Sunday, December 28, 2008


The seeds catalogs have begun to arrive. We huddle for warmth, covet the contents, and plot our next moves.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Root Down

We harvested a bucketful of carrots on Wednesday, our fingers aching with every dip into the cold, damp soil. They are extremely short, so I’d spy a bit juicy top sticking out of the ground, only to reach over and pull up a two-inch-long root. But man, was it worth it. Even after months in the ground, almost every carrot is crisp and sweet—hardly any have gone bitter. We’ve already given about a third of them away, so what do we do with the rest?

I made applesauce today with some of the apples we have left from our trip to Syracuse. Sweetened with some maple syrup and spiced with cinnamon and a puff of cardamom (Mark’s genius suggestion), it was mighty tasty. Ate it for dessert with TJ’s gingerbread boxed mix, which, by the way, is almost as good as my mom’s from scratch. What is their secret? Usually boxed mixes taste like, well, the box. And chemicals.

We’ve been really active at Genesis Farm these past couple of months. We are sorely remiss in not writing about our experiences there, especially my fascinating food politics course. More to come soon.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Saving Seeds

Mark attended a workshop over three Saturday mornings in September to learn from the pros how to harvest, process, and save seeds. He was so enthusiastic about it that he convinced me to attend the last session. You'd think that you can just take the seeds out of whatever fruit or vegetable you have, dry it out, and then plant it in the ground later on, but some seeds have adapted to protect themselves in such a way that they actually need some help. Tomato seeds, for example, are coated in a kind of jelly--you've seen it--that needs to ferment in order to be viable. The mold eats the protective outer layer, and the seed can't germinate without it.

Processing some seeds, such as shelling peas, feels like such a profoundly useful activity that I could do it all day. We learned winnowing (I've always wondered what that was) with leek seeds, which entails rubbing handfuls of seed between your palms to separate the chaff from the seed itself, and then blowing the chaff away by pouring everything from one vessel to another in front of a fan. After you sift the mixture, all you're left with are the little black seeds, which in this case will be sent to a small, local seed company.

I love this kind of work because it's methodical, almost meditative, but it can also be social. All of us sat on the floor of the barn on a mild, damp day, working and chatting, and several hours passed before we knew it. There's even talk of starting a collective seed bank using our own gardens and seeds.

And speaking of seeds, we just got our garlic in the mail. It goes in the ground this week, becoming our official first planting for 2009. And the cycle begins again.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


The tomato plants have gone sparse and yellow, with a few Amish Paste and Nyagous hanging on for dear life, and a few green ones desperately trying to ripen before the first frost. That might be sooner than expected--last night it was 47 degrees. The few cherry tomatoes we missed are splitting and rotting on the vine. Mark strongly believes that our tomatoes peaked so early because of the red mulch, and he very well may be correct.

The chard is still going strong, and we have a few scallions left in the ground, but the real surprise has been the carrots, which are so tender and sweet, unlike any I've ever brought home from the store. We just pull them out of the ground as we need them. So far the only way we've eaten them is to clean them and snack on them raw and unadulterated (that sounds dirty, doesn't it?) because they're so delicious.

We picked our lonely delicata squash, which got to be about the size of a grapefruit, but we haven't eaten it yet. Not sure if the two tiny melons will ever mature, but we're waiting it out a little longer. The fingerling potatoes produced a couple of pounds, but it wasn't the bountiful harvest we'd hoped for.

This time of year is so sad, with everything winding down. So why do I love it so?

Broccoli v2.0

Mark started some broccoli and lettuce in the basement to see if we can get a fall crop. This time we planted the broccoli in one of the boxes close to the house and moved in some marigolds next door to try to ward off those hungry creatures.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


18 pounds of tomatoes: left and center, from our garden; right, from the CSA

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Roasted Summer Vegetable Salad

I feel so smug when I come up with a recipe that’s nutritious, like I’ve gotten away with something. This warm salad could be a complete meal in itself, although I served it alongside homemade pizza. It’s versatile, too; you could easily make it with fall vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, butternut squash, and potatoes. Roasted garlic would be terrific. Next time I might finish it off with some shavings of pecorino romano.

Roasted Summer Vegetable Salad


1 red bell pepper
1 medium eggplant
1 medium pattypan squash or zucchini
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon garlic powder
salt & pepper

1 cup cannellini beans (canned is fine)
2 cups baby spinach leaves, raw
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh thyme

Heat oven to 450°F. While you wait, roughly chop the pepper, eggplant, and summer squash into about 1½-inch chunks. Spread vegetables in a single layer on a baking sheet, then sprinkle with garlic powder and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle olive oil over and toss until vegetables are evenly coated. Roast for 15-20 minutes, mixing once halfway through cooking time. Remove vegetables from oven when they’ve started to caramelize but are still firm.

Allow vegetables to cool for about 10 minutes, then add to a bowl with the cannellini beans and spinach. Chop the thyme finely, sprinkle that over, and follow with the sherry vinegar. You’ll probably need another little drizzle of olive oil. Taste to see if any extra salt or pepper is necessary, and enjoy.

Serves 4.

Monday, August 25, 2008


For all of my tears over the endrot on the tomatoes, production this year has been pretty good so far. Many of the damaged fruits were salvageable; we just cut off the ends and used those tomatoes for salsa or sauce. I wish I could post photos of their gorgeousness, but our camera is in the shop. I'd estimate that we've been harvesting about 5 lbs a week for the past two weeks.

Yesterday we had the singular pleasure of serving a deceptively simple insalata caprese at a little family party. Why do we even bother eating tomatoes at any other time of the year?

The Nyagous variety are almost black and terrifically sweet, with probably the best flavor I've ever tasted in a slicing tomato. They don't get huge, but I'll take flavor over size any day. The other winner this year is the Isis Candy cherry tomatoes, which are also incredibly sweet. I like them better than last year's Concords, but Mark thinks they're comparable. Regardless, we're growing both again next year.

In the plum tomato category, the San Marzano are definitely superior to Amish Paste. It seems there's something to the hype after all. We only had a few plants from Catalpa Ridge this year, but there will be more in 2009 for sure.

The Furry Yellow Hogs are just that--well, fuzzy and yellow, anyway. They look like strangely shaped peaches, and taste pretty good, too. Even so, they probably won't make the cut next year when we pare down. Mark only wants to do 16 plants, convinced that they'll produce as much as this year's 36 because they'll produce better when less crowded. I'm skeptical.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Rhubarb-Ginger Jam

I know rhubarb is supposedly a spring thing, but mine starts in May and doesn’t quit until the end of summer. Today I picked over 3 pounds, and I know exactly what I’m going to do with it—make rhubarb-ginger jam. Rhubarb bread and muffins are good and all, and I’ve been meaning to try some British recipes for rhubarb fool or trifle, but you just can’t beat this jam, which is so easy to make and turns out perfect every time. It’s a lovely balance between sweet and tart, and the ginger and orange flavors make it a little unique. Try it with some melting butter on a warm English muffin.

Rhubarb-Ginger Jam


1 pound sliced rhubarb
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup chopped crystallized ginger (about 2 ounces)
1 teaspoon grated orange peel

Combine all ingredients in heavy medium saucepan. Stir over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until jam thickens and mounds on spoon, stirring often to prevent scorching, about 20 minutes. Transfer to bowl. Cover; chill. (Can be prepared 1 week ahead. Keep chilled.)

Makes 1 1/2 cups. Adapted from Bon Appétit.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Status Report: The Epic Saga

Warning: This post will most likely be really boring to everyone but ourselves. Proceed at your own risk.

Basil: The Genovese and Thai basil never got big and robust as they did last year, perhaps because this year’s location is not sunny enough. They were under row covers for a long time, which was good in the beginning. But we left them on to keep off pests when we went on vacation, and the July heat may have stunted their growth. We’ll put them back in one of the boxes by the driveway next year. Mama needs her summer pesto fix!

Unlike the others the holy basil was in a pot, and it grew better than all the other basil, probably because it was in full sun on the deck. Ironic, since it was so anemic last season.

Beans: We got a handful of the Jacob’s Cattle, and it looks to be the same for the McCaslans, which we haven’t harvested yet.

Bitter melon: Has flowered, but no fruit so far.

Broccoli: The bastard groundhogs cutworms ate them all. We’re sprouting more now in an attempt to get a fall crop.

Carrots: Very enthusiastic so far; we keep having to thin them because the greens are getting so big. Hopefully this will translate into a good harvest.

Silverbeet Rainbow chard: We planted these in between the lettuces, which took over the box and hardly left the chard any room to grow. Mark pulled out the lettuce after it bolted, and now we have a modest crop of chard to get us through the summer.

Cilantro: Grew huge, but still bolted too fast. I swear, the window for harvesting cilantro must be about a week. Maybe plant it in a shadier spot next year? We’ve read the heat causes it to bolt. However, we waited until the seeds formed, then dried out the stalks and got some lovely coriander seed with a clean, bright flavor.

Culantro: We’re not sure what this is supposed to look like. It looks healthy, but the lower leaves are turning yellow. Mark is doing some research to find out if we can bring it inside for the winter, since it is a tasty herb—its flavor is very similar to cilantro.

Eggplant: The Caspers and Thai didn’t get much light and then got devoured by flea beetles. After those two strikes we aren’t very optimistic about production. The Sri Lankan and Chinese plants are small but starting to pick up momentum. One of the Chinese has flowers blooming all over it, so we’ll see.

Garlic: We couldn’t be happier with the results. They just sat there for nine months and produced a couple dozen big, fat heads. We won’t change too much next year except maybe plant more if we have the space, and maybe some of a softneck variety.

American Flag leeks: Looking great; about 1-inch diameter so far, about as big as our scallions, which look like they’re on steroids.

Lettuce: Very successful, both varieties producing for all of May and June. The head variety never really formed heads, though. Maybe we can plant them in a shadier spot next year; they might appreciate the cooler conditions.

Early Hanover melon: Three or four melons are developing right now, although we don’t know how big they’ll get. The largest is currently the size of a tennis ball.

Burmese okra: This might not be the best variety for our temperate zone; it’s just not hot enough. The plant is 12” tall, has about three leaves, and has produced a grand total of two pods. We gave one of our seedlings to some friends who live nearby, and they have had the same result.

Onions: They never really got a great chance because the seedlings were disturbed so much by squirrels in the beginning. A few cipollini have surfaced, tiny but edible. So far we’ve resisted the temptation to pull any sweet Spanish onions up. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Parsley: Last year’s parsley went to seed and grew like a weed this year. The main stalks are tough and inedible, but the outer leaves taste fine, and we use them frequently. Sadly, we can’t say the same for the seedlings we got from Well-Sweep, which got some disease early on and never really grew.

Amish snap pea: This is one of our favorite vegetables; we snack on them straight off the vine. They produced well all through June. Next year we might start them two weeks earlier. The pre-sprouted seeds didn’t grow any faster than ones planted right in the ground. Go figure.

