My big garden project last spring included installing a bed of black raspberry plants. Rabbits ate about 1/3 of the plants last autumn—but just what was above ground. The roots are strong and new canes have emerged. Unfortunately, black raspberries produce fruit on canes that emerged in the previous season, so I won’t get a huge harvest this year. On the other hand, the harvest has begun! Immediately after capturing this photo, I ate the two darkest berries you see in it.
In January of this year, I learned I had pancreatic cancer. The tumor was removable, and I had an operation called a Whipple. A surgeon cut out the tumor, part of my pancreas, and my gall bladder, and re-routed my digestive tract, introducing challenges to eating.
With help from my wife, my kids, and friends, I’ve continued to garden, and things are in pretty good shape. However, just over three weeks ago I learned that my cancer has returned and spread. It’s incurable and I’m on a chemotherapy regimen I hope will buy enough time for our medical complex to come up with an effective way to keep the cancer in check—or maybe even cure it.
In the meantime, I’m gardening. Where many activities challenge my stamina or my ability to focus or both, when I’m in the garden I tend to keep working even if it means collapsing on the soil for a break or crawling from place-to-place to reduce the number of transitions from up to down and back.
I’ve chosen photos that show what’s up in my garden as summer gets started—nothing from the community garden; these are all growing at the Cityslipper Ranch. Captions fill in details. I hope your garden is doing well. I’m excited for what’s growing here, and I’d love to hear about what’s growing in your garden. Please leave a comment with details if you’re so inclined. Thanks for visiting!
We have at least nine blueberry plants in our yard, and they’ve been beat up by rodents every winter for years. I finally got adequate protection around them, and this year the plants show promise of developing into actual blueberry bushes. At best, we’ll score a few hundred berries; these are the first. I was chewing on them seconds after I snapped the photo: so sweet and delicious.
At some garden center last summer I found a potted cinquefoil in the “oops, we forgot to water it” bin. I think I paid a dollar and I set the plant in a decorative bed next to raspberries I’d planted with my wife in mind (she loves raspberries on her morning cereal). I had no idea cinquefoil produces blooms—though why wouldn’t it? The plant shows vitality, and the first blossom it produced is gorgeous.
Those raspberries I planted for my wife? Here are the first to ripen… but Stacy beware! It’s not icing on that raspberry. A bird managed a direct hit. The raspberry plants are growing strong, and next year’s harvest should be impressive. This year’s should be about right for many weeks of cereal bowl berries and they’ve started ripening at the right time: Stacy has been traveling in the Philippines for three weeks and arrives home this weekend.
This is the third season for my fig trees. Their first winter was amazingly cold and I hadn’t gotten the trees under cover before they froze back to the soil line. They rebounded last year and tried to make figs—which all froze before they were ripe enough to harvest. This winter, I got the plants under cover early but made a silly mistake: The tent I made to prevent freezing also kept moisture from reaching the soil. My fig trees dried out… but not as badly as they’d frozen two winters ago. They’re putting out a lot of new growth, some of it from last year’s growth more than a foot above the soil line. I doubt there will be figs to harvest this season, but perhaps with one more winter under cover (and properly watered), these fig trees will have a fighting chance to produce fruit.
Two summers ago, I found a beat down Fredonia grape plant priced very low at a local garden center. I failed to plant the vine, and it languished through winter and looked dead when the snow melted. Last year, near the first day of summer, I noticed growth on that beleaguered grape vine. I planted it at the end of my black raspberry bed and it grew strong. This spring, it erupted with new growth and it holds many small bunches of young grapes. If things go well, there may be a few pounds of Concord-like grapes to harvest in September. This spring, my wife and I planted four additional grape vines next to the black raspberries: Riesling, Zinfandel, Pinot Gris, and Cabernet Sauvignon, all grafted onto American grape root stock. Perhaps by summer’s end I’ll have erected a trellis to hold the vines as they mature in future seasons.
My wife prepared the soil, and I planted three 13 foot long double-rows of peas at the beginning of April. My wife erected the trellises with some difficulty and it’s hard to tell whether the trellises are holding up the pea plants or the pea plants are holding up the trellises. More troubling: a rabbit came and went as it pleased and ate at least half a row of pea plants before I repaired the fence enough to slow it down (it has since given birth to three rabbit puppies inside the well-fenced planting bed… go figure). Despite the problems, the pea plants are at full height—they’ve grown three feet above the tops of the four-foot-tall trellises and fallen back—and they’re producing well. I made a vat of new potatoes and peas a few days ago and we’ve eaten through it, and I froze about 3 quarts of peas yesterday. Tomorrow I expect to harvest about a half gallon of pea pods which should be enough to make another vat of new potatoes and peas. (Here’s how I make this iconic Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy: New Potatoes and Peas)
I planted climbing beans two weekends ago, and many have sprouted. I’ll fill the empty places with more seeds this weekend. “Pole Filet Beans French Gold” from Renee’s Garden, are my favorite of all bean varieties—a tender, tasty wax bean that you don’t have to bend over to harvest.
