Author Archives: Amy

Why I Garden

With gardening still in an upswing of popularity due to the growth of the organic and local food movement, I started to think about what motivates me to garden and what I get out of it, other than dirty clothes and sore muscles.

At it’s most basic, gardening to me is like performing magic.  Like Jack and his magic beans, I plant a tiny little seed (or multitudes of them) and at the height of the season I have a plant that is thousands of times bigger than that little seed that started it all.   It takes me back to my childhood, completing something and taking it to my mother and saying “Look what I did!”.  Every time a sprout peeks its head above the soil, I get a little giddy.  The success of getting an actual plant from a tiny seed never gets old.  Even now, as an adult, I often drag my kids or my husband out into the garden to point at a little seedling and with a huge smile on my face say, “Look what I did!”

Another big part of my garden is the solitude that it offers me.  I am a loner by nature, and gravitate toward individual type pursuits (reading, knitting, most crafty stuff).  There’s something very soothing and spiritual about spending a cool, quiet morning checking on my plants and pulling weeds in complete silence.  There is a time during the day after all the kids have gone to school and those that work outside of the house have set off to their jobs when everything seems to be in sync.  The mild morning sun slowly warms up the air, the dew is still clinging to the grass, there’s something very clean and fresh about the quality of the air.  Then I start to hear everything around me.  Cardinals dart in and out of my yard, calling to each other around the block.  Occasionally the hawks will voice their displeasure about me being in the yard and invading their turf.  The squirrels and chipmunks come out to explore and forage, often chasing each other up, down, and between trees.  Bees and wasps often come to visit, sometimes landing on me to see if I’m a flower, resulting in a gently wave of my hand to encourage them to move on (more the bees than wasps, I kind of wander away from the wasps until they leave).  Everything looks so…green in the morning.  And there is a feeling of oneness I get with nature at that time.  My breathing slows and my ears perk up and I soak in everything using all my senses.  Even the feel and smell of the soil & compost.

There is a big anthill at the edge of my garden (carpenter ants), and it’s amusing to watch them carrying a piece of mulch back to their nest.  They work so hard, sometimes struggling under the weight of the wood they picked, but they don’t ever give up.  I only hope they keep going after the mulch and not the bottom edge of my planting bed, but honestly, I’m not that fussed.  I invaded their turf, not the other way around, and I try not to forget this fact when a rabbit has decided to nibble on my plants or birds try to filch my berries.

Gardening to me is not really about mastering nature or subduing it.  It is about becoming a part of it.  Celebrating the cycle of life that often plays out in my garden.  There are births (germination), deaths (some premature) and naughty children (invasive plants), but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Why do you garden?

Boredom is the Mother of Invention

I was playing around with my garden plan yesterday.  Originally I was looking to expand my potager and come up with phases to eventually nearly eliminate the lawn in the backyard.  My plan expand started to fall apart when I started worrying about cost – soil, compost, peat/coir, mulch, not to mention physical labor – it started to add up.  So I downsized my plan so it would fit into what I have right now.

Tomatoes will stay where they were last year.  I was researching on whether rotation was necessary and it seems for the small home garden that it is not unless disease becomes a problem.  I will try peppers again this year, and will try quite a bit from seed.  I made a mistake last year and probably started my seeds a month too early.  Everything got leggy and I got burned by a late frost, so I wound up having to purchase replacement plants.  I’m still considering wintersowing.  I don’t know if it’s too late to start or not.  I figure if I can’t find enough containers for it, that Gladware would do.  I just don’t really want to futz with the setup I had last year.  Plus my house tends to be dark, drafty, and cool – not the best combination for seedlings.  In fact, today I’m going to dig out my seeds, possibly get some soil and get my containers going.  Given that I’m looking to plant many multiples of marigold (which are damn easy to start from seed) and herbs, instead of going broke I can potentially get what I need through wintersowing.

What is it about this time of year that triggers gardening fever?

Fresh Herbs in Winter

Was making a beef stew recipe I found in Cook’s Illustrated and was stopped cold when I got to the part about adding fresh thyme. We’ve had quite a bit of snow here lately and easily have 6 inches or more on the ground.

Still, I donned my boots and coat and trudged back to my square foot garden in the back. Brushing back the snow I first found the parsley. And how could I not, it seems entirely unpeturbed by the snow and cold. It was bright green and beautiful (I’ll try to take a picture later).

Right there in front of it was the thyme. The longer sprigs were’t looking too great, but after disentangling it from the parsley, I found a few that look as fresh as they do in the spring.
Discovering how hardy these particular herbs are make me want to start figuring out where the are going to go this year in the garden. I’m thinking using rosemary & thyme as a border of my potager.

Any suggestions for other herbs that are hardy and relatively compact?

