I harvested roots from last year’s cannas and found many new “buds” on them. I broke apart the roots so that each section had at least one bud, and started all of them in containers in January. I started two roots in this container, and both have pushed up healthy leaves… they’ll look great in the garden in late May.
This time of year, if you’re at all interested in my gardening activities, the most appropriate question to ask is, “What’s up on your ping-pong table?” So far, I’ve only a few things going on there, but over the next two weeks, my ping-pong table will hold fully 75% of my gardening projects for 2017.
My earliest ping-pong table project was to start canna lilies from roots I harvested at the end of last season. One variety I grew last year took a very long time to flower, so I planted roots this year in January and they’ve gotten an appropriately slow start. I’ve heard cannas that spend too long in a container before getting planted in the garden tend to fall over. That would slow them down. So, I’m keeping the plants in low light and hoping they don’t grow too tall before temperatures rise in May.
I’ll be starting a second variety of cannas soon as well as some elephant ears. These will mostly go into our “Hawaiian corner” which will be in its third year this season. When the cannas and elephant ears mature in late summer, the Hawaiian corner becomes a dramatic focal point in the yard.
I started three other ping-pong table projects in February:
I’ve never had trouble starting ginger plants from roots I bought in a grocery story. This one sprouted about a week ago more than a month after I planted it on my ping-pong table.
1. I planted several pots with ginger roots I bought at a grocery store. These languished for weeks under lights on the ping-pong table before I decided the basement wasn’t warm enough for them. I moved three of the pots into our living room, and in the past week sprouts have appeared in all three. With a single ginger plant I started in November from last year’s harvest, and the three new planters, I expect to harvest more ginger in the fall than we’re likely to eat in a year.
2. I planted two shallow trays with onion seeds. Generally, I start onions from sets that I plant directly in the garden. This year I found seeds in a department store for onion varieties requiring 170 days to maturity. That’s a crazy amount of garden time for home gardens in central PA; a responsible garden center in Pennsylvania wouldn’t stock seeds that require such a long season… it means planting before last frost in spring and hoping not to get shut down by early frost in autumn. Challenge accepted! My onion sprouts look great and I’d like to get them into the garden soon. They’ll go in my community garden plot, so I have to wait until the county finishes prepping.
A crazy buyer for a big-box store stocked seeds for onions that mature in 170 days! Those would be perfect for home gardens in Texas, and likely to cause the average Pennsylvania gardener aggravation. Being bull-headed, I decided to give them a shot. These sprouts are more than a month old and could probably handle whatever cold is still to come this spring… but they won’t get outdoors until my community garden plot is open. I’m ready, but I’ve no control over when the county lets me start gardening there.
3. I found a frisky sweet potato in the larder and decided to turn it into a slip nursery. There are more than 12 sprouts growing strong. In a few weeks, I’ll pluck them from the sweet potato and root them in water so they’re ready to plant out in late May or early June.
At the beginning of April, my attention to the ping-pong table intensified. I planted two containers with seeds from last year’s sweet pepper harvest: 25 orange bell pepper seeds in one planter, and 25 sweet Italian pepper seeds in a second planter. No sprouts yet, but they’re likely to pop in the next seven days. By then, I’ll have planted up about 14 varieties of tomato seeds and, perhaps, some lettuce and cucumbers.
But spring is finally feeling spring-like, so within a few days I hope to plant peas and lettuce in the garden. It all feels a bit daunting, but exhilarating at the same time.
Putting the ping-pong table to work in late winter and early spring has become a ritual I anticipate and enjoy. It teases me into the gardening season much as an hors d’oeuvre whets my appetite for a fine meal.
Growers or distributors sometimes treat sweet potatoes with chemicals that suppress new growth so you may not be able to start slips from grocery store sweet potatoes. I suspect I bought this sweet potato from a local farmer at the market in December. The sweet potato was anxious to sprout, and it may provide more than a dozen slips for my garden. In a few weeks, I’ll pluck the sprouts from the tuber and set them in very moist soil so they develop roots. In late May I’ll transfer the slips to my garden and hope to harvest before burrowing rodents eat my crop.
Two one-gallon milk jugs with the top halves cut off serve as planters for my sweet pepper seeds. I planted 25 seeds in each container. In early June, the roots of the plants should be intertwined throughout the soil. I’ll cut or tear the seedlings away from each other and plant them in the garden. Usually, they recover from “transplant shock” in six to ten days and deliver a decent crop starting in late August.
