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Small Kitchen Garden Goes Community

This spring I rented a plot at a community garden. It changes everything. -post #1

Community garden in early spring

In early April, snow had just melted from the community garden; no one had even tried to plant peas on St Patrick’s Day.

In March I researched local community gardens for a newspaper article and found only four such gardens within the newspaper’s coverage area.

One evening I was describing my exploration to my wife and I mused, “Maybe I should rent a plot.” Without hesitation, my wife somewhat threateningly replied, “You better not.” That sealed the deal.

I chose the largest of the area community gardens in part because it’s a stone’s throw from where I teach a class on most Wednesdays. It’d be an easy trip once a week.

This is the package they offered as it looked on paper:

  • $10 per year for a 30’ by 30’ plot—that’s more than double the size of the main planting bed where the Small Kitchen Garden blog started.
  • A shed full of tools including wheelbarrows, shovels, rakes, hoes, mowers—any tool I’d ever use in a garden
  • Heaps of newspapers and cardboard for use as “sheet mulch”
  • Running, potable water with hoses that reach every plot
  • Heaps of compost and mulch with no apparent restrictions on their use
  • A community of gardeners with varied experience and interest working as many as 100 plots

My community garden expectations

Compost and mulch at the community garden

One great lure of this particular community garden was its embarrassment of riches: a grand heap of compost sat next to another grand heap – of mulch. These are available to all members for use within their plots, and for maintenance of paths among the plots.

Having visited dozens of community gardens, I imagined a plot like so many I’d seen: rich, loamy soil, loose and ready for planting. I was excited to get started. I’d bring my “no-till” enthusiasm to bear and grow some decent vegetables with minimal effort.

Thing was, my wife had clearly expressed disapproval. I’d have to visit the community garden during business hours while she was at work (she’s a school teacher). What’s more, I’d have to keep up with the gardening at home so she wouldn’t get suspicious about how I spent my time (I had several very large home gardening projects in mind for 2015).

My community garden reality

Winter hung on a long time in 2015 and scheduled events at the community garden didn’t always happen. However, I managed to attend the garden’s first work day on April 11th before I’d been assigned a plot. I spent my time there helping an older new member prepare a half-sized plot for planting.

My community garden plot was a meadow

My first look at my new garden plot left me crestfallen. I had paid to garden in what looked like a mature, though dormant, meadow. A far cry from the manicured, rich-soiled plots I’d seen at so many community gardens, my plot clearly would need at least some tilling to produce the vegetables I wanted it to grow.

Partway through the work day, I got my plot assignment and walked over to have a look. It was kind of depressing: My plot was a meadow. It was a meadow of deep-rooted perennial meadow plants (weeds) in dormancy.

My plot had a three-foot tall rodent fence in place. The former renter had erected the fence to protect tender salad crops from rabbits and woodchucks. I didn’t know at the time I’d get to keep the fence… but I hoped so.

I’d return to my plot a few days later to begin work. I desperately wanted to plant peas which I should have planted, according to a rule of thumb, on March 17th. Lettuce, spinach, carrots, and onions were also on my list for early spring planting, and early spring was almost over. My biggest concern at the time: with all the well-established weeds and the need to plant immediately, it would be hard to manage the plot this season with only no-till methods.

 
Small Kitchen Garden – Small Kitchen Garden Goes Community

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Sunflowers and Naked Ladies

Sunflowers and decorative shrub

Sunflowers have surrounded a decorative shrub in a farmer’s field… or perhaps the shrub has infiltrated sunflower territory. Either way, it looks kinda cool.

Every summer I keep watch for fields of sunflowers in full bloom. A few local farmers grow sunflowers, swapping crops from field-to-field—sunflowers one year, corn another, and soy beans in another.

This year, there had been no sunflowers in the usual places, but yesterday I drove a few hundred yards past those places and discovered a thousand yellow flower heads.

These sunflowers were different from those of past seasons: Rather than simply filling a large field, they had surrounded a decorative shrub. OK, it’s not earth-shaking or anything, but I captured a few photos and have included one here.

Naked Ladies

Without apparent relationship to sunflowers, a few weeks ago my online gardening friends started chattering about naked ladies appearing in their yards. I’m not sure I’d heard such chattering in past years, but it was immediately apparent these naked ladies are some type of plant. In fact, I’d heard them called “surprise lilies” in past seasons.

