Home Gardens Musings Uncategorized

Spring Outside


What is good news for my garden and yard is bad news for my blog.  Every spare moment in May was spent establishing our new garden, nestled in our sunny gently sloping field. Grass, along with horsetails, thistles, and milkweed, have been happy residents of this spot for years and are not giving up without a fight.  When my back needed a break from weeding row after row, I would mow, trying to keep our small yard from turning back into a field.

Admittedly, spending mornings and evenings outside in the sunshine and fresh air feels like a luxury.  I certainly never wished I were (or thought I should be) inside on my computer.  Being in the garden day after day allowed me to sink my roots into our new land, appreciating the subtle seasonal shifts in smells, tastes, bird and butterfly visitors, and distant valley views.

What is even better news for my garden is that I now have time to start posting blogs again!  All the seeds and seedlings have been planted and weeding can be handled in shorter sessions a few times a week.  Our resident bluebirds and swallows keep an eye on things and remove pesky veggie-eating bugs.  Our fence reminds neighbor deer and rabbit to find their dinner elsewhere.  We are enjoying bountiful salads topped with fresh herbs and flowers whenever we want.  This year my garden has helped me deeply soak in the pleasures of spring in Vermont.  For this I am grateful.

Yes, milkweed, you may grow outside my garden gate.  No, horsetail, you may not grow in my broccoli row.






Home Gardens Recipes

Tomato Time, Salsa Season

Can you believe the wonderful coincidence?  All the ingredients needed for salsa are peaking in the garden.  Nothing is better at the end of a sunny August day than a just-made batch of salsa using freshly picked ingredients.  Our veggies worked all day to convert the sun’s rays into sugars, and now we get to gobble them up!  Check out our basic salsa recipe below, and then experiment and adjust to integrate other fruits and veggies you have on hand. All quantities are approximate – we allow them to ebb and flow depending on what is coming out of the garden.  We use a food processor to chop up the ingredients.  If you don’t have one, you can dice everything by hand to make a chunkier but equally tasty dish.

Basic Salsa Recipe
-Wash tomatoes (5), tomatillos (10), onions (2), bell/sweet peppers (2), jalapeño/hot pepper (1), and cilantro (small bunch)
-Chop into large chunks using a paring knife, depositing the tomatoes and tomatillos into one bowl, and the onions, peppers, and cilantro into a second.  This cutting step ensures that you won’t get left with any huge chunks after a quick blend in the food processor.  We’ve found that separating the soft (tomato and tomatillo) and hard (pepper and onion) ingredients allows us to achieve a better final consistency.
-Blend your soft ingredients briefly.  Make sure all chunks are small (but not liquified).  Dump into your mixing bowl.
-Blend your hard ingredients.  This may take a bit longer.  Make sure all onions and hot peppers are processed small enough to avoid startlingly spicy mouthfuls when eating.
-Stir together both batches.
-Use a fine colander or sieve to remove nearly all of the liquid (save for drinking or soup)
-Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt to your strained salsa.  If you don’t have tomatillos (or even if you do), you may also want to add a squirt of lime juice.
-Stir and taste.  Adjust.  Enjoy!

Our basic fresh salsa, ready to eat
In this batch, we added peaches and corn to our ingredient list! Highly recommended, especially if you have these fresh ingredients available in August where you live.
Dinner of corn on the cob; rice; garlicky black beans with sweet red peppers and toasted cumin, corn chips, and two salsas. Mmm!
Home Gardens Recipes

Savoring Eggplant

This has been a banner year for eggplants in our cold Vermont valley.  They flourished during the summer’s early start and periods of hot dry weather.* After several different cooking experiments, I’ve crafted my favorite eggplant recipe.  Its simplicity brings out the subtle sweetness and full flavor of our home grown beauties.

*Growing tips are at the end of the post

Pan-fried Eggplant:

What you need: Eggplants, olive oil, salt, frying pan, basting brush, spatula

-Slice eggplant into rounds 1/4 inch thick (uniform thickness makes it easier to cook each piece for the perfect amount of time)
-Coat a frying pan with a thin layer of olive oil and bring up to high heat (this is only necessary when starting, and doesn’t need to be repeated in subsequent batches)
-Use a basting brush to coat one side of each eggplant round.  Lay oil-side-down onto the hot frying pan.  Keep flame at a medium-hot level.
-After 3-5 minutes, use spatula to check under the eggplant rounds for browning (I like mine slightly burnt as if they were grilled).  If they look ready to flip, use the basting brush to coat the uncooked faces with olive oil and flip.
-Lower heat a bit if the eggplant is burning before cooking through.  You’ll want the insides to reach a high temperature to soften, while cooking the outsides enough to be fried brown.
-Once each side has browned and eggplant seems soft and cooked through, remove from pan and place on a serving platter.  Continue to fry batches until all eggplant is cooked.
-Sprinkle salt and/or grate parmesan on top of eggplant platter.  Garnish with parsley or basil.