Raspberries (Round 2)

Raspberry2
Of the many things we were fortunate to inherit with the purchase of our house three years ago, one of my favorites is the raspberry patch in the back yard.  When we moved in that first spring, our neighbors informed us that there were rasberries at the back of our property.  The back was so overgrown that I had a difficult time distinguishing the raspberry plants from the weeds.  The berries had yet to even flower, so I looked for the tell-tale “thorny” stems and cleared out the patch.  The first year we didn’t get too many, considering they hadn’t been taken care of for quite some time, and I also wanted a season of observation so I could figure out what we had and where.  Between researching raspberries, and my observations throughout the summer, I determined that we had an everbearing variety.  What luck!

The beauty of everbearing raspberries is that there are two distinct “seasons” in which you can harvest.  The first harvest develops on the canes that are entering their second year.  I do my pruning in the spring, when it is easiest to tell what are old canes and what are second year canes.  Old canes have more of a grey, dried wood look to them and should be pruned down to the ground, they will not bear fruit.  Second year canes, which will give you berries sometime in early to mid-July, will have a reddish-brown color to them, and they have stuck around from the previous year.

Second Year CaneNote the reddish-brown color of the cane.  This is indicative of a second year cane.

Second Year Cane (dying off)Notice how the end is turning gray?  By next spring the entire cane will be gray and ready to be pruned down.  It is done producing fruit.

First year canes will be the new canes that start growing in the spring.  I find that after a few good harvests in July, there is about a month or so of downtime until the first year canes start producing fruit.  Today was the first day I was able to pick a few ripe raspberries.  Depending on the weather and sun conditions, I should have a decent harvest in about a week or so.  There is a good amount of fruit on the canes and I imagine that I’ll have 2-3 big harvests before they start fading into the fall.

First Year CaneA first year cane with ripening fruit.  Notice the green color on the cane.  Leaf damage by Japanese beetles is evident.

In my opinion, the best choice for raspberries are the everbearing, especially if you have a houseful of berry lovers.  I suppose the main reason for planting and keeping single-bearing plants would be to try different varieties.  If you haven’t grown raspberries, and you have a nice sized, sunny patch that could use some plants, I would suggest you try some type of berry.  Since I don’t grow them, I can’t comment on blueberries or blackberries, but if they are anything like raspberries, they are easy to grow and tend to, and every year it seems the patch grows a bit and gives us more berries to enjoy.

As a final note, many people strongly suggest trellising your berries in some way.  Mine never were (they are not planted in any kind of orderly fashion) and I have had no major issues with them.  Some of the plants toward the middle of the patch can be a bit challenging to reach, but they are definitely worth the effort.  I have had no problem with disease, however my biggest issue is with Japanese beetles.  If left unchecked, they can decimate a patch in an amazingly short time (which I discovered that first summer).  Last year I went out every morning and evening with a bowl of soapy water and removed as many as I could by hand.  This year I don’t have as many (possibly due to my work last year), but I anticipate more next year considering my laissez-faire attitude about removing them this year.

Tomato Tomahto

Many people who don’t do a full blown vegetable garden still plant one vegetable that is best home grown.

Tomatoes.

Garden Bounty

I have found that tomatoes are easy to grow and the reward is fantastic.  Ask anybody who has grown tomatoes and they will tell you that what you buy at grocery store pales dramatically in comparison to what you get out of the garden.  The taste of home grown tomatoes has no equal.

This year I have a total of 8 tomato plants.  Two ‘Brandywine’, two ‘Early Girl’, two ‘SuperSweet 100’ cherry tomatoes, one ‘Arkansas Traveler’ and one ‘Mr. Stripey’.  So far the yield I have gotten from the ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Early Girl’ has far exceeded my expectations.  The plants are so heavy with fruit that picking can be a challenge when the fruit are jammed together in their supports.  In fact, one of my ‘Early Girl’ plants is threatening to bring down the stake and spiral cage that supports it.  I am using the Veggie Cage spiral tomatoe cages.  You just connect them to a stake (I have six foot stakes in the ground) and gently guide the tomato plants through the center of them.  As the plants grow, you guide the shoots through the sides to give them support.  Not only do they work exactly as advertised, with no tying of the plants, but they are attractive as well.  Four of my plants are in my Square Foot Garden.  My ‘SuperSweet 100’ cherry tomatoes are doing very well trellesed up with a nylon trellis, and I haven’t had to tie them or their neighbors up as well.  As the plants grow I gently weave them in and out of the trellis and they seem to be appropriately supported.

In the past, I had planted fairly standard varieties of tomatoes, usually ‘Big Boy’ or ‘Better Boy’ and that was the extent of my tomato experience.  This year I chose ‘Brandywine’ because all over the internet, I have read that they are possibly the best tasting tomatoes.  They certainly don’t disappoint.  Not only are they meaty with a rich flavor, but they can grow to fairly enormous size.  I have had two tomatoes that have weighed over a pound, and 4-5 more that hover around 14 ounces.

