Category Archives: Gardening

A Day in the Garden: Winter hibernation

Even in the depths of winter, there’s beauty in the garden. 

The thaw is beginning, but I’m ready for it to be here now!

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Seed starting log: Optimal conditions for germination

Gardening, I have found, can be either a highly scientific process or a highly artistic process. This depends largely on who you are and how you think. I started out a couple of years ago with no real plans, just a few seeds and a real desire to make this work. It kind of did, but mostly didn’t. Last year, we were a little more deliberate about it. We calculated seed starting times, tried to put them under lights, and transplanted them out when we thought they should go out. Some varieties flourished, like the ‘rose Quartz’ tomatoes and the Russian kale, but others didn’t really take off until August, leaving me with very little time for a crop in my 5b growing season. 

This year, we decided on an intentional, deliberate and – dare I say it? – scientific approach to seed starting. Plants are very much like people. Finicky and particular, they really care exactly how you treat them. And if you don’t treat them the way they want you to, they simply will not respond. 

Here are some lessons I’m learning as I start my seeds. 

  • Tomatoes like to germinate in the dark. Just make sure the place you put them isn’t freezing, and they’ll come up just fine. I like to plant my seeds in yogurt cups with drainage holes poked in and covered with plastic wrap. My tomatoes are mostly germinating between 3-5 days after planting, at which point I take off the plastic and move them under the grow light. 
  • Peppers like light and warmth. These guys are not going to do great if I try to sprout them in my basement under the grow light system. I’ve been preparing my yogurt cups, putting the whole thing inside a ziploc bag, and putting that on top of the radiator. My cubanelles and mini yellows sprouted beautifully. I’m still waiting on the ‘Santa Fe’ peppers, which haven’t been on the radiator. I think my experiment is working. I also sow the seeds directly on the soil surface to allow the most light penetration. 
  • Don’t drown your seedlings. Use a spray bottle, tepid water, and some love. How would you like a bucket of ice cold water dumped on you whenever you got thirsty? Your plants hate it too. 
  • Love your seedlings. I know this sounds goofy, but I firmly believe that your seedlings can feel your love and affection. Care for them as if it matters, and they will respond. 

The realization that I’ve come to is that the scientific approach and the Zen approach are probably the same: treat your plants the way they want to be treated. They will flourish. 



Seed starting log: Dwarf tomatoes

A fresh, ripe juicy tomato is the crowning glory of the home gardener’s summer bounty – we all know that. There’s a lot that goes into that process, though, from selecting your seed variety all the way to knowing when to tell your plant that enough is enough. One of the biggest challenges with growing your own tomatoes, especially in a location with cold winters, is knowing when to start them. Most guides will tell you 6-8 weeks before the last frost in your zone.

The tough thing about that is that in many zones, my Zone 5b Pittsburgh garden included, I can’t really tell you when the last frost will be. Yes, the almanac says May 1. But honestly, I don’t quite trust that. One terrible frost and all the tomatoes will be goners. Having said that, delaying seed starting just to push the transplant date well into mid- to late-May is not a great plan either, knowing that it will cut my growing season short. Of course, there’s the added hitch – I simply don’t want to wait anymore! It’s cold, snowy, icy and bitter outside. I work odd shifts, sometimes not seeing the sun for days. Those little sprouts of green poking their heads out are pretty much all I have to remind me that this isn’t the end of the world.

So your question is probably this: What’s the solution to all this?

Well, there’s a magical little thing called a dwarf tomato. These are usually determinate varieties, which means they set fruit all at once, and are compact and well suited for container growing. Some examples of this are Tiny Tim, Goldilox, and Hahms Gelbe Topftomate, all of which I’m hoping to grow this year. The advantage of starting these seeds early is that even as they start to grow, you know that they won’t start to sprawl and creep all over the place. Even in case of a late frost, you can comfortably keep them indoors in containers and they won’t get rootbound or get out of control.

I started ‘Tiny Tim’ and ‘Hahms Gelbe’ a few days ago. I’ve heard great things about both varieties. Tiny Tim is a small red cherry, and Hahms Gelbe is a slightly larger yellow. Remember that tomatoes need lots of light to avoid getting spindly and leggy. Keep the grow light no more than 3-4 inches away, the closer the better. I’m using a cool fluorescent bulb set up in my basement, which is about 65 degrees F.

