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Zucchini Breeding Surprises

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.”

Blond zucchini descended from a blond/green cross

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.

Dark green zucchini descended from a blond/green cross

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.

Yellow-green zucchini descended from a blond/green cross

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.

Zucchinis descended from a blond/green cross

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.

Small Kitchen Garden – Zucchini Breeding Surprises

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Cardoon After All

Mature cardoon plants

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.

Snow-covered hoop tunnel

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.

Winter-stressed cardoon

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.

Planting peas

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.

Cardoon emerges in spring

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.

Small Kitchen Garden – Cardoon After All

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The Sunchoke Adventure

Sunchoke blossom

Sunchokes in the empty lot up the street put on a striking display in late summer and early fall.

That was a long, satisfying adventure! Adventure? My Sunchoke Adventure started in 2009 and reached a major milestone three minutes before I wrote this sentence.

Sunchoke sirens

In late summer of 2009, I noticed towering sunflower-like plants on the vacant corner lot up the street from the Cityslipper ranch. These produced bright yellow flowers that resembled small sunflowers. I took many photos over the years, but until 2014 I failed to capture the character of these dramatic plants.

In 2009 I knew way less about ornamental plants than I know now (which is impressively little), and I supposed these were wild sunflowers akin to prairie natives that grow as perennials (I’d read about prairie sunflowers years earlier from an article about making agriculture less destructive—before “sustainability” was a word).

Sunchoke blossom

A single stalk of a sunchoke plant can produce dozens of blossoms.

Wild sunflower non-germination

I wanted some. These flowers were gorgeous, and I thought they’d look great in my yard. So, I gathered seed heads when the blossoms faded, and let them dry out on the desk in my office.

Later, when I peeled apart the dried blossoms, I found nothing that resembled seeds. I tried again in 2010: I harvested spent flowers, let them dry in my office, and was unable to find seeds among the dried flower bits. I even planted the dried flower bits and kept the soil most for several weeks, but no seedlings emerged.

Not wild sunflowers; sunchokes!

Over the years, I photographed sunchoke flowers on the corner lot repeatedly, but I gave up on trying to grow the plants in my yard. Of course, I didn’t yet know they were sunchokes. But some time in 2012, I started to wonder, and Google led me to photos of these striking plants and to articles about them.

Sunchoke stalks after frost

The containment ring in which I planted sunchokes simply doesn’t extend deep enough into the soil. Stalks grew this season on the outside of the ring. So far, I’ve excavated only those plants and have found tubers well below the bottom edge of the ring.

Sunchokes, also called Jerusalem Artichokes, are edible plants! The part people eat is a tuber somewhat like a potato (so I read), and the plants reproduce aggressively. I was most deeply moved by an article titled Before You Plant Sunchokes, You Need to Read This Post which remains among my most favorite Internet reads of all time.

In the spring of 2013, while browsing at a fundraising plant sale in Ithaca, NY, I found a sunchoke at a very reasonable price and bought it.

Sunchoke containment

Late in the 2013 season, I set a containment ring in the soil—the center third of a food-grade plastic barrel—and mixed a lot of sand and compost with the soil inside the ring. There I planted the sunchoke.

In 2014, the plant expanded to produce, perhaps, a dozen stalks inside the containment ring—but without flowers. I left the plants untouched that year. This year, the containment ring erupted with sunchoke stalks.

Sunchoke tubers

In a minute or two of digging, I found a decent handful of plump tubers. I’m confident that if I jammed the rooted stems at the bottom of the photo back into the soil, they’d bounce back in the spring and produce more food in coming seasons.

The plants appeared healthy all season, though they never produced flowers… and flowers were what had drawn me to the plants in the first place. I planned to take a hand trowel with me some evening and dig a sunchoke plant from the corner lot; those plants clearly knew how to make flowers.

A month ago, it dawned on me: I didn’t need a trowel. From what I’d read, it’s hard to kill a sunchoke plant. On a whim, while walking the dog one day, I singled out a short sunchoke stalk on the corner lot. When I pulled on the stalk, it popped loose from the soil, sporting healthy roots and several apparent young plants emerging from the base of the stem. I planted the stalk in a flower pot on my porch where it happily blossomed and is now going dormant. I’ll find a place for it in the yard before the soil freezes.

