small kitchen garden
For years, these grew densely among the periwinkles alongside our driveway. Now there are a few clumps of Lillies of the Valley just starting to blossom. I suspect mulching with compost for two or three years would dramatically revive these plants.
I haven’t been home much in the past four months. My dad moved out of our family home and I’ve been in Ithaca making repairs and moving stuff out. I’m hoping to have the house ready to rent in June so a property manager can start showing it. All that to explain why I don’t know exactly what’s blooming in my garden.
Still, I like to participate in Garden Bloggers Bloom day, so I captured what’s abloom in my dad’s yard. Things are a lot different from when I lived here as a kid. Rhubarb is gone from the old patch and there’s no evidence of the sandbox or the tomato garden that occupied its space after we kids outgrew it.
The borders Mom planted each spring with annuals now sport evergreen shrubs. The trilliums that grew near the garage are gone, and Dad’s previously over-pampered rose bush barely peeks out from behind an evergreen hedge. English ivy, periwinkles, and lilies of the valley still grow along the driveway, but they’re beaten down. Once a lush, green display, this space clearly needs soil additives to perk up its plants.
Well… it is what it is. After 52 years, the family no longer lives here. Soon, tenants will take over, and chances are the ornamental plantings will receive attention only from the deer that often graze in the yard. I enjoyed what is abloom here, and I hope you will, too.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t know when I was a kid that this was a periwinkle. I certainly didn’t know it was a periwinkle when I photographed it this morning. I used to harvest these flowers to make little gift vases for my mom.
My dad went on today about how the lilacs are nicer this year than they’ve been in years. Our lone lilac tree has looked sketchy to me since I was five years old—and that hasn’t changed… but the blossoms are gorgeous.
There’s a good chance these flowers will be sour cherries in early July. Dad planted the sour cherry tree long after I moved out, and he has enjoyed many harvests from it. I planted a sour cherry tree about five years ago and it’s still deciding when it’s going to produce its first harvest.
Until this morning, here’s what I knew about woodruff: May Wine is a sweetened white wine, usually low quality. Some people serve it in May and add woodruff, a traditional seasoning. Not much context. Who serves May Wine? Whose traditions? I think it’s a German thing, and I’ve enjoyed my share of May Wine over the years. This morning, for the first time ever, I learned to recognize woodruff. It’s pretty but beware. My dad tells me it grows enthusiastically and will take over a planting bed or yard if you give it the chance.
That’s a hanging lamp in the living room of my dad’s house. It hangs above my lettuce seedlings which sit on a stack of boxes. The tray extends beyond the edges of the lamp shade so I move them from side-to-side periodically. Heliotropism makes the seedlings bend to-and-fro to track the light bulb; they’re getting a lot of exercise.
We’re all gardeners here, so I’m comfortable confessing that a seasonal urge has overtaken me: I need to start seeds for my vegetable garden. Unfortunately, I’m spending about two days in three out of town. My dad has moved from our family home, and I’m helping him get settled in his new apartment while I’m preparing the house to rent. But the seasons march along, and if I’m going to have lettuce at the front of the parade, I need to have lettuce seedlings in lock step by late March.
To satisfy my seasonal urge, I’m exploiting some cosmic truths:
- Seeds want to sprout
- Sprouts want to grow up and make seeds
- Seeds don’t much care where they are when they do that sprouting thing
Seed-Starting on the Road
I was fortunate, before I came to Ithaca, to receive an assortment of Fertilpots from a friend who imports them for US distribution. A French company manufactures Fertilpots primarily from trees—a renewable material—using only a small peat moss component. While roots in a 100% peat pot turn back on themselves and ball up, roots grow unimpeded through the walls of Fertilpots. I used Fertilpots last season and found they live up to the promise: meaty, healthy roots emerged all down the sides of the pots as my vegetable seedlings grew strong.
I had a second good fortune on this trip: I attended a workshop on February 23rd at which attendees received free samples of products from various sponsoring gardening supply companies. Among the samples I received were two envelopes of lettuce seeds—a red oak leaf lettuce, and a red romaine lettuce from a company called Sustainable Seed Company. As February ended, I succumbed to my urge.
