I keep seeing members of my social network posting photos in response to one or another challenge, but no one has invited me to play. Oh, well. The contest looks like a great excuse to highlight some of my favorite moments of the year – or of the last several years.
I’m recovering from super-de-duper major surgery, so I’ll be doing a lot of sitting over the next two or three weeks. Painkillers have me tilting often on the edge of consciousness. I imagine browsing photos and posting favorites won’t be too challenging a task.
I’ll try to come up with 7 of each, but I won’t promise to deliver daily. Oh, and no nominations. If you want to participate in a seven photos in seven days challenge, please do. If you’d rather not, that’s a-OK.
Jellies made from well-strained fruit juice glow when illuminated from behind by late-morning sunshine.
We experienced a very tame autumn and early winter. There was no measurable snow, and there were few days of winter cold. I was still working on season-end garden projects when, finally, cold and snow set in.
My last project was to put a rodent fence around my black raspberry patch. Critters have grazed there casually for months, and I wanted to stop the damage while more than half the canes were intact. I was working on the fence two weeks ago when I became ill and spent a week in the hospital.
Building a fence around the black raspberries wasn’t a precision operation. I’ve pounded in 10 “posts” to hold 24” chicken wire. I need to add, perhaps, four more posts. Except for a grape vine at the front right corner of the frame, all the canes among the stakes are black raspberry brambles. Many at the far end have been gnawed to short sticks.
I received an unpleasant diagnosis: I have pancreatic cancer. Medical science says my tumor is removable, but it’s not going to be a fun experience. I have six more days before surgery, and I’m not excited about gardening in snow – just after I returned from the hospital, the epic storm that buried Washington D.C. buried my yard in about seven inches of powder. Unless the next few days are unseasonably warm, I won’t finish the fence and my first black raspberry crop will remain in jeopardy.
In any case, after a week of being a hospital patient, it was nice to get out in the snow and photograph some of last year’s projects. I’m looking forward to getting things going as I recover from surgery and begin chemotherapy. The blog may be even more quiet than usual for the coming month, but I’ll post again as soon as I’m able.
My blueberry bushes have had hard lives. Just when they started looking bushy, they spent too long out of cages and got pruned back to sticks by rodents. This season, several of them lived inside fairly generous cages and recovered a lot of ground. I don’t expect a big crop in 2016, but I’ve some hope they’ll bulk up this year and start feeding us well in 2017.
Last year I started quince trees from seeds. I nursed seedlings in planters until autumn, and then planted them in the yard. The two in this photo are intact because of the cages around them. Rodents chomped the third seedling down to the soil line; it’s not likely to grow back. I had devised a protective barrier using plastic nursery pots, but wind blew it away… I’m starting more quince seeds this winter with hope of replacing the eaten seedling in my yard.
I started cardoon indoors early last year. I didn’t treat it well, so the plants were tiny when I set them in the garden. Eventually, they flourished, but they never produced harvestable stalks and I assumed they’d die with the first frost of autumn. Several frosts and cold nights did little damage, so I decided to test the plants’ resolve…
I haphazardly erected a low hoop tunnel over two cardoon plants. Just a few weeks later, temperatures plummeted; we had some nights in the teens. Given the plants’ hardiness until then, I hope the low hoop tunnel holds things closer to 30 degrees and my plants manage to shiver through alive.
In fall of 2014, I erected a simple tent over two fig trees I’d planted on the south side of the house. Unfortunately, I didn’t erect the tent until we had had a very early, crazy deep freeze. The fig trees died back to the soil. This past fall, I got the tent up before any severe cold… I managed to stretch it over a rosemary plant as well. With luck, the tent will provide enough protection that my trees won’t have to grow back from the soil line this year.
For contrast, behold December 14, 2014. This wasn’t the first snow of that season. In fact, we’d had an otherworldly freeze in November that foreshadowed the miserable sustained cold to come.
Nearly every gardener in the United States in winter of 2014-2015 marveled at the crazy weather. Some areas—the Pacific Northwest, for example—experienced crazy, spring-and summer-like weather in what are typically the coldest months. In the Northeast, we had an unbroken string of days so cold that perennials thought they’d moved two hardiness zones north.
