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First Crocus (and more) of Spring

First crocus of spring 2017

The annual first crocus photo of the year. Crocus blossoms kicked off a week in February with temperatures as high as 70 degrees. Historically, there has been much snow in February.

No, it’s not spring (well… it wasn’t spring when I wrote this. With luck I’ll finish posting it today on the first day of spring). In fact, we never have to wait till spring for the season’s first flowers to appear. However, in central Pennsylvania, it’s very uncommon to have flowers in our gardens mid-winter, and that’s what we had.

On Monday, February 20 – the last day of mid-winter – I captured my first crocus photo of the year. We were into a serious warm spell; the coldest day that week was spring-like, and one day – Friday – was hot enough for shorts and a tee shirt.

Here, just two weeks later (OK… it’s a month later), I’m posting my first crocus of the year photo along with a few other shots from the garden on February 20th. Things were moving along too quickly too early, but a mighty cold snap shut it down in March. Last night (guessing that would have been March 5th) the temperature dropped to nine degrees Fahrenheit and all those perennials thinking they had a head start were very confused.

Photos tell the story of February 20.

Candytuft buds mid-winter 2017

A few feet from the crocus blossoms, a candytuft plant sported bunches of buds emerging at the ends of leafy stems.

Terminal buds on rose bushes mid-winter 2017

Well sheltered from wind, but in a heavily-shaded planting bed, a young rose bush got pruned by a garden-loving varmint. Fresh, pink terminal buds seemed ready to pop on the last day of mid-winter.

Sundrop plants mid-winter 2017

I didn’t know sundrops are “evergreen.” The purple and green variegation attracted me to the plants, so it’s great to see they’ll provide groundcover year-round. From about five plants I set last spring, I counted nine on February 20. It seems likely other new growth hasn’t yet pushed above the surface.

Horseradish mid-winter 2017

While horseradish leaves die back in late autumn or early winter, new sprouts develop through winter. On February 20, young leaves had started to unfurl. This is one of the most indestructible plants in my garden.

Rhubarb mid-winter 2017

Rhubarb is very hardy. In 2015, young sprouts appeared as cold killed back mature stalks and leaves. Those sprouts remained red and firm all winter and were among the first things to grow in 2016. Here’s a young sprout on February 20, 2017. I love how crinkled and tiny the leaf is, belying how smooth and enormous it will be when it grows up in March and April.

Cardoon in a low hoop tunnel mid-winter 2017

Here’s an unexpected success: This is a Cardoon plant in its third year in my garden. Cardoon withstands temperatures in the high 20s, but it isn’t hardy in zone 6. So… in late autumn, I built a knee-high hoop tunnel over the plant. I peeled back the plastic on February 20, and things looked really good. In fact, it seems new leaves grew since I erected the tunnel. When cold returned in early March, I replaced the plastic. Given the weather forecasts, it seems the plastic will need to remain until April.

Edible Honeysuckle mid-winter 2017

Several years ago, Proven Winners gave me two edible honeysuckle plants to try. These are crazy hardy plants; the only shrubs obviously leafing up in mid-winter. Those look like flower buds to me… perhaps this will be the year the plants start producing fruit.

Hellebore buds mid-winter 2017

Nearly matching strides with the crocuses, my hellebores were pushing out plump buds on February 20. By the end of the week, many of the buds had opened, but when cold hit in March, blossoms closed and everything shriveled into a heap. This isn’t a bad thing! As days warm, the shriveled plants draw in moisture and plump up as if nothing had interrupted their growth.

 
Small Kitchen Garden – First Crocus (and more) of Spring

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Sunflowers in Winter

Sunflowers in bloom

A farmer’s field of sunflowers in bloom in 2015. This is one of three fields the farmer uses for sunflowers, planting only one field each year.

If you like to take photographs—and, I think, particularly if you think of yourself as a photographer—you might find it difficult simply to drive past a field of sunflowers. I’ve seen dozens of gorgeous photographs taken by other photographers of these magnificent fields. What’s more, I’ve stopped two or three times a year for, perhaps, seven years to try to capture the quintessential sunflower field photograph.

I haven’t gotten close. Turns out, I’m not all that skilled a photographer. Still, I’ve nabbed a few decent photos of sunflower fields, and I’ll continue to stop and shoot whenever the opportunity arises.

Just three days ago I had such an opportunity. Never mind it’s mid-winter in central Pennsylvania. I took a side road to the grocery store, turned onto a side road of the side road to photograph a stately oak tree in a farmer’s field, and unexpectedly came upon a field of sunflowers.