The annual first crocus photo of the year. Crocus blossoms kicked off a week in February with temperatures as high as 70 degrees. Historically, there has been much snow in February.
No, it’s not spring (well… it wasn’t spring when I wrote this. With luck I’ll finish posting it today on the first day of spring). In fact, we never have to wait till spring for the season’s first flowers to appear. However, in central Pennsylvania, it’s very uncommon to have flowers in our gardens mid-winter, and that’s what we had.
On Monday, February 20 – the last day of mid-winter – I captured my first crocus photo of the year. We were into a serious warm spell; the coldest day that week was spring-like, and one day – Friday – was hot enough for shorts and a tee shirt.
Here, just two weeks later (OK… it’s a month later), I’m posting my first crocus of the year photo along with a few other shots from the garden on February 20th. Things were moving along too quickly too early, but a mighty cold snap shut it down in March. Last night (guessing that would have been March 5th) the temperature dropped to nine degrees Fahrenheit and all those perennials thinking they had a head start were very confused.
Photos tell the story of February 20.
A few feet from the crocus blossoms, a candytuft plant sported bunches of buds emerging at the ends of leafy stems.
Well sheltered from wind, but in a heavily-shaded planting bed, a young rose bush got pruned by a garden-loving varmint. Fresh, pink terminal buds seemed ready to pop on the last day of mid-winter.
I didn’t know sundrops are “evergreen.” The purple and green variegation attracted me to the plants, so it’s great to see they’ll provide groundcover year-round. From about five plants I set last spring, I counted nine on February 20. It seems likely other new growth hasn’t yet pushed above the surface.
While horseradish leaves die back in late autumn or early winter, new sprouts develop through winter. On February 20, young leaves had started to unfurl. This is one of the most indestructible plants in my garden.
Rhubarb is very hardy. In 2015, young sprouts appeared as cold killed back mature stalks and leaves. Those sprouts remained red and firm all winter and were among the first things to grow in 2016. Here’s a young sprout on February 20, 2017. I love how crinkled and tiny the leaf is, belying how smooth and enormous it will be when it grows up in March and April.
Here’s an unexpected success: This is a Cardoon plant in its third year in my garden. Cardoon withstands temperatures in the high 20s, but it isn’t hardy in zone 6. So… in late autumn, I built a knee-high hoop tunnel over the plant. I peeled back the plastic on February 20, and things looked really good. In fact, it seems new leaves grew since I erected the tunnel. When cold returned in early March, I replaced the plastic. Given the weather forecasts, it seems the plastic will need to remain until April.
Several years ago, Proven Winners gave me two edible honeysuckle plants to try. These are crazy hardy plants; the only shrubs obviously leafing up in mid-winter. Those look like flower buds to me… perhaps this will be the year the plants start producing fruit.
Nearly matching strides with the crocuses, my hellebores were pushing out plump buds on February 20. By the end of the week, many of the buds had opened, but when cold hit in March, blossoms closed and everything shriveled into a heap. This isn’t a bad thing! As days warm, the shriveled plants draw in moisture and plump up as if nothing had interrupted their growth.
A farmer’s field of sunflowers in bloom in 2015. This is one of three fields the farmer uses for sunflowers, planting only one field each year.
If you like to take photographs—and, I think, particularly if you think of yourself as a photographer—you might find it difficult simply to drive past a field of sunflowers. I’ve seen dozens of gorgeous photographs taken by other photographers of these magnificent fields. What’s more, I’ve stopped two or three times a year for, perhaps, seven years to try to capture the quintessential sunflower field photograph.
I haven’t gotten close. Turns out, I’m not all that skilled a photographer. Still, I’ve nabbed a few decent photos of sunflower fields, and I’ll continue to stop and shoot whenever the opportunity arises.
Just three days ago I had such an opportunity. Never mind it’s mid-winter in central Pennsylvania. I took a side road to the grocery store, turned onto a side road of the side road to photograph a stately oak tree in a farmer’s field, and unexpectedly came upon a field of sunflowers.
In the spirit of raising spirits (seems to be a thing this time of year), I decided to photograph the sunflowers and share them on my blog. Mid-winter sunflowers can be quite striking. I hope you agree. So nice that only six weeks remain until spring.
A field of sunflowers in winter isn’t particularly eye-catching. I was surprised to see the farmer hadn’t harvested the seed heads from this field; there were plenty there for song birds. I captured many photos and left longing just a bit more for spring.