Sunchokes in the kitchen

As I started writing this article, the question arose: What about the harvest? Trowel in hand, I examined the sunchokes and their containment ring. Clearly the ring had failed; there were many stalks on the outside.

Sunchoke tubers ready for the kitchen

Sunchoke tubers washed and ready to eat. I immediately sliced one up, tasted it, and found it very pleasant: a soft crunch with a mild lettuce-like flavor. Minimally, I’d use these in salads, but I’m curious to try them cooked. I’ll give that a go in the next few weeks.

I dug most of those stalks and excavated a generous handful of sunchoke tubers. Minutes later, I’d washed off the soil and sliced up a tuber for a tasting; I’d never eaten sunchokes.

What a thrill! Sunchokes have a delightful crunch and a delicious, lettuce-like flavor. At the very least I’ll include them in salads over the next several weeks.

I’ve heard mixed reviews about cooked sunchokes, so I’ll have to prepare some for a second taste-test. However that goes, I look forward finally to having sunchoke flowers in my yard. I’ll plant the wild one without a containment ring and deal with the consequences as they arise… If a domestic sunchoke wouldn’t stay in its place, it seems pointless to try to contain a wild sunchoke.

Small Kitchen Garden – The Sunchoke Adventure

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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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Nine Tips for Growing Potatoes

20 gallon potato planters

These are some of my potato planters. There’s about 2 inches of soil in each. I set seed potatoes ON the soil, and then cover them over with straw or hay. That’s enough for the plants to thrive and produce a new harvest.

With the Internet, you can learn all about growing potatoes: garbage can potatoes, potatoes in towers, potatoes in buckets, potatoes in straw bales… Of course, the old fashioned way, used by anyone with a rudimentary understanding of agriculture, was to bury a potato and harvest more, fresher potatoes from the same spot once potato plants had grown and withered. That STILL works! Feel free to give it a whirl.

Agriculture evolves, and there’s a boatload of stuff you can bring to potato-growing that could improve your results—or at least simplify the job. Here are nine things I’ve learned that you might find useful… or at least amusing:

eager potato sprouts

I lost interest in the purple potatoes I harvested last season (the skins are unpleasantly thick for a relatively small potato) and left about two dozen small potatoes in a shopping bag in the corner of my basement. With no added water and no soil from which to draw nutrients, the potatoes sprouted and sent stems a full two feet up so the tops emerged from the bag.

1. Plant certified seed potatoes. Grocery store and farmers’ market potatoes will most likely grow for you, as will potatoes you harvested last year but haven’t yet eaten. The chance that any of these potatoes harbors disease is greater than the chance that certified seed potatoes harbor disease. The world would rather you grow disease-free potatoes (potato diseases can grow with the plants and spread on the wind), so try to oblige it. But, in truth, you don’t need certified seed potatoes to grow potatoes.

2. Acidify your soil. Potatoes prefer acidic soil, so you can help them by knowing your soil’s PH, and pushing it toward the low side—5 is good, and definitely keep the PH below 6. Fertilizers made specifically for hydrangeas are good also for potatoes.

3. Potatoes are OK with raw horse manure. You can till manure into the soil before planting potatoes, and the potatoes will do fine. Horse manure is acidic, so you most likely won’t need other additives to lower your soil’s PH. Potatoes also like cow manure, but it’s not likely to change the soil’s PH.

tiny purple potato

Purple potato sprouts that grew in a shopping bag for seven months in my basement actually started growing potatoes! Despite having decided I was done with this variety, their tenacity led me to bury the long sprouts in my garden. Healthy plants have emerged and I look forward to harvesting more overly-thick-skinned small purple potatoes.

4. Potatoes don’t need soil to grow. You already know this. Who hasn’t left a few spuds in the bag so long that the spuds’ eyes popped? Amazingly, if you find a way to provide moisture, sunlight, and a bit of nutrition, those freelancing potato plants will make more potatoes. You can drop a potato on soil, cover it with six inches of loose straw or hay, water it to get things started, and it will grow into a potato-producing plant.

5. Potatoes really, really want to grow. Leave a bag of potatoes at room temperature long enough, and they’ll try to climb out of the bag! I’ve had potatoes try so hard under the most unlikely conditions that it was a bit creepy.

Seed potato chunk

This is, perhaps, one third of a seed potato. The day before I shot the photo, I had cut up my seed potatoes into chunks having two or more eyes each. The potatoes had sat out overnight to develop a protective coating over the cut faces.

