Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I can almost taste the pesto

Ah..... the sunshine has returned.  That means it was time to get out and get my herbs in the ground.  Herbs are one of the easiest and most satisfying things to grow according to me (if you care).

For newer gardeners herbs are the perfect plant.  They don't really care about soil quality, no amending or fertilizing necessary.  They don't have a lot of disease and pest problems.  They don't require frequent watering, in fact they rather prefer being somewhat neglected.  The most fragrant herbs that you will ever find have been allowed to dry out to almost the point of wilting before they are watered.  I'll skip the complicated botany lesson as to why this is, but basically,  when the plant is denied water it gets totally stressed out because it thinks it's dying.  Since a plants basic goal in life is to reproduce itself it goes into a "I'd better attract pollinators" mode, and puts it's best scent forward.  Then when you water, the plant goes back to it's normal habit but the awesome scent/taste remains.   Don't you like how I talk about plants like they are people?  I know, it's a little weird.

I'm really fortunate that one of the largest herb growers in the country is pretty much right in my backyard.  If you are living anywhere in the Northeast, you probably see Gilbertie's* herbs at your local nursery.  I've bought my herbs from them for probably about 15 years.  Sure I could start my own in the basement with the rest of my plants, but honestly they are the masters.  I've never once had a problem with any herb I've purchased from them, so why mess with perfection?  Herbs are also kind of fussy when started inside, not in a greenhouse.  If you've been following along you know that I have no patience for plants that need babying.  I have 2 human babies and 1 of the canine variety to take care of already, my plants need to be tough.

A couple of things about this new herb garden that I established today.  It's kind of a weird shape, but I'm just working with what I have.  This spot was formerly enclosed by lovely boxwoods (traditional for an herb garden)  but the 9 foot snow drifts this past winter did most of them in.  I'll probably replace them at some point, but I'll let you in on a little secret this bed will likely be expanded this summer and that low stone wall which seems to serve no purpose just might be going away.  Yes, bring on the sledgehammers.  In the meantime, this is what I've got, and the ugly green fencing is a cheap solution to keep fido from using this spot as his private bathroom, cause we're going to be eating this stuff!  This garden is also in our pool area, and away from all of the other vegetables I grow, so I wanted it to look pretty too.

I always, always, lay out the plants first - not that I don't make changes, but it's the only way to get the spacing right.

Now comes the hardest part for both experienced and new gardeners.  When it's all planted, watered, mulch you think to yourself, "there is too much empty space."  I feel it too, trust me, I wanted to shove more plants in to make look prettier, more finished, etc.  Here's the thing though, these babies are going to grow a lot over the next few months you've got to leave them room, not to mention that you need to leave stepping room so the herbs can be harvested. 

In this small space there are 5 different types of basil, 2 kinds of sage, lemon balm, lemon verbena, cilantro, bronze leaf fennel, dill, parsley, borage and rosemary and scented geraniums.  A prize goes to you if you know what borage is, and what you can use it for!  I promise, I'll take some follow up photos in a few weeks, you will be surprised at how quickly things change.  I have a knack for growing some really monster basil (details on how to do that in a future post).

Herbs also do fantastically in containers.  It's that whole drying out thing again.  It's really great if you only have a balcony or patio for growing space.  In fact prior to this year, I grew the majority of my herbs in containers.  I just wasn't smart enough to take any pictures

*This is not a paid advertisement for Gilbertie's I've got no connection to them at all, despite the fact that I've spent a ridiculous amount of money at their nursery over the years.

p.s. hope you like the site redesign. I kinda realized that I wasn't doing my photos any favors by having them on a white background.  It's a work in progress, but I think this is looking quite a bit better!

Monday, May 23, 2011

thinking I should build an ark...

I'm finding it hard to motivate to write anything with this ridiculously dreary weather we are having.   There is nothing like planting most of your summer vegetables in the rain as I did on Sunday morning.  Well, at least I don't have to water.

In one of the few moments that it hasn't been raining in what seems like weeks I managed to snap this picture of a rhododendron (PJM is the variety, one of the most common plants out there) that is ready to be pruned.  Rhodies and Azaleas need to be pruned as soon as they are done flowering.  Really, AS SOON... not a few weeks later, not at the end of the season.  Prune at any other time and you will not have flowers the following season, and don't lie to me when you call me when there are issues, suggesting that maybe you need to fertilize (true story, withholding names to spare friends from humiliation).

Ugly rain destroyed flowers - time to prune.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Lessons learned on the Roquette.

