It has been no secret that my dad moved out of our family home of 50+ years and I’ve spent a very long time emptying the house and getting it ready to rent. It’s a departure from the gardening content this blog’s title promises, but this is my life these days:
My wife has accompanied me to Ithaca for a final, crazy push to finish work on my dad’s house. She has cleaned most of the rooms I emptied, we have removed a bunch of recyclables and even more for the trash, and we’ve done some construction & maintenance. The most obvious building project was building a wall in the basement.
Stacy and I courted while I was renovating a two-family house with a friend in Boston. She gamely pitched in, going with me from work to a fast-food restaurant to the house every evening and building until bedtime. This trip to Ithaca has recaptured all the magic and romance of those first three(?) months. The photo shows our latest creation.
The “play room” might have been a one-room efficiency apartment before we moved into the house in 1961. It contains a barbeque-capable fireplace, a small sink with many cabinets, and a bench that could seat 4 or 5. As very young children, we wrestled in the play room. We learned microscopy there and discovered paramecia, amoebas, and hydras. We played with electric trains and race cars, and had epic games of hide-and-seek and “find the kitchen timer.”
We had (Boy Scout) patrol meetings in the play room, and we occasionally busted open pinatas there. My brother Kris entertained us in the play room with his chemistry set, and we used a washing machine motor to build a barely useable spin-art device.
We played down there with an Erector Set, Lincoln Logs, Corgi Toys, a Switch-N-Go set, a Thing Maker, Hot Wheels, and a Spirograph. For a few years, we used the play room as a street hockey rink: taped up some wooden hockey sticks and used them to smack around a plastic puck on the linoleum-tiled floor.
In the play room’s last “family” configuration a ping-pong table filled most of the space. The ceiling is low so there are many, many scuff marks where paddles topped out during overhand slams. Early last spring I cut a chunk out of the ping-pong table (my dad had made the table out of plywood) to patch the bathroom floor.
The play room mutated quickly once I and my siblings moved out. My dad and brother installed a table saw, and a stack of lumber grew along the wall opposite the sink and fireplace. To accommodate a wood furnace in his “work room,” my dad moved a long cabinet into the play room. When he retired, he stored all kinds of lab equipment in the play room. My brother Eric also stored some stuff there. Oh–and some of my grandmother’s antiques ended up down there as well.
The ceiling in one end of the play room fell some years ago and restoring it would require ripping down the entire ceiling and maybe a wall. To bring the room up to snuff, we’d also need to scrape up the old linoleum tiles and put down something new.
Or… We built a wall. Stacy and I ran a wall across the play room, cutting off the ugly and creating a large storage space for furniture our kids might someday want for their own apartments or houses. I’d have simply locked down the play room (to keep future tenants out), but there’s a fuse box that needs to be accessible.
I could go on about symbolism and all that… but what of 18 months of clearing out the family home hasn’t been symbolic?
Having Stacy here has been a great help. Sunday will be a very busy day.
As we finished the wall this morning, twin fawns walked into the yard. Later, I was out back adding an entry light on the porch I had built last spring. I made friends with a spider who was fearless as I splashed sawdust on its web and periodically bumped the handrail it calls home.
Anywhere I point a camera at the pear tree it captures an image with many pears. I’ve never seen so many pears on the tree in a season. If they reach maturity, I’ll have a lot of preserving to do!
As I rushed around a week ago Friday getting ready to drive to Ithaca, I captured images that demonstrate food is happening in the garden. I was happy seeing so much progress early in the season but I must not have been wearing my reading glasses.
You see, when I capture photos, I can’t tell immediately whether they’re well-framed, in focus, or properly exposed. Even with reading glasses, the tiny view screen on my camera can make blurred images seem sharp. I discovered when I reached Ithaca that the tiny view screen conceals all kinds of unexpected details. The shocking truth appears in the last photo of this post.
I wish I’d downloaded the photos before I left home so I’d spotted the problem while I could do something about it. I remain optimistic. Perhaps this was an isolated problem that will simply have gone away by the time I get home. No, I don’t believe that. What I believe is that someone else has beaten me to the first peas of the season. Rats.
With only a few plants mature, we’ve eaten a reasonable amount of lettuce salad—mostly from plants I’ve removed to thin the patch. I planted nearly exclusively romaine varieties this year. I like the crispness and it seems every year there are more shades of romaine from which to choose.