Here we go again. But this winter’s reports are different. Gardeners everywhere have been reporting on annuals going strong well into December—annuals that would typically wither and die in October and November. Gardeners have also reported perennials in bloom either way later than they should be, or way earlier.
It’s my turn!
Hardy perennials in a mild winter
While I garden to grow food, I’m paying more and more attention to ornamental plants. In the past few years, my wife and I have added quite a few. My flowering perennials have been just as confused by the weather as so many other perennials across the country. Photos tell the story.
This year, eight days farther into December than last year’s snowy photo above, the newest variety of viola I set in the garden in autumn was still producing buds.
On December 27, my three-year-old viola patch sported blossoms. It didn’t give up until biting cold arrived in early January.
The All-America Selections winner I acquired at a trade show in 2015 is a dianthus (Jolt Pink F1) that didn’t come with a cold hardiness rating. It looked good in the garden all summer and fall, and had a few blossoms on December 27. Even after low temperatures in the teens, it is holding onto blossoms. I suspect it will continue producing in 2016.
Not a late blossom, but rather a very early blossom. I started with hellebores three seasons ago and added two new plants last summer. In my experience, hellebores (you might know them as Lenten Rose or Christmas Rose) bloom about when crocuses bloom—perhaps lagging by a few days. However, I’ve seen hellebore blossoms poking out from snow banks with no crocuses in site. I’d guess different varieties of hellebores blossom at different times. Seeing mine in bloom on December 27 was a surprise. One of my older plants has already put out a dozen or so pink buds, but it did that last winter as well and none opened until March.
I dug about a foot into the soil and still had to pull the roots of my horseradish plant. These are just over a foot long and I don’t know how much broke off in the ground.
Remember when I said you can grow horseradish? Do it! My three year horseradish project was very satisfying this Christmas. You might have a similar experience.
In mid autumn, I harvested from my horseradish patch. I’d heard that horseradish is hard to kill; it will take over your yard if you don’t manage it carefully. Harvesting helped me understand the problem.
I dug alongside a root and tried to follow it to its deepest point. Fully a foot into the soil, there was no end in sight and I simply couldn’t dig deeper. So, I pulled and the root broke someplace beneath the bottom of the hole. I suspect the piece left behind will send up a new plant pretty much as a dandelion would under similar circumstances.
I had to break the top of each root I harvested away from the other roots. They were all joined at the top by a raft of root tops and emerging plant stalks.
I dug a second root with similar results. If we used a lot of horseradish, I’d have dug more, but we go through about a half cup of horseradish sauce in a year—pretty much all of that on Christmas Eve.
A horseradish condiment
A few days before Christmas, I took a horseradish root from the refrigerator, rinsed it thoroughly, and used a vegetable peeler to remove the skin. Then I grated the root into the consistency of fine (wet) meal. This I loaded into a one-cup jelly jar; there was a half cup of grated horseradish.
To finish, I added exactly enough white vinegar to soak the horseradish—this involved slowly dribbling in vinegar so the grated root could absorb it. I stopped when the top of the horseradish was obviously moist. Then I covered the jar and set it in the refrigerator.
How we use horseradish
Our traditional Christmas Eve dinner is a beef fondue extravaganza. We cook our own cubes of filet mignon in a fondue pot of hot oil.
I shredded the horseradish on the face of my grater that seemed most suited to scraping things rather than shaving them. A single, peeled root generated a half cup of horseradish crumbs.
To prepare, my wife mixes up several meat sauces, a few of which incorporate horseradish. I’ve always bought a jar of pickled, grated horseradish to use in the sauces, but this year my wife used my homemade pickled horseradish. It tasted fine.
It took three years to go from my brother’s garden to my refrigerator to my garden and finally to my dinner table. It’s a very satisfying story to accompany dinner.
Want horseradish to make your own meat sauces? You can grow that!
With just enough vinegar to cover the shredded horseradish, after a few days in the refrigerator the horseradish seemed a bit dry. It was nearly exactly enough to flavor our Christmas Eve beef fondue; this is all that remains.
