflets and postcards with several dates to keep in mind for workshops around town:

Saturday, May 19, Fresh Pond Day
Music, storytelling, dog training, birding, container gardening, crafts, wildflower walk. The ultimate family day at Kingsley Park (250 Fresh Pond Parkway)

Saturday, May 19 and Sunday, May 20, Seedling Sales
Organically grown vegetable, flower, and herb starts for your home garden, at Waltham Fields Community Farm (240 Beaver Street, Waltham, MA)

Saturday, July 14, Breakfast on the Farm
Waltham Fields Community Farm hosts chef Joh Kokubo of Kitchen on Common.(240 Beaver Street, Waltham, MA)

Friday, August 10 - Sunday, August 12, Northeast Organic Farming Association's Summer Conference
Located in UMass, Amherst, the conference includes workshops on organic gardening, permaculture, landscaping, alternative energy, and cooking, as well as music, organic meals, and a country fair. For info:

Tuesday, August 14, Potluck and Stargazing
7:30-8:30pm Potluck
8:30-10pm Stargazing
Waltham Fields Community Farm hosts Astronomer Andrew West. Free event! (240 Beaver Street, Waltham, MA)

Sunday, September 23, Cambridge Urban Ag Fair
Winthrop Park, Harvard Square
Celebrating local gardeners, growers, and foods, this is a little like a country fair, but in the city. Prizes are awarded for the biggest veggies and tastiest jams.

Whether in Boston or elsewhere, what events do you have on your calendar this summer?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Garden Update

I planted spinach, a mesclun mix, peas and some flowers last week, but I have a couple of other things growing in my garden.

The garlic I planted last fall seems to be doing well, though I predict these container bulbs will be small . I'm still not sure when to harvest them. It's too bad I don't eat clover on a regular basis, as that seems to be doing REALLY well.

(Actually, maybe I should eat the flowers - apparently they're delicious in salads.)  

Also, the oregano I planted last spring overwintered well (probably because it was such a mild winter) and smells soooo good.

Not too bad considering this took absolutely zero effort on my part.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Deconstructed Spring Rolls

I intended to make these delicate vegetarian spring rolls in the New York Times but instead made its cousin. Featuring bok choy and stir fry instead of kohlrabi and rice wrappers (neither of which I could find in the grocery store), it was delicious.

1. Boil some water and pour over rice noodles (i.e. Maifun rice sticks) in bowl. Follow package instructions - they should cook in about 20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, stir fry the bok choy (rinsed and chopped) until limp and tender. Add shredded carrots towards the end.

2. Drain, press, and slice tofu, then sautee until golden-brown on both sides.

3. Drain rice noodles. Arrange above ingredients artfully, top with cilantro and drizzle with ume plum vinegar or soy sauce.


Monday, April 16, 2012

How to Use Compost

As I mentioned in my last compost post, I used my own black gold last fall to shore up my backyard for winter. I dug out the dirt, and stuff that was close to dirt, from the bottom of the compost bin and laid it around plants, finishing it off with a layer of dried leaves. This spring, I wanted to use my home-made compost to replenish the nutrients in my outdoor containers, which I didn't bother to empty this winter. I included some organic fertilizer too, since I know homemade compost doesn't have all the nutrients plants need. Only after I sowed my spinach and pea seeds did I think - wait, didn't I read something about maturing compost?

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has a nice webpage explaining how to use compost, including the fact that compost should be matured (i.e. aged), as fresh compost can cause problems for your plants.  One is that fresh compost can "burn" the plants. The second is that during the process of decomposition, nitrogen is leached out of the soil. It's only after the process is complete that nitrogen can be returned. Oops...

So I decided to make a fifth grade science project. I filled another two containers with store-bought compost and planted the same spinach and peas. Presumably, if the seeds sprout in both, then my compost was mature enough to plant in.

Then I'll make a poster with the results and bring it to the high school gym ;)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Garlic Growing

I was surprised this morning to walk into my backyard and see shoots coming out of the earth in my self-watering containers.

Garlic and a corner of clover

I got a bulb from the farmer's market last fall, figuring they would have to use a variety that grows well in New England.  I planted the individual cloves and waited. But when I last checked in the fall, the dirt looked as though something had been rooting around in it so I assumed my garlic was gone.  Now my only question is: when do I dig them up?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

How cool are chestnuts?

Nature has ingenious ways of wrapping its products in compostable packages.

For example, chestnuts:

Photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos
 Or onions: