Archive for category Vegetable Gardening

Summer Solstice Anticipation*

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One of the great imponderables of gardening life: Why does it take so long for the first tomato of the season to ripen? And then when it does, why does it take forever for the rest of the tomatoes to transform from hard green to juicy red?

Amidst the heavy harvest of Fortex pole beans, one Sweet Treats cherry tomato was ready yesterday. It was consumed with great ceremony at last night’s dinner — one half going to Wonder Spouse, the other to me. It was so good!

Yesterday's harvest.

Yesterday’s harvest.

But now the waiting begins in earnest. So many green tomatoes, so few signs of color change — except for yesterday’s delicious outlier. Somehow the memory of its perfect tomato flavor must satisfy us for — who knows how long?

All the tomato plants are still very actively growing. I tie new growth to the trellises daily. The undersides of my thumbnails are stained dark green from using my nails to snip off unwanted suckers as I tie my enthusiastic charges. When I wash up, the soap suds turn yellow-green from the tomato pigments that coat my hands as I groom the plants.

I’ve been doing this — growing tomatoes — for over four decades now. The routine is the same every summer. About fifteen or so summers ago, I wrote a poem about growing tomatoes. I hope you’ll indulge me as I share it with you here.

Embracing Tomatoes

There they go again.
This year I swore I’d keep them under control —
every sucker pruned,
every new shoot tied to a support.

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Just yesterday,
I thought I had them tamed.
Obediently, they clasped their cages —
yellow flowers nodding
from the weight of visiting bees.

Today, the riot is well underway.
An antigravity avalanche of green
shoots skyward, sideways, all ways —
like a group of guilty children scattering
in all directions at the approach of an adult.
I can almost hear them giggling.

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So here I am once again —
embracing tomatoes.
This is not a task for timid souls.
You must wade right into the plants,
disregarding spiders and sticky aphids.
You must show no fear as you use a firm hand
to tie them to their supports.

Emerging from the struggle,
sweaty and coated in green tomato tang,
I bow to my partners.

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Soon they will offer me heavy red globes
to transform into refreshing summer salads,
and fragrant rich sauces to freeze for winter feasts,
certain to fuel warm dreams
of summer sambas with tomatoes.

Coming soon, we hope!

Coming soon, we hope!

Happy Summer, everyone. May the fruits of your labors bring you as much delight as mine bring to me.

* I hope you enjoyed this repeat of a post from 2013.

 

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Early June in the Garden

 

Scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) always looks like it’s wearing a party hat when in bloom.

I always carry my camera with me when I step outside this time of year, even if I’m just walking the 100 yards to the mailbox. If I don’t bring it, some butterfly, bee, bunny, or bird does something photo-worthy that I don’t catch if I’m unprepared. These shots are what I caught today.

I spent the morning working in the vegetable garden. I needed to work longer, but the sun is ferocious, the humidity unforgiving. Yesterday, I finally harvested our first squash and first two eggplants. We ate them last night and I can report that they were delicious. Today, I picked another eggplant, decided to give a couple of squash one more day to fill out, exhorted the tomato plants bent low with the weight of green orbs to hurry up and ripen, and rejoiced in sighting the first bean flowers on all three varieties I’m growing. A little photographic documentation follows. To enlarge a photo and see its caption more easily, click on it.

To get to the vegetable garden, I travel through the front yard and pollinator gardens. Here’s a sample of what I saw today.

In the center of my front yard, the Chinese Pearl-bloom tree commands full attention as it nears peak bloom.

Chinese Pearl-bloom tree (Poliothyrsis sinensis)

We especially enjoy this time of year because of the near-daily emergence of tiny new amphibians from the front water feature. A few days ago in the early morning after a night-time shower, Wonder Spouse and I counted 25 hiding on various plants growing nearby. I suspect that most are Cope’s Gray Treefrogs, but I’ve heard other amphibians singing lustily beside the pond at night too, especially Narrow-mouthed Toads. When they are this tiny, though, I have no idea how to tell them apart.