1.  I may be a pretty decent cook, but I am a lousy bartender.
2.  There is a fatal flaw in the recipe, and that is the absence of tonic or even regular water.  I nearly choked on the first very small sip.
3.  It looks cute, greenish tint, little green flecks of arugula.  My husband thinks he can improve on the recipe.  We'll see what he comes up with!

frogs are in the mood for love

at least they are in my backyard....

Loud enough?  Guess that means that this summer we will have more of this.

and this

My #1 frog and toad catcher is sure to be busy.

UPDATE 5/19- Apparently toads are what's mating in my yard, not frogs.  And based on all the racket, it sounds like a toad orgy back in the woods - yikes!  

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

on to the next fad

So it's been raining... a lot.  When the weather is this bad (like the endless snow this past winter) I do two things, I work on gardening related orders and writing, or bake.  The latter pretty seriously affected my waistline this winter, which is part of the reason I'm anxious to get into the garden and get some excercise - it's almost bathing suit season, yikes!

So for the last few years, I've been making cake balls, cake pops, etc.  I'm sure you've heard of them (if you haven't see here) as they seem to be all the rage lately.

I made them for Hanukkah.

I made them into pumpkins last fall.

Made them last week for a baby shower.

And then, at said baby shower, one of the invited guests asked if I had gotten the idea from Starbucks.  I nearly fainted.  Apparently cake balls have gotten so popular and so pedestrian that now they are available at Starbucks, which means for me, they are over.  There is no way that theirs are as good as mine, but still, the widespread availability makes them not unique enough for me to put into the considerable effort involved with making them.  According to Esquire Magazine they are the new cupcake.  So, I'm done.

What will replace them though... it just might have to be this- I've been drooling over them at William Sonoma for the last few months.  This could be just the excuse I need!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

rainy days and mondays always get me down...

Remember that old song by The Carpenters - I just googled they lyrics, boy whoever wrote that song must have been seriously depressed - but I digress.

The weather outlook for this week is not looking very positive.  However it's hard to complain about the cool, wet spring we are having here in the Northeast, considering the weather catastrophes that have been occurring in the Southern part of the U.S.  

This rainy weather is good for two things though; shopping and planting.  Rainy days are my favorite days to go to the nursery.  The days are so slow, that you usually have the chance to interact with whomever is in charge of sourcing the plants, and they are generally a great source of information.  Ever been to a nursery on that first beautiful Saturday morning in June with every other person in town?  Not that pleasant.

Once you're suited up, wellies, raincoats, etc. you may as well get out there and plant.  The truth is a ridiculously rainy day is NOT a good time to plant, the soil is too saturated, you risk disturbing the nice soil structure, etc.  But, if you've got a week coming up where it's going to be periodic off and on rain, and you get plants in the ground it makes life much easier.  To be really successful with transplants, they need a lot of water to get established and recover from transplant shock.  That means watering every or every other day. It's also why the spring is a much more optimal time for planting than the summer, there is less stress for everyone, including the plants.   In general, once the plants get established I take a "tough love" approach, and only water when really necessary.  I know you will be horrified, but sometimes it can be weeks between waterings for me - and my plants live.  However right after transplanting they need babying, and that means lots of water.

This is my lovely little crabapple - before it started raining, now it looks like crap.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

finally getting somewhere...

To say we've had a slow start to the growing season in the northeast is an understatement.  Finally, 3 days of sun in a row this week, and we are moving along.  Arugula looks like it will be the first thing ready to be harvested, very soon.  Probably one of the easiest things in the world to grow, in the ground, in a pot, whatever... it's not picky.  I'm a bit obsessed with arugula, and have already run out of seeds I've sowed so much - oops, time to order more.

I'd like to say that I was going to make a delicious salad with it, but there isn't anything else ready in the garden to go along with it.  I'm known for making some pretty good pesto out of arugula before the basil comes into season but that's not happening either.  The truth is, I've been holding on to this recipe since last fall - and it's time has finally arrived.

The Roquette - reprinted from Bon Appetit - Sept. 2010
1 cup (loosely packed) baby arugula plus additional for garnish
4 1/2 tsp. dark agave nectar
4 1/2 tsp. fresh lime juice
1/2 cup Hendrick's Gin
Ice Cubes

Combine 1 cup arugula, agave nectar, and lime juice in a cocktail shaker.  Using muddler or long-handled wooden spoon, mash until arugula is wilted, at least 1 minute.  Add gin.  Fill cocktail shaker with ice cubes.  Cover and shake briefly to chill.  Strain into 2 small rocks glasses filled with ice cubes.  Garnish drinks with arugula leaves.