6. Some potato plant diseases can survive the winter in buried potatoes. Because of this, it’s important to remove every bit of potato from your garden in the fall—and not throw any into your compost heap. It also helps to wait three years before growing potatoes or any of their kin—tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant—in the same area.

7. Long season potatoes produce more if you bury the stems. With late season potatoes, when the plants reach about 4 inches, work soil in around them, heaping it until only the top inch of each stem is above ground. Later, when the above ground stems are about 4 inches long, work soil in around them again until just the top inch of each shows. Repeat this four or five times (it’s easier to keep the soil on top of the growing potato plants if you grow the potatoes in containers), and then let the plants mature and die back before harvesting.

Harvesting red potatoes

Harvesting potatoes is a bit like an Easter egg hunt. Here I’ve moved aside the straw and spotted a small, early potato partially embedded in the thin soil. An advantage of growing in containers is that you can easily scrape through the soil and find every spec of potato.

8. You can turn one seed potato into several. The day before planting, a farmer cuts seed potatoes into pieces—each having at least two eyes. You might divide a large potato into three or four pieces which should sit for a day before planting so a “skin” forms over the cut surfaces. In my experience, you buy seed potatoes by the pound. So, when buying seed potatoes, I examine each one, and select either very small potatoes with two or more eyes, or large potatoes that it’s clear I can cut into even-sized pieces each with several eyes. Of course, if you can’t hand-select your seed potatoes, examine them before planting and cut up what you can.

9. Potato plants prefer cool weather. Plant them in early spring—perhaps a few weeks before your average last frost date. If plants emerge and get hit by frost, they may freeze off to the soil line, but they’ll quickly put up new shoots. Early potatoes do best in spring, but you can plant them in early summer—mid-to-late July—so they’re ready to harvest as autumn cold shuts down your garden. Be careful not to let the soil dry out around them; they’ll likely struggle in summer heat.

Purple potato harvest

From, perhaps, two planters each starting with four seed potato parts, I harvested enough purple potatoes to fill a large colander. This variety is delicious, but it has unpleasantly thick skin. I’m done with it. Well… I’m done with it after this summer.


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Chili Pepper Seedlings Under Lights

First chili pepper sprout of 2015

My first chili pepper sprout of the year is a sweet pepper, but I don’t know what type. Last year I collected orange bell and sweet Italian pepper seeds from my harvest and managed to store them unlabeled. I’ve two distinct packs of seeds, and planted as many from one pack as from the other. Nearly all have sprouted. I’ll find out in August which plants are which.

Just a week ago I reported on the success of my tomato starts (Tomatoes Under Lights). Two days later, my first chili pepper seedling of 2015 emerged.

You might surmise I get a special rush when my seeds start each year. I used to wait until my garden soil warmed and then I’d buy flats of seedlings at local garden stores. Year after year I’d choose from among a very limited variety of plants. Starting my own seeds changed so much.

  • I now select from among hundreds of varieties of tomatoes and peppers rather then from the dozen or so available in local garden centers.
  • I now try varieties of plants that simply aren’t available as seedlings at local stores. For example, I’ve started artichokes and cardoon this year as well as quince trees all from seeds.
  • 100 percent chili pepper germination

    I planted 16 sweet pepper seeds in this container and every one sprouted. That’s a very tolerable percentage!

  • My gardening season becomes “real” some 2 months earlier than it used to. Perusing garden catalogs from January until April used to make up my entire “pre-season.” I still peruse catalogs, but in February and March I mail-order seeds, fill planters with soil, and start plants under lights. My growing season is way longer because I get to tend seedlings
  • for a month or so before I set foot in the garden.
  • I get to enjoy near problem-free gardening leading up to spring planting. Starting seeds indoors under lights controls for nearly every problem I face in my garden: light, water, insects, disease, marauding rodents, birds… I decide how these work on my seed-starting shelf.
  • My sense of accomplishment is way bigger when I start my own seedlings indoors under lights. I marvel that a seed the size of a bread crumb under my care grows to a plant more than 10 feet tall and produces 20 to 100 lbs of food containing seeds that can start it all over again next year—perhaps several thousand times over, depending on the food.

Do you start your own seeds? Perhaps this is your year to try.


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