Surprise lilies grow foliage in spring, but the leaves die back so people lose track of the plants by mid summer. Then, overnight, flowers emerge on stalks that can grow 24 inches tall.

The chattering started, and three days ago I noticed a stand of naked ladies across the street from a local church. Finally, this morning, I had a chance to stop and take pictures. The flowers are gorgeous, and there’s something refreshing about flower stalks rising above the landscape without accompanying foliage.

Naked Ladies or Surprise Lilies

Can’t say I’d heard of the plant “Naked Ladies” until this season. Then, after seeing so many posts about them online, I spotted a cluster across the street from a church I often pass. I stopped for a closer look and took several photos. I confess: I enjoy looking at naked ladies.

 
Small Kitchen Garden – Sunflowers and Naked Ladies

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Wordless Wednesday: Monarch on Dianthus

Monarch butterfly on dianthus blossoms

 
Small Kitchen Garden – Wordless Wednesday: Monarch on Dianthus

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Garden Bloggers Bloom Day at Longwood Gardens

Zinnia blossom in the Longwood Gardens trial gardens

Zinnias grew in several places at Longwood Gardens. This variety was common. I captured the photo in a trial garden among many where visitors vote for their favorite plant combinations. In the right light, you can see a purple tinge on the inside ends of the petals. If I grew zinnias, I’d track down this variety; it’s eye-catching.

I’m cheating a lot this month for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. I’m posting flowers, but I’m not posting my flowers.

My wife and I recently spent the day at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. We toured just about every venue there, and I captured at least ten photographs (posted about the Meadow Garden here).

A whole bunch of my photos are closeups of blossoms. I didn’t take notes, so I can’t tell you much about the plants. Some are easy for a layperson to identify, others might challenge well-trained horticulturists. Seriously: I took no notes. If you see any blossoms here you like, maybe they’ll motivate you to visit Longwood Gardens.

Purple flower spike in the Longwood Gardens Meadow Garden

Along the path through Longwood Gardens’ Meadow Garden, we saw several spikes of purple wispy blossoms. This one had drawn attention from a butterfly that was a bit camera shy. Everywhere in the meadow garden was alive with insects of many varieties.

Fruit cluster and flower in a student garden at Longwood Gardens

A cluster of fruit, sporting a single blossom, grew in one of the “Student Gardens” at Longwood Gardens. There are four such plots, each created by a student of the institution (Longwood trains future horticulturists).

Trumpet flower at Longwood Gardens

This trumpet flower was among several growing along the Flower Garden Walk at Longwood Gardens.

Quite likely a dahlia at Longwood Gardens

I remember enjoying a blossom along the Flower Garden Walk, leaning down to read the plant marker, and marveling that I’d been admiring a dahlia; it didn’t vaguely resemble any dahlia I’d seen. This photo might show the blossom, but if you know better please provide insight in a comment.

Dahlia at Longwood Gardens

No doubt this is a dahlia. There was a patch of these along the Flower Garden Walk. I probably took ten photos of these alone.

Purple and pretty on the Flower Garden Walk at Longwood Gardens

Not going to guess about this one. It was purple and pretty along the Flower Garden Walk.

Gorgeous on the Flower Garden Walk at Longwood Gardens

Can’t imagine why I didn’t take notes about this one. The plants grew densely and the flowers were stunning. I’ll probably track down the proper ID some day… I hope they turn out to be perennial in hardiness zone 5.

In the Palm House at Longwood Gardens

The Palm House inside the Longwood Gardens conservatory offered a few exotic blossoms. Several clusters of this type peaked out from among the palms.

A most exotic tree at Longwood Gardens

The name of the tree sporting these otherworldly pink blossoms (I assume they’re blossoms) was so intuitive, I knew I’d remember it later… but I don’t. There were two of these trees in the conservatory, and both displayed more pink flower snakes than they did foliage.

Yellow Hibiscus in the Longwood Gardens conservatory

Dazzling hibiscus blossoms drew attention inside the conservatory. By the time we were there, light was fading so the yellow blooms especially popped against the darker, poorly lit background.

Purple Hibiscus in the Longwood Gardens conservatory

Blossoms of a particular hibiscus in the conservatory were sublime… but then I’m a sucker for purple.

Yellow and pink cannas in the Longwood Gardens conservatory

Longwood Gardens has a pipe organ that plays into the ballroom of the conservatory. Just outside the ballroom, there was a stand of yellow and pink blossoms I’m quite certain were cannas. I like!