My daughter—my youngest child—headed off to Argentina this morning. She’s a sophomore in college and will spend what’s left of her Christmas break hiking with friends in Patagonia.
About nine years ago, that same daughter, age 11, was gamely trying to keep her magazine in business. “Business” might be an overstatement.
In May of 2006, my daughter started Phoolish magazine. At first she had some enthusiastic contributors, and she pressed friends and family to participate. I wrote a few articles and was quickly seduced by the overwhelming crush of rabid fans. Letters poured in, and I wrote more and more—some under my own name, and some under a pen name…
Phoolish died when my daughter grew tired of chasing authors. When people promised material but failed to deliver, the hassle completely offset the glamour of editing, doing the layout, and delivering the printed copies. I was sad to see the magazine go, but I understand my daughter’s frustration.
Phoolish encouraged silliness, and I enjoy looking at the things I wrote for it back then. Here’s a piece from Janaury of 2007:
On the farm
I was about 12 years old when my parents bought a weekend farm. We spent nearly every Saturday and Sunday there clearing brush, building fences, and doctoring up the old barn and milk house.
We quickly got to know the man up the road: A farmer who also worked as a janitor to make ends meet. He was a friendly man who generously used his tractor to plow our garden plot so we didn’t need to turn soil with a shovel.
He offered suggestions for improving our pastures. We helped him do jobs that demanded large farming devices. Sometimes we worked with him to harvest hay or oats, or to load a harvest into his loft or ours. With our neighbor, we picked rocks from the pasture, harvested bumblebee honey, bagged oats, and stacked hay bales.
I learned much about so many things during days at the farm. I’m sure the activities I enjoy today and the choices I make are strongly influenced by those experiences. And, while I’ve many stories to tell about those days, one in particular stands apart from the others:
We had just completed a job—putting up oats, perhaps—and were strolling casually near our barn when our farmer neighbor asked thoughtfully: “Do you ever wonder how many bugs a cow eats?” Admittedly, I never had. However, many times in the thirty three or more years since, I have found myself musing on exactly that.
My lilac bush last flowered many months ago. Five days ago, freezing temperatures and saturated air combined to decorate every lilac twig with water crystal blossoms.
I seriously cheated for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day this month. That’s ironic because for the first time ever, there are blossoms in my garden in December. I have photos of those flowers, but I’m not posting them.
You see, a few days before Bloom Day this month, we experienced an unusual two-day atmospheric event: the air was cold and saturated. Nearly every leaf and twig remained at about 32F degrees for those two days, and fog hung heavy. The combination brought dead flower stalks into full bloom.
I captured dozens of photos of these delightful frost flowers, and present a few here. I hope you don’t mind too much that I cheated for Bloom Day.
Expired cone flowers in the front ornamental bed captured ice crystals and barely resembled their summer selves.
A stand of purple basil plants flowered hard in early autumn, dropped seeds, and dried out. Fog and cold 3D-printed frost petals on the spent blossoms.
Every meadow plant, though dead and dry, sprouted ice blossoms, turning the meadow white. The foreground here is goldenrod.
Among the things left by a vendor packing up after a hort industry trade show was a modest basil plant that I set under lights on my ping-pong table.
I attended a horticulture industry conference in January of this year. When the conference ended, vendors packed up their valuables and left. Some vendors left things behind.
Apparently, when your company produces hundreds of thousands of seedlings for garden centers all over the country, it’s not cost-effective to pack up a few dozen after a trade show and take them back to headquarters.
So, I scored some edible plant seedlings: two rosemary plants, three sage plants, and a basil plant.
Herb seedlings in winter
It’s not convenient to acquire seedlings in January in central Pennsylvania. Last winter was particularly cold, and soil was hard frozen. Without a jackhammer, I couldn’t plant the seedlings outside. And anyway, basil dies when the temperature drops to 32F degrees; in central PA, basil is an annual.
Ping-pong never caught on with my kids, and my wife and I haven’t played in years. To-boot, the only south-facing window in my basement illuminates the ping-pong table; it’s a natural place to winter over plants. I hang four-foot-long shop lights from the suspended ceiling to drive 850spectrum fluorescent tubes.
