Posts Tagged ‘peppers’
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.
I try to keep my main planting bed covered in leaves through the winter. In spring, it’s fairly easy to rake the leaves aside and scrape furrows in the moist soil to hold pea seeds. This year, my wife made the furrows. I set and buried the peas. If the leaf cover has done its job, there are almost no weeds to remove, and I dig only where I’m planting.
This blog has traditionally been about how to grow and prepare food and it means to stay that way. I’ve taken detours of late because of family issues (my dad moved out of his house and I spent a lot of time cleaning up after him) and because of health issues (I’m recovering from a Whipple—surgery that removed a pancreatic tumor and re-routed my digestive tract).
Here’s a brief “how-to” to keep the blog on course:
It’s spring, plant!
With help from my wife, I’ve started three rows of peas in the garden. I plant a lot so we have peas to eat until July with plenty left over for the freezer. I once posted a video that shows the method I still use – Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook. I also wrote a post explaining how-to – Enough Peas to Preserve.
Peas handle frost well, and will even survive a freeze into the 20s. They aren’t as hardy in hot weather. In my experience, a variety called Wando handles early spring heat better than most. So, given we’re in a streak of hottest months on record, hedge your bets and try to plant Wando peas this year. They grow at least five feet tall, so make sure you rig trellises for them.
I just started seeds for my summer vegetables. My setup this year is on our seldom-used ping-pong table: I used the kids’ cardboard bricks to support a four-foot shop light across the five-foot-wide table. The planters are the bottoms of plastic one-gallon milk jugs filled with a commercial seed-starting mix. I set 16 seeds in each planter, for a total of 112 seeds. Soon, I’ll add a second shop light and start a few other seeds; once the first planting emerges I’ll note what failed to germinate and try again with the same varieties.
Along with peas, this is a good time to plant lettuce, spinach, onions, carrots, and potatoes. All prefer to grow in cool weather and can handle frost—though young potato plants may die back in the cold, they’ll quickly make up for it on warmer days.
Start seeds indoors
We’re at the threshold for indoor seed-starting. That is, if you don’t start yours soon, you’ll lose the advantage you get from indoor starts. Ideally, start tomato, pepper, tomatillo, eggplant, and okra seeds indoors six-to-eight weeks before the average last frost in your area. Turns out, if you start eight weeks early—especially with tomatoes—your seedlings will probably need to be transplanted into larger pots before it’s time to set them in the garden. That’s fine if you have the space to manage it.
Around here, the average last frost is mid-April, so I just planted 72 tomato seeds, 8 tomatillo seeds (a new gardening experience for me), and 32 pepper seeds. It’s very easy to do; I’ve written several posts about it over the years:
Start Your Own Seedlings (this is how I start my seeds)
Small Kitchen Garden Seed-Starting Shelf
Start Seeds in Pellets for Your Small Kitchen Garden
Start Your Small Kitchen Garden from Commercial Flats
Really? Start Seeds Indoors for Your Small Kitchen Garden?
Start Seeds in Pots for Your Small Kitchen Garden
When I assembled photos for my landscapes photo challenge, my set of favorites from 2015 included way more than the requisite seven shots. Rather than choose seven from among 40, I added a Waterscapes photo challenge to my list—and was pleased to learn that “waterscapes” is a real word meaning what I wanted it to mean.
I’ve posted seven waterscapes here. Like the landscapes of my previous post, I captured these photos in central Pennsylvania and in central upstate New York—near Ithaca or on the way to Ithaca from Lewisburg.
This photo isn’t about art so much as it is about Mom. Mom kept a “life list” of birds she spotted through the kitchen window. Years after I left home, she and my dad bought a shack on a cliff above Cayuga lake and spent summers cleaning, painting, and making it into their vacation lake cottage. I enjoyed visiting the cottage, but I didn’t fall in love with it until 2015. I finished emptying and repairing my dad’s house, and tenants moved in. That left me with two options when I visited: sleep on my dad’s sofa in his tiny independent living unit, or stay at the lake cottage. Stoking a fire in the wood stove to hold off cold autumn nights called back years of semi-rustic living. Waking up at the cottage to sounds of rustling leaves and nautical activity was meditative.
