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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Heber Dreher stands next to one of his many planters. “Consider the lighting where you’ll set a planter: Full sun? Partial shade? Full shade? Select plants accordingly. Determine the ‘front’ of the planter and put shorter plants there; don’t let tall plants overshadow short ones.”
I have the good fortune to be friends with a gardening enthusiast named Heber Dreher. He lives in Lewisburg on Edward Circle, and his yard is fabulous. I asked if he’d let me photograph his gardens and capture some thoughts about his methods. We spent a few hours chatting the other day.
Heber acknowledges a professional landscaping company can deliver an attractive garden, depending on how much you’re willing to spend. But if you won’t have time or motivation to care for the garden, include a maintenance contract in your budget. Commit yourself or your landscaper to control weeds, prune, clean things up in autumn, prepare beds and plant in spring, and replace failed plants. “If you don’t maintain a garden,” Heber warns, “It’s going to look bad soon.”
Whether doing the work yourself or hiring a landscaper, Heber suggests you start by learning some basics on your own. For example, know your hardiness zone and refuse plants rated for warmer zones. “Pay attention to cold hardiness of plants your landscaper installs,” Heber suggests. “Make decisions with your contractor. They make more money when you call them to replace poorly-chosen plants that fail in a cold winter.”
Photos provide a virtual walk in my friend’s garden. Each includes a thought Heber offers about his passion for his craft.
Heber has created intense drama on the path from his driveway to the front door of his house. “Use perennials with different shades of green to make the garden interesting,” he suggests. For other colors, he stages flowering perennials whose blooms may or may not be short-lived, and he mixes in annuals that tend to bloom steadily through the season.
Immediately out the door from Heber’s kitchen, a brick patio features a koi pond with a low waterfall. “I wanted a plant that would fill in the cracks around the pond’s edge. Evergreen Pachysandra worked out beautifully.” Low trees, tall perennials, and tropical plants isolate the patio, providing a place to relax with drinks or an unhurried meal.
A stone path leads from the patio, through foliage, to the lawn. “I’m planting much more in containers than I used to,” Heber says. “Container plants require less water, they’re easier to fertilize, easier to control, and it’s easier to preserve tropical plants such as Elephant Ears and Canna Lilies indoors in winter. Another advantage: you can redesign your garden mid-season simply by moving planters from place-to-place.”
A cul-de-sac in Heber’s lawn ends with bonsai trees on pedestals rising above a dense mix of perennials. Heber encourages you not just to start digging. Rather: plan. “Learn what you like then plan your own garden. Learn enough so you can be relatively sure the pieces of your design will work together.” He suggests not to do too big a first project. “It can be overwhelming.”
There once was a tennis court in the yard, but no longer. The space holds a garden whose mix of plants can all at once look unkempt and breathtaking. Looking back on this Bloom Day along what might have been a walking path, there was a dramatic swath of Asiatic and day lilies aglow with noontime sunlight.
On Garden Bloggers Bloom Day this month, I visited Chanticleer Garden with my wife. I captured many photos, but none specifically with Bloom Day in mind. Still, several are appropriate, and I offer them here by way of participation in the Bloom Day tradition.
I first visited Chanticleer last year and was completely smitten. A family from Philadelphia had established the property as a summer home and had eventually settled there. The original house still stands surrounded with ornamental plantings. Caretakers have developed themed gardens throughout the property and a variety of benches and chairs invite visitors to relax and blend in.
Part of the fun of Chanticleer is that people who design and manage the gardens also design and create furniture and other appointments you encounter throughout. There are beautiful wooden benches, chairs, and tables; stone chairs; and metalwork that are both decorative and functional. You’re welcome to carry in a picnic and eat at one of the picnic tables or, on Friday evenings, choose a place on the lawn for a relaxing dinner.
Rather than tell you all about Chanticleer, I encourage you to go there. I love the gardens and offer a few more observations in comments about the photos in this Bloom Day collection.
One hydrangea flower cluster popped out at me along a border. I remember seeing other hydrangeas, but this is the only one I photographed. Even in my own yard where I tend to examine progress daily, I don’t remember seeing hydrangea flowers all at once in so many phases of opening.
