Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Garden Pictures - June 8, 2011

Overall view of the garden

Bed #1 - Chard, herbs and lettuce gone to seed

Bed #2 - Peppers!

Bed #3 - Lettuce, cucumbers, mesclun mix and Mexican sour gherkins

Bed #4 - Onions, peas, dill, bush beans

Romanesco interspersed with some potatoes from last year
that I apparently didn't dig up
Trellises for the winter squashes

Summer squashes

The new tomato boxes

Another overall view

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Garden update - June 7, 2011

I've been totally slacking on the gardening posts. Here's a text-based update, and I'll post some pics later. Overall, the garden is in heavy production already. This is by far the earliest I've eaten food out of my garden, and I think it's totally a result of the hoop houses I had over the winter.

Last year I had four 4'x8' raised beds. This year I've added two 10'x2' beds for the tomatoes, and two 4'x4' beds, one specifically for each of my boys, who love the idea of gardening but let daddy do most of the work (hey it's an excuse for me to cover more of my yard with vegetables - leave me alone). I've also constructed a couple ladder trellised for vining squashes.

Bed #1
The first bed had a hoop house over it this winter. It has Swiss Chard planted mostly. The chard died off, I thought, with the January deep freezes, but once the sun came out and it warmed up in there, it came back, and eventually ended up over a foot tall. We ate all we could before it got too tough, so it went in the compost heap. Now in that bed we have a new round of chard (5-color Silverbeet), cilantro, rosemary and tons of lettuce that was transplanted from the overwintered lettuce seed in Bed #3. We've been eating salads every day since late march from this, and it's now going to seed so it has to come out.

Bed #2
This is the pepper bed this year. I worked in a good amount of leaf litter and grass clippings, and planted a bunch of peppers. This year we're growing Joe's Long Cayenne, Sheepnose Pimento, Marconi, JalapeƱo, and some other long Italian frying pepper that my dad gave me. There are 20 plants in all. Three of the sheepnode pimento plants have peppers on them already; I'm looking forward to trying them whem they turn red.

Bed #3
This bed also had a hoop house on it. It had a lot of Kale in it, which mostly got braised with bacon, tomatoes and pork, or converted into Kale chips. The Kale eventually went to seed. I collected some of the seed and composted the rest of the plants that I couldn't eat. Kale was very successful and I will plant it again. Now though, I have Mesclun greens, cucumbers, overwintered lettuce that we're STILL eating, and Mexican Sour Gherkins, which I'm looking forward to. I've devised some ingenious trellises for the cucumbers that should protect the lettuces from the summer sun. I'll include pictures later.

Bed #4
Onions, dill, shell peas, radishes (four kinds, pulled out now), and bush beans.

Big bed in the corner:
Romanesco, Broccoli, asparagus (did NOT do well this year), acorn and butternut squash on trellises.

Tomato beds!:
Twenty plants in twenty linear feet of beds. This is much denser than I have ever grown them, and instead of an individual piece of re-bar for each, I made frames and I'm going to try the twine support method this year. I'll post pictures of this. In between the plants I have basil, arugula and spinach planted.

Garden edges:
I am getting the most out of my space this year. Along the edges I have several kinds of summer squash (I bought a variety pack of seeds. No idea what's what), pole beans, bush beans and Lovage.

Kids' Beds:
Each has two cherry tomato plants, two pepper plants and a watermelon plant. The boys are excited to have their own gardens this year. I don't know if they'll stay excited but you can bet I'll be doing my best to brainwash them!

Overall the garden is off to a great start. I'm way ahead of my friends and neighbors with it, and I'm excited to see what it becomes. If only I could get rid of those darn mosquitoes...

Gardening is trendy, and I'm happy to see it

Last week I was in the garden watering my plants when I heard a voice from a couple houses up. "Hey Farmer Joe!" I looked over and saw the man's wife exiting the back of the house with some water for her husband, who was obviously doing some very hard work in his back yard. They chatted for a bit and she went back inside. When I was done watering, I headed over there to introduce myself to this neighbor and see what he was up to. It turns out that Joe and his wife and kids have lived in that house for fifteen years, but this year, Joe decided to cut a vegetable garden out of the sod. We had a discussion about his plans for the space, what he wants to grow, what to add to our neighborhood soil to make it work, etc. Since I know personally what it's like to be accused of having manly hair-brained schemes from time to time, I asked him if this was one of those, or something the whole family was going to be involved in. "Well," he said, "I like the idea of eating food I grew myself. I told the family I'm going to do this project, and if they're interested in helping out, that would be great."