It’s possible my mother never saw the birdhouse in this photo. However, seeing it hanging along the stairway down to the lake made it easy to imagine my mom pausing on those stairs to watch birds come and go. I hope to spend time at the cottage this year absorbing the same sensations that lured my parents there.
There are few places that make my dog Nutmeg happier than she is at the local dog park. Far from the park’s parking area, there’s a stream in which Nutmeg tests her Labrador breeding… and fails. She’ll chase sticks into the water and bring them back as long as she never gets in deep enough to swim. Last August, grass seed heads caught sun against the dark waters of Nutmeg’s favorite stream.
Mansfield, Pennsylvania is halfway to Ithaca from the Cityslipper ranch. Mansfield boasts a nature preserve with hiking trails, a picnic area, and a boat launch, and I love to stop there to capture photos. Water at the boat launch is a weird shade of blue that makes me wonder about agricultural runoff, but were that not the case the waterway would still be surreal. In this photo, the white flowers lining the river are knotweed—an invasive that looks awesome in bloom. Depending on cloud cover and the time of day, different features pop, so I always discover something new when I stop in Mansfield.
South and west of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania there are many waterways that flow to the Susquehanna River. I’ve photographed these streams, creeks, and rivers at so many places, I’m not always sure which is which. It’s compelling to me that I could drop a canoe in one of the streams and float in it 140 miles to the Chesapeake Bay and then into the Atlantic ocean.
On trips to Ithaca, I sometimes drive north to Corning, NY, and then up route 414 to Watkins Glen. The road follows a valley with farmland guarded by wooded hills that put on quite a display in autumn. Last October, I stopped to capture photos where wetlands cover much of the valley floor.
Perhaps stretching the definition of “waterscape,” this is one of dozens of waterfalls at a Pennsylvania nature preserve called Ricketts Glen. We hosted two Japanese students for nearly three weeks in August, and shared a hike with them along the Glen’s most popular trail.
I lingered below a waterfall at Ricketts Glen where the roots of a tree felt their way over rocks to find soil in the creek bed. If you want a photo session in Ricketts Glen, clear the day, go alone, and stay all day… though it’s fun to share the trip with a group.
Sweet pepper relish on cream cheese makes an attractive addition to an hors d’oeuvres table. Learn how to make your own at my blog post, Red Pepper Relish from Your Home Kitchen Garden
My Mother-in-law had guests. She served the delicious sweet pepper relish with cream cheese and crackers that I wrote about over at Home Kitchen Garden (and included in my book about home preserving—which you can buy by clicking the book cover in the left margin of this page). I got the recipe from my Mother-in-law in the first place, and over the past several years I’ve been her supplier: I give her a case of 4oz jars when we visit my in-laws or they visit us.
When I first wrote about this relish I called it Red Pepper Relish. Since then I’ve taken to making it with various fully-ripe sweet peppers—red, yellow, orange, and even purple (which, given time, turn red as they ripen). A 4 ounce jar of relish, a block of cream cheese, and crackers make a fine appetizer.
But credit for this post goes to one of my Mother-in-Law’s guests who, apparently, suggested an alternative to the classic “relish-on-cream-cheese-on-crackers” service. She thought simply to mix a four ounce jar of relish into eight ounces of cream cheese and serve it as a spread.
Simple. Genius. Should have been obvious.
The procedure is as you’d expect: Set out an 8oz block of cream cheese or neufchatel to soften at room temperature for at least an hour. Use a fork to combine the cream cheese and a jar of pepper relish; be thorough. If you prefer, use an electric mixer to stir the two ingredients together. Load a small serving bowl with the mixture and set it out with a butter knife or two and some crackers.
This treatment is tidier than serving a block of cream cheese with relish dumped on it… and every crackerful is delicious.