When I visited Chanticleer last year, it was with the Garden Writers Association on invitation to see a new feature that, unfortunately, wasn’t quite ready for visitors. This is a wheelchair-accessible path that changes a rather steep plunge from the back yard of the main house down to several other themed gardens into a gently-sloping walkway. The new path, now open, is attractive in its own right and leads you past several eye-catching plantings.
Looking back at the new wheelchair accessible path from a lower section of it: there’s a lot to consider.
Gardeners at Chanticleer use birdbaths or similar containers to create decorative displays where plants might not otherwise grow. In an area they call the Pond Garden, there’s a short, overgrown path that leads to a locked shed. At the trail’s end, a planter holds tiny water lilies several of which were in bloom during our visit. This is a macro photo—that blossom is about the size of a dandelion bloom. You can see the edge of the planter in the top-left of the photo.
Overlooking the Pond Garden, the hillside is home to a meadow of native flowering plants. A path winds up the hill through the meadow, kept masterfully so you almost have to wonder: is it really a path?
For the dozens of public gardens I’ve visited, and many more private gardens, Chanticleer’s Gravel Garden is my favorite. A stone stairway blends so well with the flora it challenges your sensibilities: should you walk here? Do. Slowly.
Years ago I discovered that ordinary objects standing on the lip of a pond assume new character. A stalk of flowers, a bird, an alligator – each somehow becomes more impressive against an azure (or even muddy) background. Between my home in Lewisburg and my childhood home in Ithaca there’s a boat launch and recreation area I enjoy visiting. I caught this photo last summer when I stopped on a trip to Ithaca.
This is number six of ten photo challenges I gave myself while heavily drugged during recovery from major surgery. Of all the photo challenges I’ve seen on line, the “nature” challenge is most common. “Nature,” in my opinion, covers pretty much everything there is. Granted, humans mess around with nature quite a bit, but that is our nature. Choosing to label ourselves and our deeds as unnatural is nothing more than conceit.
I shoot many photos of stuff that catches my eye. The ones in this collection show nature in various forms. Upcoming photo challenges also will show nature, but they’ll be narrower categories: Birds, Bugs, Critters, and Farmscapes.
Here, then, are seven nature photos in seven days—all in a single post.
Goldenrod frustrates me. It’s gorgeous in meadows of central Pennsylvania in late summer. However, having captured goldenrod in hundreds of photos, I rarely find any of those photos remarkable. This one makes the point: I think it’s pretty good, but I’m still looking to capture THE goldenrod photograph. Late summer isn’t all too far away…
An art teacher – a family friend – at the high school I attended was a master of a water color wash method of painting. His works had the look of Japanese paintings, but with more depth and, sometimes, more color. While coaxing a masterpiece out of a wet canvas, he once explained: “If I put three birds in a painting, I can call it ‘Trinity.’” Here: thistle heads, not birds. But I’d never name one of my photos Trinity.
Along the road at the boat launch and recreation area I mentioned earlier is a beautiful swamp. It seems every time I stop there the sun is low on the far side of the swamp. It can result in intense backlighting that hides many details while illuminating others.
I fiddled around a small tree next to the student union at Cornell University last summer and came up with this photo. Apparently, this is the fruit (or flower?) of a Chinese Dogwood tree, not that it matters. I love the “soft focus” that leads my eyes from the red fruit back into a forest of unripened fruits.
Here’s a super cheap photographic device that nearly always delivers: Put an interesting leaf between your camera lens and the sun, use a small aperture, and focus tight. Take enough such photos in your lifetime and you’ll eventually come up with art. This is the back side of an elephant ear leaf that grew near my rock garden in 2015. If I were a bit smaller, I think I’d enjoy hiking in that landscape.
Nature happens across the street from the Cityslipper ranch. Many evenings, I grab my camera, mount it on a tripod, and capture the sunset. A gorgeous sunset is a terrific way to end a day.
In 2014, I bought a packet of zucchini seeds in early august and planted a few to fill a hole in my vegetable garden. One of the resulting plants produced very light-skinned fruits that I referred to as “blond zucchini.”