Eggplant fried in olive oil, garnished with parmesan and parsley
August harvest meal: fried eggplants, sungold tomato basil salad, and sauteed peppers topped with toasted sunflower seeds

*Growing Eggplants:  In the northeast, eggplants may need to be babied to mature fast enough to provide the grower with a decent harvest.  It was my Somerville Italian-American neighbors who modeled the strategy I use today: growing in large, preferably black, pots.  This allows the soil to heat up and prevents the eggplant roots from rotting if there is too much rain.  This strategy helps the eggplants to mature and flower earlier in the season, extending the amount of time they can fruit before the first frost.

Eggplants in 5 gallon plastic pots. Black pots help the soil warm up even more.
This year our eggplants also thrived in standard garden beds.
Home Gardens Recipes

Dressing up Salads

At last!  We’re eating fruits and roots out of the garden – not just leaves and shoots. Though lettuce and asparagus are still in our weekly harvest mix, our salads are getting much more colorful and interesting as peas, carrots, kohlrabi, cucumbers, and summer squash mature in the garden.

Almost everyone who has eaten at our home in Vermont can remember the salad dressing – a garlicky dijon that is a meal time fixture all year round.  At this point, we pour in the ingredients and adjust to taste without using a recipe.  Due to popular demand, we finally took out the measuring spoons and wrote out a recipe to share.  The creamy dressing is great for green and grain salads.

To make one quart, combine:
-1/2 cup Grey Poupon (or any dijon mustard)
-1.5 cup plain yogurt
-1/4 cup cider vinegar.
-Mix above until homogenous.
-Grate in 4-6 cloves garlic.  Mix.
-Add 2 cups olive oil (For a milder flavor, pick a veggetable oil that is fresh, organic and cold pressed to avoid rancidity and genetic modification, processing, and preservative use in conventional options)
-Whisk or blend in a food processor until homogenous.
-Add salt or more of any of the ingredients above to taste.

We like to use on green salads, like the ones below; as a dip for carrot, cucumber or kohlrabi sticks; or to flavor a favorite combination of barley, asparagus, and hazelnuts!

Strawberry, sugar snap pea, and pea tendril spring salad

Cucumber, carrot, summer squash, arugula, and dill on lettuce
Home Gardens School Gardens

Time to Keep Garden Pests Under Control

It’s been a great growing season.  We got an early start and have had a decent mix of rain and warm sunny days.  Now that your tender seedlings are reaching up toward the sky, it’s a crucial time to prevent pest damage.  Plants are especially vulnerable when they are young with only a few leaves to gather energy from the sun.  Unfortunately, young tender leaves are also the most desirable food for most pests.

I have found it helpful to review the life cycle of an insect with gardeners trying to keep pests out of their gardens.  Different insects are easier to control at certain stages – checking out this page may save you a lot of time and energy!

For small kitchen or container gardens, the best way to keep pests under control is daily monitoring and hand picking/squishing.  If squishing bugs, eggs, and caterpillars between your fingers feels too violent or gross, you can place critters between a leaf or tissue first.  Remember to look under leaves and along stems – pests are rarely in plain sight!

If your plants are really being attacked, use google to find organic pest solutions using words describing what you have observed, the type of plant, and the word “organic.”  In the photos below, I’ve illustrated some of the bugs bothering our vegetables:

Young cabbage worm on broccoli leaf

Can you find me?  This is a small cabbage worm on a broccoli seedling.  They are very well camouflaged and are usually found along the stem or underside of the leaves of broccoli, cabbage, kale, or collards.

Snail on broccoli seedling

Snails and slugs thrive in damp humid environments.  One down-side of mulching is the creation of snail and slug homes near your plants.  They usually come out after dark and feast at night.

Three Lined Potato Beetle laying eggs on tomatillo seedling

These little beetles love love love our tomatillo plants. They lay small bright orange eggs on the undersides of leaves. Squish eggs, and then the little brown worms that emerge, to avoid breeding the hard-to-catch and destructive adult beetles!

Beetle eggs on the underside of a tomatillo leaf
Flea Beetle damage to eggplant seedling

Flea beetles damage leaves of plants from many different families.  To keep them off your seedlings, try laying row cover cloth over the young plants and sealing the edges to the ground using rocks or stakes.  Once the plants have enough leaves to withstand these pests, remove the cloth.  This is a good preventative method for all flying pests (remember, most insects in their adult stages can fly and are hard to catch and kill).