So here we have a guy who has lived in Canton for 15 years, and has just now decided to put a garden in. Why is that? I think it's because gardening is "trendy" again. I'm way too young to remember, but I think the last time gardening was trendy was during and after WW2 with the whole Victory Garden movement. After that, some people kept growing their own food, but for the most part, we found "better" uses for our time and let the farmers and supermarkets take care of vegetable production for us. Today though, if you go to a neighborhood garden center, it's crawling with beginners, there are classes available, tons of blogs out there to read from, and YouTube to help you figure stuff out. Something is clearly different all of a sudden that is getting people interested in it though. I think it's a combination of Organic foods in the supermarket, and the recession.

I think I was still in college when I started hearing about people only buying Organic vegetables. All I knew was that they are smaller and more expensive than their chemically produced cousins. Being a poor college student, I swore off the expensive veggies and the "crazies" who insist on buying them. Times have changed and though we haven't gone completely Organic for veggie purchases, there are some in the fridge. In the summer, we've been eating organic produce for years and never really knew it; it was just the stuff we grew ourselves. I think this is one source of the resurgence in home gardening - you can get Organic produce by growing your own food and not putting chemicals on it. Yes it's a challenge - there are bean beetles on my young pole bean plants, eating the leaves, and I know I could sprinkle a little Sevin on them and the problem would go away, but instead, I seek out the little buggers and smoosh them. So I think people are seeing that it's easy and fun to grow Organic, therefore they should give it a try.

The real catalyst for the resurgence in backyard gardening, I think, has been economic. It might be the recession, with people losing their jobs and maybe being forced to grow their own food to have something on the table, or it might be that gas prices are taking a dent out of the monthly food budget and they are buying cheaper, less healthy food and still want some fresh produce. The fact of the matter is, for a relatively small investment, you can construct a small raised bed garden in your yard, and grow an abundance of lettuce, beans, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and basil without having to spend all your free time tending to it. Over the course of a summer you could save hundreds of dollars just in your small veggie plot. It's a compelling argument for the modern American to exit the house and grab a shovel.

I used to be the only guy at work who brought in zucchini and tomatoes that we couldn't use up ourselves. People asked me about my garden and found it a little strange that I had pictures to show them (okay I guess it's a lottle weird that I have more recent garden pictures than kid pictures. I guess I know what I'm doing tonight). Last year there were a few more veggies on the table in the lunch room from others. I think this year there will be even more (especially zucchini!). That makes me happy! I'm glad to see others "taking to the dirt," and I like to think I had something to do with it. We need more regular Joes to get off the couch, drag the family outside, hand them shovels and get gardening. It might be the trendy thing to do, and I'm fine with that!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tomato seeds planted

Tonight I planted the four varieties of tomato seed that I will be growing in the garden this year. They are all from Seed Savers Exchange. They are:

Nyagous - baseball-sized black tomato
Mexico Midget - looks like a standard cherry tomato
Martino Roma - Roma-style
Austin's pear - tiny pear-shaped tomatoes

Yes those are two normal sized tomatoes and two small varieties. The small varieties are mostly for this kids - during tomato season, they rarely make it into the house as the kids devour them with vigor. Good for them! I decided on a Roma this year because we can rarely eat all the tomatoes we produce, and we might as well have one that will be good for sauce. The black tomato looked interesting. In addition to these, I will also have some Early Girls from my dad. I've grown a lot of different types of tomatoes over the past few years, and year after year, the little Early Girl is a solid producer, with early (go figure) fruit, good flavor, and production into late September. You can't beat that.

Mason Bee House

Last year the power company came though and cut down a bunch of trees in my neighbor's house. I burn wood in the fireplace through the winter, so I had them just saw up the logs and leave them. This has given me a ton of firewood for the next few years, but it's still a big mess I'm working to clean up. Yesterday I was back there working and saw some smaller logs. I decided to take a craft break from splitting and make a little home for some mason bees. Mason bees are little bluish bees that some in the spring and make nests in holes that have been drilled by other insects like carpenter bees, which I hate with a passion. You can buy mason bee houses that you can reuse year after year, but I figured I have the materials so I might as well make something simple and see if they come. Here's what I came up with:

Yeah. Not complicated. The holes are 5/16" in diameter and about 4" deep. I hung it on the chain link fence on the western edge of the garden, facing East. This is supposedly the correct orientation because the sunrise will wake up the little critters and encourage them to go out and forage. 