 
Small Kitchen Garden – Longwood Gardens: Meadow & Green Roofs

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Longwood Gardens: Meadow & Green Roofs

Meadow Garden at Longwood Gardens

Many paths wind in and around Longwood’s Meadow Garden. One crosses a curved, two-level bridge that encourages you to tarry.

My wife suggested we vacation at Longwood Gardens. It was a short trip: Thursday to travel there and enjoy the garden, and Friday to explore the Kennett Square area and travel home.

We killed it. The garden opened at 9AM and, with a “Nightscape” ticket, we could stay until 11PM. Between the two of us we had seen virtually nothing of Longwood. We decided to arrive as the doors opened. The gatekeeper told us it was the earliest anyone had arrived at the garden on a Nightscape ticket.

Nightscape? What’s that?

Nightscape is a laser light show, bits of which you view in different of the many gardens at Longwood. At each venue you hear music, and patterns of light dance on foliage or other garden features.

You can take a relaxed stroll through the gardens after dark, following dimly-lighted paths with docents ready at many intersections to point the way. The “Beer Garden” remains open in a fairly central location where you can buy snacks, beer, and wine.

Nightscape had very much the feeling of a large party with well-mannered revelers. On a mildly warm summer night, it was a very pleasant garden walk.

During a long day of walking, excessive heat, hydrating, violent thunderstorms, eating, and marveling at the history and beauty of Longwood Gardens, we explored nearly every accessible area of the facility. Photos in this post are from the Meadow Garden—a very new feature at Longwood.

Milkweed in the Meadow Garden at Longwood Gardens

Heavily planted with milkweed, the Meadow Garden is a masterpiece of textures. The milkweed alone produced unexpected patterns that changed from area-to-area as I scanned the landscape. Here’s hoping the meadow retains much of its character; it could become an important breeding ground for monarch butterflies.

Birdhouse with green roof at Longwood Gardens

Bird houses in the Meadow Garden at Longwood Gardens had green roofs! A docent explained that Longwood is collecting data to determine whether birds prefer homes with green roofs rather than bare-roofed ones.

Webb farmhouse at Longwood Gardens

The Webbs lived in a farmhouse at the back end of what is now Longwood’s Meadow Garden. You can walk up to the house to learn about its history, but we decided to save that for another day.

 
Small Kitchen Garden – Longwood Gardens: Meadow & Green Roofs

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Sweet Pepper Roulette

Ripening sweet orange bell peppers

The first peppers to form on my “roulette” pepper plants were obviously bell peppers. These will eventually ripen to a gorgeous bright orange.

Last season I grew sweet orange bell peppers, and sweet Italian peppers. I collected seeds from both and included them in a giveaway mid-winter. Unfortunately, I lost track of which seeds were which, so I described the giveaway as “roulette.” I told participants they might receive orange bell pepper seeds, they might receive sweet Italian pepper seeds, or they might receive some combination of both.

I faced the same uncertainty, so I started a whole lot of pepper seeds. As the plants matured in my garden, I saw lots of bell peppers form. Then, finally, I spotted longer horn-shaped peppers on several of my plants.

The good news for people who got pepper seeds in my giveaway: You very well could have some of each type! I hope you do; I find both varieties special.

Ripening sweet Italian peppers

Only in the past week did I notice some of my pepper plants sporting elongated fruits that clearly will grow into sweet Italian peppers. These will become bright red and deliciously sweet.

And the hot chili peppers

Last season, my son visited his girlfriend’s family and returned with a string of dried peppers sent by his girlfriend’s father. About all I know about those peppers is that they’re supposed to be hot.

I started four seeds, and all made it into a windowsill-style planter on my deck rail. Those plants have gone crazy and have just produced my first fully ripe peppers of the season. The plants look more as though they were bred to be ornamental; they hold dozens of tiny fruits that should make quite a display once they turn red.

In the meantime, I’ll harvest the red ones in the next week or two and use them to season a curried bean dish I love to serve as a side or as a main course. The dish usually gets heat from beriberi, a hot spice mix I believe originates from Africa.

I maintain it’s risky to rely on peppers to add seasoning heat to a dish; from a single pepper plant you can harvest five-alarm hot peppers right alongside milktoast sweet peppers. That’s OK. Cooking with your own homegrown produce ought to be a bit of an adventure.

I’m seriously looking forward to harvesting my first ripe sweet peppers.