Purple Coffee pepper: These are producing wildly and look awesome. Of course it would be the variety that’s too spicy to even eat. One of the plants has yellow peppers for some reason. They look like light bulbs.

Thai pepper: One of our best producers was grown from seeds we bought a year ago. All of Mark’s efforts getting them to germinate finally paid off.

Hot Lemon pepper: Doing great in pots on the deck. These are darn tasty; just the right spiciness

Kevin’s Early Orange pepper: These slowpokes have taken forever just to get to a decent size. We don’t even think they’ve got buds yet.

Aji Dulce pepper: Just starting to get flowers. May have done better in a pot, since it’s a low, bushy, compact plant and grows so slowly.

Ancho Gigantea pepper: A few peppers have formed, but none are ripe yet.

Ampuis pepper: We just ate the first of these this week. They’re gorgeous and red, the size of a plum, but thin-walled and thick-skinned. The flavor is great, but Kate is not crazy about them.

Mystery pepper: After all of the planning and organizing, we ended up with some peppers that we can’t identify. They tasted great, though—fruity and spicy and bright red. Maybe it’s not our fault and the plant is a mutant. We’re definitely saving the seeds.

Potatoes: Just ate the first Purple Viking potatoes tonight for dinner, and man, are they good—fluffy and crisp and clean-tasting. We harvested a few because the plants turned yellow and died, so we pulled up the roots to see what was up. We got four baseball-sized purple potatoes, so we’re optimistic about the rest. Hope the fingerlings are doing as well.

Scallions: Unlike last year, when they stayed all sad and spindly, these are doing wonderfully. They’ve gotten really big, but they’ve stayed nice and fresh, and Kate just pulls a few out of their box whenever we need them, exactly as she’d hoped.

Monnopa spinach: Produced wonderfully, and the staggered planting worked out great. Tasted great as well—none of that squeaky feeling on the teeth when you chew it. We’re delighted that Nico loves to pull off leaves and eat them right out of the garden. Now we just have to stop him from pulling all the leaves off the plants and trying to eat them.

Delicata squash: Has one good-sized squash so far, looking good.

Tomatoes: Ah, the tomatoes, our pride and joy! Mark had so many new ideas this year, and since there were so many variables we’re not sure what worked and what didn’t. We were devastated to return from our vacation and find that about half of the fruits were afflicted with end rot. Fortunately, we have so freakin’ many tomatoes that we’re still left with plenty of good ones.

Nyagous and Isis are the big winners this year, both super-sweet and delicious. Kate is just waiting to accumulate enough romas to make her favorite tomato confit.

Black Beauty zucchini: We’ve harvested—or rather, Nico has chowed down on—three good-sized zucchini in the past couple of weeks, but the plants are looking a little sad now because they’re just not getting enough light. You can see that this is a running theme, so stay tuned for a post in the recent future about Mark taking a chainsaw to all the trees on our property.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


The first thing we did upon returning home, before unpacking, even, was to harvest our garlic. It was long overdue, and we were very excited, being seasoned (heh) garlic-lovers. Still adjusting to the time difference, Kate woke up in the wee hours of Sunday morning and just had to pull one of those brown stalks out of the ground.

The result is pretty rewarding. Fresh garlic has a very different character from the kind at the grocery store. It's crisper, with the texture of an apple, and the flavor is milder. We made a loaf of garlic bread with 5 cloves, and the result was pleasant, not overwhelming. This week we'll be roasting some to spread on bread or toss with pasta and zucchini.

Now is the time to order more garlic for next year, and Kate is eager to get a softneck variety so she can dry the garlic in one of those braids that you can hang up and snip off a head whenever you need it. You can't do that with the hardneck kind. We also wanted to grow some softnecks so we would have scapes in the spring, but although the scapes we got from our CSA share were unique and tasty, they weren't the revelation we had hoped they'd be.

Next up: The full report.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Lazy Hazy

We're overdue for an update. Things have been so darn crazy around here, and the garden has been just plodding along, doing its thing. Nico's hands are stained purple with black raspberry juice. He loves identifying and picking the ripe ones himself. We were surprised to see our first two ripe tomatoes yesterday. Since we're leaving on vacation in about 6 hours, this photo essay will have to suffice as an update.

One last thing: RIP, broccoli. Whoever stripped every last one of your leaves--we'll get you someday! (Imagine me shaking my fist at the sky as I shout that.)

the jungle

ampuis pepper

RIP broccoli

zucchini and melons


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Beet and Bacon Salad

In honor of the inimitable oleophile Paula Deen, here is my interpretation of a bacon salad using beets and herbs from the farm and lettuce from our own garden. The avocado, cheese, and bit of bacon makes this taste decadent, but it's actually a well-balanced meal.

Beet and Bacon Salad


1 lb beet or 1 package pre-cooked beets
4 slices bacon
¼ cup sunflower seeds
4 cups lettuce
4 scallions
½ avocado
1 tsp fresh thyme
2 oz goat cheese or feta
olive oil & red wine vinegar
salt & black pepper

If your beets are raw, cut in 2-inch chunks. Steam for 20 minutes until fork-tender, then cut into 1-inch pieces. Chop uncooked bacon and fry until crispy, then pour out the fat and toast the sunflower seeds in the same pan.

Tear or coarsely chop the lettuce. Chop the scallions, avocado, and thyme. Crumble cheese over the top. Drizzle over the oil and vinegar to your liking. Season with salt and pepper, toss, and enjoy.