Row covers protect young cucumber seedlings
Black netting keeps our cat out

Remember that non-insect pests also cause damage to gardens. This black netting is lightly mounded over the soil and keeps our cat from using the newly seeded carrot bed as a litter box.

Marigolds and tomatos planted side by side

Remember to use preventative methods to keep pests out.  Strong healthy plants do not attract as many pests or diseases compared to stressed ones.  Companion planting, like the tomato and marigold pairing above, will help your organic garden thrive.  Some companions actually help their friends by attracting predatory insects that will eat the pests!

As you work to keep pests away, never forget that organic gardening depends on creating an ecosystem in your garden.  That ecosystem includes pollinating and predatory insects.  Always look up the pest before squishing – it might, after all, be a garden friend.

Home Gardens Recipes

Spring Garden Recipes: Sauces and Dressings

By the end of winter I eagerly await the first spring greens, herbs, and shoots.  The prospect of peas, asparagus, cilantro, baby lettuce and chive blossoms motivates me to prepare and plant my container gardens.  I frequent the winter farmer’s market and enjoy some early greenhouse grown items, but I tend to hold out for my own first harvest.  There’s nothing more rewarding than satisfying a seasonal craving with you-grown foods!

Happily, I can proclaim that it’s finally that time of year!  One key to my enjoyment of spring veggies are the sauces and dressings I serve them with. Here are a few flavor combinations and recipe ideas I enjoy most in the spring:

Freshly harvested spring salad ingredients: cut lettuce leaves off above the “growing bud” so each plant will continue to produce new leaves

Baby Greens with Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette and Chive Blossom Garnish:
-An easy and delicious vinaigrette is simply 1:1:1 Balsamic Vinegar to Maple Syrup to Olive Oil.  Adjust to preference and consider adding garlic, salt, and pepper.

Young cilantro: always leave a leaf or two for the plant! I picked 1-2 leaves off of each seedling.

Cilantro Aioli:
-A fun dip if you like cilantro and want to add some spark to steamed or grilled veggies. Start by combining 4 T. mayonnaise, 1 wedge squeezed lime juice,  1 small garlic clove, salt, pepper, 1/2 t. honey, several sprigs of cilantro finely chopped, and flowers from several chive blossoms (finely chopped red onion can substitute).  Adjust to taste!  I added in toasted cumin seeds just before serving.

Garlicky chickpeas and rice, spring salad, and sweet potato fries with cilantro aioli.

Remember your garnish: Herb blossoms or finely chopped herbs are usually available from spring gardens and add great sparks of flavor.  They also make your meals look great!  Grated sharp cheeses like parmesan also add great savory and salty flavor to veggie-heavy meals.

Chive blossoms: most herb blossoms taste similar to the leaf and make beautiful additions to salads
Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Starting a Container Garden

Do you rent?  Do you have limited if any space to grow vegetables this summer?  Are you thinking about moving apartments in June or September?  Do you hesitate to garden because you might have to buy a lot of new supplies?

Good news: if you’re willing to be creative and resourceful, YOU can have an easy container garden this season!  There are a few key items that you will need, and a few key facts that will help your plants thrive.

Key Materials:
-SOIL: The most important and sometimes most expensive item for city gardeners.  I recommend mixing a bagged organic potting mix with compost to prevent compaction and promote more even water release.  Your mix can last up to two years, but after that should be dumped on a tarp or in a bigger container, mixed up with new additions of compost, and used to refill containers.  The best way to get compost is to have a compost bin or worm bin the year before you start to compost.  If you’re a Cambridge resident (or drag a friend who is along), you can get small amounts of FREE compost from the recycling center! I called to confirm that this program still exists – it does.  Just make sure to go during their open hours and bring your own container.  If neither of these options works for you, check out the organic bagged soil options at your local garden or hardware store – then at least your dollars support local businesses.

-CONTAINERS: We get free four and five gallon buckets from Tufts Dining Services for sap collection during the Somerville Maple Syrup Project.  Usually large food-grade containers (you wouldn’t want to garden in old chemical containers!) can be found in the recycling dumpsters by large food service operations.  Keeping an eye on the streets on trash day during the spring can be rewarding – neighbors buy large potted plants and plant them, leaving the plastic containers for the garbage truck.  Make sure to get a large enough pot for your desired plant with drainage holes (can be poked or stabbed).