Every day brings new discoveries, fresh food, and hard work. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Sweet Poison

My neighbor’s honeybees

Those of us who care about the natural world, especially current assaults to it from all sides, have long been worried about the short- and long-term effects of pesticides and herbicides on native flora and fauna. And, of course, we also need to be worried about the effects of these chemicals on humans, especially more susceptible groups like children and women in their child-bearing years. A study released in the October 6 edition of the journal Science provides alarming evidence that agricultural practices throughout the world need to be re-examined. Immediately.

Honeybee visiting a squash blossom

You’ll find a good description of this study in this recent article in Nature. In this new study, scientists collected 198 honey samples from around the world. They detected at least one of the five common neonicotinoids they tested for on every continent with honeybees, including remote islands with very little agriculture.

Neonicotinoids target the central nervous systems of crop-destroying insects, but — theoretically anyway — do not have the same effects on humans. However, an increasing number of studies are demonstrating how these pesticides are negatively impacting non-target insect species like honeybees — and wild bees. Increasing evidence shows that our well-documented decline in pollinator populations is associated with the massive increase in the use of these poisons by the agriculture industry.

Honeybees dive deeply into flowers like this Anise Hyssop.

It is true that in all samples, levels of these poisons were below the minimum levels established by experts to be safe for human consumption. However, I would argue — strenuously — that these determinations were not the result of rigorous science. Heck, I would argue that the presence of any amount of these poisons is dangerous to humans. Were cumulative effects considered, for example?

I ask because of the results of another alarming study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine led by Harvard scientists. This one notes a strong association between women struggling with fertility issues and their high consumption of fruits and vegetables laden with pesticides. These women are no doubt trying to improve their nutrition by consuming more fruits and vegetables that they are buying in their local supermarkets. But some of these crops (not organically grown, of course) are so coated in pesticides that when eaten frequently, show up in the bloodstreams of those consumers. I submit that it is only a matter of time before scientists produce evidence of similar effects specifically associated with so-called “safe” neonicotinoids.

Honeybee on a cherry blossom

What can we do? I think we need to make it a priority to increase the availability of organically grown produce to all of humanity. In the US, we must speak with our wallets and refuse to buy poison-laden produce. As the popularity of organically grown produce increases, prices for it will fall. Every other corner of every neighborhood — suburban or urban — should showcase a community garden where organically grown crops are produced by neighbors for their local consumption. Every able-bodied suburbanite with a yard dominated by a poison-laden, non-native lawn should convert that waste of space into small, beautiful gardens full of food and flowers — all grown without pesticides.

Organically grown produce and flowers do not look as pristine as poison-coated ones, but, my friends, you get out what you put in; you get what you pay for. And future costs to future generations must immediately become a significant factor in this calculation.

Honeybee on chive blossom

 

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Why I Grow Food

I grew my first tomatoes when I was fifteen. I dug up a long, skinny bed beside the family carport, the only spot that got enough sun to give fruit development half a chance. I don’t remember where I got the plants. I do remember being amazed by how tall they grew. I was not prepared for that, improvising stakes from fallen sticks that littered our wooded lot. I didn’t get many tomatoes out of that effort. I’m not sure the pollinators knew where to find my pitiful plants among the massive oaks and hickories that towered around the house. But even with all those challenges, I was hooked on growing my own food.

Herb and vegetable seedlings in greenhouse on March 29.

I didn’t have a chance to try it again until I was in graduate school. Some friends were renting an old farmhouse. They had turned part of an adjacent fallow field into a vegetable garden and invited me to start my own garden beside theirs. So I did. Graduate students are not often known for their healthy diets, but I ate fresh carrots, zingy peppers, and orb after orb of juicy red tomato. I even bought a pressure cooker and taught myself how to can. This was in the ancient days before youtube — no how-to videos for me. I actually read books to figure out how to grow and preserve my garden bounty.

Transplanted vegetable seedlings in greenhouse on March 29.