Follow along with me and we’ll see what they do this year – it’s all a big experiment!

Seed starting log: Genovese basil

I had a cinnamon basil plant and a Thai basil plant, both grown from cuttings, living in my kitchen window. Unfortunately, the dark winter and cold drafts took them both and I was left utterly basil-less. I waited until it was utterly impossible to wait any longer and decided to sprout my own. This year I have big basil plans, but I’m starting with just the one variety for now. I set this little pot underneath my lemon tree, in its pot, and let nature do its thing. These beautiful little seedlings thrill me to no end. They are so bright and sturdy. 



The little lemon that could 

You may recall my little improved Meyer lemon tree that has been struggling in my Zone 5B home. I originally bought it at the end of the summer in 2013, looking sickly and weary. I nursed it back to some health that year and watched it almost die over the winter. But it scraped through. Summer rolls around and it does quite well on my stoop, but the indoor air, dry with our heaters and quite dark, doesn’t seem to do it much good. Interestingly, this year we brought it in and left it right near the front door where it got about 4-5 hours of decent light, not great, and it did well until about January. Then the leaf drop started. I’m not sure if something changed or if it was just a delayed reaction, but I think the plant – and me as a result – went into panic mode. I set up a little grow light corner, and though the plant continued to drop leaves for another week, I think it’s loving the light. It’s coming back with a vengeance. If I can keep this lemon plant thriving in my dark, dry Pittsburgh apartment, I will consider it one of my greatest victories yet. 



An oversight

As I wait anxiously for the ice to melt and the snow to stop falling and Old Man Winter to withdraw his frosty tentacles and release me, I am disheartened to see that last year’s garden, which should have really been the star of the summer, never got its chance to shine. In this blog, that is. In real life, it gave me joy and wonder everyday. Somehow I managed never to document it, though. 

I will try to remedy that mistake by posting pictures from last summer’s garden as I start planning for this year. I hope to draw inspiration, learn from mistakes, and beat the winter doldrums away. 

This beautiful little flower looks like it’s just about to take wing and fly. It looks like a sort of sweet pea, and was an absolute delight in a little patch in front of my porch. 



Stay tuned for more!

It’s been a long and lonely winter

Friends, it’s been one of those years. Tough times all around, and now the continuing drudgery of day after day of ice and snow is really starting to wear on me. Spring, I’m sure, is on its way. Maybe took a wrong turn somewhere, maybe decided on an unplanned pit stop – but on its way somewhere.

I’ve been trying to beat the drudgery by perusing and flipping through seed catalogs over and over again. Kitazawa, Seed savers exchange, Annie’s annuals, Bountiful Gardens, Horizon Herbs, and of course the ever inspiring Renee’s gardens have all been the recipient of remarkable shares of my attention, especially during this month of working nights.

I’m excited about this year’s planting selection – some dwarf tomatoes, a few slicers and sauce tomatoes, several cucumbers and peppers, and a whole host of wildflowers. This year we’re thinking about doing much more container gardening and only putting greens, herbs and flowers in the ground. Last year’s containers did beautifully, as you can see in this post. In our rocky rental soil, only a few plants could really thrive – a few Dragon’s Tongue bean plants, a Golden Cherry tomato, 5 varieties of kale that produced from May straight through to the end of November, and a lemon thyme that is somehow, miraculously, still poking its green head out through layers of snow and ice into the -10F air.

I’m looking forward to things getting a little warmer. My dad, who is in a much warmer climate, has started his seeds – some of them outdoors, no less! I’m sending him a few more seeds for his collection, a selfish venture as I hope to experience an early vicarious spring!

Here’s a few of the dwarf tomato seeds I have for my dad, along with a drying variety.

 

Here’s hoping my next post will start with a joyous “Here comes the sun!”

Propagating herbs, or, How to turn one plant into ten

I, probably like most of you, love a good pesto. The tastes of fresh basil, pine nuts and garlic come together in a smooth , green paste that coats each piece of pasta in a rich cloak of flavor – ah, what a glorious meal.