I bought a plastic seed-starting tray and a bag of seed-starting soil. I filled one flat of Fertilpots with soil and set half the pots with the oak leaf seeds and half with romaine seeds. The remaining challenge: light.
Seed-Starting Without a Shelf
At home, I run two four-foot fluorescent light fixtures side-by-side and set seed-starting planters three inches below the tubes. That keeps the plants from reaching for the light and developing weak, thin stems. What to do on the road?
Two lettuce sprouts in one Fertilpot looked pretty good on the day they emerged. A few seeds didn’t sprout, so I’m replanting those pots. In all, I hope to have 18 healthy plants for the garden in late March. That should satisfy our salad craving as I direct-sow seeds to start a second crop of lettuce plants.
I stacked boxes on furniture to get my seed tray really close to a hanging light. The light has a three-way bulb whose top output is 150 watts. I’d like to get the seeds closer to the light but the lampshade interferes. Besides, having an incandescent bulb, the fixture puts out way more heat than my fluorescents do back home and I don’t want to cook my plants.
My lettuce seedlings might grow more spindly than I’d like, but they’re growing. When I visit my family later this week, I’ll set up my fluorescent lights over the tray and leave the plants in my wife’s care. If she moistens the soil periodically, I’ll have viable seedlings for the garden at the end of the month.
No, this isn’t how I wanted to start the vegetable growing season. I’d like to be home to prune my fruit trees and do some grafting. I need to be home to do large-scale seed-starting for broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, and peppers. Goodness, I need to be home at the end of March to prepare and plant the garden. But right now, given the circumstance, starting a flat of lettuce seeds was all I could manage… because it was easy!
Want lettuce? You can grow that.
Learn about You Can Grow That and find other participating blogs at the movement’s website: You Can Grow That!
My dad’s love for gardening grew in his parents’ yard. This photo from 1955 shows his mother’s garden—there are onions among the flowers. The corner of a structure appears along the left edge of the photo. Before I was born, that structure came down and my grandmother had moved her garden within the structure’s foundation.
I used to sit at the kitchen table long after my family had finished dinner and left the room. This was because of my parents’ edict: eat at least two spoons full of each item served before being excused. I detested certain foods mom prepared repeatedly: tomatoes, mushrooms, olives, and fish topped the list. Thankfully, she didn’t prepare these every night, so I sat alone only occasionally.
Each time I fell victim to my parents’ edict, my hatred for the food in question increased: here, tonight, not only didn’t I like the flavor and/or texture of this horrid crud, but I was being punished for my dislike and so I resented the crud. On those nights that my mother set a bowl of stewed tomatoes on the table, I felt despair through the entire meal knowing that eventually I’d have to choke down two spoons full of that soupy, soggy, tangy muck.
Not much of a photo, but you can see my dad’s tomato patch over the family dog’s left shoulder. That tomato patch was our sandbox until I was seven or eight—I was 12 when I shot the photo.
Folly of Forcing Food
My parents’ edict didn’t lead me to love these foods. Rather, it strengthened my dislikes and added a plank to my own parenting platform: I would never force a child to eat something the child claimed to dislike. Except for antibiotics; when a kid had strep, antibiotics were going down despite the 20 minute tantrums.
And what of my hatred of tomatoes? My brothers and I outgrew our sandbox; that’s what my dad seemed to think. He removed the “box,” moved much of the compost heap from behind the garage, and stirred the compost into the sand. Then he planted tomato seedlings.
Perhaps the first produce I ever ate IN a garden, peas directly from the pod to my mouth tasted awesome.
Our neighbor also planted a vegetable garden. One day, I was chatting with that neighbor and he shared peas fresh from the pod. I’d never eaten raw peas, but I didn’t want to be rude so I tried them. Oh, my, they were good! But that crazy neighbor demonstrated the most amazing thing: he picked some pea pods that weren’t yet fattening up, and he ate some! When he offered one to me, I tried it and liked it.
Later that season, my neighbor’s garden produced ripe tomatoes and he cut one up to share with me. To a finicky, emotionally challenged eight-year-old, that tomato tasted good. Clearly, the tomato was no different from my dad’s homegrown fruits, but I liked only the neighbor’s produce.