The biggest lessons I recall from that summer were about canning. First, canning in humid North Carolina in the tiny kitchen of an apartment without air conditioning is a great way to lose weight from perspiring excessively. Second, it is possible to can squash, but you really don’t want to eat canned squash; the texture is way too slimy. Canning blackberry preserves, on the other hand – totally worth the sweat equity.

Onions, chives, and covered zucchini on May 1.

I’ve grown a garden every year since then. First, in the yards of rental houses, then on the properties I’ve owned with the amazingly energetic Wonder Spouse. This year marks our 27th anniversary of growing vegetables in the same garden space. Every year, we have added compost and organic mulches to the raised beds we built. What had been pretty good soil to start with is now Vegetable Nirvana – chocolate cake soil, my sister used to call it – dark, aromatic, moist, and unlike cake – full of earthworms.

Young beans and other vegetables on May 8.

Once you are smitten with a love of growing your own food, soon you are not satisfied with buying plants grown by others. You spend your winters studying seed catalogs, drawing diagrams of where you will plant various crops, choosing old favorite varieties you know to be reliable, but always trying something new, something too intriguing to pass up.

Recently transplanted tomatoes on May 1.

Wonder Spouse built me a small greenhouse from a kit 22 years ago, and it is a testimony to his meticulousness that it functions as well today as it did when it was shiny and new. Before the greenhouse, we started seeds indoors, but trying to ensure that plants received adequate light was a perpetual struggle. My beautiful greenhouse solved that issue and the issue of adequately watering without overwatering – or ending up with water and soil on the living room floor.

Japanese eggplant on June 22.

I wish every child had the chance to grow her own food, preferably with coaching from a parent or grandparent eager to welcome a new member into the Green Thumb Clan. Too many children today don’t know where vegetables come from, and I believe the reason so many children think they hate vegetables is because they’ve never had the opportunity to taste a carrot just pulled from loamy soil, or a ripe pepper right off the bush. They don’t know what dill is, or that you can munch it like a stalk of celery.

Beans, zucchinis, herbs and flowers on June 11

I find it heartening to see a growing number of community gardens. Some are on city lots, some on school or church properties. Folks who have had limited access to fresh vegetables and fruits are getting chances to improve their diets and get a bit of exercise in the sunshine.

Beans and friends on June 22.

I am also heartened by the interest of millennials in growing their own food, even adding chicken coops and honeybee hives in record numbers to urban and suburban lots. They are growing food instead of ecologically inert lawns – in their front yards! This movement is nation-wide. I am encouraged every time I peruse the Front Yardener Facebook page, where these energetic folks are figuring out how to maximize food production in their yards while making their gardens aesthetically appealing.

Early Blue Ribbon tomatoes on June 22.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, these kids (sorry, you all look like children to me) are progressing far more rapidly than I did. If they see a bug they don’t recognize, they go online and quickly determine whether it is a friend or enemy to their garden. They proudly post many photos of their gardens, their harvests, and their preserved bounty.

Zucchinis and friends on June 18.

I know of one local neighborhood that engages in a sunflower-growing contest every summer. The household that grows the tallest flower wins accolades and admiration from all. And there’s a party, of course, to celebrate the occasion. I hope all the Front Yardeners have harvest parties where they share produce, growing tricks, and the companionship that derives from shared passions.

Unripe Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes on June 22.

I’m guessing they grow food for the same reasons I’ve been doing it for almost 40 years. Yes, it saves money and gives me access to foods I might not get otherwise. But as important, it keeps me outside, my hands in rich earth, my ears tuned to bird song and cicada thrumming, my eyes alert for new pollinators or potential pests. It gives me an excuse to stand at the fence to chat with my neighbor and share garden bounty. It keeps me connected to Mother Earth, the source of everything upon which we all rely.

The Solanaceae quadrant: tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants interplanted with basils on June 22.