-SEEDS or SEEDLINGS: Both Cambridge Whole Foods (River and Prospect St.) sell High Mowing Seeds, one of the only organic options in stores.  If you’re on top of your game, you can order from seed catalogues.  This year, we’re almost past that point.  If these options don’t work for you, get what you can find in the grocery or hardware store and plan ahead next year.  Local Farmer’s markets and seedling sales support local farms and community groups.  Locally owned garden stores are also good bets for finding vegetable seedlings.  If you get seedlings, find out what local community sales or sites are planned for the spring.  Buying from chain stores is as problematic as buying food from chain stores – seedlings come from far away and are all raised together, enabling the easy spread of disease across the nation.

Key Tips:
-Plants need sun.  Plants are extremely resourceful when living in questionable situations, but you should place containers in the sunniest place possible.  I’ve grown heat-loving plants like tomatoes under a porch roof with great success, but they are on the south-west edge of that porch and get great afternoon light.
-Keep containers evenly moist.  In the middle of the summer, on hot days, this might mean watering in the morning and at night.  It also means that you should make sure that excess water can drain out holes in the bottom of your containers, especially if containers are not under a roof.  I used an awl to poke holes in the bottom of my containers before filling them, and have them sitting in large, edged plastic plates.  This keeps water from leaking out everywhere – I water until I see it start to drip out the bottom.
-If planting seeds, make sure to follow guidelines on the back of the packet.  Depth in the soil, and planting at the right time of year is key for successful seedlings.
-Make sure your pots are big enough!  I’ve seen too many small containers on porches and front stoops holding struggling tomatoes and other veggies.  The root system of a healthy plant is as big as the above-ground growth.  Use 2-5 gallon containers for most veggies.  Some herbs can grow in smaller containers.
-Keep an eye out for diseases and pests.  Most can be treated easily if caught early.  IF you notice something unusual, google it and include “organic” in your search terms.  The internet can be a wonderful and free resource!  You’ll learn as you go, don’t feel like you need to read a lot of books and become an expert before you even start.

Check out other blogs!  There are a lot of innovative people experimenting with container gardening.  A few I’ve enjoyed recently include:

My first urban porch tomatoes, on Boston Ave. in Medford
Herbs, leafy veggies, and tomatoes in containers in back. Front: using the warm summer weather and direct sun to revive my indoor plants


Porter Square porch garden harvest

Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Seeds vs. Seedlings

With these early warm temperatures, many people are starting to think about summer vegetable gardening.  And it’s the perfect time to start your own seeds!  I usually start tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants in the second half of March and most other seedlings after that.  But should you start your own seedlings?  The answer isn’t necessarily yes.

Many great local farms and community organizations sell seedlings.  Even if six packs are more expensive then seed packages, remember your money is going to a good cause.  If you’ve been growing vegetables for a year or two (or more!) and are looking for a new challenge, go for it!  It also is often worth the effort for folks with very large vegetable gardens or farms.  But remember, strong seedlings are the key to success for a healthy summer vegetable garden.   You’ll need the right equipment, enough time to care for the seedlings, and an attention for detail to raise strong seedlings.

The first key thing to find out is which plants should be grown into seedlings indoors or in a cold frame.  Some seeds hate being transplanted and should simply be directly sowed into their final resting place – be it a container garden or in the ground.  I always direct sow beans, carrots, cilantro, corn, cucumbers, dill, summer squash/zucchini, baby lettuce greens, beets, leeks, spinach, other greens, onion “sets”, peas, potatoes (pieces of potatoes, not seeds), radishes,  and pumpkins/winter squash.

Head lettuce, kale, and chard will need to be transplanted.  However, I’ve had good luck planting them in outdoor beds, rather than indoors in seedling trays.  After they’ve grown their second set of leaves, I then spread them apart by transplanting them into their final summer resting place.

Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, kohlrabi, broccoli, and cauliflower are best started indoors or in a greenhouse.  If you want to grow these from seed, make sure the following pieces are in place!