Finding the Farmer Inside
My parents bought farmland when I was eleven, and my mom developed a kitchen garden there. She did the lion’s share of work, but over the years I shoveled tons of horse manure, stretched and weighted down black plastic mulch, carried water from the stream, and pulled weeds. By the time I moved away, I’d stored somewhere in my brain the certainty that homegrown food matters.
When I was young, I’d willingly eat tomatoes only as ketchup or pasta and pizza sauces. Now I can’t get enough of this tomato and mozzarella salad, made with homegrown tomatoes, onions, and garden-fresh basil.
Fully 10 years passed before I started a garden. I’d succeeded as a writer, married, and was a father to two boys when my wife and I bought a house in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. A job I landed as we moved into the house took me away for 18 months. But on a visit home in that first spring, I set tomato seedlings in the one raised bed left by the previous owner.
I wasn’t around to care for the plants, but leaving the bed fallow would not have sat right. We probably harvested a few meager tomatoes. It was enough to inform me the soil was poor so I ordered up a dump truck of mushroom soil to smother the planting bed for the following season.
My love for tending and cooking what grows in my yard increases each time I serve dishes featuring produce just hours or minutes after harvest. The love also grows when I empty jars of home-canned fruits and vegetables. It grows when I season a meal with home-dried herbs or when I add home-dried fruits to baked goods and salads. My love grows when I toss home-frozen veggies into boiling water to serve as a side and when I bake a home-frozen fruit pie to serve in winter when no locally-grown fresh fruit is available to make a pie.
Grow Love for Real Food
Grow some love. Don’t force your kids to eat. Involve them with food; real food. Start seeds, till, transplant, tend, harvest, snack, cook, preserve, eat! Immerse your kids in your own love for real food, and you might just grow some love in them. I imagine it’s very satisfying when you discover your grown children are planting gardens of their own. My dad is obviously pleased about my gardening. He knows it’s love. You can grow that.
Learn about You Can Grow That and find other participating blogs at the movement’s website: You Can Grow That!
Learn how to receive free seeds to grow some of the vegetables that I’ll be growing in my garden this spring: You Can Grow from Seed!
My climbing beans reached the tops of the trellises and kept growing. Eventually, there were huge knots of bean plant at the tops of my trellises. When frost finally killed the plant, I found dried bean pods that I was counting on to provide new seeds for next year’s garden.
This past growing season, my climbing beans far exceeded the carrying capacity of the trellises I provided for them. When they reached the tops of the trellises, the vines turned back on themselves and formed a knot of foliage that concealed at least a meal’s worth of beans. Perhaps your bean plants did something similar.
I knew the beans were there, and left them deliberately. My thinking was to leave them alone until they finished growing, the plants died, and the bean pods dried up. I’d then harvest the dried pods and find bean seeds to plant next season, and that’s what I did.
A single dried bean contained eight bean seeds. A few days after harvesting these, I planted one in a container and kept it moist until it sprouted. It’s important to test the seeds you collect. If they won’t germinate, finding out early gives you time to order replacements.
If you haven’t yet tidied your garden, you also may have seeds available to harvest. Dried, dead vegetables that look only good enough for the compost heap may be worth examining. Peel open some shriveled beans, sift through a frozen tomato or chili pepper carcass, or crush a seed pod from beneath the floret of a broccoli plant, and you might gather enough seeds to start next year’s plants.
I love extending my garden this way and there’s a possible benefit from gathering your own seeds year-after-year: Seeds that grow in your garden come from plants that have done well there. Each successive generation may adapt slightly better to your garden—perhaps imperceptibly—until they become ideally suited. You may even accidentally breed a new variety of your favorite vegetable.
Do you still have dead vegetables in your garden? Go collect some seeds.
It’s autumn. Please enjoy this slideshow of photos from the heart of Pennsylvania farm country during leaf-peeping season:
The moment I was out the door of the airport terminal it was clear Arizona flora differs from that of Pennsylvania. This is the median across from the platform where I caught my ride to the hotel.
As a member of the Garden Writers Association, I was fortunate to have attended this year’s annual symposium in Tucson, Arizona. The trip was a terrific break from central Pennsylvania. Being used to lush, green farmland, I was excited to visit a city in the desert.