Thoroughly blending a jar of sweet pepper relish with an 8oz block of cream cheese makes a delicious spread. The spread is easier to handle than the more traditional service, and it tastes just as good.
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.
- 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.
I planted 16 sweet pepper seeds in this container and every one sprouted. That’s a very tolerable percentage!
Do you start your own seeds? Perhaps this is your year to try.
Anywhere I point a camera at the pear tree it captures an image with many pears. I’ve never seen so many pears on the tree in a season. If they reach maturity, I’ll have a lot of preserving to do!
As I rushed around a week ago Friday getting ready to drive to Ithaca, I captured images that demonstrate food is happening in the garden. I was happy seeing so much progress early in the season but I must not have been wearing my reading glasses.
You see, when I capture photos, I can’t tell immediately whether they’re well-framed, in focus, or properly exposed. Even with reading glasses, the tiny view screen on my camera can make blurred images seem sharp. I discovered when I reached Ithaca that the tiny view screen conceals all kinds of unexpected details. The shocking truth appears in the last photo of this post.
I wish I’d downloaded the photos before I left home so I’d spotted the problem while I could do something about it. I remain optimistic. Perhaps this was an isolated problem that will simply have gone away by the time I get home. No, I don’t believe that. What I believe is that someone else has beaten me to the first peas of the season. Rats.
With only a few plants mature, we’ve eaten a reasonable amount of lettuce salad—mostly from plants I’ve removed to thin the patch. I planted nearly exclusively romaine varieties this year. I like the crispness and it seems every year there are more shades of romaine from which to choose.
One of my favorite sprouts, basil, came on strong about six days after I set seed. This is a purple variety, and there is classic green Genovese basil about six inches to the right (not in the photo). I planted six varieties, most from seeds Renee’s Garden gave me to try.
This is totally crazy, but there are already blossoms on my tomato plants. Well… only the Stupice plants have blossoms, but that’s as it should be. Stupice is a “cool weather” variety that matures in about 55 days! There’s some chance the first will ripen by June 30th, but most certainly I’ll be harvesting in July. That has never happened in my small kitchen garden.
If tomato blossoms in early June aren’t crazy enough, I found a sweet pepper on its way to maturity. This must have developed from the one flower that had opened before I set the seedlings in the garden. Still, I’ve been impressed that my pepper plants didn’t seem to notice I ripped them out of communal planters and set them into my planting beds. There was no wilting and no apparent slowdown in growth.
The photo that made me shudder when I loaded it onto my computer and looked at it full-screen is of my first pea pod of the season. One plant flowered about three days ahead of the others. On this day (June 6), two pea rows were green hedges smothered in white flowers. In the middle of it all was this tiny green pod I captured in pixels. Casual inspection of the closeup revealed quite a community of aphids apparently enjoying the little pod.
One week old tomato seedlings grow under lights in my office. While I planted 16 seeds per container, some didn’t sprout. There are, perhaps, 70 going strong. To the right are pepper seedlings barely visible under their shop light. That light is so much closer to the plants because I lifted the fixture above the tomatoes to fit the camera under it for the photograph.
Sprouts are up! One hundred and six sprouts grace my seed-starting shelf. Most are tomato plants though about 24 are pepper plants and another 8 are lettuce.
I live in USDA hardiness zone 6b or 7a, depending on how you squint at the most recent map. While it felt more like zone 3 this winter, the temperature might have just brushed minus 5 – the minimum low to qualify as zone 6b. What was unusual is the cold hung on day-after-day; we had a six-week period during which it was a relief if the temperature spiked into the low 20s.
Even as the snow melted, we had cold. There’s a popular rule of thumb in our neighborhood: plant peas on St Patrick’s Day. I doubt many people succeeded. In fact, cold and rain continued until just two days ago, so anyone trying to plant peas would have been working in mud. I don’t expect to put anything in the garden for another three or four days, assuming we don’t see even more rain.