Serves 2

Saturday, June 7, 2008


Are we entering the lazy days of summer already? Our yard is supremely idyllic, with little edibles cropping up in every corner and every bush and tree a vibrant green. The iris and wild roses and peonies contribute to the lush summer palette. My favorite thing to do is lie in the grass and look up at the sky and the swaying branches. But there's still work to be done.

Today we're erecting tomato trellises in the 95-degree heat. Lo, we are intrepid! It's amazing how fast they've grown since we transplanted them just two weeks ago--at least 50 percent. The melons and squashes are already 3 inches tall, and the masses of white pea flowers mean that our tasty snap peas are just a week or two away.

We're already thinking about fall plantings--lettuce and chard and maybe some broccoli, since so much of this spring's crop was tragically felled. We are coming to understand just how much lettuce and spinach one family can eat. More recipes to come.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Commence Eating

Now we begin my favorite part of all this vegetable business--the eating! We purchased a share in a local organic farm this year, so I'm preparing to meet the challenge of eating very seasonally. We like this in theory, but it's a bit more difficult in practice. We've got greens coming out of our ears right now, and I suspect for the next month, so tonight I concocted something a little different to use the gorgeous bounty that's started coming in. Almost everything in these recipes is from the farm. Love it!

Spring Greens Tart with Smoked Cheese


2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
3 leeks (I used 2 leeks and some garlic greens)
6 cups of cooking greens (chard, mustard greens, spinach, or similar)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary (1 large sprig)
salt & pepper
6 oz smoked gouda
1 refrigerated pie crust
1 cup heavy cream
3 eggs
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

    Preheat oven to 400°F. Let pie crust stand at room temperature 15 minutes to soften. Press into pie plate and fold crust edge in, forming double-thick sides. Pierce dough all over with fork. Bake until light golden, about 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375°F.

    Split leeks in half lengthwise and cut into half-moons. You may need to soak them to remove all the grit. Melt butter in a dutch oven over medium heat and sauté leeks for 5 minutes. Rinse and coarsely chop greens and rosemary, then add to the pot. Mix the greens and let them cook until wilted, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

    Layer ½ the vegetable mixture on the bottom of the crust. Grate the cheese and scatter over the vegetables, then layer the rest of the greens and leeks on top.

    Whisk cream, eggs, salt and pepper in medium bowl to blend. Pour custard over vegetables. Bake in bottom third of oven until custard sets, 20-25 minutes. Cool tart 5-10 minutes in pan on rack. Cut tart into wedges and serve warm.

    Serves 8 (or 4-6 as a main course for dinner)

    Quintessential Spring Salad

    1 small head red lettuce
    4 radishes
    1 carrot
    ½ can chickpeas

    lemon-infused olive oil
    sherry vinegar
    salt & pepper

    Tear or coarsely chop the lettuce. Slice the radishes and carrot as thinly as you can—a mandoline comes in handy. Chop the chives, and combine all of the vegetables in a bowl. Drizzle over the lemon oil and sherry vinegar to your liking. Season with salt and pepper, toss, and enjoy.

    Serves 4

    Note: If you can find lemon oil, you should snag it. The flavor is wonderful. If you can’t find it, substitute highest-quality olive oil and some lemon juice or zest.


    We're just now recovering from a brutal weekend of backbreaking labor, constructing and filling two more raised beds and planting four of them. All I can say is this red mulch (which is really just a red plastic sheet) had better be worth it, because cutting all those holes in it and planting the tomatoes through it is a real bitch. We also lightened the nice compost topsoil with a bit of peat and added bone meal to the tomatoes and peppers when we transplanted them.

    It didn't help that Nico was a total menace, pulling up plants throwing objects over the stone wall and narrowly avoiding serious injury every five minutes. It was quite an ordeal, but at this point we've planted everything but the squashes and melons, which we hope to finish this week.

    The oak leaf lettuce and spinach are pretty voluminous; it's everything we can do to harvest them fast enough. Since our CSA share started last week, the fridge has been bursting with greens. Anyone know any creative recipes? I've started making up my own.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008

    First Harvest!

    Today we harvested 6 ounces of spinach, which is actually a decent amount. The oak leaf lettuce is almost ready, too.

    In this strange, mercurial weather we've been moving the tomatoes, okra, peppers, and basil outside in the morning on clear days and bringing them inside in the evening.

    We also moved the enthusiastic tomato plants to larger, proper containers that sit in plastic trays and allow us to water from the bottom.

    Pole and bush beans were planted last weekend; no sprouting yet.

    Mark built two more boxes for raised beds, and we'll be planting zucchini and melons in them this weekend.

    Other than that it's all about watching the peas and broccoli spring up and keeping an eye on the pests.

    Thursday, May 8, 2008

    Who's Ready For Next Year?

    Here are a few more lessons we’ve learned this year:
    - Use Saran Wrap instead of plastic dome covers for seed starting. The Saran Wrap can be removed from cells in which plants have sprouted but remain over incubating seeds.

    - Plant heat mats are not warm enough to make much difference in soil temperature. Next year we will invest in some variable temperature reptile heating mats.

    - Don’t plant more than one seed per cell. It’s better to end up with an extra flat of cells than to try to separate seedlings with tangled roots.

    - Be sparing when adding compost to seed starting mix. We used a 50:50 mix of compost to Promix when transferring the seedlings from the seed starting trays to larger containers. This ratio should probably be 10:90 compost to Promix. The excess amount of fertilizer from the compost probably caused leaf yellowing and curling in the pepper plants. The stressed plants lost some leaves and made easy targets for those infernal aphids.

    - Have a water source nearby. Bringing water from the kitchen to the basement one pitcher at a time is a drag.