In the spirit of raising spirits (seems to be a thing this time of year), I decided to photograph the sunflowers and share them on my blog. Mid-winter sunflowers can be quite striking. I hope you agree. So nice that only six weeks remain until spring.

Sunflowers in winter

A field of sunflowers in winter isn’t particularly eye-catching. I was surprised to see the farmer hadn’t harvested the seed heads from this field; there were plenty there for song birds. I captured many photos and left longing just a bit more for spring.

 
Small Kitchen Garden – Sunflowers in Winter

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Bug Photo Challenge

Grapevine Beetle

I had no idea what type of insect this was; I’d never seen one until it appeared in my garden in 2015 and I haven’t seen one since. The famous entomologist, Herr Google, leads me to think it’s a Grapevine Beetle, also known as a Spotted June Beetle. I enjoyed capturing photos of it, but I wish I’d run a lint brush over it before I started.

While heavily drugged after surgery last spring to remove a tumor from my pancreas, I gave myself ten “seven photos in seven days” photo challenges. So far, I’ve posted seven. This eighth post reveals seven of my favorite bug photos from 2015. Some are of baby bugs—caterpillars rather than winged adults. I pointed that out in case anyone feels baby butterflies and moths don’t qualify as bugs (I suppose it’s a stretch but there are many definitions of “bug”).

I hope you enjoy my bug photos. It’s a seven-day/seven-photo challenge, but all the photos are here in a single post.

Cabbage butterfly on lavender

I love to see cabbage butterflies in my garden, though they have seriously diminished my excitement for growing broccoli (I hate the part of preparing homegrown broccoli where you float the broccoli crowns in salt water for an hour so the worms die and float off the food.) The “antique white” of this butterfly delightfully complemented the delicate lavender color of my… lavender.

Cicada

Since moving to Pennsylvania 21 years ago, it seems I’ve heard in five or six summers that this was the year of the seventeen year cicada. In one of those years, there was actually an abundance of the magnificent insects in our area, though they did not inundate our living space and crunch under foot. Every year we hear the cicadas’ buzz, and I often find visitors in my small kitchen garden. This one was resting on a tomato stake in my plot at the community garden.

Golden digger wasp on marjoram

I first saw wasps like this one in 2014. I was able to find photos online that identify it as a great golden digger wasp. Many of them started frequenting my garden when the marjoram was in bloom. The wasps show no interest in me, but focus exclusively on the marjoram’s delicate flowers.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

For 18 years, I’d harvest wild black raspberries in meadows up the street from my house. Each year I’d also inspect milkweed plants in those meadows for evidence of monarch butterfly activity. Finally, in 2015, I found the caterpillar in this photo. Sadly, but for one building lot, the meadows are all gone. The landowner subdivided the land and there are houses on nearly all of them. No more milkweed. No more black raspberries. I wanted to live on a farm far enough from the nearest neighbors that we wouldn’t see the light on the pole in their barnyard. We bought a house on the edge of town 21 years ago, but town is an invasive weed that has grown in around us.

Grasshopper

I’m not particularly fond of grasshoppers, but they tend to make themselves available for decent photos. This one lingered on my garden’s rabbit fence near the tomato patch.

Dragonfly in rain garden

I love having dragonflies visit my kitchen garden. The main attractant, I think, is the “rain garden” I dug several years ago. I haven’t completed the project; I still need to line a ditch with gravel, lay perforated pipe in the ditch, and fill around the pipe with soil. Oh, and I should come up with a few rain-garden-appropriate plants. Still, in heavy rains, the collection pool fills and as it drains, moisture holds on at the bottom for days after the rest of the garden has dried.

 
Small Kitchen Garden – Bug Photo Challenge

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Taking Down the Vegetable Garden

Potato harvest from my community garden plot

In mid-October, I harvested about two-and-a-half gallons of fingerling and red-skinned potatoes. I’d left the potatoes in the ground way too long; rodents had tunneled under the tubers and had eaten many of them—perhaps almost as many as I harvested.

October 23 was the community garden’s “drop dead” date. I received an email at the beginning of October telling me I had to be done with my plots by the 24th; management would mow the plots and plant barley on that date.

I couldn’t get motivated to take things down in the weeks leading up to the 24th. The average first frost date in this area is October 21, but forecasts were for warm days into November.

Unfortunately, I had a chemotherapy session scheduled for Monday, October 17th. The Friday, Saturday, and Sunday after chemo are particularly brutal: my muscles feel as though I’ve been marching for a week without rest, I feel as though I should be sleeping, and my digestive tract is making me guess whether and when access to plumbing might be necessary.