On a zucchini plant that unexpectedly produced blond fruits, I accidentally created a hybrid cross with a dark green zucchini. I collected and grew seeds some of which gave rise to blond zucchini plants. I collected seeds from the blond zucchinis of that 1st generation and plants are growing now on my plot at the community garden. This blond fruit is the 2nd generation descended from the original hybrid… but it’s not the only color of fruit to come from those blond zucchini seeds.
Whenever possible, I hand-pollinate my squash plants, and this was no exception. Unfortunately, when I pollinated my first blond zucchini, I used a male flower from a plant that produced dark green fruits. Before being pollinated, the blond zucchini looked like all the other zucchinis I’d every seen.
So, at the end of 2014, I had collected seeds from a blond zucchini that had been cross-pollinated with a traditionally dark green zucchini plant.
2015 Zucchini Experiment
In 2015 I started 4 seeds I’d saved from that first blond zucchini of 2015. Low and behold, one of the plants produced more blond zucchinis! Sadly, however, the other plants produced dark green fruits. I saved seeds from the 2015 blond zucchini, hoping they might grow into plants that produce blond zucchini.
Of four seeds I planted from my 1st generation blond zucchini, two plants are producing familiar dark green fruits. It’s likely that blond is not the dominant color.
I planted seeds from the 215 blond zucchini in April of 2016… four seeds in all.
Did I get only blond zucchinis? NO! Two plants produce dark green fruits—the classic zucchini we all know and love (loathe?) One plant produced blond zucchinis. The fourth plant produced a new shade of fruit: a yellow-green squash that wouldn’t even pass for a cross between the blond and dark green varieties.
So… given many more years to mess around with descendants from my original zucchini hybrid, I’m not confident I’d ever arrive at a stable “blond” fruit… but I’d keep trying. Of course, now that there’s a yellow-green descendant, I’d also try to develop a stable version of that.
Here’s how it looks so far:
Original hybrid cross between dark green and blond fruits resulted in plants that produce dark green zucchinis or plants that produce blond fruits.
One seed from the 1st generation blond zucchini grew into a blond zucchini plant. Two seeds grew into dark green zucchini plants. The fourth seed grew into a yellow-green zucchini plant. Clearly, there’s more than one gene involved in determining the color of fruit a zucchini plant produces. It would be very satisfying to develop a line of blond zucchinis that breed only blond zucchini plants, and another line of plants that breeds only yellow-green plants. I’ll keep messing with them and see where it gets me.
1st generation from hybrid blond zucchini resulted in plants that produced dark green fruits or plants that produce blond zucchinis.
2nd generation: seeds gathered from 1st generation blond fruits resulted in plants that produce dark green fruits, plants that produce blond fruits, and plants that produce yellow-green fruits.
Perhaps I’ll do some research on zucchini breeding. My first very casual research suggested that neither dark green nor blond is a dominant genetic characteristic and that these colors may result from a mixture of several genes (rather than a single gene controlling the color). If that’s the case, the best I might hope is to produce a Zucchini Carnival Mix where the seeds from any of my hybrid’s descendants could produce dark green, blond, yellow, or even some other color I haven’t yet observed.
I’ll keep playing and see where it gets me. In a few days, I’ll harvest one very mature blond zucchini and one very mature yellow-green fruit. I’ll collect seeds from them and immediately start them in the garden. Before first frost I’ll have a third generation of fruits descended from my original hybrid… and, perhaps, even more colors to report.
It seems likely I could package seeds that produce a “harvest mix” or “carnival mix” or some-such—any of the fruits in this photo could produce seeds that grow into all three colors of zucchini. Heck, there might be a few other shades of zuke in those seeds; perhaps I’ll coax them out of the next generation.
Garden? Challenge? What? This photo is among my favorites because it shows my dad’s garden in spring. My dad is obsessed with trees and he gathered acorns in autumn of 2014. He stored the acorns in his refrigerator and planted them in his garden in spring of 2015. During one of my visits, I found about a dozen young oak trees had sprouted and my dad had potted several to plant at the farm where we’d raised horses and bees when I was a kid. My dad was 95 years old and starting oak trees, presumably to harvest for lumber in about 60 years.