I had some stuff under lights on the ping-pong table—a whole bunch of elephant ears I’d peeled apart from the original corm I’d planted in the spring. It was a simple matter to slip the herbs in among them.
Every now and then I’d harvest a few leaves from the basil plant, and it did OK under lights. Finally, in June I planted the very mature seedling in my herb garden. It didn’t do well, but it grew and between it and a stand of purple basil plants, there was plenty to season salads and sauces. Then winter loomed.
When weather forecasts threatened frost, I cut several stems from the basil plant and stood them in water as you would cut flowers. Years ago I’d done this to hold some sprigs over a few weeks for cooking and was impressed at how easily they’d sprouted roots. This time, roots were my intent.
The basil wasn’t particularly eye-catching in my garden this summer, so I never once focused my camera on it. However, in several photos, the basil plant provided delightful contrast for the lavender.
The cuttings rooted quickly, and I moved them into flower pots after about four weeks. They’re just now fully acclimated to living in soil, and I’m seeing signs of new growth.
I’ve never grown herbs indoors specifically for cooking. When I have grown them, it’s been as starts for spring planting. This year, however, my basil cuttings are (nearly) entirely about seasoning. Under intense lights, I expect they’ll grow enough to flavor many meals.
I’ll harvest lightly so the cuttings remain strong, and I’ll plant the basil out next June. This will become a rhythm in my gardening year: Set the basil plants in the garden, harvest as-needed, root cuttings in autumn and pot them up, grow them under intense light, harvest modestly through winter, repeat.
It’s easy. You want basil for life? You can grow that.
Basil is one of the easiest food plants to grow from cuttings. About three weeks in water was enough to produce healthy roots on a tiny sprig.
I wonder how a well-managed five-year-old basil plant looks in the landscape. Similarly, I wonder whether a rooted cutting counts as a new plant, or just more of the original. This seedling started as a cutting from my herb garden and should provide seasoning for at least a few meals through the winter.
Sweet pepper relish on cream cheese makes an attractive addition to an hors d’oeuvres table. Learn how to make your own at my blog post, Red Pepper Relish from Your Home Kitchen Garden
My Mother-in-law had guests. She served the delicious sweet pepper relish with cream cheese and crackers that I wrote about over at Home Kitchen Garden (and included in my book about home preserving—which you can buy by clicking the book cover in the left margin of this page). I got the recipe from my Mother-in-law in the first place, and over the past several years I’ve been her supplier: I give her a case of 4oz jars when we visit my in-laws or they visit us.
When I first wrote about this relish I called it Red Pepper Relish. Since then I’ve taken to making it with various fully-ripe sweet peppers—red, yellow, orange, and even purple (which, given time, turn red as they ripen). A 4 ounce jar of relish, a block of cream cheese, and crackers make a fine appetizer.
But credit for this post goes to one of my Mother-in-Law’s guests who, apparently, suggested an alternative to the classic “relish-on-cream-cheese-on-crackers” service. She thought simply to mix a four ounce jar of relish into eight ounces of cream cheese and serve it as a spread.
Simple. Genius. Should have been obvious.
The procedure is as you’d expect: Set out an 8oz block of cream cheese or neufchatel to soften at room temperature for at least an hour. Use a fork to combine the cream cheese and a jar of pepper relish; be thorough. If you prefer, use an electric mixer to stir the two ingredients together. Load a small serving bowl with the mixture and set it out with a butter knife or two and some crackers.
This treatment is tidier than serving a block of cream cheese with relish dumped on it… and every crackerful is delicious.
Thoroughly blending a jar of sweet pepper relish with an 8oz block of cream cheese makes a delicious spread. The spread is easier to handle than the more traditional service, and it tastes just as good.
One of two annuals still abloom in my garden: a volunteer pak choi plant probably self-seeded from one of last year’s volunteers. Several of these popped up in random places throughout my various planting beds in 2015.
Autumn has taken its time in central Pennsylvania. It was slow to arrive, its colors lingered for weeks, and it has held off frigid winter temperatures well into its second month. But for a handful of nighttime lows, autumn hasn’t been itself. In fact it is tallying an impressive count of warm days reminiscent of early or late summer.