The idea behind attracting mason bees is that they are effective pollinators. This is great, but based on everything I've read, I'm unconvinced that they will help at all with my garden. The mason bee lifecycle dictates that in the spring, they will look for a suitable home like this one, and start laying eggs in layers inside those holes. Come summer, the adults die and the young begin to develop. The following spring the new adult bees fly out of the nest and the cycle continues. This is different from honeybees, which are social insects, and forage throughout the year. Here in Eastern Ohio, I don't have a whole lot that's waiting to be pollinated in the early spring. How effective these bees are to my garden will depend on how early my plants have blossoms, and how long the bees actually take to complete their nest building. Whatever - we'll see. That's why they call it an experiment, right? At the very least, I'll be bringing some happy buzzing to the garden. That's the best part - these bees rarely sting!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Garden Update - April 9, 2011

With temperatures finally warming up, I took the plastic off the hoop houses a few days ago and let them get some air. I imagine the little plants in there are breathing the fresh air the same as I am when I get out of the house! Here is a little mini-update of how things are looking today.

Hoop House #1 has lettuce transplanted from the sea of overwintered lettuce in Hoop House #2. I want to see if it will grow into large bunches. Since I transplanted a couple weeks ago, the sun has been dim and the temperature cold. It has grown some, but I'm hoping to see it really take off over the next few days.

I have some weeding to do in there too while the ground is nice and moist. I also threw down some arugula and basil seed. The arugula is coming up nicely. I look forward to including it in spring salads. It's one of my favorite flavors. Here's how it's looking:

Hoop House #2 was the winter experiment. I put in a few Kale seed in October (just checked my notes from last year to be sure), and threw down a bunch of old lettuce seed packets I had in the freezer from 2008. Later I added some corn salad seed to try. Through the winter the Kale did great the the little lettuce seedlings would grow a little and die back a little with the fluctuations in sunlight and temperature. I have to say that I'm pretty happy with the success of it - especially the kale. The lettuce is nice - I did have a fresh salad this week - but this year I might build a cold frame closer to the house that I can get the greens more readily from. 

Look at all that lettuce! I can eat fresh salad on that every day until the ones I transplanted get big! The corn salad is there too, but honestly I'm not a big fan of the flavor, so I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do with it. I vowed to not throw away any food from the garden this year. Maybe I'll see if the kids like it.

Raised beds #2 and #4 didn't have tents over them for the winter, but they were the first to get spring attention. The radishes I planted in #4 have popped up, and some peas were added this week but haven't emerged yet.

The fence on there is to protect the radishes from whatever dug them up or chewed them off last year when they were this size. We have a lot of squirrels in the yard. I wonder if they like radish greens. I've never seen a rabbit in the garden since I put up the fence, and there's one living elsewhere in the yard, so I don't think it's him. Either way, a piece of fence covered with row cover fabric keeps whatever bird or critter out of it. 

In the Northwest corner of the garden is a large raised bed that has some asparagus in the back against the shed (not emerged yet). Last year I had peppers and a potato tower in here (failed experiment). It's the only part of the garden that is shady, since there's a big oak tree limb that hangs over it. The peppers didn't do well there, so this year I'm doing peppers in Raised Bed #2 and putting Romanesco, Broccoli, Chard, Garlic and probably some cucumbers in this big bed. The Romanesco has been growing in the house for some time now, so I transplanted it outside. I'm planning on covering it up with straw or a couple layers of row cover on frosty nights.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Let's make some Kale Chips!

Last fall I planted some kale seed to see how it would grow in the hoop house. The kale was a very successful. Everything else in the hoop houses either went dormant or died off through the hard winter, but the kale actually grew! Now that it's warming up and is a little sunnier, I don't think it's frozen in the hoop houses in several weeks, and the kale is growing great. Here's a picture from last week, taken with my cell phone camera (hence bad quality):

I'm planning to pull out that kale soon, since it's been growing since last fall and it's in the bed that I'm planning on growing peppers in this year. I've vowed to not waste food from the garden this year, so I've been trying to think of interesting stuff to make with it that the family will eat. I saw online somewhere that you can roast kale in the oven and make kale chips, so I decided to give it a try.