    - Don’t overplant. Make sure that enough space will be available for all of the seedlings. Take into account the final pot size each plant will end up in, not just the number of 72 cell trays needed. Plan for some extra space for unforeseen events.

    - (For Mark) Don’t freak out. Plants are surprisingly resilient. Even though the peppers seemed pretty sick when they were attacked by aphids, they have recovered now and are doing well. Gardening is a lot more art than science and is subject to the freakish whims of nature. No amount of pre-planning is going to avert every problem. Besides, isn’t problem solving part of the fun?

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008

    State of the Garden

    I’ve already started to think about my mistakes from this last season and how to correct them for the future. Plant varieties have individual space needs and can’t all be started and transferred to the same types of containers. Here’s what I’m going to do next year:

    - Peppers, tomatoes, okra, broccoli, and eggplants can be started in 72-cell trays and then transferred to 4½” x 4½” x 4” tall plastic greenhouse pots until planting out.

    - Herbs can also be started in 72-cell trays and can be transferred to 3½” x 3½” x 3½” plastic pots.

    - Lettuce, spinach, chard, onions, and leeks should be started in flats and then transferred directly to the garden. The flats for the leafy greens can be relatively shallow, like a seedling tray. The alliums should have a container that is a few inches deeper than a seedling tray. The container should facilitate easy bottom-watering and soil removal.

    Space is another issue. We’ve spent a lot of time this year running around the house with flats looking for the best and most light. Until recently, the seedlings were kept well illuminated by eight 4’ fluorescent shop bulbs in the basement. The space quickly got crowded once the plants are moved from the 72-cell trays into larger containers. Although some room was gained as plants like broccoli, chard, and spinach were moved outside, the sheer number of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants have exceeded the available artificial light capacity. The problem of space was further compounded by the aphid problem with the pepper and basil seedlings. These susceptible plants had to be relocated from the basement and brought outside during daylight to deal with the infestation.

    The obvious solution to the space problem is to either increase capacity or decrease the number of seedlings we start. Of course, the second option is out of the question. Even though we expanded our seed starting enterprise substantially this last year, we will need to find even more space next year. To see why, here is a summary of our current situation:

    (2) 4’ fluorescent shop lights contain (4) bulbs and accommodate (2) trays/flats end-to-end. The tray/flat dimensions are approximately 24” x 12” x 2” tall and are perfectly sized to fit under the shop light. Right now, we have four shop lights and two 2’ fluorescent lights, each designed to fit one seedling tray. Our maximum tray capacity at one time is six, and right now we have a total of ten. You don’t need to be a math wizard to figure out the dilemma we’ve run into.

    Fortunately for us, the weather has turned warm enough for the surplus seedling trays to go out during the day. Moving the trays inside and outside every day is a pain in the ass and is obviously not a good solution. [Kate: And makes it so we can’t eat at our dining room table.] Mark is pushing for a hobby greenhouse for next year, although we’re not really in a financial position to justify one. Donations, anyone?

    Thursday, May 1, 2008

    Leafy Greens

    As for the plants we are attempting to control, here's the lowdown. After several weeks of waiting, we're thrilled to see potato plants popping up all over. We mistakenly thought they were wandering mint plants at first, since the leaves are all shriveled and round and furry-looking. They don't taste like mint, though. Hope we don't get poisoned from eating them!

    Both kinds of lettuce are flourishing, although still tiny, and the spinach is doing great. The garlic is getting so tall, and we're getting new scallions every day. The peas are shooting up like crazy and sending out tendrils in all directions, so it's good we gave them all those strings to climb.

    We planted carrots and some more leeks, but generally we're just waiting until the next wave of planting in a couple of weeks after the most serious threat of frost has passed.


    Even as we hover over our tiny seedlings and coax potatoes to sprout, spring is busting out all around us. Right now the most gorgeous flora is that over which we have no control, like the forsythia and dogwoods and azaleas. The green helps keep us going during this strange limbo between plantings.

    Friday, April 25, 2008

    Well-Sweep Farm

    We never wrote about our visit to Well-Sweep Farm last weekend. Saturday was gorgeous and perfect for a drive out to the country. When we arrived, the guy who greeted us immediately mapped out where all the adorable baby animals are for Nico's viewing and cuddling pleasure. Mark and Kate both went all starry-eyed at the plethora of flowers and herbs, but we had the foresight to make a list, which helped us stay on track and mitigated the dazzling effect.

    The farm is still getting organized for the season, but we managed to find almost everything on the list, including Italian oregano, lemon thyme, Logee rosemary, broad-leaf sage, slow-bolting cilantro, flat-leaf parsley, lemongrass, and a Vietnamese herb that tastes surprisingly like cilantro and can be grown indoors year-round. Kate and Mark each got a treat for themselves--Mark a curry leaf plant, Kate a sweet bay. We also picked up a couple of the fabulous black violets that were such a hit last year.

    Best of all, old Cy struck up a conversation, as usual, and he actually remembered us! We'll go back again to get our basil sometime in May and hopefully we'll get to explore the private greenhouses with Cy like we did two years ago.


    It's apt that Passover is this week, since we goy are being plagued by pests at every turn. First the squirrels, then Leroy the plant-squashing cat, and now the aphids, which somehow got into the entire flat of peppers despite the fact that they were sitting in the basement under lamps and had no exposure that we know of. Dedicated organic gardeners that we are, we decided to put them outside and hope that ladybugs, their natural predators, will gobble them up and we won't have to take more drastic action.