My own squash variety destroyed by black rot

I’ve been trying to establish a new variety of winter squash using seeds I harvested from a hybrid that happened accidentally in my small kitchen garden several years ago. These are the fruits from this year’s effort. Sadly, I believe the discoloration on the skin is black rot. The flesh is still edible, but black rot is systemic meaning it can live in the cells of the plants. Seeds from these fruits are likely to carry the disease, so it would be wrong to share them with other gardeners. I’m afraid disease has made my new squash variety a dead-end.

Nope. I didn’t let chemo dictate my behavior. I’m deadline-oriented, so naturally I waited until the weekend to finish taking down my community garden plots. It was a forced march.

Back on October 10th, I had dug potatoes and harvested squash and sorghum seed heads. Much remained. Tomatoes and peppers were at various stages of ripe, sorghum stalks still stood, canna lily roots still supported leaf and flower stalks, and tomato trellises needed to come down.

My Small Kitchen Garden Falls

On Sunday morning (probably more like early afternoon), I drove to the community garden and dragged myself, painfully slowly, through the remaining tasks. The worst of it was removing tomato trellises.

With hanging string trellises, some 68 7-foot lengths of binder twine hung from a wooden support structure. At home, I’d simply cut the strings off the trellises and let them drop to the ground along with the tomato plants they supported. They’d winter under leaves and rot into the soil through the 2017 growing season (I don’t till the soil).

Sweet peppers from my small kitchen garden

I harvested about 2 gallons of sweet peppers on October 23rd. I’m afraid they’ve remained in the bag you see in this photo and have experienced many too warm days and several too cold days. I hope to feel well enough this week to work through stuff I harvested on October 23. With luck, I’ll find a few still-usable peppers to put up in the freezer.

At the community garden, it seemed risky to leave the binder’s twine wrapped around the tomato plants. A mower blade would most certainly catch the twine and wrap it around the mower’s drive shaft. I didn’t want to create extra work for someone else, so I untwisted the binder’s twine from the tomato plants… this took more than an hour.

I disassembled the wooden support structure for the hanging string trellises and loaded the wooden stakes into the bed of my pickup truck. Then I harvested the sorghum stalks and loaded them into the truck. Finally, I dug the canna lilies. It felt as though I’d worked for twentyten hours, though it was closer to three.

Tomatoes and peppers would have continued to ripen for another three weeks. It made me sad to have given up on them so early, but rules are rules, and the community garden is an awesome resource—particularly for a gardener challenged by illness. Photos tell the story of my last day of the season when I took down my vegetable garden.

Purple cayenne peppers in my community garden plot

From a package of “Festival Mix” cayenne pepper seeds, a plant produced purple peppers that turned red when fully ripe. Sadly, the plant was laden with under ripe fruits when I had to shut down my community garden plots.

Mystery paste tomatoes in my community garden plot

Some of the last tomatoes on my vines this October were the mystery paste tomatoes I acquired years ago from a local gardener. I harvested these along with Roma, Stupice, and a few varieties I couldn’t identify, and left them for three weeks in a bucket on an end table in the living room. Finally, a few days ago, I sorted the rotten tomatoes from the healthy ones. If all goes well, I’ll process the ripe ones this week and serve up the green ones as fried green tomatoes.

Stupice tomatoes produced earliest and latest in 2016

The first variety of tomato to ripen in my small kitchen garden was also one of the last to produce viable fruits. I harvested these Stupice tomatoes on October 23 just before I tore down my hanging string tomato trellises.

Sorghum still going to seed in late October

A theme of this article is that my community garden plots didn’t agree with the mid-October cease-and-desist order. This sorghum seed head makes the point: the seeds aren’t ready! I had already harvested any ripe seeds, but there were many young stalks at various stages of the reproductive cycle.

Sorghum sprouts emerge from roots of mature plants

When I cut the mature sorghum stalks, I discovered emergent shoots; more shoots from each plant than had grown to harvest. This leads me to think that in the tropics, sorghum may be a perennial. Perhaps you can harvest the seeds to make flour or porridge, cut mature stalks to extract sugar, and then wait four months and do the whole thing again.

Late season squash blossom in my kitchen garden

Another holdout against the cease and desist order: a squash blossom. I believe this flower was on one of my hybrid-derived squash plants, but there were also flowers on the zucchini I had planted back in May! In fact, on October 23, I harvested two beautiful zucchini squashes from six-month-old plants. In past years, I’d started a second planting of zucchini mid-summer after the spring-planted vines had withered.

Tomato blossom in my small kitchen garden

Despite bacterial disease, aggressive hornworms, and disgusting tomato fruit worms, many of my tomato plants were trying to remain relevant on October 23rd. There were at least a dozen blossoms through the tomato patch, and many buds about to open. Sadly, it all had to make way for the mower and seed-planter. I hope to garden the same two plots next season. I may be grumbling for having been forced off of my normal gardening methods, but it’s all for the good of the soil. I truly appreciate the quality effort with which the county manages its community garden.