First step is to pick some kale and wash it. I went out with some scissors and picked about enough to fill my salad spinner. I washed it with some water and spun it dry:

Next was to prep it for roasting. I got two baking sheets and spread out the dry kale. I used my Misto olive oil sprayer to mist it with oil, and added Kosher salt, Parmesan cheese and garlic powder. Both sheets went into the oven at 375 degrees:

After about 15 minutes in the oven, the edges were brown and they were crispy to the touch. Here's how they looked when they came out:

These are actually pretty tasty! They have a good taste from the seasonings and the sort of broccoli-ish flavor of the kale itself, and a satisfying crunch! Even the kids like them.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Setting out some broccoli plants WAAAY to early

I don't know what I was thinking, exactly. I guess I was curious what would happen if a put a couple brassicas out under the hoop houses. After all, there's a ton of lettuce and kale in there that sprouted in January, during the coldest month of the winter! Well I put a couple of the smaller ones out there, and a couple days later (today) I went out and checked on them. They're completely dead! Wilted to the ground! We had some really cold nights the last couple nights, and chances are, it got up to almost 90 degrees in the hoop houses today because of the sun. Lesson learned - just be patient!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I love radishes! I love their crunch and their taste and their color. As I've learned more about genetic diversity in the garden, I've found that there really is a huge variety of radish seed available. One of my goals for 2011 in the garden is to grow a greater variety of plants. I'll be growing at least 5 different kinds of tomatoes, at least three different kinds of peppers, two kinds of cucumbers, several different types of greens, and three kinds of radishes!

Here are the radishes I've settled on for 2011:

Crimson Giant (big, standard red radish)
French Breakfast (pink and white, and elongated)
Cincinnati Market (long like a carrot! Crazy!)

Now, I've read that radish seed can be sown early, so the boys and I did just that. I decided on an eight-square-foot block in one of the garden boxes to be the radish patch. The Square Foot Gardening guidelines say to put them 16/foot. Mine are planted quite a bit closer than that, but I will likely thin them once I know how many are viable, and use the resulting extra greens for braising.

Snow is in the forecast for tomorrow. Boooo!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The little garden in the house

The seeds I started a few weeks ago are coming along well. Right now I have eight Romanesco plants that are getting big, eight Joe's Long Cayenne from SSE, six Sheepnose Pimento from SSE, six Broccoli from some packet I had, and a bunch of Rosemary. Almost everything has been transplanted into 4" peat pots, where they will stay until it's time to put them in the ground.

April 1 I plan to put in the tomato seeds. That's still going to be 6 weeks before they can go in the ground around here, so hopefully they don't get too big. In the meantime the Romanesco and Broccoli will go into the garden to make room for everything else. At some point I need to start squash and cucumber too. I just need to figure out how far in advance to do that.

Monday, March 21, 2011

First Day of Spring Update

Yesterday was the first day of Spring, and the garden is already taking shape. It's entirely probable I am taking things way too fast this year. It's only the third week in March, and the generally accepted last frost around here is in mid May. However, I do have two garden beds covered with plastic hoop houses. I'm not sure how much extra time that will give me in the spring, so I'm starting enough stuff indoors that I can experiment.

So yesterday I got back in the garden to check things out. Here's what I saw:

Here's the garden - looks pretty bleak
The two hoop houses seem to have made it through the winter okay. They did take a little bit of maintenance through wind storms but they held up to the snow and ice pretty well. Not bad for some PVC electrical conduit, landscape fabric and plastic drop cloths. And best of all, there's stuff growing in them!

The first one has the Mache, endive, black seeded Simpson lettuce, some darker lettuce that I'm not sure of, and kale at the back. The other house has some Swiss chard that seems to have made it through the winter, or has regrown, and some lettuce seedlings that I transplanted from the other hoop house. I also threw down some basil and arugula seed in this one. Daytime temps are around 85 on sunny days and about 10 degrees over the air temp on cloudy days.

Since the weather was nice and I couldn't stand it anymore, I decided to do some actual garden work. To my amazement, despite the amount of snow we got over the winter, and the rain we got over the last few weeks, the soil was amazingly workable, even in the beds that aren't covered. In general the soil in the beds is fairly decent. I created those boxes last year, and put quite a bit of work into working in some organic material with the clay and silt that makes up the soil here. This year I'm adding even more. One thing we have a lot of here is LEAVES!

This is my leaf pile - it's about 10 feet by 10 feet, and in the fall it's piled up about 8 feet high with leaves. Now, at its highest point, it's about 5 feet high. There are about 3 years of leaves in here. Once you get down past last year's leaves, there's some fairly good looking composted leaves there. From what I hear, they don't have a lot of nutrients, but they add organic material to the soil, so I'll use it!

There's the good stuff!
I added a bunch of it to one of the garden beds and it looks great:

That bed is going to hold mostly Broccoli and Romanesco, and probably some peppers since it had beans and peas last year (should be high in Nitrogen).