A day at the symposium includes the option to attend as many as three seminars from a selection of nine, and to tour area gardens. There might also be social events such as dancing or karaoke, and there’s unscheduled time when attendees can get together for meals, drinks, and conversation.
A great perk of attending is that garden industry businesses set up booths on a show floor where attendees can see new garden products and talk with people who are experts about them. Better still: many of those “vendors” pack free samples, and attendees can take home the latest plants, tools, pest repellents, soils, and fertilizers.
Scenes from Tucson
This post is to share scenes from my trip to the Symposium. I’ll try to follow up soon with a roundup of the products I saw on the show floor.
The front desk clerk at the hotel sent me outside to find my room; something I thought only happened at budget hotels. Then again, the hallway to my room at a luxury hotel had never before looked like this one.
I might have exaggerated to call the path in the previous photo the hotel’s “hallway.” I had to cross a bridge over ornamental plantings to reach this balcony that provided access to my room. At certain times of day (and night), the light and shadows begged to be photographed.
From a balcony overlooking the swimming area, I looked across at building D – the one that held my room for the weekend. What we call mountains in Pennsylvania would be foothills to Arizona mountains.
It’s hard to do the hotel’s pool area justice with a single photograph. At night, there were fire rings, poolside service, Jacuzzi activity, and even a swimmer or two. I particularly enjoyed the desert plants distributed along the poolside paths.
Thankfully, cacti in the swimming areas attracted light fixtures so it was unlikely people would skewer toes on cactus spines.
The first stop of the one tour I was able to enjoy was at Native Seeds SEARCH, a seed bank in Tucson. I loved seeing food crops planted among a boulder field, and other plantings on desert land with a simple drip irrigation system. I’d never seen sorghum plants and was impressed at how much they look like corn. Click this link to find more about the Native Seeds SEARCH visit.
Our tour visited a private residence surrounded by the owner’s work of love. This was a garden begging us to settle into lawn chairs and watch the plants grow.
The tour I enjoyed ended at the Benedictine Sisters Monastery, a classic building with a generous garden. My favorite components of the garden were a vegetable patch mulched with carpeting and an orange grove in the shadow of towering palms.
Here’s one of the towering palms at the Benedictine Sisters Monastery. Finches were flitting among the orange fruits which I can only guess might have been dates.
From Tucson to Newark, NJ by plane involved a lengthy stopover in Los Angeles and a flight path over Chicago. This was the view as we passed over the east side of the city.
After a few years of growth in the corner of my small kitchen garden, an oregano seedling had expanded into a six-foot diameter circle that I had to cut back each season in favor of planting annual vegetables.
More and more of us want to grow food, but for many, the idea is a bit intimidating. Just to get started you may need to prepare space in your yard or acquire containers for your deck or patio. Then there’s the question of what to grow? Starting with a finicky, hard-to-grow plant might lead to discouragement.
How about oregano? Sure, you’re not likely to make a meal out of this pungent herb, but you could use it to flavor all kinds of foods. And, for someone just starting out, there are few plants as certain to succeed as this one.
Without cover, oregano will survive winter down to hardiness zone 5. While you can start it from seeds, you’ll almost guarantee success if you buy oregano seedlings from a nursery or garden center.
Biblical rains in 2011 drowned many of my annual vegetables along with the rhubarb and the oregano. It was saddening to see the entire herb patch wither into soggy twigs.
You might discover that oregano grows quickly and spreads aggressively. To give you some idea, take a look at the first photo in this post. It features a large green blob that covers a six-foot diameter space in the corner of my kitchen garden. That blob started as an oregano seedling I bought through a school fundraising event. Four or five years passed from when I planted the seedling to when I created the photo, and I cut the oregano back several times in that time span.
Last year it rained in central Pennsylvania. I’m talking about rain of near biblical proportions. There was standing water in my garden for weeks, and it was a struggle to get annuals such as tomatoes, squash, corn, and beans to produce. All my rhubarb plants drown, and by winter all that remained of that big blob of oregano was a tangle of brown, soggy twigs.