For me, that will always be the bottom line – that connection to the Green World, the anchor that prevents me from being sucked into the vortex of electronic media full of talking and shouting heads and images of such cruelty that I can’t get through most newscasts these days without shedding a few tears.

Italian peppers and basils on June 25.

I grow food to remind myself of what is important, to prevent my heart from breaking, to hold on to hope. Growing food is my daily prayer for Earth and humanity. May we all find ways to nurture our hearts, our souls, and our connectedness.

Queen Sophia reigns over the vegetable garden.

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Spring is …

Bloodroots pushing through the leafy forest floor.

Salamanders emerging from algae-covered gelatinous egg masses.

Freeze-killed Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ flowers.

Emerging columbine blooms decapitated by hungry deer. I watched five very pregnant does scour the frosty floodplain this morning for anything tasty and green.

Splotchy Mayapple leaves just emerging, with fat, round flower buds centered between their two leaves.

A newly planted onion bed.

Fuzzy elm seeds and two-winged maple samaras floating on sluggish creek waters.

Red buckeye flower buds preparing to open in time to greet returning Ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Freeze-killed blueberry flowers.

A male Wood Duck paddling on the beaver pond, barely within range of my camera.

A freeze-killed cinnamon fern fiddlehead. Fortunately, the others  appear to remain viable, tucked tightly in the center of the plants.

Pawpaw flower buds wisely waiting for more settled temperatures.

Spring salad greens and wildflower seedlings waiting for the final (we hope) big dip in temperatures predicted to arrive after tomorrow’s 80-degree heat ushers in another cold front.

Hot and cold, dry and rainy, vibrant and brown, life and death — Spring is here.

 

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Hurtling into spring

This morning's sunrise featured more tangerine than rosy hues.

This morning’s sunrise featured more tangerine than rosy hues. Remember you can click on any photo to see a larger version.

I know the folks in the Northeast are cold, snow-plagued, and miserable. I know the folks in the Pacific Northwest who prayed for rain for most of a decade are desperately looking for the emergency shut-off valve to Heaven. And I’m sorry for your troubles, truly I am, which is why I feel a tad guilty complaining about the temperatures dominating the southeastern Piedmont region of the US.

Sure, it got down to 25 degrees Fahrenheit at my house this morning. I had to remove ice from the bird baths. But according to the forecasts, I probably won’t need to do that again for at least ten days. And the way things are going, maybe not until next November. My neck of the woods is hurtling full-tilt-willy-nilly into spring.

Crocuses are nearly done now.

Crocuses are nearly done now.

We’ve already zoomed through crocus season, the snowdrops opened yesterday and will likely be done in a few days. I planted a variety of daffodils that are supposed to provide me with an extended seasonal bloom period, but I’m starting to think that may not happen this year.

Ka-bloom!

Ka-bloom!

I started seeds of greens for my spring garden during the first few days of February; at the time, I wondered if I was overeager. Now I’m exhorting the seedlings to grow faster, fearing that if I don’t get them transplanted into their garden bed soon, summer temperatures arriving by early April will melt them before we’ve harvested more than a salad’s worth. This. Is. Not. Good.

Hurry, hurry, hurry!

Hurry, hurry, hurry!

I posted the above shot to my Facebook page the other day, and someone there asked me to list the varieties I’m growing, because she couldn’t read the scrawls on the labels in the photo.  So for her — and anyone else who might be interested — here are the spring salad varieties growing in my greenhouse right now.