I had no idea what type of insect this was; I’d never seen one until it appeared in my garden in 2015 and I haven’t seen one since. The famous entomologist, Herr Google, leads me to think it’s a Grapevine Beetle, also known as a Spotted June Beetle. I enjoyed capturing photos of it, but I wish I’d run a lint brush over it before I started.
While heavily drugged after surgery last spring to remove a tumor from my pancreas, I gave myself ten “seven photos in seven days” photo challenges. So far, I’ve posted seven. This eighth post reveals seven of my favorite bug photos from 2015. Some are of baby bugs—caterpillars rather than winged adults. I pointed that out in case anyone feels baby butterflies and moths don’t qualify as bugs (I suppose it’s a stretch but there are many definitions of “bug”).
I hope you enjoy my bug photos. It’s a seven-day/seven-photo challenge, but all the photos are here in a single post.
I love to see cabbage butterflies in my garden, though they have seriously diminished my excitement for growing broccoli (I hate the part of preparing homegrown broccoli where you float the broccoli crowns in salt water for an hour so the worms die and float off the food.) The “antique white” of this butterfly delightfully complemented the delicate lavender color of my… lavender.
Since moving to Pennsylvania 21 years ago, it seems I’ve heard in five or six summers that this was the year of the seventeen year cicada. In one of those years, there was actually an abundance of the magnificent insects in our area, though they did not inundate our living space and crunch under foot. Every year we hear the cicadas’ buzz, and I often find visitors in my small kitchen garden. This one was resting on a tomato stake in my plot at the community garden.
I first saw wasps like this one in 2014. I was able to find photos online that identify it as a great golden digger wasp. Many of them started frequenting my garden when the marjoram was in bloom. The wasps show no interest in me, but focus exclusively on the marjoram’s delicate flowers.
For 18 years, I’d harvest wild black raspberries in meadows up the street from my house. Each year I’d also inspect milkweed plants in those meadows for evidence of monarch butterfly activity. Finally, in 2015, I found the caterpillar in this photo. Sadly, but for one building lot, the meadows are all gone. The landowner subdivided the land and there are houses on nearly all of them. No more milkweed. No more black raspberries. I wanted to live on a farm far enough from the nearest neighbors that we wouldn’t see the light on the pole in their barnyard. We bought a house on the edge of town 21 years ago, but town is an invasive weed that has grown in around us.
I’m not particularly fond of grasshoppers, but they tend to make themselves available for decent photos. This one lingered on my garden’s rabbit fence near the tomato patch.
I love having dragonflies visit my kitchen garden. The main attractant, I think, is the “rain garden” I dug several years ago. I haven’t completed the project; I still need to line a ditch with gravel, lay perforated pipe in the ditch, and fill around the pipe with soil. Oh, and I should come up with a few rain-garden-appropriate plants. Still, in heavy rains, the collection pool fills and as it drains, moisture holds on at the bottom for days after the rest of the garden has dried.
In mid-October, I harvested about two-and-a-half gallons of fingerling and red-skinned potatoes. I’d left the potatoes in the ground way too long; rodents had tunneled under the tubers and had eaten many of them—perhaps almost as many as I harvested.
October 23 was the community garden’s “drop dead” date. I received an email at the beginning of October telling me I had to be done with my plots by the 24th; management would mow the plots and plant barley on that date.
I couldn’t get motivated to take things down in the weeks leading up to the 24th. The average first frost date in this area is October 21, but forecasts were for warm days into November.
Unfortunately, I had a chemotherapy session scheduled for Monday, October 17th. The Friday, Saturday, and Sunday after chemo are particularly brutal: my muscles feel as though I’ve been marching for a week without rest, I feel as though I should be sleeping, and my digestive tract is making me guess whether and when access to plumbing might be necessary.
I’ve been trying to establish a new variety of winter squash using seeds I harvested from a hybrid that happened accidentally in my small kitchen garden several years ago. These are the fruits from this year’s effort. Sadly, I believe the discoloration on the skin is black rot. The flesh is still edible, but black rot is systemic meaning it can live in the cells of the plants. Seeds from these fruits are likely to carry the disease, so it would be wrong to share them with other gardeners. I’m afraid disease has made my new squash variety a dead-end.
Nope. I didn’t let chemo dictate my behavior. I’m deadline-oriented, so naturally I waited until the weekend to finish taking down my community garden plots. It was a forced march.
Back on October 10th, I had dug potatoes and harvested squash and sorghum seed heads. Much remained. Tomatoes and peppers were at various stages of ripe, sorghum stalks still stood, canna lily roots still supported leaf and flower stalks, and tomato trellises needed to come down.