One of my favorite sprouts, basil, came on strong about six days after I set seed. This is a purple variety, and there is classic green Genovese basil about six inches to the right (not in the photo). I planted six varieties, most from seeds Renee’s Garden gave me to try.
This is totally crazy, but there are already blossoms on my tomato plants. Well… only the Stupice plants have blossoms, but that’s as it should be. Stupice is a “cool weather” variety that matures in about 55 days! There’s some chance the first will ripen by June 30th, but most certainly I’ll be harvesting in July. That has never happened in my small kitchen garden.
If tomato blossoms in early June aren’t crazy enough, I found a sweet pepper on its way to maturity. This must have developed from the one flower that had opened before I set the seedlings in the garden. Still, I’ve been impressed that my pepper plants didn’t seem to notice I ripped them out of communal planters and set them into my planting beds. There was no wilting and no apparent slowdown in growth.
The photo that made me shudder when I loaded it onto my computer and looked at it full-screen is of my first pea pod of the season. One plant flowered about three days ahead of the others. On this day (June 6), two pea rows were green hedges smothered in white flowers. In the middle of it all was this tiny green pod I captured in pixels. Casual inspection of the closeup revealed quite a community of aphids apparently enjoying the little pod.
A few planting beds at Cornell University’s Plantations hold a variety of peonies unlike any I or my dad have grown over the past 50 years.
Please forgive me for stepping away from my kitchen garden. I’m still working on my dad’s house in Ithaca, and on this trip I discovered Cornell Plantations was running a plant sale. Of course, I went, and it was hard to resist buying. There were so many plants I’d love to have taken home, and all at great prices!
I exercised self-control, and I also grabbed some photos. Cornell Plantations is a show and research garden. It hosts a huge collection of plants. Themed gardens show off plants from all over the world, and it’s easy to spend several days exploring. Along the walk from my car to the plant sale, there were several raised beds planted in peonies.
Cornell’s plant sale offered many shades of heucheras, the most dramatic of which was the particularly red-leafed plant in this photo.
When I was a kid, peonies were floofy, aromatic, gorgeous flowers at the back of the yard near the rhubarb patch. I used to watch ants crawl around on the peony buds and later I’d marvel at the giant flowers that bowed their supporting stalks to the ground. Years later I encouraged my wife to plant peonies, and we had three varieties until this past winter – one of them didn’t survive. All three varieties were just like my dad’s but in three colors: pinkish-purple, pink, and creamy white with pink inclusions.
Cornell’s peonies have peony leaves and stalks, but the flowers are barely like my dad’s peonies. I captured a whole bunch in pixels along with a few photos of the area hosting the plant sale. The photos tell the story, though the embedded slideshow at the end simply glorifies peonies!
An enormous pergola housed a huge collection of what must have been shade-loving plants adjacent to the plant sale. Unrelenting sunlight cast shadow stripes onto everything beyond a rope we were not permitted to pass.
And the peony slideshow:
A mint plant I bought at a grocery store to flavor a Turkish meal became pot bound in the nearly two months before I was ready to work in my garden. The thick white band running around the root ball is a rhizome that would be happy growing through a planting bed or lawn – perhaps seven feet or farther in a single season!
Seems I abuse mint in print quite a bit. My last blog post—Community Garden Ithaca—included complaints about people planting mint in the soil of community gardens. That post linked to an earlier one warning kitchen gardeners to protect their plots against mint. I just had an experience that seriously illuminates the mint menace.
In the past two months I cooked two Turkish recipes that called for mint. Holding no illusions that dried mint would taste authentic, I splurged and bought live mint at the grocery store. For each meal I bought a well-leafed plant in a 2-inch pot.
After cutting about half the foliage from a pot, I set the plant among my gardening stuff on the porch figuring to set it in my garden some time this spring. Even without added nutrition—I haven’t given them plant food—the plants have continued to put out new growth. Unfortunately, the pots dry out quickly.
As I packed up for yet another trip to Ithaca, I decided not to burden my wife with mint-watering duties. So, I potted up each plant into its own milk jug planter which I figure will hold moisture for four or five days. What I found behind the walls of the 2-inch pots should put a chill in every kitchen gardener. The photos tell the story.