  • Coastal Star — This is my go-to green romaine lettuce. It stands up to the early heat that hits my area in late April/early May. This is the third year I’m growing it.
  • Outredgeous — I grew this red romaine for the first time last season, and we loved it. It faded in the heat a little faster, but it stayed alive and productive this whole past winter for me beneath a row cover. I love this lettuce.
  • Cherokee — This is a red summer crisp lettuce that I’m trying for the first time, because Johnny’s Selected Seeds (the source of most of my veggie seeds) says it is more heat-tolerant (i.e., bolt-resistant) than most.
  • Ovation Greens Mix — I’ve grown this mix several years now. I get a nice assortment of fast-germinating speciality greens that give a nice tang or slightly bitter note to sweeter lettuces. They bolt very quickly in my heat. I direct-sow a few more when I transplant the starts in my greenhouse; sometimes that pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.
  • Seaside Spinach — This is a new smooth-leaf variety I’m trying this year, because it is touted as being bolt-resistant. I often have trouble persuading spinach to germinate for me in the greenhouse, but this variety is popping up and growing with enthusiasm — a promising start.
  • Rosaine — I grew this red bibb lettuce for the first time last year. It produces really lovely thick, buttery leaves. It is supposed to be bolt-resistant, but did not impress me last season. However, like Outredgeous, it produced all winter for me under a row cover. I’m thinking red lettuces may be more cold-tolerant.
  • Corvair Spinach — If Seaside remains as enthusiastic as it is starting, I won’t be growing Corvair again. This smooth-leaf variety is a downright temperamental germinator for me — and most everything germinates for me, so this is unusual. The plants that do show up, grow well enough, but I would rather grow a spinach that I can always count on.
  • Sparx — This is a new green romaine I decided to try, because it is supposed to be heat-tolerant and high-yielding. It is back-ordered until March 1. At the time I ordered, I figured this would not be a deal-breaker, timing-wise. The crazy weather may preclude a proper test of this variety, but I’ll give it a try when it shows up.

That’s it for the greens. Believe it or not, I really tried to keep down the number of varieties I’m trying this year. I also tried to contain myself when it came to tomato varieties, but I compensated with a new pepper variety, and an eggplant that intrigued me. Seed catalogs in deep winter are very, very hard to resist.

The absurd warmth caused my flowering apricots to zip through their bloom cycles much more quickly than usual. Only Peggy Clarke Senior is still perfuming the air, albeit faintly, with the magical cinnamon-sweet scent of her rosy blooms.

These flowers on Royal Star were just beginning to open two days ago.

These flowers on Royal Star were just beginning to open two days ago.

Our Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars’ has opened flowers at the top of the tree. The forecasted heat this weekend will no doubt cause most of the rest to explode into bloom.

Cornelian cherry flower explosion

Cornelian cherry flower explosion

Both of my Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) are in full bloom. I’m hoping the warmth will encourage pollinators to cross-pollinate them to produce fruits this year.

Close-up of flowers of Cornus mas

Close-up of flowers of Cornus mas

This member of the dogwood family doesn’t naturally occur in North America, but it doesn’t seem to be invasive, so I decided to give it a try. If I start seeing seedlings popping up, I will yank it out pronto.

Golden ragwort makes a great ground cover for moist shade.

Golden Ragwort makes a great ground cover for moist shade.

My patch of Golden Ragwort grows larger every year. It does a great job of reducing erosion, and when it blooms, its bright yellow flowers make the ground glow.

I love the magenta flower buds and stems of Golden Ragwort.

I love the magenta flower buds and stems of Golden Ragwort.

The weekend is supposed to reach high temperatures in the mid-70s here, so Wonder Spouse and I will be outside preparing spring vegetable beds and hauling fallen branches knocked down by winter storm winds. I anticipate plenty of sore muscles and creaky joints. But it’s all worth it when we sit down to the first salad of the season.

I’ll leave you with one last photo. I posted this to my Facebook page, but I wanted to share it here for my non-Facebook followers. On February 10, we enjoyed a penumbral lunar eclipse. Just the left edge of the full moon in the photo below was obscured by the sun’s shadow, but it was discernible. The Amazing Wonder Spouse set up his tripod and took this shot. Enjoy!

eclipse2

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Frost? What Frost?

Italian summer pepper varieties still going strong.

Italian summer pepper varieties still going strong.

The wacky, way-above-normal-temperatures weather continues in my piedmont garden. We live in a frost pocket. Our yard gets zapped by frost when nearby neighbors remain un-iced. So when I tell you that my house — on November 4 — still hasn’t seen a speck of frost, that is testimony to the strangeness of this year’s “autumn” weather pattern.