From the rotting twigs of my dead oregano monster, this lone branch sprouted leaves in the spring of 2012. I transplanted it into the new herb bed I’d created at the end of 2011.
Still, this spring, leaves emerged from one of the dead-looking oregano branches. Wanting to add soil so flooding would be less likely in future wet seasons, I dug up that leafy sprig of oregano, held it for a few months in a nursery pot, and then planted it in a newly-prepared herb garden. To help the oregano behave, I set it inside of a root barrier (I’ve come to respect its enthusiasm to conquer).
As the photos show, in just three months the herb has nearly filled its confinement ring. I’ve harvested repeated through those months to flavor tomato sauces and meat marinades.
Do I think oregano is a great choice for someone starting their first kitchen garden? Yeah. You can grow that!
After three months, my oregano survivor spread throughout the root-containment ring in which I planted it.
Here’s why oregano is so capable of subjugating whole patches of a garden. The sprig in the photo was headed toward a sauce pan when I noticed roots emerging from the main stem. The sprig had not been in contact with soil but obviously it wanted to be. You can grow that!
Find more posts celebrating what you can grow at You Can Grow That!
The border of Lewisburg’s community garden features a variety of sunflowers, and this blossom caught my eye back in early summer.
None of the sunflowers in this post grow in my small kitchen garden. Sunflowers used to grow there; my kids loved to plant them and marvel at how tall the plants became. Now those same much older children barely give the garden a thought unless they’re looking for their old man and he’s not in the house.
I’ve always enjoyed sunflowers – even grew them myself before I realized I’d never use them for cooking or snacking. I get a little thrill each spring when I identify which field on my way to the local Mennonite grocery store has sunflowers growing in it.
As soon as the large buds start to open, I include roadside photo sessions in my shopping trips. I’ve yet to capture the quintessential sunflower photo, but I enjoy trying.
While shooting sunflowers, I often muse about where these cheery plants will end up. Are they bound to birdseed packagers? Will they be snacks for humans? Are they next year’s seeds for sunflower farmers all over the US?
The notion that a sunflower turns to face the moving sun is silly — at least from what happens in my favorite sunflower field. Every year, these blossoms open facing the morning sun. They continue facing east (and a bit south) throughout each day and they finish the season with their petal-less heads drooping but still facing east.
The face of a sunflower changes over the course of several weeks. These are at a stage where, within the bowl of the large flower, each developing seed has its own tiny flower. At least for a while, that makes the face of the sunflower yellow.
Bean blossoms look far too complicated; I’m glad bees can figure them out. The green bush beans I planted this year have pink blossoms; a nice change from the white bean blossoms of past years. In the bottom-right of the photo, you can see a bean starting to develop.
Garden Bloggers Bloom Day originates from Carol Michel’s blog, May Dreams Gardens. She wants to see blossoms all year long, and the garden blogging community rallies: post blossoms on your blog, then link to it from her blog. It’s simple, and it helps other people find your blog!
Please enjoy my Bloom Day post. Then, come back on the 22nd and participate in Post Produce. Just as Carol does, I’ll write my Post Produce post and include a Linky widget before I go to bed on the 21st. On the 22nd, you write your own post about what you’re eating from your garden, then link to your post from Your Small Kitchen Garden. I hope you’ll join me on August 22nd and Post Produce.
Here’s what’s abloom in my garden today:
If it’s Bloom Day and tomatoes are in bloom, you’re going to find at least one tomato blossom in my post! This photo is more about hairy stems than it is about blossoms. I’ve harvested about a bushel of tomatoes so far. Barring a late blight incident, I may see three or four bushels from my plants this year.
My thyme plants are struggling a bit this year. One has some seriously involved fungus that I’ve treated a few times with the copper-based fungicide I use on my tomato plants. Amazingly, the stems of that plant touch the stems of a perfectly healthy-looking thyme plant. Too much information? This flower stalk is from the healthy thyme plant.
The mint has been in bloom for weeks. It has overwhelmed the planter holding it, and blossoms hang over the sides. I fear an impending mint invasion and will be vigilant for plants that decide to germinate next to the planter.
Bush cucumber plants I set in a deck planter have grown vines as long and tendrilly as the non-bush cucumbers I planted in my garden. Cucumber blossoms look happy against the deck flooring.