But who has that much basil lying around? You could buy it. But store bought basil is usually wilted, covered with pesticides, and expensive. Or you could grow it yourself. But giving one plant a haircut might give you enough pesto to feed your baby. Or your goldfish.

What if I have five or six plants, you might ask me. And I’d tell you that’s a great idea. Herbs can be hard to grow from seed, though. Plants can be expensive to buy. And ultimately, nothing will give you the satisfaction of growing your own plants, we all know that.

Propagating herbs like basil is easy – a piece of cake, really. It’s as simple as cutting a stem, putting it in water and then planting it.

Last year we had multiple basil plants – Thai basil and genovese. Over the winter, we took some cuttings and tried to keep them alive. Sometime during January, we lost most of them – but one little sweet basil survived in my neighbor’s house. Now it’s overgrowing its pot so S took a couple of cuttings and sat them in a glass of water in the windowsill. As expected, they grew lovely roots. Now we’ve got two nice little potted basil plants that look thrilled to be alive.

We also bought basil plants this year, a cinnamon basil and a Thai basil. A mistake I made last year was to not pinch off the stems early enough or often enough. Pinching off encourages more side shoots, leading to bushy growth and ultimately, more herbs for your cooking. As I was pinching off, I found myself with a bunch of basil stems and nowhere to put them. It wasn’t enough to cook with, but composting them seemed like a big waste. I popped them in a glass of water, and lo and behold – roots!

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They are now happily potted up, sitting in my kitchen window. The parent plants are sending out plenty of new growth, I have 4 new plants, and they smell fantastic.

Propagating your herbs is an inexpensive, quick way to multiply your plants. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Make sure you pinch or cut neatly without crushing the stem. Also make sure that you cut right above a leaf node, where one stem meets two leaves. This ensures that the plant sends out two shoots in the place of one. And be patient – roots can take a week or two to grow.

What plants do you propagate?

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Asiago crusted penne with crimini mushrooms and garden greens

When I was a little girl with pigtails and Mary Janes, we lived in suburban Texas, where as the saying goes, the tallest thing on the horizon is a Coke can. There are vast expanses of grass, dotted in the spring and summer with dandelions and little purple flowers – I still don’t know what they’re called. I’d bring bouquets of these flowers home for my mother on my way home from the school bus stop, and she’d put them in a little glass everyday.

I soon learned that dandelions were ‘weeds’, and I stopped thinking of them as having any value. As I grew older and started seeing dandelion greens for sale in high end grocery stores, I was convinced that we weren’t all talking about the same plant. Why on earth would someone pay good money to buy weeds? As it turns out, though, people do. And for good reason.

Dandelion greens are rich, flavorful, and apparently quite nutritious. Now I have my own backyard and garden, with those pesky dandelions taking up way too much space. I pull them up dutifully, and they come right back. Today, I thought to myself, why not see if this dandelion green thing works for me? I’m pulling them up anyway, what if I just throw them in dinner?

I was not disappointed.

Thrown together with garlic shoots also foraged from the garden (another story for another day), a tomato and a sweet Italian pepper, the greens made a lovely addition to a simple weeknight meal – let’s see what S has to say.

A handful of dandelion greens – try to use the smaller inside leaves before the plant flowers, they’re more tender and less bitter – went into a cold water bath with garlic shoots from the yard.

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Crimini mushrooms have a nice round flavor that balances the bitter greens perfectly. Sauté them with olive oil, salt, and crushed red peppers.

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In the meantime, boil water and cook your pasta till al dente. I used penne, but you can use anything small – farfalle, orecchiette, even elbow macaroni would work.

Rinse your greens well. Garden greens are delicious but are covered with grit and soil. I rinsed about 4 times, I suggest you do the same. Chop or tear them into smaller pieces.

Wilt the greens in the pan. I use cast iron so it can go straight into the oven. Add a diced pepper or two if you’d like. We got some beautiful artisan red peppers at the market last week. This seemed like the perfect place to use up the last one.

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Add a dollop of ricotta and herbs of your choice – I went for thyme and oregano – and stir in the pasta.

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Finally, toss with a handful of mozzarella and top with Asiago and pop it in the oven.

It only took about 20 minutes, and made for a delicious meal.

Who knew?

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