Early this year while heavily drugged with painkillers after major surgery, I gave myself 10 photo challenges and delivered on four of them:
The distractions from chemotherapy and from gardening season getting underway derailed my effort to post the remaining six challenges. However, after having reviewed all my photos from 2015 and having selected candidates for each challenge, it would be wasteful not to publish. So, here are seven garden photos I feel are kind of special. Captions explain why.
I travelled west twice last year and got to visit with one of my favorite gardening buddies, Bren Haas. Among the many beautiful garden features she manages is a pond across the drive from her house. The rocks, lily pads, and snake grass at one end of the pond beckoned me to pull up a chair and sit with a cold drink—it was a beautiful scene.
During my visit to Cultivate ’15 (a hort industry conference in Columbus, Ohio), I left the convention center and “discovered” Lincoln Park. The park includes some excellent gardens and a conservatory which was closed by the time I reached it. I captured many photos in the park and particularly like this one which reveals the conservatory almost as an afterthought for the lush foliage in one of the park’s large plantings. I’d planned to tour the conservatory this year during Cultivate ’16, but my pancreas had other ideas.
From hundreds of photos of gorgeous spaces at Longwood Gardens, this “trial garden” spoke to me. Gardeners assemble these patches to try out plant combinations of varied colors and textures and they ask visitors to identify favorites. Later, the most-liked combinations might appear in a show garden elsewhere on the property. I love purple, and apparently even more when it rises above clouds of silver-green.
Since we’re already at Longwood Gardens, here’s one of my all-time favorite gardens. There’s a courtyard you reach by walking through Longwood’s huge conservatory. The courtyard contains several water gardens and when I was there, water platters painted an other-worldly landscape. I had never seen a water platter in person, and I was instantly smitten.
Back at the Cityslipper ranch, I captured a wet moment in my new rock garden. I was moistening soil with the hose on a sunny day when I snapped this photo looking vaguely toward the sun. The rock garden was a bit of a mess with young succulents and weeds aplenty, but I love the photo. This year, many spaces have filled with aggressively spreading stonecrop. I enjoy lingering, plucking weeds, and pinching back the fastest spreading succulents to preserve space to grow into for the slow growers.
One of the most sublime visions I’ve experienced: a stone stairway at Chanticleer garden. If you can fit only one public garden into your remaining life’s plan, visit Chanticleer and Longwood Gardens each of which is about 30 minutes west of Philadelphia. Did I say “only one?” If you truly can fit only one garden into your life’s plan, you’re not trying hard enough.
My big garden project last spring included installing a bed of black raspberry plants. Rabbits ate about 1/3 of the plants last autumn—but just what was above ground. The roots are strong and new canes have emerged. Unfortunately, black raspberries produce fruit on canes that emerged in the previous season, so I won’t get a huge harvest this year. On the other hand, the harvest has begun! Immediately after capturing this photo, I ate the two darkest berries you see in it.
In January of this year, I learned I had pancreatic cancer. The tumor was removable, and I had an operation called a Whipple. A surgeon cut out the tumor, part of my pancreas, and my gall bladder, and re-routed my digestive tract, introducing challenges to eating.
With help from my wife, my kids, and friends, I’ve continued to garden, and things are in pretty good shape. However, just over three weeks ago I learned that my cancer has returned and spread. It’s incurable and I’m on a chemotherapy regimen I hope will buy enough time for our medical complex to come up with an effective way to keep the cancer in check—or maybe even cure it.
In the meantime, I’m gardening. Where many activities challenge my stamina or my ability to focus or both, when I’m in the garden I tend to keep working even if it means collapsing on the soil for a break or crawling from place-to-place to reduce the number of transitions from up to down and back.
I’ve chosen photos that show what’s up in my garden as summer gets started—nothing from the community garden; these are all growing at the Cityslipper Ranch. Captions fill in details. I hope your garden is doing well. I’m excited for what’s growing here, and I’d love to hear about what’s growing in your garden. Please leave a comment with details if you’re so inclined. Thanks for visiting!