My Small Kitchen Garden Falls
On Sunday morning (probably more like early afternoon), I drove to the community garden and dragged myself, painfully slowly, through the remaining tasks. The worst of it was removing tomato trellises.
With hanging string trellises, some 68 7-foot lengths of binder twine hung from a wooden support structure. At home, I’d simply cut the strings off the trellises and let them drop to the ground along with the tomato plants they supported. They’d winter under leaves and rot into the soil through the 2017 growing season (I don’t till the soil).
I harvested about 2 gallons of sweet peppers on October 23rd. I’m afraid they’ve remained in the bag you see in this photo and have experienced many too warm days and several too cold days. I hope to feel well enough this week to work through stuff I harvested on October 23. With luck, I’ll find a few still-usable peppers to put up in the freezer.
At the community garden, it seemed risky to leave the binder’s twine wrapped around the tomato plants. A mower blade would most certainly catch the twine and wrap it around the mower’s drive shaft. I didn’t want to create extra work for someone else, so I untwisted the binder’s twine from the tomato plants… this took more than an hour.
I disassembled the wooden support structure for the hanging string trellises and loaded the wooden stakes into the bed of my pickup truck. Then I harvested the sorghum stalks and loaded them into the truck. Finally, I dug the canna lilies. It felt as though I’d worked for twentyten hours, though it was closer to three.
Tomatoes and peppers would have continued to ripen for another three weeks. It made me sad to have given up on them so early, but rules are rules, and the community garden is an awesome resource—particularly for a gardener challenged by illness. Photos tell the story of my last day of the season when I took down my vegetable garden.
From a package of “Festival Mix” cayenne pepper seeds, a plant produced purple peppers that turned red when fully ripe. Sadly, the plant was laden with under ripe fruits when I had to shut down my community garden plots.
Some of the last tomatoes on my vines this October were the mystery paste tomatoes I acquired years ago from a local gardener. I harvested these along with Roma, Stupice, and a few varieties I couldn’t identify, and left them for three weeks in a bucket on an end table in the living room. Finally, a few days ago, I sorted the rotten tomatoes from the healthy ones. If all goes well, I’ll process the ripe ones this week and serve up the green ones as fried green tomatoes.
The first variety of tomato to ripen in my small kitchen garden was also one of the last to produce viable fruits. I harvested these Stupice tomatoes on October 23 just before I tore down my hanging string tomato trellises.
A theme of this article is that my community garden plots didn’t agree with the mid-October cease-and-desist order. This sorghum seed head makes the point: the seeds aren’t ready! I had already harvested any ripe seeds, but there were many young stalks at various stages of the reproductive cycle.
When I cut the mature sorghum stalks, I discovered emergent shoots; more shoots from each plant than had grown to harvest. This leads me to think that in the tropics, sorghum may be a perennial. Perhaps you can harvest the seeds to make flour or porridge, cut mature stalks to extract sugar, and then wait four months and do the whole thing again.
Another holdout against the cease and desist order: a squash blossom. I believe this flower was on one of my hybrid-derived squash plants, but there were also flowers on the zucchini I had planted back in May! In fact, on October 23, I harvested two beautiful zucchini squashes from six-month-old plants. In past years, I’d started a second planting of zucchini mid-summer after the spring-planted vines had withered.
Despite bacterial disease, aggressive hornworms, and disgusting tomato fruit worms, many of my tomato plants were trying to remain relevant on October 23rd. There were at least a dozen blossoms through the tomato patch, and many buds about to open. Sadly, it all had to make way for the mower and seed-planter. I hope to garden the same two plots next season. I may be grumbling for having been forced off of my normal gardening methods, but it’s all for the good of the soil. I truly appreciate the quality effort with which the county manages its community garden.
I started six tomatillo plants from seed and they were very happy in the community garden. I’d never grown them, and was impressed at how prolific the plants were. I harvested mid-summer and canned many pints of salsa verde which, by my estimation, is more about the onions and peppers than about the tomatillos. Unfortunately, chemo has suppressed my sense of taste, so I’ve no idea whether the salsa verde tastes good. The tomatillo plants continue to grow and produce, and I may have left more than 100 fruits to rot in the garden. It seems unlikely I’ll plant tomatillos in next year’s garden.
It has been a hard season. I’ve faced two huge challenges to maintaining my kitchen garden:
1. It has been unusually dry this year. What little rain we’ve had came over a two-week period in August and did more damage than it did good.