How I Start Seeds
I recently attended my first seed swap where a presenter recommended that home growers buy celled seed-starting trays. I no longer go that route. I’ve used peat pots pressed out in connected cells, I’ve used compressed peat pellets, and I’ve used old plastic drinking cups. I wrote about much of this some years ago in evergreen blog posts.
Here’s a setup I created with my dad last spring. He found a seven foot section of wire shelving. We marked 17 inches in from each end of the shelving, cut the reinforcement wire along the front edge, and bent the two 17-inch ends down to create a stand from which to hang a shop light. My dad has a cabinet in his living room where he sets up trays and pots in which to start tree seeds. With chains to suspend the shop light, it’s easy to adjust the fixture’s height as seedlings grow tall.
These days I cut up gallon plastic milk and orange juice jugs and use the bottoms as seed planters. In a milk jug, I set 16 seeds, and in an orange juice jug, I set 12 seeds. Sure, roots grow together as the seedlings get large, but teasing (gently tearing) them apart doesn’t seem to bother them too much.
When I set seeds, I create a paper tag to identify which varieties of plants are in a particular container (and where the varieties are). These I tape to the side of the container for quick reference. I refer to the tags when I set seedlings in the garden and make a map that shows where I plant each variety.
The easiest thing to overlook when you start seeds indoors is lighting. Don’t assume a south-facing window can provide enough light to produce healthy seedlings. Instead, get a fluorescent fixture with 850K spectrum tubes (see the box titled Don’t Buy Grow Lights). When you first plant seeds, suspend the light about 3 inches over the surface of the soil. As seedlings grow, raise the light to maintain a 3-inch separation from the tops of the plants.
To start tomato and pepper seeds, keep the room temperature above 70 degrees. Ideally, shoot for 80 degrees which, if you don’t want to turn up the heat, you can achieve by putting a heating pad under the seed pots. I’ve found in a 70 degree room, fluorescent lights parked 3 inches above my planters warm the soil adequately.
Starting seeds indoors is only mildly challenging. If you have space to set up a light and some makeshift planters, don’t buy a flat of seedlings that someone else has started. You can grow that!
I start seeds in planters I create by cutting the bottom halves off of gallon plastic milk jugs. I start a cut by pinching the milk jug between the tips of a scissors and squeezing hard. If the carton proves too tough, I can poke a hole through with one scissors tip. Then I cut around the container on a line parallel to the bottom of the jug.
I buy a bale of potting soil every three or four years from a local garden center. A bale is an enormous amount of soil—compressed to about half its “fluffed” volume. To use it, I wield a butter knife as an ice pick, stabbing one end of the bale repeatedly until a chunk comes loose. I crumble the chunk into a planter and smoosh up smaller lumps between my thumb and fingers.
Note that I don’t put drainage holes in the bottoms of my homemade planters. This forces me to pay extra attention to the moisture of the soil. Before I plant, I add what must be about a third of a gallon of water and leave the planter for 30 minutes or longer so the water soaks in. The soil should be moist on the surface but there shouldn’t be water sloshing around in the container. Note your potting soil might float when you first add water. Worse: some potting soils don’t absorb water without encouragement. If you have such potting soil, stir the water in or it might just pool on top.
I use a chopstick to create 16 indents in the soil of a planter; orange circles in the photo represent the layout. For tomato and pepper seeds, these can be just one-eighth to one-quarter inch deep. I drop a single seed into each indentation and then gently nudge soil over the seeds. With all the seeds covered, I very gently tamp the soil down with the heel of my hand.
My labels aren’t pretty, but they work. This one reveals I have paste tomato seeds in the left two rows (for a total of 8), 3 Amana Orange tomato seeds at the back of the third row with one Tangerine Beefsteak seed in the front of that row, and a final full row of Tangerine Beefsteak seeds.
I may have to “pot up” the seedlings later which I do by gently tearing each one away from the root ball and then setting 8 into a milk-jug-derived planter. Of course, I create new labels for the new planters, and eventually I use those labels to inform a map I draw so I know where each variety ends up in the garden. I posted a video that shows the potting-up procedure when I made my seed-starting planters slightly differently… but the video is still relevant:
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.