We have at least nine blueberry plants in our yard, and they’ve been beat up by rodents every winter for years. I finally got adequate protection around them, and this year the plants show promise of developing into actual blueberry bushes. At best, we’ll score a few hundred berries; these are the first. I was chewing on them seconds after I snapped the photo: so sweet and delicious.
At some garden center last summer I found a potted cinquefoil in the “oops, we forgot to water it” bin. I think I paid a dollar and I set the plant in a decorative bed next to raspberries I’d planted with my wife in mind (she loves raspberries on her morning cereal). I had no idea cinquefoil produces blooms—though why wouldn’t it? The plant shows vitality, and the first blossom it produced is gorgeous.
Those raspberries I planted for my wife? Here are the first to ripen… but Stacy beware! It’s not icing on that raspberry. A bird managed a direct hit. The raspberry plants are growing strong, and next year’s harvest should be impressive. This year’s should be about right for many weeks of cereal bowl berries and they’ve started ripening at the right time: Stacy has been traveling in the Philippines for three weeks and arrives home this weekend.
This is the third season for my fig trees. Their first winter was amazingly cold and I hadn’t gotten the trees under cover before they froze back to the soil line. They rebounded last year and tried to make figs—which all froze before they were ripe enough to harvest. This winter, I got the plants under cover early but made a silly mistake: The tent I made to prevent freezing also kept moisture from reaching the soil. My fig trees dried out… but not as badly as they’d frozen two winters ago. They’re putting out a lot of new growth, some of it from last year’s growth more than a foot above the soil line. I doubt there will be figs to harvest this season, but perhaps with one more winter under cover (and properly watered), these fig trees will have a fighting chance to produce fruit.
Two summers ago, I found a beat down Fredonia grape plant priced very low at a local garden center. I failed to plant the vine, and it languished through winter and looked dead when the snow melted. Last year, near the first day of summer, I noticed growth on that beleaguered grape vine. I planted it at the end of my black raspberry bed and it grew strong. This spring, it erupted with new growth and it holds many small bunches of young grapes. If things go well, there may be a few pounds of Concord-like grapes to harvest in September. This spring, my wife and I planted four additional grape vines next to the black raspberries: Riesling, Zinfandel, Pinot Gris, and Cabernet Sauvignon, all grafted onto American grape root stock. Perhaps by summer’s end I’ll have erected a trellis to hold the vines as they mature in future seasons.
My wife prepared the soil, and I planted three 13 foot long double-rows of peas at the beginning of April. My wife erected the trellises with some difficulty and it’s hard to tell whether the trellises are holding up the pea plants or the pea plants are holding up the trellises. More troubling: a rabbit came and went as it pleased and ate at least half a row of pea plants before I repaired the fence enough to slow it down (it has since given birth to three rabbit puppies inside the well-fenced planting bed… go figure). Despite the problems, the pea plants are at full height—they’ve grown three feet above the tops of the four-foot-tall trellises and fallen back—and they’re producing well. I made a vat of new potatoes and peas a few days ago and we’ve eaten through it, and I froze about 3 quarts of peas yesterday. Tomorrow I expect to harvest about a half gallon of pea pods which should be enough to make another vat of new potatoes and peas. (Here’s how I make this iconic Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy: New Potatoes and Peas)
I planted climbing beans two weekends ago, and many have sprouted. I’ll fill the empty places with more seeds this weekend. “Pole Filet Beans French Gold” from Renee’s Garden, are my favorite of all bean varieties—a tender, tasty wax bean that you don’t have to bend over to harvest.
I told the story of my dad’s sundrops in a post titled A Patch of Sundrops. I’d collected several plants from his garden and left them in a bucket for more than TWO MONTHS! Finally, I planted them three weeks ago—a day or two after my wife left on her Philippines trip. The plants showed no sign of transplant shock and have already flowered… the photo shows the first blossom about four days ago. I trust rhizomes are already spreading underground and there will be a dense patch of these pretty yellow flowers under the apple trees within two years.