Will provide you with a full report following consumption (okay, maybe the next day!)

grow for me - please!!!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

the elusive perfect tomato

Ah, summer tomatoes - the prize for a long (and sometimes difficult) growing season.  There is nothing like it.  They don't come easily though.  Although tomatoes are not particularly difficult to grow, there is something artistic involved in doing it "right" as far as I'm concerned.  This isn't a discussion about hybrid vs. heirlooms as both have their merits in the home garden. It's all about the process, and what a process it is.  Did you know that you are supposed to prune tomato plants?  That's getting a bit ahead in the process though...

So back in early April, on a random nice day I started my tomato seeds.  Here's the thing though, I started them differently than I have any other year, and am now reminded that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is.  So Gardeners Supply, which is a super reputable company that I use all the time was offering a kit this year to make "seed starting even easier" and I bought it.  Not that seed starting is hard, but anything that makes it easier is better right?  So this system utilizes cow pots (yes made from composted cow manure, which are awesome, I've used them for miscellaneous projects before) that sit on a special mat which "wicks" moisture from a reservoir below.  No need to repot, because the pots are big enough, no need to feed, because there are nutrients in the pots, awesome, right? So while plants do take in moisture from below (their roots) this system, similar to what I've used with peat pots in the past, just wasn't looking right.  As a failsafe, I started another batch of seeds in jiffy pellets in those little plastic "greenhouses" that you can get everywhere, one week after I started the cowpot version.

After several weeks this was the result....
uneven germination, lanky plants, most haven't formed true leaves in the cow pots
and some funky orange mold or fungus growing on the sides of the pots, yuck!

Started one week later in jiffy pellets, looking exactly as they should.

So last week I repotted the plants that were looking fabulous, although outgrowing their space in the jiffy pellets, into peat pots, just like I've always done.   There were a couple of plants that I repotted out of the cow pots, but I think that it was 3 out of 24, not good odds.

Happily repotted and back to the basement for a few more weeks under the lights.

So much for shortcuts, huh? Sorry Gardeners supply, on this product I'm really not happy.  Oh, and when I went to leave a review on your website this product is surprisingly (or not) "no longer available".  In about 2-3 weeks, depending on weather, these babies will get moved outside, and that's when the real fun begins!

On a completely separate note - if you are contemplating growing vegetables this summer it's not too late (especially with the cool spring we are having) if you are in the area and need help, I'll be teaching an Organic Gardening 101 class at Sport Hill Farm in Easton.  I'd love to see you there, click here for more details.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

the first step to beating an addiction

is admitting you have a problem, right?  Well I've got a serious problem, and it looks like this.

This is Echinacea purpurea 'Coconut Lime' introduced a couple years ago, it was one of a slew of new echinaceas to the marketplace, so different than the familiar pink/purple coneflowers.  Oh but this was just the beginning, there were doubles, pinks, whites, reds, yellows, more than you can imagine.  And then there are the Terra Nova varieties.  If you aren't familiar Terra Nova, they are one of the most well known perennial breeders in the U.S.  you can't buy plants directly from them, but chances are if you've bought an echinacea, or heuchera in the last few years they developed it.

Here's the problem, I'm obsessed. Even though some have come up marginally hardy, and not living up to their supposed potential, I can't stop buying them.  Yesterday I bought 2 'Secret Desires' (who comes up with these names) at $22 bucks a pop in one gallon pots.  That's insanity, yet I did it anyway.  Like I said, I've got a problem.  Somebody please knock some sense into me!

I mean really, can you blame me?
Photo credit, Terra Nova Nursery

Monday, May 2, 2011

More sensationalism? I think not...

If you care at all about sustainability, where your food comes from, or the national health crisis known as obesity, I urge you to read Eric Schlosser's recent opinion piece in the Washington Post.

You may not agree with every point he makes, as some have criticized that it smacks of sensationalism a la Jamie Oliver and Food Revolution or that it oversimplifies the issues.  However I hope it inspires you to support your local farmers, because they certainly are not getting rich under the current agricultural policies in this country.  Plus, I promise, you will never get better tasting food than you do from a local supplier.  There is no way, that tomatoes trucked in from Florida all the way to Connecticut, or wherever you are, will taste as fresh as those that are locally grown.