    Luckily, the nice weather has been therapeutic for the plants in more ways than one--lots of sunshine, beneficial bugs, and fresh air are helping the little peppers recuperate. There are still aphid eggs on the undersides of some leaves, but we just wipe them off whenever we see them, and the little guys are holding up very well.

    Sunday, April 20, 2008

    Playing Ketchup

    We transferred the tomatoes on Thursday--all 63 of them. Here are the numbers:

    Nyagous: 20 out of 24 (83%)
    Isis Candy: 16 out of 24 (67%)
    Amish Paste: 15 out of 24 (63%)
    Furry Yellow Hawg: 7 out of 12 (58%)
    Snowball: 5 out of 6 (83%)

    TOTAL: 63 out of 90 (70%)

    These are numbers of actual, viable transplants. We had even higher germination rates if you count the discarded stragglers. We’ve allocated space for 30 tomatoes, so we’re ready to start taking orders from our adoring public. We’re predicting a similar surplus for eggplants and okra.

    Last night we applied some more liquid kelp to both our indoor and outdoor plants. We gave the plants their first feeding some time in late March. It’s difficult to gauge the impact of the kelp since we aren’t really doing an experiment with a control group or anything like that. The plants certainly haven’t been hurt by the feeding, though. We also sprayed Nico with some kelp. The results are mixed.

    In varmint news, we’ve encountered the most cunning perpetrator to date. His name is Leroy and he’s a bushy-tailed, hyperactive cat. He couldn’t care less about the plants but seems to love nesting atop the row covers over our broccoli. We know this because Mark actually witnessed Leroy in (in)action. This explains our discovery of mysterious holes and tears in the row covers earlier in the week. We’re a little stymied by this behavior but there’s no way we’re letting that little runt outsmart us and our opposable thumbs. Next time Leroy gets “The Hose.

    After hardening off in the garage for a week, the onions went into the ground on Saturday. The cipollinis took up so little room that we direct seeded all the extra ones we had, and a couple of rows of the Spanish ones as well. It’s almost time to transplant the leeks as well. The direct-seeded lettuce has started to emerge in little patchwork clusters. Our 2-week-old spinach transplants seem to be doing all right in the garden, but there is no sign yet of their direct-sown companions.

    Great Success

    It looks like our garden improvements are starting to pay off. The peas are just about ready to grab the trellis twine hanging from above and the row covers have prevented further squirrel damage to our broccoli plants. I’m sure the bushy-tailed saboteurs are fully capable of infiltrating the covered beds, but for now they seem to be content with defiling the unplanted soil. There was some trial and error involved in erecting the row covers, since they’re primarily designed for conventional row planting and not necessarily for raised beds. The U-shaped pins used to secure the sheer fabric covers are absolutely indispensable in preventing the covers from turning into giant white windsocks. Aside from the science fiction-like appearance, the row covers already seem to be making an impact (like modest frost protection), and the insect pests haven’t even arrived yet.

    We figure that it’s probably a good idea to jot down some observations on our various vegetative varietals from time to time, so here goes:

    Peas: After some initial sluggishness that lasted a couple of weeks, the peas are really showing some vigor. Interestingly, the peas that were direct-seeded have sprouted faster and more uniformly than the pre-sprouted ones, which were planted a week earlier. We noticed that some of the pre-sprouted peas somehow wound up on the soil surface, looking shriveled and broken. We don’t have much explanation for this. Is the slow germination rate normal for April’s low soil temperatures, or are we experiencing a particularly wet spring? Comments are welcome!

    Okra: We’ve had really good germination rates with okra; all 12 seeds sprouted. We abandoned 2 underperforming seedlings, and we will probably do a further cull since there’s no way we Yanks can justify raising 10 okra plants. The seedlings grew so fast that they’re all pretty leggy (close inspection will probably reveal stretch marks). The plants are just starting to put on some new leaves.

    Harlequin Marigold: These heirloom flowers are doing really well. They’re about 4 weeks old and are growing their third sets of leaves. The leaves are spotted and serrated, almost like tomato leaves but more angular. The seedlings are overdue to be transplanted, but they don’t seem any worse for the wear.

    Basil: We started three varieties from seed two weeks ago, all of which were coincidentally purchased from Johnnie’s: Queenette (a Southeast Asian native), Holy Basil (red and green mixed, also from Southeast Asia), and Pistou (a compact “toy” basil demanded by Kate’s grandma). The Queenette variety is the most vigorous so far with the Pistou a close second. The holy basil is doing moderately well, although it has a lower germination rate and is growing more slowly. We’ve experienced the same thing in the past with nursery-grown holy basil. An interesting side note here is that holy basil needs some light to germinate, a requirement that sets it apart from all of the other seeds we’ve started this year. Mark is happy to have 7 holy basil plants sprouted so far. He can’t get enough of it.

    Shiso (Perilla): This Asian green has sprouted nicely and should give us 4 or 5 plants. Although we were trying for the Vietnamese version, we inadvertently ordered the green Japanese variety. I guess it pays to learn the Latin botanical names. No worries, though, as shiso makes an excellent spicy addition to mundane Western salads.

    Culantro: It’s amazing! This herb is invisible! Actually, it just hasn’t sprouted yet after 2 weeks. The package predicts “erratic” germination after 14 to 21 days, so we’re not too concernced. Culantro (a.k.a. eryngium foetidum, saw-leaf coriander, recao, Ngò gai) can be used as a cilantro substitute, so we probably should have planted more. It is also more heat tolerant and should outlast the frustratingly bolt-prone cilantro into the summer.