Sorry. I had to lead with sad apples. It rained nearly every day from apple blossom time until June. To grow pretty apples in such conditions, you need to apply anti-insect treatment constantly, and that gets really expensive. I can buy a bushel of apples for around $12 at the farmers’ market and I might have spent $40 or more to keep ahead of the rain. I gave up very early in the season, and this is typical of what’s on my trees now.
September 22, 2011 is the first Post Produce day. Because my Small Kitchen Garden has experienced its worst growing season in 16 years, I’m tempted to share scenes of sickly vegetables and rotting plants. But the whole point of this day is to Post Produce in celebration of kitchen gardening.
There have been some bright spots, despite the crazy weather, and I’ve captured many of them in photos. Captions accompanying the photos provide details. I hope you’ll join me in this monthly celebration of home kitchen gardening and post about your own produce. Find instructions for how to participate by scrolling to the bottom of this blog entry.
If any kitchen garden plant likes rain, it’s tarragon! I set three tarragon plants in a new bed last fall and they have grown into a forest. In fact, I cut them back aggressively about a month ago and already they are overwhelming the shorter thyme plants in front of them. Until this season, I’d grown tarragon only in containers, and I had no idea how massive these plants could become.
Another standout rain-lover in my small kitchen garden is sage. I moved several plants from a wooden barrel planter last fall, and they have exploded with new, lush growth. Those pretty flowers are invaders from my wife’s nearby ornamental bed. If I ever plant a show garden, I may pair these two much as they look in this photo.
I planted a 14 foot row of chili pepper plants in a repeating sequence of jalapeno, banana, and poblano. Apparently, that row ran above an underground lake and the plants’ roots were waterlogged most of the season; I harvested about a pint of tiny, shriveled peppers. Happily, I also set some bell pepper plants in containers on my deck. In a few more weeks, I expect nearly a dozen large fruits to be red or orange and ready to harvest. They all will end up in a pot of red pepper relish.
While my main garden bed spent two-thirds of the season as a swamp, my garden annex drained quite well (it used to be a sandbox), and bell peppers and poblanos I set there produced a modest number of fruits. It’s not a typical abundant haul, but we’ll enjoy a few meals that feature these smoky delights.
Cucumbers disappointed me this year. They grew vigorously in containers on my deck, but none of the fruits they produced were quite appealing enough to pickle whole. Still, I have used these little morsels in salad, and I’ll probably mix up some pickle relish with the dozen or so that are ready to harvest.
Yippee: green beans! This is my first significant harvest and I collected them today. I planted Kentucky Wonders to climb on my tomato trellises and all the plants died as a result of heavy rains in August. But I’d planted a short row in one of our ornamental beds, and they have grown into a nearly impenetrable clump of intertwined vines. This first picking could serve a family of four if three family members despised green beans. There are green bean babies on the vines, so I’m hoping our first frost is still a month away (though, given the way the season has gone, it wouldn’t surprise me if we got frost at noon today).
This year’s big winner is winter squash. Sure, there are water stains on some of them, but these neck pumpkins and butternut squashes look spectacular considering the season. The biggest neck pumpkin weighs about 12 pounds, and the heap weighs more than 50 pounds. There are several more fruits ripening on the vines (even as the vines drown from recent storms), and there are even a few Blue Hubbards in the garden showing some promise.
Join in and Post Produce!
Join the celebration and show the world what you’re eating from your garden. To participate, Post Produce on your own blog. You don’t have to post photos. List what you’re harvesting, write a poem about it, record a song… create whatever post celebrates your food-growing successes.
Then, return here and create a link to your Post Produce post. Also, leave a comment to entice other participants to visit your blog. That’s all there is to it!
For a few more details about Post Produce, follow this link. There you’ll find a bit about why I started Post Produce along with further suggestions for types of things you might post. I’ll watch for your Post Produce posts and visit every one.