August16Harvest

The ‘Early Girl’ variety was a result of me possibly channeling the spirt of my grandfather.  Apparently he used to grow tomatoes all the time and the variety he planted most often were ‘Early Girl’.  These look much more like supermarket tomatoes.  They are almost perfectly round and red, not irregular and pinkish like the ‘Brandywine’.  They are not as meaty, but still have a good tomato flavor, just not quite as sweet.

Early Girl

My ‘SuperSweet 100’ are my husband’s favorite.  He has always loved cherry tomatoes, but we were shocked at how sweet these are.  They are truly like garden candy.

I have to say that the yield on ‘Arkansas Traveler’ and ‘Mr. Stripey’ is downright disappointing.  I suspect it has something to do with being in my Square Foot Garden (when the ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Early Girl’ are in the potager).  It could also be that I did some direct composting early in the season around the plants in the potager, but not in my SFG.  Next year, I will definitely put all of my tomato plants in the potager and probably direct compost early in the spring again.  I think I might plant one or two more ‘Brandywine’ and try a few other varieties as well.  I’d like a Roma tomato, maybe a yellow grape tomato, and something more exotic, like a ‘Black Krim’.  It all depends on what I can get at the nursery.  I’m not sure if I’ll start seeds again next year.  While I enjoyed raising my “babies”, I am horribly impatient and hate the hardening off process.  While that seemed to go well this year, most of my starts didn’t make it.  I may have started seeds to early.  We’ll see how the winter goes.  If it’s another tough one, I’ll probably start seeds again, just so I can have something green to look at when it’s still cold outside.

My Babies are Growing Up!

I spent a few days last week potting up my seedlings.  My tomatoes were the first to graduate to plastic cups and they are thriving with the added nutrients and room to stretch their feet.  Most of them look like actual tomato plants now, with lovely stocky stems.  The broccoli and cauliflower seem to be happy as well, growing quicker and straighter.  A few days ago, the peppers, cilantro and dill moved up.  They seem to be stretching out and enjoying their newfound freedom as well.  The cilantro is no longer laying on it’s side, and neither is the dill.  Could be that I yelled at them and told them that lazy seedlings don’t get to go out to the garden.

Real estate under the grow lights is starting to become a problem though.  If anything else needs to be potted up in the next month, it will have to grow by a windowsill, which in our house is still relatively shady.

The experience of starting these plants from seeds has been far more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.  Last fall, when the idea to start a vegetable garden took root, I thought for sure it was a whim, the enthusiasm for which would fade.   If anything it has grown.  The idea that I can feed my family tasty, nutritious, fresh, organic food from something as tiny as a tomato or pepper seed is amazing.  God help the poor bunny or squirrel that decides that my plants are a salad bar.  They have become my little green babies.  I check on them multiple times a day, talk to them, pet them, rotate them.

I have big dreams for my two little square foot gardens.  I have dreams of adding more, and dreams of converting my family to fresher whole foods instead of the processed crap we have all become accustomed to.  My dreams went so far as to look into the possibility of raising chickens.  Alas, that one will not happen, as the regulations here prohibit it with our parcel of land.  Maybe I can invest in my friends chickens when they move.  They are building a house and along with the three quail she currently owns, is looking to add chickens.

Does everyone get so delirious after reading Michael Pollan?  I’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and am nearly finished with In Defense of Food, and have found that I already follow some of his suggestions, and have done so out of instinct.  Years ago, I gave up on margarine, somehow I just knew butter was better.  I’m currently trying to find sources for stuff like real yogurt (sorry Dannon and Yoplait, you don’t qualify) and local eggs.  I could get more local milk, but unfortunately with two growing kids, I can’t really afford it.  It’s twice the price of “regular” milk (but tastes twice as good as well).  My ultimate goal is to wean my family off of convenience foods full of preservatives and goodness knows what else, and back to more whole foods.  I’m sure there are still times in our busy schedule when McDonald’s really is the only option, but with some careful planning, perhaps I can wean us off of that as well.  Not surprisingly, we all feel better when we eat real food, and we tend to lose weight and be healthier as a consequence.  I’ve lost more weight using olive oil and butter, and eating good cheese than I ever did using reduced fat margarine, or low fat cheese.  After only once eating fresh shredded parmesan, I can never, ever go back to the stuff out of the can.

Interestingly, I think the whole catalyst for this shift in thinking sprang from my trip to Paris a year ago.  My husband and I ate very well there, and after the second day we noticed something.  We noticed that the food tasted so good.  Better than anything I had in a long time.  Not only that, but we noticed that after a meal we felt good.  Not just good, but great.  Too many times after eating out here at home, we leave the restaurant overfull, bloated, and headachy.  Some of that I’m sure is from the huge portions, but I suspect it is more from lower quality food.  Since that trip, I am still in search of the perfect baguette.  I’m thinking I may have to learn how to bake bread and make it myself.