You can clearly see four baby mint plants emerging from the rhizome and if you squint you might spot two others. As a mint rhizome extends through your planting beds and your lawn beneath the soil, it produces a new plant every inch or so. With no effort on your part, you can have an enormous mint patch in just one or two seasons. It is folly to plant mint in the ground on your property unless all you want to grow is mint. My grocery store plants will eventually end up in circular containment rings with deep root barriers—the same setup I’ve used for oregano, marjoram, and sunchokes. By the way: Don’t let mint plants hang over the sides of containers so their stems touch soil. Mint stems happily produce new roots when you give them a chance.
Just inside the gate of Ithaca’s community garden is a planting bed along the base of the fence. Many types of plants were sprouting there; my favorites were potatoes.
Sunshine and 76 degrees! What gardener wouldn’t take advantage of such a day? Except my garden was 130 miles away. I did what I could: visited Ithaca’s community garden.
I’ve visited the community garden several times this spring and had been underwhelmed at how slowly it has gotten started. Few plots had cool weather crops planted back when weather was reliably cool. Now, as temperatures occasionally spike to summer highs, cool weather crops are in and they have a race to win! If June brings hot days, Ithacans may come up short on spinach, lettuce, and peas.
Well… we do what we can. The photos provide an idea of what’s up in Ithaca.
There are patches of lettuce throughout the community garden. The colors in this patch set it apart from the others.
This allotment uses shiny CDs as scarecrows. The CDs hang above a small lettuce patch which I suspect won’t interest birds at all. However, perhaps rabbits and other large rodents have access to the community garden and have some fear of shiny baubles.
Once you’re gotten an allotment at Ithaca’s community garden, you get first dibs on it year-after-year. Some growers plant perennials and this combination is a classic: strawberries and rhubarb. While I encourage gardeners not to let rhubarb flower (flowering stresses the plant), the plants can put on a dramatic show if you let them.
Many years ago I grew a few sage plants from seed. I eventually moved the mature plants from a wooden half barrel container into an herb garden I established at the corner of my house. Those plants died over the 2013-2014 winter… they’d look about like the sage plant in this photo—clearly the product of many years’ growth. The spiky leaves in front are garlic plants started last autumn.
These are two of the prettiest rhubarb plants I’ve seen. They’re growing at the back of an allotment and garlic grows behind them in the adjacent plot.
I watched a small Burmese community work on this allotment about two weeks ago and was surprised now to see all the sprouts so far look like radishes! I learned several Burmese families rent space in the community garden and they often converge on one allotment much as an Amish community assembles to build a barn.
Here’s a pea patch managed by someone who understand peas! Often, people plant just a short row of peas with fairly loose spacing. Here, the gardener planted peas close together—from plant-to-plant within a row, and from row-to-row. As the vines climb the trellises, they’ll create a pea jungle that produces enough peas or pea pods for several meals.
Were I managing a community garden, I would enforce the following rule without mercy: PLANT NO MINT IN THE GROUND. If you grow mint on your allotment, do your neighbors a favor and plant the mint in a container tall enough that the plants never touch the ground. This one would pass inspection. I wrote about mint’s aggressive “conquer all” nature here: Protect Your Garden from Mint.
One allotment at Ithaca’s community garden had a striking row of tulips alongside a stand of mint. I loved to tulips. I wanted to fine the allotment’s owner for planting mint.
This allotment’s owner has a terrific idea: grow more in limited space by going vertical. The containers on this tower contain squash plants—way too many for the space unless they’re compact varieties. I can see a problem if this catches on. Plant skyscrapers may prevent sunlight from reaching plants on the ground… I’d hate to have an allotment neighboring a wall of these structures.
One allotment at Ithaca’s community garden is clearly as much about design as it is about growing food. The owner has fenced the space and created raised beds that spiral in from the gate. All is tidy and well-kept…
This is not a meadow. It’s an allotment at Ithaca’s community garden. Can’t say whether it’s rented and the owner is getting a slow start, or the chives are up for grabs. If you live in Ithaca and you want to grow vegetables, perhaps you’ll find an opening at the community garden.
My apple trees had more blossoms than in any past season. If all become fruit, I’ll need to rent a stand at the farmers’ market.