This one’s not at the community garden. My wife did some prep in the home garden, and I planted three double rows of peas. She erected trellises, and we’ve had at least two rabbit incursions, but still there are pea plants—and they’re just covered in blossoms.
My blog has told very little of the story of my first season growing food at a community garden. To summarize: I wrote an article for the local paper about area community gardens in early spring of 2015. I rented a plot in one of those gardens—a 30’ by 30’ plot among about 100 plots.
The plot was barely more developed than a patch of meadow with a rabbit fence around it. I hauled an enormous amount of mediocre compost to the plot, laid down sheet mulch (newspapers) and held it in place with the compost. I dug as little as I could, and put in an onion patch, a 25’ double row of peas, two hills of zucchini, two hills of neck pumpkins, 60 or more tomato plants, a dozen or so sweet pepper plants, and the largest potato patch I’ve ever planted.
The community garden was 30 minutes away and I tried to manage it with weekly visits. I worked hard and got a decent harvest, and I’d planned to work it again this year. My pancreas said “No.”
The Whipple—the operation intended to remove a pancreatic tumor—is major surgery, and common problems in the first year include ripping apart your re-routed intestinal tract by over-exerting. Moving a single wheelbarrow of compost to my plot at the community garden could land me back in an operating room.
I had to give up the community garden.
Gardening close to home
Also at home, my garden sage is flowering. There’s a song Burl Ives used to sing that includes the lines, “I long to be in Texas, When the bloom is on the sage.” This isn’t the sage about which he sang, but it comes to mind.
I had learned last spring that the Union County Community Garden is only five minutes from my home. A few things distinguish it:
1. There is no charge to have a plot at this garden
2. The county uses the community garden in its work-release program. Meaning: people who have been convicted of minor crimes and sentenced to community service can help out at the garden to work down their debt to society.
3. If you’re physically challenged to work your plot, the county may assign someone on work-release to help you.
4. The county prepares your plot for you. They apply composted manure, plow the manure into the soil, wait a few days, and plow again. They leave a plot raked relatively smooth.
5. A plot at this garden is 10’ by 20’ and you can have two of them.
If I was going to work in a community garden post-Whipple, this was the one!
Photos show my progress… with a few shots from my yard as well. I hope your gardens are in good shape this year.
I posted this photo earlier on Facebook. It shows ripening black raspberries in the patch I planted last spring. Sadly, about 1/3 of the plants got seriously chewed by a wild animal—probably a rabbit or three—but there may still be enough berries this year for a batch of black raspberry jelly which is by far my favorite jelly variety.
Poppies are back in my small kitchen garden! I sowed poppy seeds in our yard year-after-year without success until, finally, a few plants emerged and matured. These came back for several years and formed an ever-enlarging clump that I blogged about once or twice. Then, one fateful day, an unfortunate lawn mowing incident ended those poppies. I’ve tried for years since to get more poppies established, and this most recent effort involves seedlings I bought in Ithaca and planted near the “rain garden” two years ago. I thought the plants died in that first year, but they sprouted last year, looked miserable for a month, and then died back without flowering. This year, they sprouted again, looked slightly less miserable, and between the two of them produced a single flower stalk. It was a gorgeous bloom with purplish reproductive parts—not the classic poppies of my earlier success. It lasted two days. I got two plants to start from seeds under lights this spring, and I’ll soon set them out in the same area.
The first items I planted at the community garden were onion sets, potatoes, and zucchinis. Later, I set pepper seedlings which you can see in the top-right corner of the photo. Things have come through transplant shock in fine shape and the garden is looking good.