I told the story of my dad’s sundrops in a post titled A Patch of Sundrops. I’d collected several plants from his garden and left them in a bucket for more than TWO MONTHS! Finally, I planted them three weeks ago—a day or two after my wife left on her Philippines trip. The plants showed no sign of transplant shock and have already flowered… the photo shows the first blossom about four days ago. I trust rhizomes are already spreading underground and there will be a dense patch of these pretty yellow flowers under the apple trees within two years.
This one’s not at the community garden. My wife did some prep in the home garden, and I planted three double rows of peas. She erected trellises, and we’ve had at least two rabbit incursions, but still there are pea plants—and they’re just covered in blossoms.
My blog has told very little of the story of my first season growing food at a community garden. To summarize: I wrote an article for the local paper about area community gardens in early spring of 2015. I rented a plot in one of those gardens—a 30’ by 30’ plot among about 100 plots.
The plot was barely more developed than a patch of meadow with a rabbit fence around it. I hauled an enormous amount of mediocre compost to the plot, laid down sheet mulch (newspapers) and held it in place with the compost. I dug as little as I could, and put in an onion patch, a 25’ double row of peas, two hills of zucchini, two hills of neck pumpkins, 60 or more tomato plants, a dozen or so sweet pepper plants, and the largest potato patch I’ve ever planted.
The community garden was 30 minutes away and I tried to manage it with weekly visits. I worked hard and got a decent harvest, and I’d planned to work it again this year. My pancreas said “No.”
The Whipple—the operation intended to remove a pancreatic tumor—is major surgery, and common problems in the first year include ripping apart your re-routed intestinal tract by over-exerting. Moving a single wheelbarrow of compost to my plot at the community garden could land me back in an operating room.
I had to give up the community garden.
Gardening close to home
Also at home, my garden sage is flowering. There’s a song Burl Ives used to sing that includes the lines, “I long to be in Texas, When the bloom is on the sage.” This isn’t the sage about which he sang, but it comes to mind.
I had learned last spring that the Union County Community Garden is only five minutes from my home. A few things distinguish it:
1. There is no charge to have a plot at this garden
2. The county uses the community garden in its work-release program. Meaning: people who have been convicted of minor crimes and sentenced to community service can help out at the garden to work down their debt to society.
3. If you’re physically challenged to work your plot, the county may assign someone on work-release to help you.
4. The county prepares your plot for you. They apply composted manure, plow the manure into the soil, wait a few days, and plow again. They leave a plot raked relatively smooth.
5. A plot at this garden is 10’ by 20’ and you can have two of them.
If I was going to work in a community garden post-Whipple, this was the one!
Photos show my progress… with a few shots from my yard as well. I hope your gardens are in good shape this year.
I posted this photo earlier on Facebook. It shows ripening black raspberries in the patch I planted last spring. Sadly, about 1/3 of the plants got seriously chewed by a wild animal—probably a rabbit or three—but there may still be enough berries this year for a batch of black raspberry jelly which is by far my favorite jelly variety.
Poppies are back in my small kitchen garden! I sowed poppy seeds in our yard year-after-year without success until, finally, a few plants emerged and matured. These came back for several years and formed an ever-enlarging clump that I blogged about once or twice. Then, one fateful day, an unfortunate lawn mowing incident ended those poppies. I’ve tried for years since to get more poppies established, and this most recent effort involves seedlings I bought in Ithaca and planted near the “rain garden” two years ago. I thought the plants died in that first year, but they sprouted last year, looked miserable for a month, and then died back without flowering. This year, they sprouted again, looked slightly less miserable, and between the two of them produced a single flower stalk. It was a gorgeous bloom with purplish reproductive parts—not the classic poppies of my earlier success. It lasted two days. I got two plants to start from seeds under lights this spring, and I’ll soon set them out in the same area.
The first items I planted at the community garden were onion sets, potatoes, and zucchinis. Later, I set pepper seedlings which you can see in the top-right corner of the photo. Things have come through transplant shock in fine shape and the garden is looking good.