What an awesome spring we’re having! Sure, it was unpleasantly cold until it wasn’t supposed to be. Sure, perennials remained dormant until early April. But oh, my! Daffodils and hyacinth exploded in April, and eventually warm days coaxed forsythia to bloom.
I got my spring vegetables planted. Pea vines are about five inches tall and starting to wrap tendrils onto the trellises. Five types of lettuce are putting out second leaves and pak choi plants are starting to develop their own distinctive shape. Carrot plants are just sending up their first feathery leaves, as are the cilantro and dill seedlings that have emerged in my herb garden.
Large leaves are emerging from between the two thin first leaves of the spinach seedlings, and the onion sets have sent up spikes more than four inches tall. It has been warm enough for the past week to plant tomato and pepper seedlings in the garden and so far I’ve set out 28 tomato plants.
The old broken down peach tree blossomed as if its life depended on it. It has done so every year since the trunk snapped at least five years ago. Though the crown of the tree rests partially on the ground and connects to root solely via a bark-covered hinge, the tree consistently produces a fine crop.
There are plenty more seedlings to plant, and many, many seeds as well. But that’s not what I’m writing about today.
Best Ever Spring for Fruit Trees
My fruit trees were very cautious this year. Some years they’ve burst into full bloom in early April, but they had none of that this spring. Even as warming soil coaxed spring vegetables into action, the fruit trees held out. Buds swelled and looked ready to pop for weeks, but low nighttime temperatures kept the buds tight. My last blog post was about those fruit flower buds.
My pear tree appears robust until you look closely at its trunk. The trunk’s core is hollow from about the soil line to three or four feet above the ground. In 2008 I mail-ordered two trees to replace the old pear tree but they’ve yet to produce fruit. In the meantime the old, sick pear tree continues to make fruit and this year it’s outdoing itself.
Only in the past week, meteorologists assured us we’d have no more nights below 48F degrees. The fruit trees seem to have gotten the news. The blossoms popped and we had several days of awesome color.
That’s it. The fruit trees bloomed and temperatures soared (87F degrees today) and petals plunged to the ground. A few still hang on, but the pear, peach, and apple trees have had their showiest moment of the season and will now get down to growing fruit.
I can’t remember a better spring start for fruit trees in central Pennsylvania. Perhaps this will be a bumper crop year; well-needed after last year’s brutal fruit-killing spring.
Learn about Garden Bloggers Bloom Day.
Since 2008, I’ve been posting photos of this tree and telling readers it’s a Moonglow pear. I mail-ordered a Moonglow and a Bartlet pear tree in 2008 and planted them close together so they’d cross-pollinate. So far, they’ve produced no fruit. And, since last season I’ve been suspicious that they’re not actually Moonglow and Bartlet trees. They came labeled as Moonglow and Bartlet, but they look identical. Flowers, leaves, colors, textures are as if they are a single tree.
Maybe real Moonglow and Bartlet trees are indistinguishable from each other, but these trees also look little like other pear trees I’ve seen. Finally, yesterday I gave in to my suspicion and tracked down the Purple Leaf Plum tree—which is obviously what I planted. It’s a very sad waste of SIX YEARS’ anticipation that I’d soon be harvesting pears from my beautiful trees. Apparently, Purple Leaf Plum trees produce edible fruit, so they might not be a total loss… but they’re sure taking their time getting around to it.
As the fruit tree blossoms are dropping petals, my blueberry plants are in full-bloom. They’ve grown enough that I might get two or three handfuls of berries this season. I’m so looking forward to years when the blueberry plants are three or four feet tall and five feet in diameter.
When you grow enough peas to stock your larder or freezer, it’s important to process them within a day of picking them. During peak season, I harvest about a gallon of pods each day. To keep up with them, I pod them while sitting in an easy chair and watching a show on TV.
Fresh garden peas have distinctive flavor unlike any you can buy in a grocery store. Remarkably, if you blanch and freeze fresh peas from your garden, they’ll hold much of that amazing flavor for you to enjoy throughout the year. Growing peas is easy, but I rarely see home kitchen gardens with enough pea plants to provide for a single meal much less for preserves.
Do you want a store of garden peas to get you through the year? You can grow that!