  • Be sure not to get in over your head.  Start the number of plants you can care for.  Try starting one or two of your favorite varieties of a veggie listed above if it’s your first year.
  • You’ll need really strong natural light.  If you don’t have a sunny southern window, consider buying a grow light (or put a full spectrum fluorescent bulb into a regular fixture).  You can see my set-up from last year below – the grow light is propped up on containers from my pantry.  I substitute in taller containers as the plants grow.  You can see that the light is quite close to the seedlings – keeping light this low prevents seedlings from being leggy – one of the most common weaknesses of home-grown starts.
  • Buy seed starting potting mix.  There are organic soil mixes available at most garden stores.  These mixes keep moisture even, contain the nutrients young plants need, and don’t compact like outdoor soil will.
  • You also will need warm temperatures for certain seeds to germinate (65-75 degrees).  Sunny windows can be warmer than the rest of your house.  Anything with a motor, like a refrigerator, can also provide extra warmth to specific places in your house.  If you don’t have any particularly warm places, you may need to buy a heat pad to get tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and basil to germinate.  I bought one from Johnny’s that worked well for my eggplants.
  • Timing: You want to start seeds so that they are the right size when it is warm enough to plant them outdoors.  UMass Extension has good guidelines (and many other resources for Massachusetts gardeners), or you can search for other charts online.
  • Make durable labels.  You need to know which plants are which.  I suggest popsicle sticks with permanent marker.  You can also cut strips out of recycled plastic containers and write with permanent marker on them.
  • Pay attention!  Even water is key for healthy seedlings.  Lights should be kept close to the tallest leaves, but you don’t want these leaves to touch the bulb.  Once you see plants developing their second set of leaves, you may need to transplant them into lager containers so they do not become root bound.  Keeping a close eye on your spring babies will set you up for success.
There are many websites offering advice for first time seed starters.  Check them out if you want more informaiton!  I found Mother Earth NewsNational Garden Bureau Organic,  and Gardener’s Supply interesting and informative.

Home Gardens Musings School Gardens

Gardening with a Changing Climate

Last weekend I planted lettuce, spinach, and pea seeds in the buckets on my porch.  The soil was toasty warm and over-wintered chives stretched as tall as my hand.  I wish I had measured them – I swear they grew an inch that day as they enjoyed temperatures in the 70s.

As I mentioned in a January blog entry, we tapped our maple trees two weeks early this season.  We didn’t know if sap would even flow – there were few deep freezes this winter and temperatures went above freezing on most days.  December and January temperatures are usually below freezing.  When they rise above 32 during the day, we know it is time to tap.  This year we didn’t receive any such guidance from the local climate.

In validation of these observations of warming climate and earlier seasons, the USDA released a new hardiness zone map at the start of 2012.Minimum temperatures rose across the country.  We can now officially plant earlier in the spring and expect frosts to come later in the fall.  Click on the map to see what zone you live in.  Remember to account for different micro climates, such as warmer temperatures by a south facing wall or cooler temperatures on north facing slopes.

Though it is important not to make climate change claims based on individual weather events, all of our local observations indicate that the gardening season is getting longer.  It’s still too early to plant certain vegetables in Massachusetts, and will likely stay cool at night.  Spinach, chard, kale, lettuce and peas are all great cool weather plants that can tolerate cool nights.  Get those seeds in and you could enjoy an early spring harvest this year!

Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Backyard Gardening: Putting the Garden to Bed

This post is a bit overdue, we put the garden to bed the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  Given this year’s temperatures, we could have done it on New Years Day!

Putting a vegetable garden to bed in the fall isn’t truly necessary, but it makes things much easier in the spring.  It will allow you to plant earlier, when soil is still quite wet from melting snow.  Your garden will also look cleaner and more attractive to neighbors and housemates in urban settings.

Choosing the right time can be tricky, especially when first frosts are coming later and later in the season.  This year we had our first frost on November 2 in the city, leaving everything but chard and kale limp and dead.  These hardy greens, however, often get thicker sweeter leaves in the late cool fall, so I like to leave my garden intact until I’ve finished eating them all.  However, I also try to get my garden tucked away for the winter before it gets so cold that outdoor work becomes a painful chore.

Once you’re ready to unearth your veggie plant stumps and skeletons, gather a shovel, pruners, soil rake, a place to put your compost-ready plants, and some sort of mulch.  Leaves offer a free option, but these often blow away.  Salt march hay or straw (make sure it doesn’t have seeds) stay in place better and can be bought from a garden store.  First, pull out all your old plants, chop them up into 4″ pieces and put them into the compost.  Keeping compost additions small will ease in turning your heap.  Next, turn over your soil to kill any small weed plants and aerate your soil.  This is a good time to add completed compost or soil amendments so that everything will be ready in the spring.  Once you have raked your soil flat, add a layer of mulch over the top.  It can help to water the entire garden after mulching it to weigh down the mulch and keep it from blowing away.  Mulch will prevent weed seeds from sprouting early in the spring and will keep soil from blowing away or eroding during the winter.

We sifted completed compost out of the bin, re-layered its contents with our new dead plants, tilled the new compost into our garden soil, and mulched the garden with leaves in about 45 minutes!  Plenty of time was left for some pick-up basketball during the unseasonably warm late November weekend.