    Tuesday, April 15, 2008


    The squirrels are very slyly sabotaging our garden--digging up the sweet pea seeds we planted in pots, and most recently making off with several healthy-sized broccoli plants. The broccoli was in the garden for less than 24 hours when we realized that four of them were gone. Mark quickly erected the row covers, but the pests are still wreaking havoc on the lettuce bed, where only one or two seeds have sprouted so far. The spinach, which was also recently put outside, has been covered as well.

    On the other hand, the peas are coming up like crazy, and the tomatoes are ready to be transplanted in to bigger pots. Even though we're growing 5 varieties of tomatoes already, we won't be able to resist the big Catalpa Ridge tomato sale in May at Lafayette Village.

    There's been talk of transforming the last bit of grass along the driveway into an asparagus patch. This talk has been mostly on Mark's part, since Kate is not very fond of asparagus. He's been cajoling with fancy multicolored varieties, but we won't even be able to harvest any for a couple of years, and the plants are enormous. For now we [read: Kate] are deliberating.

    Monday, April 7, 2008

    Fingerling the Potatoes

    We were workhorses this weekend. Built three new boxes and filled them with a homemade mix of compost, topsoil, perlite, and vermiculite. Planted Ozette fingerling tomatoes in one box, but Kate thought it wasn't enough, so we cleared out a corner of the yard near the rock wall and planted some more for a total of 32. We plan to do the Purple Vikings today or tomorrow. And last night Mark planted some of the more obscure herbs: holy basil and culantro.

    Cold-weather veggies like broccoli, spinach, and chard were moved out to the garage to toughen them up a bit before we transplant them outside in a week or two. Since the nights are no longer freezing, they're pretty happy out there.

    The garlic is on an enthusiastic comeback after the winter chill. While we were out planting potatoes we witnessed new rhubarb and strawberries poking through the leaf mulch. Kate dug up a misplaced raspberry bush that has been plaguing the yard for years. Things are starting to feel almost--dare we say it?--organized.



    Purple Coffee pepper from Trinidad

    Saturday, April 5, 2008

    Renegade Garlic

    On this cold and sunny morning, Nico and Kate found five pea shoots coming up, so all hope for them is not lost. Mark is mixing perlite and vermiculite with a truckload of compost he picked up this morning to fill the new boxes he's building. While cleaning out the boxes from last year, we found some parsley coming up, and even the tall stalk of a garlic clove we mistakenly planted last spring. Go figure.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008

    Thawing Out

    This week spring finally started to feel imminent. The temperature crept up to 60, the tulips are about to burst, and the ground has thawed. From the forecast, it looks like we may be done with serious frost. All of our seedlings are thriving--the okra had a 100% germination rate, and new tomatoes have been popping up every day this week.

    We haven't seen much of the peas we planted in the garden. A few naked sprouts were found sitting on top of the soil, and the squirrels probably got a few. There's still time, though. The nights have been cold, in the upper 20s. We optimistically planted a second wave of peas on Tuesday. This weekend we start some herbs, plant potatoes, and put the sprouted spinach outside. We're getting all amped up for the main event, when we'll see if these babies can hack it in the great outdoors.

    Tuesday, April 1, 2008

    Tremendous Trellis

    Here's the trellis Mark built for the peas and beans. We're going to do something similar for the tomatoes and melons, too. Those will be the same aluminum frames with vertical netting instead of the horizontal wire on this one.

    Sunday, March 30, 2008

    Working for the Weekend

    We were an industrious pair this weekend--planting okra, spinach, marigolds, and chard, and building two new raised beds along the driveway. Mark put together an innovative trellis for the peas using speaker wire, aluminum pipe, and rebar (photos to come). Drove down to the garden center to buy even more seed trays, including an extra-deep one for the onions, which have roots already poking out the bottoms of their cells. After a brilliant afternoon outside Saturday, we rewarded ourselves with a late dinner at the inimitable Noodle Chu, with Nico the Napless Wonder in tow. Did it all over again today. A satisfying weekend overall.

    Saturday, March 29, 2008

    Seedling Update

    Everything is flourishing nicely. Here are the hott pix:


    scallions and leeks



    Thursday, March 27, 2008

    I Say Tomato

    We're planting tomato seeds right now--Nyagous, Amish Paste, Isis Candy, the strange new Yellow Hog (a gift), and a few ornamental Snowball. Kate thinks we should be liveblogging this, but we don't want to be held responsible for the resulting clinical boredom.

    UPDATE: We also planted eggplant tonight--four kinds, if you can believe it: Casper, Lao Green Stripe, Scarlet Chinese, and a special bonus Sri Lankan variety. A veritable passport full!

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008

    Rambling Man

    Mark has this to say:

    Kate brought up an important point yesterday when I was fussing with some of the peppers under the grow lights. To paraphrase, "You are taking all of the fun out of gardening." This wasn't the first time that I've heard this criticism, not even the first time that day. She's referring to my obsessive attention to miniscule "problems" that may or may not exist. For instance, I've been making little wood shims to prop up some of the shorter pepper seedlings so they get more light. I've also previously described the repotting of the leeks which was probably overcomplicated by me and possibly unnecessary. How can I even tell if I'm enjoying the process?

    I know that I need to develop a more carefree and zen approach to gardening. Kate and my continued amicable gardening experience depends on this. You can probably tell from my meticulous blog entries that I'm way too detail oriented for my own good, not to mention downright pedantic. There is a time and place for concern and unease but these sentiments cannot permeate the entire experience.