Peas thrive in cool weather, and cold only slows them down. Conversely, heat kills. Your goal as a pea gardener is to plant when the “days to harvest” are fewer than “days to summer heat.” Usually this means planting as early as you can work the soil—or within a few weeks of that.
I hoe 14’ long furrows 6 to 8 inches wide and set pea seeds every two inches along each side of the furrows. Last fall I covered my planting bed with autumn leaves so I had to rake them aside to make my furrows. The benefit of covering over the planting bed is that it emerges from winter with almost no weeds. Sadly, the leaves provide cover for slugs; I imagine I’ll be setting out bowls of beer to deal with that problem.
A rule of thumb in zone 6 is “Plant peas on St Patrick’s day” (March 17). It is rarely realistic; my garden soil is often mud in mid March. More importantly, when I plant peas that early, they grow at a glacier’s pace. I can plant more peas two to four weeks later and they’ll catch up with the ones I planted early.
Most years June offers up some stinking hot days, and by July the heat is relentless. It isn’t stinkingly-hot relentless, but it’s consistently hot enough that peas hate it; they wilt and die.
Peas grow from seed to harvest in about 70 days. Some claim 55 days—British Wonder and Alaska, for example—and shelling, snap, and snow peas may have widely differing days to maturity. I grow only shelling peas and I assume 70 days to harvest.
Counting back from late June, I need to plant peas in early April to give them their best chance. I also hedge my bets by selecting “wilt-resistant” peas. Wando is popular for late planting; it holds up well in early summer heat. Wando pea plants offer another advantage to older, rickety gardeners: the vines grow at least five feet tall. I wrote about this special consideration last year in a post titled Wisdom with Age.
Support Your Peas with Trellises
Pea vines are the most fragile plants in my kitchen garden. The stems flex a bit, but if I handle them too roughly, they crease and everything above the crease withers within a few days.
The earliest sprouts you’re likely to see are tiny leaf sandwiches. In cold weather, a sprout may look like this for several days—or even weeks.
Some varieties grow only 18 inches long while others may reach two, three, four, or five feet in length. Whatever the length when mature, pea vines can’t support their own weight; they produce tendrils that can wrap around leaves and branches of other plants for support.
It’s important to provide trellises. I grew an 18 inch variety once without trellises and the vines grew together as a mat on the soil. This trapped enough moisture that many vines rotted; it wasn’t pretty.
Trellises needn’t be elaborate. Here are a few styles to consider:
- Use dead tree branches pushed into the soil and leaned against each other.
- Set fence supports at each end of a row and stretch strings or wires horizontally between them at 4- to 6-inch intervals.
- Buy prefab lattice panels (home improvement stores sell 4’ x 8’ panels) and stand them along rows of pea plants.
- Attach wire fencing (available on 25’ or 50’ rolls at garden stores—I use 48” fencing) to sturdy stakes that you can hammer into the ground over freshly-planted peas.
Plan to Preserve
Pea patches are among the saddest things I see in other people’s gardens. So many gardeners set seeds along a short row—two to four feet long—and that’s it! With so few plants, you’ll harvest several delicious handfuls of pods over a two or three week period. That’s great for snacking in the garden, but you won’t have peas for the dinner table. Growing enough to preserve requires a bit of commitment.
In warm weather, pea sprouts can put out leaves in just a few days… but when the temperature drops, so does the sprouts’ growth rate.
For a sense of scale, I plant three 14 foot double rows of pea seeds, spacing the seeds about 2 inches apart. To create a double row, I hoe a furrow six-to-eight inches wide and an inch or two deep. I press pea seeds into the soil at two-inch intervals along each side of the furrow and then fill over them with more soil, leaving the furrow slightly lower than the surrounding soil. Then I baby-step lightly along the furrow, compressing the soil onto the seeds.
Each double row holds about 160 seeds—if things go well I end up with close to 500 plants. Some years I buy too many pea seeds and save the extras till the next season. I plant these as described, but before covering the seeds with soil, I scatter extras along the middle of the furrow in case the older seeds don’t germinate as reliably as new seeds.