Hot chili peppers

Upon learning of my gardening fervor, my son’s girlfriend’s father sent me a string of dried hot peppers. I’ve grown out four seeds and one of the plants is already producing ripe chilies. These plants will be stunning when most of the peppers are ripe.

 

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Marjoram in Bloom and Pollinators

Pair of pollinators on marjoram

It’s hard for a single photograph to do justice to the pollinator population in my marjoram. This one reveals two revelers: a honeybee and a fritillary butterfly—probably a Meadow Fritillary, but what I know about fritillaries I learned in the last five minutes using Google and The Butterfly Site.

Two years ago, marjoram got its own place in my garden and last year it found a place in my heart. I wrote about it here. The stalks flowered for about two months and attracted pollinators more than any other plant. It’s back!

My marjoram busted out blossoms last week while I was out of town. Today, after morning rain, sun illuminated the herb garden. Pollinating insects flitted about the entire planting bed, but the biggest concentration was on the marjoram flowers.

Nearby, oregano, lavender, and mint plants all sported blossoms and each drew its own complement of insects. In fact, the peppermint forest’s visitors may have rivaled those of the marjoram, but most of them were flies… probably beneficial, but far too reminiscent of house flies.

Honey bee on marjoram

My marjoram blossoms are pink and delicate, and they attract an enormous number of honey bees.

Marjoram is naturally unruly; the stems grow tall and slender and the weight of the blossoms bend them toward the ground. Rooted in a three-foot circle, the plants can drape themselves over a 10 foot diameter circle of real estate. If that bothers you, you can use hoop trellises to hold them upright.

Whether you let the stems sprawl, or you force them vertical, you should grow marjoram. The leaves and blossoms are excellent seasoning for many foods, and the blossoms may very well become the center of activity for thousands of pollinators in your garden.

Meadow Fritillary butterfly-probably-on marjoram

A butterfly—probably a meadow fritillary—spreads its wings in my marjoram patch. The marjoram is by far the liveliest place in my yard while herbs are abloom.

 

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Baby Finch Disaster Averted

Baby house finch after the thud

I heard a spongy thud behind me and turned to find this little bird on the lawn weeds.

I put the last rock in place and leveled soil in my rock garden. As I stepped back to take photos I heard a meaty thud; something, it seemed, had fallen from the sky.

It didn’t take long to find a tiny bird baby on the lawn. I looked up and spotted a nest about 12 feet up in the branches of our blue spruce tree; the same tree that had housed a robin’s nest in a post I wrote in April titled Grubs and Birds.

I’d need a stepladder… and I’d need a camera. How could I not take photos of this adorable blob of birdlet flesh?

As I got my rescue operation in order, I spotted a second bird baby on the lawn. I wondered: Would I find in the nest a fat cowbird baby that was pushing its adoptive siblings to their deaths?

Baby house finch

I tore away weeds to gain a more complete view of the sky-diving house finch baby. The 12 foot fall onto soggy lawn seems to have caused it no harm.

Evaluating the Scene

I had to stand on the rung of the ladder labeled “This is Not a Step.” Once there, I realized Mourning Doves are not the only bad nest builders in the bird kingdom. Mommy and Daddy House Finch had simply built their nest on top of a sloping branch. No component of the nest existed to hold it in place! Given its paucity of safety features, that the nest had lasted long enough for eggs to hatch seemed miraculous (meaning “highly improbable”).

Now the nest was on its side, prevented from falling by an upper branch that had snagged the top edge as the nest tipped and dumped its occupants. I’d need twine.

Extreme Makeover, Bird Nest Edition

Did I build a new nest for the House Finches? No, but I wanted to. What I did was to loop some twine over the branch above the nest and under the branch that was supposed to hold the nest. I pulled the branches together until the lower branch was horizontal where the nest sat. Now little spruce sprigs jutted into the nest from the upper branch, so I trimmed several of those away.

Daniel's butt during the epic baby house finch rescue

I wasn’t kidding. My wife photographed my butt while I was putting the bird puppies back in their nest. She even posted it on Facebook!!!! Here’s the link where there are other photos documenting the event as well, but I can’t promise she set permissions to let just anybody look.

When I finished, the nest certainly wasn’t bomb-proof, but it was in better shape than I’d found it. I climbed down from the ladder’s “Step Here and Die” rung, found an empty plastic container, and lifted the House Finch puppies into it. My wife stabilized the ladder and held the Finch puppies as I climbed back to the “Death Rung.”