I set 70 tomato plants in one 10’ x 20’ plot—well, six are actually tomatillos. 7 of the plants are Romas and I put cages around them. The rest are indeterminate varieties—all heirlooms. These I’m managing on hanging string trellises with aggressive pruning; I’m plucking all suckers. I’ve set plants a foot apart in double rows that are also about a foot apart. In just three weeks many plants are already tall enough to need support. I’ve written a few posts about how I manage tomatoes. Here’s an overview that includes links to further articles: Tomato Plant Maintenance in my Small Kitchen Garden
Here’s one of my crazy projects for the year: I’m growing sorghum. It looks a bit like corn or even more like weed grasses I usually pull from around my actual vegetable plants. I bought a small envelope of seed hoping to get a modest stand from which to harvest sap. Getting the sap is a challenge: you’re supposed to run sorghum stalks through a mill that crushes them paper thin. You then cook the sap into syrup—a lot like making maple syrup. For want of a press, I may take a hammer to the stalks and then boil them in a small amount of water, eventually straining out the solids and cooking down the liquid. I’ve read that sorghum produces copious seeds, so I may collect some for the kitchen and more to plant next year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Framed against a dirty, south-facing basement window that will soon be blocked by the foliage of outdoor plants, these kalanchoe blossoms exist against all odds. The kalanchoe plants blossom nearly continuously despite receiving little sunlight and sporadic, meager watering.
At least three years ago, I picked up two kalanchoe plants from a vendor who gives away inventory at the end of the spring flower season. Kalanchoe is a succulent that, sadly, isn’t cold-hardy. As a houseplant, however, kalanchoe is indestructible.
In mid spring, I’m pushing hard to get the vegetable garden planted, so I had no time to deal with the kalanchoe. I set it on the only south-facing windowsill in the basement and got on with the gardening.
Actually, the flower pots holding the kalanchoe plants were quite small. I’d add just a little water and it would flow through the soil and out the bottoms of the pots. This was messy, so I considered options for capturing the overflow. Turns out, there was a windowsill planter “lying fallow” near the south-facing window. It was full of soil but without plants growing in it.
While these look like neglected plants, they’ve experience neglect that would kill a huge number of houseplants. Water runs straight through those tiny flower pots and the soil dries out in a day or two. Still, the plants remain green and in bloom even after three months without watering.
For expediency, I moved the windowsill planter to the south-facing windowsill and set the kalanchoe plants in it. And there they sat.
And there they sit.
My kalanchoe today
Here, years after I acquired them, my kalanchoe plants remain in their original pots. I water them, perhaps, 20 times a year… but not at regular intervals. There have been several three-month periods in which the plants got no attention. The soil has gone dry, light from the window has gone dim (when plants outside the window leaf up in spring, less sunlight comes through the glass), and I’ve added no nutrition by way of plant food or compost.
I picked up this pink-flowered kalanchoe at a bargain price and will plant it between my two white-flowered plants in the windowsill planter that has served for several years to capture excess water. With a bit of attention, these hard-to-kill plants should become a nice accent in my nascent houseplantscape.
Through most of the year, there are flowers on those kalanchoe plants. What’s more, the leaves are always green; they don’t shrivel, they don’t dry out, and they don’t fall off. Oh! And the plants continue to grow larger (if not attractively).
The point: I’ve neglected these plants like no plant I’ve ever owned, and they continue to grow and flower. Imagine how amazing they’d look if I actually took care of them. Actually, that’s the plan. They’ve performed so well, I’m finally going to reward them by moving them into the windowsill planter where they’ll have fresh soil and room to spread. I even bought a contrasting pink-flowering kalanchoe to set between them.
Want a nearly indestructible houseplant that responds to neglect by thriving and flowering against all odds? Try kalanchoe. You can grow that.
The first blossom in my garden this year was a hellebore. Of four varieties, one was in bloom in December and held its blossoms through January. The hellebore in this photo opened as the crocuses faded in March and has turned from nearly white to this green-pink look over the course of six weeks.
Garden Bloggers Bloom Day celebrates flowers. The brainchild of Carol Michel, this blogging event has gone on since February of 2007 more than a year before I started blogging.
The idea of Bloom Day is for bloggers to share photos of what’s abloom in their gardens. Discounting weed flowers, there’s less happening in my garden than is typical for April. Extreme cold after flowering started reduced bunches of blooms to florist rejects.
Feeling particularly abused by a cold virus on top of my chemotherapy (which riles up the post-Whipple intestinal tract), I managed to drag myself around the yard and capture a few decent photos. Not much to offer, but it’s a start.
A new plant in our garden in 2015, candytuft surprised us when it was one of the earliest bloomers this spring. It continues to produce new buds and blossoms and may still be in bloom when nearby dianthus and foxgloves start their flower shows.