 
Small Kitchen Garden – Taking Down the Vegetable Garden

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As Gardening Season Ends

Tomatillo from my community garden plot

I started six tomatillo plants from seed and they were very happy in the community garden. I’d never grown them, and was impressed at how prolific the plants were. I harvested mid-summer and canned many pints of salsa verde which, by my estimation, is more about the onions and peppers than about the tomatillos. Unfortunately, chemo has suppressed my sense of taste, so I’ve no idea whether the salsa verde tastes good. The tomatillo plants continue to grow and produce, and I may have left more than 100 fruits to rot in the garden. It seems unlikely I’ll plant tomatillos in next year’s garden.

It has been a hard season. I’ve faced two huge challenges to maintaining my kitchen garden:

1. It has been unusually dry this year. What little rain we’ve had came over a two-week period in August and did more damage than it did good.

2. I had major surgery before the season started to remove a tumor from my pancreas. Subsequent chemotherapy failed, and an alternative chemotherapy regimen has kept me weak and nearly constantly uncomfortable with gastric distress.

I had some help from my wife and some friends. My wife prepared one end of the main vegetable bed where I planted peas and carrots. She erected trellises for the peas, and we both harvested when peas were ready.

When my wife was away, a group of friends visited one weekend and removed an enormous amount of weeds from the main vegetable bed.

Conjoined paste tomatoes

All 68 tomato plants are still growing well, but late summer brought quite the onslaught of tomato fruit worms. Most tomatoes remaining on the plants are getting devoured, but I’m still harvesting about a half gallon of decent ones every four or five days. This is a single, unusual tomato on a plant that usually produces pepper-shaped fruits. It looks as though two tomatoes merged at birth.

What truly kept me in the game was signing up at a community garden. There I got two 10’ x 20’ plots where the garden’s management applies composted manure, plows it in, and plows again a week or so later to stop the first growth of weeds—all before gardeners have access to plant.

It was crazy easy for me to plant my prepared community garden plots. The soil was loose and raked smooth; I had only to press seeds into the soil or set seedlings in holes I could dig with my fingers.

The community garden helped me manage the dryness challenge as well: There are faucets and hoses that reach every plot and I was able to water my plants every 2nd or 3rd day.

I’ve gone rather light on blogging about the garden. The cancer has diminished many activities that used to be easy or even fun. Rather than catch up on all the most interesting moments of the season, this post is about where the season’s ending. Photos tell the story.

Three gallon tomato harvest

This was a typical harvest—three gallons of tomatoes and a few sweet peppers—about every three days until august. I’ve canned gallons of tomato pieces, whole tomatoes, and tomato sauce. Oh, and chili sauce and salsa in which tomatoes are a major ingredient.

Pruned tomato plants

Happily, the dry season discouraged common tomato plant diseases. I saw no early or late blight on my plants, though late summer rain fired up some bacterial disease that worked its way up the plants from the ground. I pruned affected leaves for several weeks, turning the tomato patch into a rather weird landscape.

Ten-foot tomato plants

My tomato trellises top out close to seven feet. The plants have grown three feet above the trellises… though this photo shows them a bit shorter. Tomatoes in the highest growth won’t ripen before frost, but there are a few just below the seven foot level that have a chance.

Small neck pumpkin

By early July I had grown squash seedlings under lights indoors and I planted them out at the community garden. One hill of neck pumpkins has barely performed; I must have set it on a bad patch of soil. Still, there are two rather tiny neck pumpkins maturing on the vines.

Small Kitchen Garden squash

Three years ago, without asking permission, my garden cross-bred a neck pumpkin with a fairytale squash. Unknowingly, I harvested seeds from a hybridized neck pumpkin and planted them in the next season’s garden. They produced gorgeous squash that I hoped I could stabilize through two seasons. Last season, they seemed to breed true. However, seeds I planted this year have produced three distinct varieties of fruits. The variety in the photo is the most prolific. The skin becomes creamy brown when ripe, a bit lighter than a butternut squash. Perhaps this version will breed true for next season’s garden.

Supposed purple cayenne peppers

I don’t recall where I got it, but last winter I picked up a packet of cayenne pepper seeds. It was a mix of seeds that would produce peppers in a variety of colors. Purple cayenne peppers, I think, are cheaters. The fruits start out purple but ripen to a bright red. Other colors in the packet were red, yellow, and orange. Sadly, I failed with cayenne. The plants were prolific early when I was dealing with a bumper crop of tomatoes and sweet peppers. Most of the cayenne peppers ended up in the crisper drawer and became anything but crisp.