And, there are blossoms. Sure, the cold-sensitive plants have melted away after freezing through on frosty nights, but a few stalwart annuals, and even more perennials continue on as if expecting autumn never to yield.
To celebrate Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, I captured photos. I’m a tad late in posting, but what you see is what was in bloom on this November 15. I hope I don’t find flowers in my garden in December.
Petunias along the south wall of the house continue to show healthy foliage and blossoms… though the blossoms are only on stems very close to the house. Guessing the wall of the house holds heat into the evening providing a sub-micro climate just warm enough to coax blooms.
Under the lilac bush, barely sticking out above autumn leaves, a small clump of violas is till pushing up blossoms. These plants have been spreading for a few years, but a patch died back last winter; I’m hoping for a better outcome this year.
Across the yard from the clump of tiny violas, I planted a new bed with two different varieties—both producing larger blossoms than the older clump. The plants aren’t well-established, but they’ve been in bloom since I planted them in July.
I must have found some Pincushion flowers on closeout in July. I don’t know the plant but photos online hold promise. So far mine have been dramatically unimpressive; my wife has spoken derisively about them. Still, there’s a blossom. I hope the plants spread a bit next year.
This is most certainly my last Echinacea blossom of the season. I set the plant out in July. It hasn’t put out much growth but clearly it’s healthy. There’s one more bud behind this one, but it shows no signs of opening. This variety, Cheyenne Spirit, was an All America Selections winner in 2013.
In my yard, Drift roses and Knockouts live up to their marketing hype. They’ve been in bloom for months and there are still many blossoms, though not all are in top form. This is on my only red rose plant; the rest are pink.
Still amazing me, this dianthus has been in bloom nearly continuously since I brought it back from a trade show in July. Sold as an annual, I’m hoping it survives central Pennsylvania winters. For blooms it has been a top performer. This variety, Interspecific Jolt, was an All America Selections winner in 2015.
Several of our Rudbeckia plants shriveled as summer ended. I suspect they’re not coming back next year. Several others continue to produce flowers. I guess the plants are deciding among themselves which are better suited to our garden.
Guessing this is Yarrow. I’ve often wondered whether my wife planted it some years ago; it appears each season not quite in a flower bed, but it’s so pretty (and insistent) that it seems intentional. This flower head lies on the most traveled pathway in our yard. The plant has been in bloom for several months.
At a casual glance, this photo shows a stick with a small branch. I deliberately shot from an angle that provides clues about the branch’s true nature.
I assembled some apple trees this spring, but that’s a story for another blog post. I mention it because every morning I’d check the progress of my grafts: were buds on the scions swelling? Were leaves emerging? Did the wood seem to be drying out?
One morning, I was astonished to find a small branch had appeared on one of the grafts.
For a few minutes I tried to convince myself the branch had been there all along but I hadn’t noticed it. I waffled between that explanation and the unlikely, crazy possibility that it had, indeed, grown overnight—or over the course of a few days during which my inspections had been too casual to spot it.
Eventually, the “branch” on my grafted apple tree relaxed and seemed ready to move on. This photo clearly exposes the branch to have been a well-camouflaged caterpillar—something in the inchworm family.
Then it occurred to me: my young grafted apple tree hadn’t grown a branch, it had acquired a resident. The branch was a caterpillar doing a really good job of looking like a branch.
What an awesome adaptation! Imagine you’re a caterpillar that sometimes shares trees with birds that like to eat caterpillars. One day, one of those birds perches just eight inches away! The bird sucks down several of your mostly green caterpillar neighbors, and several times it looks directly at you… but it doesn’t even lean closer because in those moments, you’re just a tree branch!
After that bad boy bird moves on, you can grab the branch with the rest of your tiny feet and inch away.
Seems to me this caterpillar had an excellent chance of growing into a moth. Apparently, even then it probably did well at avoiding moth-eating birds. The adult of this caterpillar has earthy, mottled colors on its wings so it nearly disappears when it lands on tree bark. If a bird doesn’t see you as food, it’s probably not going to eat you.