Another early bloomer, blue snowdrops are nearly done. These got into the garden 2 years ago when I spotted some growing out of a dirt heap someone had moved from their yard to a public walkway. I was able to dig up one bulb which I set along the east side of the house. In two seasons, it has multiplied into, perhaps, 8 plants, so I’ve great hope it will spread widely through the planting bed in another six-to-ten years.
The primroses have been in bloom for about three weeks. These have been in the garden for several years, and showed promise of spreading aggressively. However, as much as the plants seem to expand during the summer, by spring they look no bigger than on the day I planted them.
I set several violas in a new planting bed in late summer. Thankfully, they had time to get settled and they surprised me with an early display this spring. I love the golden glow at the center of the blossoms and would love to see the planting bed develop a carpet of these striking flowers.
Daffodils got beat up this year; they had just put up flower stalks when the temperature plunged from about 60F degrees down to 22F degrees. A few nights of punishing cold made many of the flowers droop—or simply fall over. A few stragglers have bloomed since the cold spell ended, but they’re disappointing compared to daffodils in more forgiving years.
Hyacinths have suffered along with the daffodils. Cold made the flowers droop. Even without that, the spikes are generally “loose” with fewer flowers and wide gaps between them.
I’m so glad to be able to show a food photo on April’s Bloom Day. The peach trees have been in bloom for a few days, though many blossoms look abused and many others haven’t yet opened. With luck, enough buds were tight during the cold snap that they’ll still be able to produce fruit.
A surprise entry for 2016: cranberry blossoms! I received four cranberry plants in the mail and am nursing them along on the dining room table until the temperature rises a bit. Had the plants arrived dormant, I’d already have planted them in the garden. Unfortunately, they arrived awake and ready for action, and I don’t want to chance freezing the new growth by setting them out too early.
A lot of what’s in my dad’s garden was there when he moved into his apartment. There’s a boxwood on each side of his entrance walk and an impressive assortment of hostas for such a small space. At first, there might have been a Sundrop or two. Three years later, when I captured this photo, there was a jungle of Sundrops.
I’m still learning to want to grow ornamental plants. For me, gardening has always been about food. Touring show gardens, writing about gardening, and having many friends who are geniuses at landscape architecture and garden design has awakened in me a desire to have a pretty yard. Last summer a planting bed at my dad’s apartment reinforced that desire.
In very early summer, my dad’s garden sported a dense cloud of yellow: Flowers that glowed in the sunlight on 12-to-18-inch stalks. It was one of the most striking features I’d seen in any private garden, and I’ve visited a lot of stunning private gardens.
My Sundrop Awakening
I asked my dad if he knew what plant produced these arresting flowers and, happily, he did! “Sundrops,” he said.
I snapped a few photos and moved along but Sundrops were now in my mental catalog of plants to consider for my own yard. I hadn’t yet tracked down a nursery or garden center that sold Sundrops when this spring I once again visited my dad.
With virtually nothing growing, my dad’s garden still caught my eye. Where last summer there had been stalks of gorgeous yellow flowers, this spring there was a dense ground cover of green-and-purple-leafed plants. They were already growing despite spring having barely started.
My dad’s Sundrop plants had shallow roots and I was able to dig about ten of them in just a few minutes. I’ll probably plant them in the corner of the yard under the apple trees and see how quickly they spread.
So, I asked my dad, “Are those Sundrops?”
He gave an affirmative and told me they were getting out of control. I was thrilled when he agreed I should dig some from around the edges of the patch. I filled a bucket with plants and quickly realized they spread via rhizomes: root-like shoots that radiated out through the soil specifically to push up new plants.
I’ve been warned that Sundrops spread aggressively… which was obvious from my dad’s Sundrop patch. When he moved into his apartment four years ago, I didn’t notice Sundrops there; in only three years they took over a six foot diameter area.
Sundrops in your garden
I did a little reading and found that Sundrops — also known as Evening Primrose — are hardy in zones 5 through 8. Supposedly, they need lots of sunlight, but sunlight reaching my dad’s garden is best suited for hostas; his Sundrops were doing fine.
Your Sundrops will do best in well-conditioned soil, but they grow naturally in many soil types from sand to loam. They handle drought well and once they’re established you may need to be brutal to keep them from spreading beyond your flower bed.
With gorgeous yellow flowers, attractive bi-colored foliage, and a tendency to spread aggressively, Sundrops make a terrific ground cover whose character changes from season to season.
Want a fast-spreading patch of bi-colored leaves that throw up a cloud of bright yellow flowers in late spring? You can grow that with Sundrops.