The weather forecasters have been promising cold any minute now for the last month or so. But every time a front approaches, it fizzles out, so that the cold air behind it never gets here. There’s talk of record snow in Siberia that will eventually mean deeply cold temperatures for much of the US, including my area, but I gather that weather is at least a month away. In the meantime, we continue to enjoy the best Italian sweet pepper crop we have ever grown.

Pepper plants falling all over themselves.

Pepper plants falling all over themselves.

In normal years, my staking system for these peppers is entirely adequate. Usually they are long gone by early October, either due to drought or frost. But this year, the peppers just keep growing, and flowering, and pushing out gorgeous large, heavy fruits that drag down overlong branches to the point where I’m having trouble finding the ripe fruits lurking deep inside this pepper forest. Those blue flowers bumping into the peppers are Blue Brazilian Sage (Salvia guarantica) — a very frost-sensitive perennial that is usually long gone by now.

Four different pepper varieties are hopelessly tangled together at this point.

Four different pepper varieties are hopelessly tangled together at this point.

No ripe fruits appear in these photos, because I had already picked them before I took these shots. I picked every ripe fruit I saw, because the forecast called for a nighttime low that usually translates to frost at my house. And peppers are very frost-sensitive. But the chill didn’t materialize, and today I picked a dozen more beautifully ripe fruits, some red, some yellow, all tasting of summer sunshine and vitamin C.

Planted garlic bed

Planted garlic bed

Wonder Spouse only just planted the garlic he ordered, because the soil thermometer warned us that the soil was too warm until just a few days ago. Yes, that’s a potato in the foreground of the shot. A tiny spud somehow eluded Wonder Spouse during last spring’s harvest, and he didn’t have the heart to pull up such a healthy-looking plant.

Salad Season, Part II

Salad Season, Part II

About six weeks ago, I direct-sowed all the remaining seeds of the greens I had planted for this past spring’s crop. I sowed thickly, because the seeds of lettuce and other greens are not supposed to keep well. Mine had been sitting in a box in my study, so I guess the air-conditioned house kept them happier than I realized. I think I got 100% germination from all varieties, including the carrots. I thinned as much as I could, moving seedlings to adjacent beds. But eventually I ran out of room. And enthusiasm.

Salad Bed #2

Salad Bed #2

Those are Queen Sophia marigolds in the foreground of the shot of the second big greens bed. They’re usually done for the season by now too. Not this year. I couldn’t bear to pull them up to make room for more greens. They were there first, after all.

Protected from the frost that refuses to materialize.

Protected from the frost that refuses to materialize.

A couple of days ago, the weather forecasters began speaking excitedly of the imminent arrival of seasonal autumn temperatures, so I broke out my row covers and covered the salad greens. The big tent on the left is protecting broccoli. However, the crop is not happy; I think it’s just been too hot for the plants to thrive. Of course, now the forecasters have raised the predicted nighttime lows to temperatures well above freezing. But the weather is at least cooler now. The row covers will probably just encourage the lettuces, spinaches, carrots, beets, and dill to grow a little faster, meaning more fresh salads. We aren’t complaining.

Queen Sophia marigolds own otherwise empty summer beds.

Queen Sophia marigolds own otherwise empty summer beds.

The marigolds I tucked in beside squashes, tomatoes, beans, etc. months ago have grown to epoch dimensions, spreading out as dead summer crops were pulled out of their way. Local bees — and the few stray butterflies still flitting about — are delighted the Queen Sophias continue to reign with enthusiasm.

A closer look at the Queen Sophias.

A closer look at the Queen Sophias.

What a strange autumn. We had almost no fall color, because the nighttime temperatures were too warm. A cold front that blew in today denuded many of the canopy giants in my yard. Yet summer peppers, salad greens, and sunny marigolds continue to thrive. That’s why I’m still gardening after more than 50 years of playing in the dirt. Every year — and every season — is different.

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