For flower drama in a vegetable garden, you can always count on squashes! This is a butternut blossom, and it clearly understands flower sex. For this photo, it attracted four pollinators, though the reliable pollinator was holding the camera. Despite all the bee activity among my summer and winter squash blossoms, I hand-pollinate every female flower. The bees didn’t budge when I brushed this female flower’s “parts” with a male flower’s “part.”
Shooting obliquely through a window at dusk and zoomed to the max, I captured some poor-quality photos of this cardinal after it plucked a hornworm from my tomato plants. While the image is sketchy, there’s no mistaking the shape and color of the delicacy in the cardinal’s beak.
Birds seem to love my small kitchen garden, so I’m rarely surprised to see some flitting about when I glance out the window. Sometimes I look up while working in the vegetable bed and there’s a catbird or goldfinch poking about within 15 feet of me.
This year, for the first time, I noticed a cardinal showing great interest in my plantings. Oddly, during dinner one evening, a cardinal alighted in our lilac bush and then made its way cautiously onto our deck. There, about eight feet from our dinner table, it snooped around the tomato plants growing in a deck planter. What, I wondered, was so alluring about my tomato plants?
The Cardinal Scores a Hornworm
The next evening, near dusk, I glanced out at the garden and saw the cardinal on the fence near my tomato forest. The cardinal hopped onto the plants out of sight and I watched as the leaves and trellis trembled until the cardinal emerged and landed back on the fence.
The cardinal had something in its beak! What did it grab from my tomato plants? I needed a binocular to answer the question: The cardinal had scored a tomato hornworm! (A link in a tweet from @wormsway since has demonstrated that this was a tobacco hornworm, not a tomato hornworm.) I hadn’t yet spotted any hornworm damage on my tomato plants, but there was the cardinal chowing down.
What an awesome sight! I had no idea cardinals eat hornworms much less that they know to hunt among tomato plants. Goodness, hornworms grow so large, I’d think they could choke a chicken … and a cardinal’s throat must be much smaller than that of a chicken. Hornworms are hard to spot, and you’re not likely to find one until there is tell-tale damage to your plants. I’m so glad to know that at least one cardinal has assumed ownership of hornworms on my tomato plants.
Hornworms on Peppers
The day after the cardinal snagged a hornworm, I noticed one of my sweet pepper plants looked ragged. Rain was falling, and I wanted out of the rain, so yet another day passed before I could examine the plant. The photos tell the story and give you a pretty good idea of why you might want a hornworm-eating cardinal to hang out in your small kitchen garden.
I noticed that a huge amount of one of my lilac bell pepper plants was missing; clearly the work of a creature that chews on leaves.
I was suspicious that perhaps a hornworm was involved with my pepper plant; after all, peppers are in the same plant family as tomatoes. Then I saw that someone had eaten a large chunk of one of the peppers! I’d never known a hornworm to eat a tomato; would a hornworm eat a pepper?
Then I saw the poop pineapples. These are unmistakably output from a tomato hornworm. I promise, if you grow tomatoes insecticide-free for enough years, you will come to recognize hornworm poop. Where oh where was the hornworm? (A tweet I spotted after posting this story pointed out how similar tomato hornworms are to tobacco hornworms. It turns out, this particular hornworm is a tobacco hornworm – apparently, both like plants related to tomatoes.)
Knowledge I gained in the past week: It’s a lot easier to spot a hornworm on a pepper plant than it is to spot one on a tomato plant. First, my pepper plants are way smaller than my tomato plants. Second, a hornworm had converted at least a third of this particular pepper plant into hornworm poop so there wasn’t a lot to examine. I got down low, bent a few leaves this way and that, and there was the culprit!
My very well fed tomato hornworm (actually a tobacco hornworm) was longer and fatter than my index finger. I must have turned a blind eye for my pepper plant to host such a “worm” from cradle to monster (a hornworm isn’t a worm; it’s the caterpillar phase of a hummingbird moth). Woe to the cardinal that tries to gulp down something as big as this. Still, perhaps if I can explain to the cardinal that peppers and tomatoes are in the same plant family, the cardinal will keep my whole garden clear of hornworms.