Each of my pea trellises is a 13 foot long section of relatively sturdy, 48 inch wire fencing attached to three wooden garden stakes. I erect a trellis by setting the middle stake with a few whacks of a hammer, then pounding each end stake deep into the soil while pulling it away from the center stake to stretch the wire. Finally, I drive the center stake deep. By deep I mean 8 to 12 inches… I’ve attached the fencing so each stake protrudes about a foot below the bottom wire. In autumn, I pull the stakes and roll the trellis loosely to store in my garden shed. I’m fortunate: my garden shed could hold two or three dozen rolled trellises; with only three I’ve plenty of room for other gardening gear and much of our camping equipment.
I finish by erecting my trellises and watering heavily. I keep the soil damp until sprouts appear—sometimes I have to water each day, other years it’s cold and wet so watering isn’t crucial.
My point, though, is that number: 500. When I plant 500 seeds, we eat peas for a dozen or more meals during the growing season and I freeze between one and two gallons of peas for the rest of the year. I’m a lightweight. There’s a garden down the road from me that runs at least 30 yards long and the owners set three rows of peas and trellises each spring! These people grow at least seven times the plants I grow… I’m guessing they eat peas at dinner almost every day.
You won’t need as many plants to grow snow peas for preserving… but because I don’t grow snow peas I can’t guess how many meals’ worth you can harvest from a foot-long row.
Succession Planting After Peas
When your pea plants wither in late June, crush them to the ground and set seedlings of some other vegetables among them. I grow winter squash where my peas were, but you could try melons, cucumbers, beans and other vegetables that have short season varieties.
Sure, it’s a bit of work to plant peas and erect trellises; more work than for most common garden vegetables. Still, there’s nothing tricky about it. If you have enough garden space and you want enough peas to freeze (or to can or dehydrate), you can grow that!
I love this pea trellis fashioned from sticks and wild grape vines. Sadly, this tiny row of plants will produce enough peas for only one or two meals. If you plan to preserve peas from your garden, plant plenty. With rows totaling 42 feet and double-planted, I harvest between 2 and 3 gallons of peas in a season. I freeze about one-and-a-half gallons, and always use them up before next season’s peas are ready.
There go the last crocuses of spring. The first appeared on the south side of the house on March 11 while there was still much snow about. These are in my wife’s main flower bed on the west side of the house and they usually hold on until other bulbs get into the act.
It’s Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, and I’m so happy to have a few blooms to show off. Despite the calendar and increasingly longer days, spring started only a week ago… and then it was very wet. Amazingly, while I (along with everyone else around here) felt we’ve experienced the most horrendous and permanent winter in decades, perennials in central Pennsylvania are “on schedule.”
For the past seven or more years, daffodil shoots have appeared by late February. Winter of 2012-2013, in fact, daffodils sprouted **before** winter started! The poor, young shoots stood shivering for months before spring finally turned them loose.
What impresses me about the forsythia this year is its obvious reluctance to participate in what little spring we’ve had. We have no sprigs of yellow blossoms. Rather, each “sprig” has, perhaps a blossom with many buds watching, I guess, to decide whether it’s OK to open. Still, it’s very pretty.
This year, there were no sprouts at all until late March. In diminishing cold, daffodil tips appeared and slowly stretched upward for about two weeks. Then warm happened. In just a week, 2-inch sprouts erupted to full-sized daffodils and in about three days they spat out buds to blossom just in time for my Bloom Day photo session.
In past years, April 15 in my yard has seen apple, azalea, forget-me-not, lilac, peach, pear, tulip, hyacinth, and violet blossoms. But in each of those years I’ve joked that I’ll be able to grow pineapples outdoors by 2050 if the warming trend continues.
So, this spring of 2014 is “back to normal.” There aren’t many types of blossoms in my yard, and that’s how it should be in mid April. Please enjoy the photos.
Very much as if desperate for its moment of “fame,” this daffodil in our front yard blossomed for Bloom Day. Others also blossomed, but in the back yard tucked behind the lilac bushes.
If it has been warm enough for plants to grow, there are weeds somewhere in the garden or yard putting out blooms. This mint-family member appears every spring in my main vegetable bed and in my herb garden. It’s quite pretty with or without blossoms.
Each bud here is smaller than a dime, yet in about a week these will be two large cones of lilac blossoms—or the temperature will plunge dragging us into another plant-stopping cold spell. As I type this there are traffic accidents on highways within 60 miles of me caused by several inches of accumulated new snow. So… maybe it’ll be two weeks before the blossoms emerge. Whenever it does happen, it’s going to be quite a show!