    Being a confirmed obsessive-compulsive, I tend to overanalyze. This trait has its strengths and weaknesses. My enthusiasm and attention to detail are impressive, but it's not enough for me to simply participate. I immerse myself in endless research, which eventually leads to a state of mania. Right now I'm obsessed with getting all of the seedlings off to a strong start, but I'm haunted by the notion that I can always tweak the process to produce even better results. After all, who wants to put in hours of labor only to fizzle out in the eleventh hour and receive nothing but failure in return? However, this outlook can produce disappointment when unexpected calamities which are beyond my control occur. Sometimes seeds don't sprout. Flea beetles may turn eggplant leaves into swiss cheese. Rain doesn't materialize, or worse, soaks the land with mold-inducing, fungus-spawning surfeit. No amount of preparation can prepare me to deal with these sorts of unforeseen challenges that all gardeners are forced to deal with eventually.

    For me, there is no worse feeling than knowing that a window of opportunity is closing. There is always an optimum time to plant, transplant, and harvest any particular crop, but this schedule never dovetails nicely with the demands of normal life. Pruning is optimally done in the spring at the exact same time when seed-starting obligations take precedence. Compost is best and most easily made during the summer, but only if well-shredded leaves are available from the previous fall.

    Furthermore, gardening often takes a back seat to the more mundane (to some) aspects of life. I claim to enjoy gardening for its relaxing and restorative properties. Playing "beat the clock" against nature is contrary to this goal and is ultimately a losing battle. Even though I understand this in principle, I find it difficult put this sort of laissez-faire nonchalance into practice.

    My new mantra is to take a more natural approach to growing plants (this should be a no-brainer). I'm frustrated that I have to force myself to just relax and enjoy the ride. Nature dictates nature, and I'm only a lowly metalhead, a novice meddler at best. I could probably learn a lot more if I just stopped and smelled the roses rather than trying to micromanage them.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008


    We transferred some more leeks tonight and got into a tussle over whether it was necessary to do the same for the scallions. There seems to be a real dearth of information on intermediate transplanting. For instance, what should be done with leeks and other alliums when they outgrow their starting trays? Many books recommend transferring to a more nutrient-rich growing medium, but nothing is said about when to do this or what new pot to use.

    Our personal experience with peat pots has been less than stellar, since the peat sucked up the moisture like a sponge and demanded constant watering. Also, the pots took too long to break down in the soil and inhibited plant growth. Aside from this, leeks and scallions in particular don't seem to use a lot of lateral room to grow.

    We decided to make some tall, narrow newspaper pots, then placed them inside some round-cell seed trays for support. Is this the best solution? Probably not, since it's time consuming and can't possibly be employed by commercial gardeners. If anyone from our massive, adoring fanbase has any suggestions, we're all ears.

    After inadvertently breaking a few scallion stems, Kate also suggested that they were too delicate for transplanting, so we're leaving them alone for now.

    We need a gardening mentor and are accepting applications for the volunteer position, which does include a generous stipend of oatmeal cookies.

    Monday, March 24, 2008

    Pretty Peas

    Today we planted peas in the garden while it snowed. Something is wrong with this situation.

    Monday, March 17, 2008

    Shrooms, Dude

    Mark gave Kate a shiitake mushroom growing kit for her birthday last week. This is exciting to us because we are nerds, but also because we've been considering joining the NJ Mycological Association, or at least checking out a foraging event at one of the nearby parks. We have a couple of friends who are becoming increasingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable about foraging for mushrooms, but of course they live on the West Coast.

    We needed some logs for the mushrooms to grow in, so Mark and Kate's dad enthusiastically sawed off a big limb from the oak tree in our front yard. We also found a guy in Andover who runs a sawmill and gave us pieces of some logs he couldn't use, so we'll see how that works. The sawmill guy also happens to sell certified organic compost and topsoil (I guess you could call him a "dirt merchant") at a fair price, so we took some of that as well.

    So last night Mark drilled hundreds of little holes in the wood, and tonight Kate gets to fill them with little mushroom capsules and hot wax and see what happens.

    Broccoli, Week 4

    The broccoli is on fire! Well, not literally, but it's growing really fast.

    Pepper Progress

    Here's a quick rundown on the pepper plant germination after two weeks:

    Aji Dulce – 4 seeds out of 12 (Southern Exposure)

    Ampuis - 10 seeds out of 10 (Amishland)

    Ancho Gigante – 15 seeds out of 16 (Seed Savers)

    Fish – 0 seeds out of 5 (Baker Creek)

    Hot Lemon – 6 seeds out of 12 (saved)

    Kevin's Orange – 10 seeds out of 16 (Southern Exposure)

    Orchid – 0 seeds out of 8 (Baker Creek)

    Thai Birdseye – 0 seeds out of 12 (Baker Creek)

    Trinidad Purple Coffee - 8 seeds out of 10 sprouted

    So the sweet and mild peppers are doing well while the hot peppers are not as productive. In fact, the only chilies to germinate so far are saved seeds from last year. Mark is particularly surprised and disappointed to see the Baker Creek seeds performing so poorly. We're willing to give them at least one more week before moving to Plan B: find some transplants.

    There is one other trick to pepper seed sprouting that we've employed. We've been placing the seed cells directly on top of the heating mat rather than placing them inside a tray and then on the mat. The soil seems to warm better this way.


    Just a quick update. On 3/12 we planted two kinds of onions: 36 Spanish Yellow and 72 Cipollini. They sprouted in less than a week.

    The leeks and scallions are now so tall now that they're flopping over. Hopefully that's not detrimental to their growth. We know you're excited about this, so stay tuned to see if the onions share the same fate...