Sorghum approaching harvest

A first for me, and still in progress: sorghum. I bought a packet of one hundred and fifty seeds and planted them in a tight square at one end of the bed. The plants have flourished. The seed heads are full and, I’m sure, ripe. Everything I’ve read suggests harvesting the seeds as close to first frost as possible and leaving the stalks to get some frost bite. Then harvest the stalks and squeeze the sap out of them to boil into syrup. Frost may be two weeks away, so I won’t be messing with the sorghum right away. In fact, my next big harvest needs to be potatoes. The above-ground parts of my potato plants never stopped growing until they were overrun by squash plants.

Cannas in the community garden

On a whim, I reserved several canna lily roots that we didn’t need to complete our “Hawaiian corner” behind the rock garden this year. I stuck the spare roots in my community garden plot among squashes, onions, and potatoes where the cannas wouldn’t interfere with other plants. It was quite late in the season, so the cannas are late bloomers, but there have been several flower spikes so far. In a few weeks, I’ll pull the roots and save them for next year. Knowing how many we need behind the rock garden, I’ll set aside a few extra to add flare in next year’s community garden plots.

 
Small Kitchen Garden – As Gardening Season Ends

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Another Photo Challenge? Birds!

Bluebird

My mom said she loved bluebirds, but she was frustrated that she never saw any in upstate New York. Because of this, I believed bluebirds were rare. Then I moved to central Pennsylvania and here bluebirds seem quite common. This one spent a lot of time at the community garden where I had a plot in 2015. I especially like this photo because I think the bird is pretty, and seeing it makes me think of my mother.

Yes, I’m still trying to live up to the photo challenges I gave myself while heavily drugged after major surgery. This one features birds.

My parents maintained a “life list” of birds they’d seen. I suspect most of those were birds that visited the feeder outside their kitchen window. I never became a “birder,” but I did develop a love for feathered creatures. I used to offer seeds on a large feeder in our front garden about six feet from the picture window in our living room.

When my kids were young, we’d watch the feeder and immediately consult a field guide when we spotted a bird we couldn’t identify. I was taken aback one day when I couldn’t identify a visiting bird and my oldest child asked, “Isn’t that a nuthatch?” Indeed it was.

Last year, I captured far more than seven bird photos. My favorites may not be National Geographic material, but at least one of them deserves an “awww.”

Ruby-throated hummingbird

While working in my new rock garden last summer, I heard a familiar whirring and looked up to see a ruby-throated hummingbird getting nectar from the flowers of our canna plants. As is usually the case, I was wearing my camera and captured a few decent photos of the hummingbird in action.

Robin

Robins are the omnipresent “native plant” of northeastern birds. We mark the seasons by their coming and going. I find them especially entertaining when I’m turning soil in my garden. Invariably, a robin watches, ready to pounce on exposed worms when I retreat far enough from my work. I made friends with this robin when I made a planting bed for black raspberries: I collected grubs and left them where the robin had to spot them. It did spot them and seemed to relish every one.

Kittiwake

Seagull, right? No! It’s a kittiwake. I had no idea until my Ethiopian son announced his intent to spend the summer in Alaska studying Kittiwakes. His professor, apparently, scoffed at the term “seagull.” I photographed this kittiwake while waiting in line to board a ferry to the Statue of Liberty. We hosted two Japanese students for nearly three weeks last summer and took them into New York City, for a hike in the woods, and to experience a local county fair among other adventures.

House finch fledgling

While building my rock garden last spring, I heard a wet thud in the grass behind me. When I looked hard enough, I spotted this very young bird on the lawn. After a moment, I also found its sibling and looked up to see their nest had tipped onto its side. This is a baby house finch. I set up a step ladder, laid the nest flat on a branch, and used twine to tie that branch to the one above it so the nest couldn’t flip up a second time. Then my wife passed the young birds up to me and I returned them to the nest. Within a few hours, the parents were coming and going as if nothing had changed.

House finch adolescent

This adolescent house finch perched in our lilac tree one day while I was poking around among the heucheras, violas, and primroses beneath it. I quite like having house finches in the yard.

Red-tailed hawk

Not a stellar photograph, but I couldn’t leave it out. I spotted this red-tailed hawk perched way closer to me than they typically approach and was pleased it remained as I captured a dozen or so photos. Just a few days ago during my morning dog walk, a similar hawk soared out of a tree with a squirrel clutched in its claws.

 
Small Kitchen Garden – Another Photo Challenge? Birds!

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