I set 70 tomato plants in one 10’ x 20’ plot—well, six are actually tomatillos. 7 of the plants are Romas and I put cages around them. The rest are indeterminate varieties—all heirlooms. These I’m managing on hanging string trellises with aggressive pruning; I’m plucking all suckers. I’ve set plants a foot apart in double rows that are also about a foot apart. In just three weeks many plants are already tall enough to need support. I’ve written a few posts about how I manage tomatoes. Here’s an overview that includes links to further articles: Tomato Plant Maintenance in my Small Kitchen Garden
Here’s one of my crazy projects for the year: I’m growing sorghum. It looks a bit like corn or even more like weed grasses I usually pull from around my actual vegetable plants. I bought a small envelope of seed hoping to get a modest stand from which to harvest sap. Getting the sap is a challenge: you’re supposed to run sorghum stalks through a mill that crushes them paper thin. You then cook the sap into syrup—a lot like making maple syrup. For want of a press, I may take a hammer to the stalks and then boil them in a small amount of water, eventually straining out the solids and cooking down the liquid. I’ve read that sorghum produces copious seeds, so I may collect some for the kitchen and more to plant next year.
By autumn of 2015, I had three very healthy cardoon plants in my garden. I had a mistaken understanding that the plants would produce distinctive stems to harvest—perhaps the stalks on which blossoms would emerge. Because no such stalks had emerged, I guessed the plants would need a second season and I built a low hoop tunnel over the two cardoon plants in this photo.
Last spring, I started cardoon from seeds under lights in my office.
Cardoon? I hadn’t heard of it until I spotted some growing in a public garden about five years ago. The plants were striking: tall, rugged, otherworldly, and (so I was told) edible.
Cardoon is a close relative of artichokes. The flowers of both are similar, though the “choke” that precedes a cardoon blossom isn’t edible. The stems that spread into giant thistle-like leaves **are** edible and, I’ve heard they taste like artichokes.
Ideally, before you harvest the stems, you wrap them with fabric or cardboard to block the sun and let them “blanch” for a month or so. This softens them; a necessary step unless you like fibrous, chewy vegetables.
My cardoon adventure
My cardoon seeds sprouted faithfully, but I neglected them on my seed-starting shelf. They started in small containers, and I left them there until June. When I set them in the garden, the plants were cramped in their containers, and the foliage was obviously stunted.
We had a mild winter with little snow, but when snow fell I captured a photo of the hoop tunnel protecting my cardoon plants. February of 2016 was so mild, I figured whatever cold days remained until spring wouldn’t be harsh enough to harm the plants more than they’d already suffered.
With some coaxing, my abused cardoon seedlings eventually sprung to life and grew into attractive fountains of green. Here’s where my lack of experience with cardoon became a problem: I should have blanched and harvested stalks from those plants last autumn! I didn’t because I thought cardoon would send up stalks (maybe flower stalks) that I was supposed to harvest for food. So, rather than eat my cardoon, I let it go.
I figured with first frost, cardoon leaves would melt to the ground and the plants would be gone. But that didn’t happen. The cardoon survived many frosts—even nighttime low temperatures in the 20s… and the plants looked pretty good at the end of December. So, in early January I decided to try to get them through the winter. I erected a low hoop tunnel over two plants and tucked the leaves in.
Near the end of February, I lifted the plastic of my hoop tunnel and captured a photo of one of the cardoon plants which was in surprisingly decent shape. Then days became so warm, I should have expected a greenhouse effect in the tunnel to cook the plants. In late March, I removed the hoop tunnel as we started to plant peas and carrots, and sure enough, the cardoon was a mass of cooked and drying glop.
We had a crazy run of summer in later winter this year, and just before it started I lifted the plastic along one side of my hoop tunnel and photographed the cardoon. The plants looked remarkably well preserved, so I reset the plastic. Then I once again blundered.
Those summer temperatures hit and, despite arguing with myself about it several times, I left the hoop tunnel over the cardoon plants. I was torn because it seemed possible the very warm, sunny days might cook the plants… and that’s what happened.
We had a final blast of winter cold—the coldest spell since the previous winter—pretty much as spring began. Had the cardoon not been cooked for nearly a month, having the hoop tunnel in place would have saved it. However, when the cold abated and I dismantled the hoop tunnel, I found cardoon leaves melted to the ground; the plants were done.
Pancreatic cancer has dramatically changed my approach to gardening: My wife now does most of it. So, when it was time to plant peas in late March, I coached her to remove the weeds, loosening the soil as needed.