My wife handed me the Finch babies and I gently put one and then the other back in the nest while she photographed my butt. The finchlets seemed OK with it.

Epilogue

There’s folklore that if you get human stink all over wild baby animals, the wild animal parents won’t return to them. It’s a lie. House Finch Mom and Dad have come and gone repeatedly since I finished rebuilding their nest and re-installing their babies. In fact, I’m pretty sure they didn’t notice anything had changed though I hope my modifications provide inspiration for their next nest-building project.

 

Finally, Almost a Rock Garden!

BEFORE rock garden photo

Until a few weeks ago, this was an unruly compost heap next to a pit I had dug on my way to creating a rain garden. The pit is dry 98% of the year, so my enthusiasm for planting wet-tolerant plants has been low. Finally, last autumn, I stocked up on succulents and decided the compost heap would become a rock garden. My wife got the ball rolling by clearing the compost, mounding soil along the back, planting elephant ears and calla lilies, and hauling a few rocks from the driveway.

Some years ago (2011), crazy, biblical rains made my vegetable plants very sad. I decided to reduce the likelihood of a similarly unpleasant experience by excavating a drainage ditch above my garden. The ditch would redirect runoff from the neighbor’s yard into a basin I dug at the west end of my vegetable bed. I first mentioned my rain garden in a post about the National Wildlife Federation; there’s a photo of the rain garden in its earliest days.

We’ve not had a similarly rainy season since. In fact, most of the year, my “rain garden” is pretty dry. I couldn’t decide what to plant IN the basin, so I started planting around the basin—but I left the 15+ year-old compost heap in place alongside.

The Rock Garden Notion

Last autumn I decided I wanted to create a rock garden. Coincidentally, my wife complained about the compost heap. It seemed a good plan to move the compost heap to the back of the yard, and construct a rock garden in the vacated space.

I started collecting rocks. My brother has a farm with a small stream. He has generously helped me load rocks into my minivan and I’ve created quite a heap on my driveway. I didn’t know exactly how I’d use the rocks, but at least some would end up in the rock garden.

Last fall I also started collecting succulents. As winter approached, I ended up heeling the succulents into the vegetable bed so they’d winter well. (I wrote about them here: Unlikely Starters in my Kitchen Garden.)

Succulents awaiting a rock garden

I weeded around the succulents in the vegetable garden and was happy to find they haven’t quite been choked out of existence… though they seem a bit leggy and wan from lack of sunlight. I’ll move them all to the new planting bed once the final rock is in place.

Commitment! Once the plants come home, there’s little choice but to give them their own beds.

Building a Rock Garden

So, here we are: The vegetable garden is nearly planted. I’d like to add two rows of beans, but there are all these succulents in the way. I really, really need a rock garden so I can move the succulents and plant beans before I run out of growing season. I finally started.

It occurred to me I could use rocks to reinforce the bank of my lame rain garden. A rock retaining wall could rise into the rain garden and frame one side of it. The exact shape of the wall and the garden itself would “happen” during assembly—there wouldn’t be a blueprint or plan to follow. Rather, I’d “sculpt” the area to please my sense of aesthetics.

Double Team

My wife has been impatient for several things:

  1. Getting rid of the compost heap
  2. Getting a heap of soil off the driveway that’s been there for three or so years
  3. Getting the rocks off the driveway
  4. Getting things planted (I accumulate a lot of perennials from trade shows and local sales)

So, she dug in while my attention was on the vegetable garden. She moved the compost heap and she built up a mound in front of the vegetable garden. There she set a dozen or so elephant ears I had overwintered on our ping-pong table. She also set a bunch of calla lily roots I had bought for a dollar from the local garden club. And there were nearly a dozen flowering perennials we know virtually nothing about…

We Might Have Something

As I look around the “rain garden,” it shows real promise. Some perennials look stronger this year than they did last year, and they even look nice together. The rock garden will transform the area; the basin will probably look far less like an incidental ditch with the rock garden in place.

Mostly assembled rock garden

After two days (working just a few hours each day), the rock garden’s form has emerged. The rock bank will, undoubtedly, appeal to otters that come to splash in the rain garden, and the low rock wall opposite will provide shelter for chipmunks, snakes, mice, rats, and stinging insects. Since taking this photo, I’ve added rocks to define planting areas and I’ve adjusted the centerpiece. There are a few other “artistic” elements finding their way into the design. Oh, and plants. Final unveiling to come soon.

 

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