Friday, March 4, 2011

Getting a head start on the growing season

I've never started my garden plans inside before. Usually I get my tomato and pepper plants from my dad, who starts them indoors, and get the rest either from seed sown outdoors, or transplants picked up at a garden center. This year I decided to do things differently. I got seed catalogs, growing mix and some trays, and started some things early.

In designing my little seedling table, I tried to do everything that was necessary at the lowest cost possible. I built a frame for three shop lights and hung it from the ceiling. I found out warming mats are ridiculously expensive, so I built my own out of foil-backed foam insulation and several strands of Christmas lights. So far it seems to be working fine:

Here's the seed table so far. Do you like my ghetto heat mat?
Growing so far are:

  • Romanesco Broccoli (Seed Savers Exchange)
  • Joe's Long Cayenne (SSE)
  • Sheepnose Pimento (SSE)
  • Broccoli (Burpee hybrid)
  • Rosemary (SSE)

I think it's still actually early to be starting stuff, but I have hoop houses up over two of the raised beds in the garden, and I figure I should be able to put at least the brassicas in there pretty soon.

Some of the Romanesco has been moved to peat pots
I've never grown Romanesco before, but being a computer nerd, I have to appreciate any blatant existence of a fractal, especially in food. So I'm looking forward to giving it a try. The pepper plants just popped up a couple days ago, after 8 days:

This year I'll be growing a lot more herbs than in previous years. Rosemary is one of those herbs that I really love but I never get fresh. It doesn't grow wild in Ohio, and the house doesn't really have a lot of natural light to keep one happy in the house. So this year I started some under the lights. I'll put it out in the garden and see how it works:

Now if only Spring would come!

Let's get this thing started!

When I was a kid growing up in Eastern Ohio, we always had a garden. I grew up with my two brothers in a house about half a mile from my grandma's house, where my dad grew up. Grandma had two city lots: one with the house on it, and one that was about half covered with a garden and the other half with chestnut trees. Most of my childhood memories of Grandma's house were in the garden - planting carrot seed, bean seeds, playing a game with my brothers where we would chew on a rhubarb stalk and laugh as our faces turned inside out. As Grandma got older my dad took over most of the garden duties but when I would stop over in the summer, most times Grandma was fussing around amongst the veggie plants making sure they were all growing to her satisfaction.

As a child, the garden was always "work." As far back as I can remember, my family preserved vegetables through canning and freezing, but that process always started with an enormous amount of raw stuff from wherever my dad got it - the bushels of green beans, the pickup truck load (no kidding) of sweet corn. If you had asked me back then if I would have a garden when I grew up, I would have likely dismissed the idea in favor of buying vegetables already preserved and avoiding the work.

All of that changed for me in the summer of 1997. I was living in Italy as an exchange student between high school and college. My family came from Italy in the early 1920's and I always had a desire to check the place out. For the most part, the year I was there was about having fun, learning a language and making friends. After school let out for the summer and I was coming up on my return home, my host dad suggested I go find where my family came from. One very long train ride later, I was in Siderno, Calabria, a nice little place with a gray pebble beach on the toe of Italy. My relatives, distant as they were, welcomed me in with a show of affection that startled me, even after being in kiss-on-two-cheeks Northern Italy for almost a year. I spent a week wandering around this little town, looking at olive groves, lying on the beach, eating everything that was given to me.

My family's olive grove in Siderno
  So one day I was invited to dinner at a distant relative's house. His name was Domenico. As we ate dinner, which was polpettoni con sugo di pomodoro, I recall asking about what kind of tomatoes they buy. Domenico perked up, pulled me away from the table and into his garden. We spent the next hour or so wandering around, Domenico showing me everything he was growing. We went to other people's gardens too. It was then, in a little town in Southern Italy when something ignited in me, and I understood this connection I have with the soil and a desire to grow things.

Domenico in his garden. I wish I took better pictures!
After Italy, several years later, when I moved into an apartment with my girlfriend, who would become my wife, one of the first things I did was rip up a tiny little patch of ground and planted a measly garden. When we bought our house, I had scoped out the back corner of the lot. I ripped up the sod, mowed down the brush and put in the first iteration of Il Nostro Orto. I was in love with the dirt, the plants, the bees. Every year that love has grown. We have two boys now, who will be a big part of this blog, because they are in the garden all the time. Maybe, just maybe, they will think of it as work now, but someday will realize they actually love the dirt as much as I do.