My wife removed weeds and prepped soil, erasing every trace of cardoon from the garden. I planted peas in early April and winter finally arrived with meaning. We had many nights with temperatures in the 20s and a few colder than that. When finally spring re-started, we erected trellises for the pea plants. In doing so, we stomped repeatedly on an emergent cardoon plant! The damage was minor, and the little survivor has since developed into a gorgeous fountain of foliage.
She got the bed looking well-prepared, and I spent a few hours with a hoe scratching furrows. I laid down three double-rows of pea seeds, as always, and it fell to my wife to erect the trellises. I followed her to the garden when she was working on the third trellis, and helped hold it in place while she hammered on it.
Then I noticed I was standing on a young cardoon plant! Apparently, despite having had its leaves cooked and then frozen to mush, the cardoon had healthy roots. We hadn’t done it any favors by walking on it while trellising, but two months later it has grown into a gorgeous, mature plant ready to harvest.
Well… it’s not entirely ready to harvest. I’ve read that if you don’t “blanch” cardoon stalks for a month before harvesting, they’re very fibrous and unpleasant to eat. I’ll get out in the next week or so and wrap several stalks in fabric to block sunlight. In early July, I’ll harvest those stalks and sauté a bit of them to get the full cardoon experience. The big plan, however, is to make a cream of cardoon soup—perhaps curried… but I’ll figure that out in July.
The good news is, cardoon is way more cold-hardy than I expected, and despite my having given up on it, it looks as though I’ll get to try some after all.
Framed against a dirty, south-facing basement window that will soon be blocked by the foliage of outdoor plants, these kalanchoe blossoms exist against all odds. The kalanchoe plants blossom nearly continuously despite receiving little sunlight and sporadic, meager watering.
At least three years ago, I picked up two kalanchoe plants from a vendor who gives away inventory at the end of the spring flower season. Kalanchoe is a succulent that, sadly, isn’t cold-hardy. As a houseplant, however, kalanchoe is indestructible.
In mid spring, I’m pushing hard to get the vegetable garden planted, so I had no time to deal with the kalanchoe. I set it on the only south-facing windowsill in the basement and got on with the gardening.
Actually, the flower pots holding the kalanchoe plants were quite small. I’d add just a little water and it would flow through the soil and out the bottoms of the pots. This was messy, so I considered options for capturing the overflow. Turns out, there was a windowsill planter “lying fallow” near the south-facing window. It was full of soil but without plants growing in it.
While these look like neglected plants, they’ve experience neglect that would kill a huge number of houseplants. Water runs straight through those tiny flower pots and the soil dries out in a day or two. Still, the plants remain green and in bloom even after three months without watering.
For expediency, I moved the windowsill planter to the south-facing windowsill and set the kalanchoe plants in it. And there they sat.
And there they sit.
My kalanchoe today
Here, years after I acquired them, my kalanchoe plants remain in their original pots. I water them, perhaps, 20 times a year… but not at regular intervals. There have been several three-month periods in which the plants got no attention. The soil has gone dry, light from the window has gone dim (when plants outside the window leaf up in spring, less sunlight comes through the glass), and I’ve added no nutrition by way of plant food or compost.
I picked up this pink-flowered kalanchoe at a bargain price and will plant it between my two white-flowered plants in the windowsill planter that has served for several years to capture excess water. With a bit of attention, these hard-to-kill plants should become a nice accent in my nascent houseplantscape.
Through most of the year, there are flowers on those kalanchoe plants. What’s more, the leaves are always green; they don’t shrivel, they don’t dry out, and they don’t fall off. Oh! And the plants continue to grow larger (if not attractively).
The point: I’ve neglected these plants like no plant I’ve ever owned, and they continue to grow and flower. Imagine how amazing they’d look if I actually took care of them. Actually, that’s the plan. They’ve performed so well, I’m finally going to reward them by moving them into the windowsill planter where they’ll have fresh soil and room to spread. I even bought a contrasting pink-flowering kalanchoe to set between them.
Want a nearly indestructible houseplant that responds to neglect by thriving and flowering against all odds? Try kalanchoe. You can grow that.