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Posts Tagged ‘peppers’

Food in my Kitchen Garden!

Young pears

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.

Lettuce patch

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.

Basil babies

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.

Early tomato blossoms

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.

Sweet pepper baby

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.

Pea pod and aphids

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.

 

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Start Your Own Seedlings

You Can Grow That!

Tomato seedlings under lights

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.

Inexpensive seed starting light and stand

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!

Making a milk jug seed planter

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.

Preparing to start seeds

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.

Planting seeds in a milk jug starter

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.

Label your seed planters if you plant many varieties

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:

 

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Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, Aug 2012!

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.

Pepper flowers are among my favorites.

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.”

 

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What’s Eating What’s Eating my Tomato (or Pepper) Plants?

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.

Tomato Hornworm Damage

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.

Tomato Hornworm Damage to a Pepper

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?

Tomato Hornworm Poop on 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.)

Tomato Hornworm Under a Leaf

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!

Tomato Hornworm

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.

 

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Launching Post Produce: September 22, 2011

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.

 

 

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Post Produce is Coming!

A preview of produce I might post for the very first Post Produce day on September 22, 2011. Pick the produce you’ll post and I’ll look for it on Thursday!

What’s Post Produce? It’s kind of an homage to Carol at May Dreams Gardens and her tradition of Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. But rather than blooms, Post Produce is about what you grow to eat.

Your Small Kitchen Garden will host Post Produce on the 22nd of every month, beginning this month. Here’s how to participate:

In your own blog on September 22, post about your homegrown vegetables, fruit, nuts, or fungus. Then visit Your Small Kitchen Garden and add a link to your post. As more people participate, a list will grow of links to bloggers who also grow food. Follow the links and enjoy sharing successes with your fellow kitchen gardeners.

I hope you’ll join me on the 22nd and Post Produce. For more about Post Produce, including a list of ideas to inspire you, follow this link to the Post Produce page.

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