2. I had major surgery before the season started to remove a tumor from my pancreas. Subsequent chemotherapy failed, and an alternative chemotherapy regimen has kept me weak and nearly constantly uncomfortable with gastric distress.
I had some help from my wife and some friends. My wife prepared one end of the main vegetable bed where I planted peas and carrots. She erected trellises for the peas, and we both harvested when peas were ready.
When my wife was away, a group of friends visited one weekend and removed an enormous amount of weeds from the main vegetable bed.
All 68 tomato plants are still growing well, but late summer brought quite the onslaught of tomato fruit worms. Most tomatoes remaining on the plants are getting devoured, but I’m still harvesting about a half gallon of decent ones every four or five days. This is a single, unusual tomato on a plant that usually produces pepper-shaped fruits. It looks as though two tomatoes merged at birth.
What truly kept me in the game was signing up at a community garden. There I got two 10’ x 20’ plots where the garden’s management applies composted manure, plows it in, and plows again a week or so later to stop the first growth of weeds—all before gardeners have access to plant.
It was crazy easy for me to plant my prepared community garden plots. The soil was loose and raked smooth; I had only to press seeds into the soil or set seedlings in holes I could dig with my fingers.
The community garden helped me manage the dryness challenge as well: There are faucets and hoses that reach every plot and I was able to water my plants every 2nd or 3rd day.
I’ve gone rather light on blogging about the garden. The cancer has diminished many activities that used to be easy or even fun. Rather than catch up on all the most interesting moments of the season, this post is about where the season’s ending. Photos tell the story.
This was a typical harvest—three gallons of tomatoes and a few sweet peppers—about every three days until august. I’ve canned gallons of tomato pieces, whole tomatoes, and tomato sauce. Oh, and chili sauce and salsa in which tomatoes are a major ingredient.
Happily, the dry season discouraged common tomato plant diseases. I saw no early or late blight on my plants, though late summer rain fired up some bacterial disease that worked its way up the plants from the ground. I pruned affected leaves for several weeks, turning the tomato patch into a rather weird landscape.
My tomato trellises top out close to seven feet. The plants have grown three feet above the trellises… though this photo shows them a bit shorter. Tomatoes in the highest growth won’t ripen before frost, but there are a few just below the seven foot level that have a chance.
By early July I had grown squash seedlings under lights indoors and I planted them out at the community garden. One hill of neck pumpkins has barely performed; I must have set it on a bad patch of soil. Still, there are two rather tiny neck pumpkins maturing on the vines.
Three years ago, without asking permission, my garden cross-bred a neck pumpkin with a fairytale squash. Unknowingly, I harvested seeds from a hybridized neck pumpkin and planted them in the next season’s garden. They produced gorgeous squash that I hoped I could stabilize through two seasons. Last season, they seemed to breed true. However, seeds I planted this year have produced three distinct varieties of fruits. The variety in the photo is the most prolific. The skin becomes creamy brown when ripe, a bit lighter than a butternut squash. Perhaps this version will breed true for next season’s garden.
I don’t recall where I got it, but last winter I picked up a packet of cayenne pepper seeds. It was a mix of seeds that would produce peppers in a variety of colors. Purple cayenne peppers, I think, are cheaters. The fruits start out purple but ripen to a bright red. Other colors in the packet were red, yellow, and orange. Sadly, I failed with cayenne. The plants were prolific early when I was dealing with a bumper crop of tomatoes and sweet peppers. Most of the cayenne peppers ended up in the crisper drawer and became anything but crisp.
A first for me, and still in progress: sorghum. I bought a packet of one hundred and fifty seeds and planted them in a tight square at one end of the bed. The plants have flourished. The seed heads are full and, I’m sure, ripe. Everything I’ve read suggests harvesting the seeds as close to first frost as possible and leaving the stalks to get some frost bite. Then harvest the stalks and squeeze the sap out of them to boil into syrup. Frost may be two weeks away, so I won’t be messing with the sorghum right away. In fact, my next big harvest needs to be potatoes. The above-ground parts of my potato plants never stopped growing until they were overrun by squash plants.
On a whim, I reserved several canna lily roots that we didn’t need to complete our “Hawaiian corner” behind the rock garden this year. I stuck the spare roots in my community garden plot among squashes, onions, and potatoes where the cannas wouldn’t interfere with other plants. It was quite late in the season, so the cannas are late bloomers, but there have been several flower spikes so far. In a few weeks, I’ll pull the roots and save them for next year. Knowing how many we need behind the rock garden, I’ll set aside a few extra to add flare in next year’s community garden plots.