Thursday, May 28, 2009

Strawberries: The First Sign of Summer

Our first strawberry. I gave to the husband (Mr. Radish) and he graciously let me have a little bite. Holy cow! Delicious. I forgot how good strawberries could taste. This was so superior to the grocery store (and, occasionally the varieties at the Farmer's Market), I'm seriously considering devoting more of the garden to a strawberry patch. Currently we've got a 5 ft. x 3 ft. plot & 2 pots with them. And each plant next year will give up a quart or so of berries...

Maybe I should hold off...

I'm letting the ones in the pots produce, but I'm still pinching off the buds of the ones in the ground per the instructions they came with.

I've already discussed what strawberries need to survive. But, after they are in the ground (or pot) and flourishing, what's next? One of my friends, E, recently asked me the "Now what?" question. And, that was a really good question! This is my first year growing strawberries, so I did some research to find out the answers. (Specifically, Rodale's Garden Answers, Grow Magazine- Vol. 2 & Organic Gardening- June/July 2009.) Here are the answers:

Will the red berries get bigger if I leave them on the plant longer?
Nope. Strawberry plants have pre-determined sizes. Some varieties produce big fruit, some produce itty-bitty. Once they are red, they aren't going to get significantly bigger. However, clipping the runners before they set fruit will encourage larger strawberries because the plant will put more energy in producing fruit than creating "daughters."

If I pick the strawberries will I get more?
I can't find anything to back this up one way or another. However, it would make sense to me that if you harvest berries as soon as they are totally red & not let them sit around for a second, then the plant has the energy it was sending to the fruit to do something else. And just maybe that something else is to produce another berry!

Am I supposed to be fertilizing them or anything?
Grow recommends a slow release fertilizer every month during the growing season of the second & third years. Organic Gardening recommends a well-balanced organic fertilizer monthly during growing season, specifically a mixture of fish emulsion & seaweed (portions not mentioned). You should, however, stay away from high-nitrogen fertilizers as that will result in lots of leaves & not as many fruits.

Also, weed. Weeds compete with strawberries' shallow roots and potentially harbor diseases.

Oh, and when it's dry out, water them, but try to do it from ground level. Wet fruit & leaves can lead to disease.

How long should I leave them on the vine once they turn red?

They are ready for consumption the moment they are all red.

Finally, what do I need to do at the end of the season?
For the Mid-Atlantic area Rodale recommends shearing back the plants after they are done producing. You can do this with a lawnmower set to 1.5-2" (or, if you're in a raised bed like me, use your scissors). Dig up any rogue "daughters" & remove every single weed. Then spread a 1-in layer of compost over the whole bed, water, fertilize with diluted fish emulsion and apply straw mulch.

In late winter when you see pale new leaves beginning to grow, pull back the mulch around the crowns.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

All About: Ground Cherries

I had been lusting after ground cherries after reading about them in Organic Gardening Magazine. (Note the adorable & awesome-ness of the chocolate dipped ground cherries.) They look like a golden cherry tomato wrapped in a tomatillo husk. Which isn't a *huge* surprise since they are in the tomato family!

Anywho, they apparently have a sweet-tart taste and no pit in the middle. HOLLA! Plus, if keep in a cool, dry place & in its husk, they keep for months.

Despite all this awesomeness, ground cherries were not to be found in my local nurseries or my usual seed ordering catalogs. I figured I'd try again next year. Until....

I found out my CSA gives away seedlings and that this year, ground cherries were up for grabs! Hurray! The husband sacrificed a few hours of his day to go up & get us 2 plantlets of ground cherries (along with 2 more basil plants & 2 epazote).

What do these guys need? Full sun. Well draining soil (seriously well clay allowed!). Frost-free weather (meaning they'll be an annual for me). A fair amount of space (I'm going to try to trellis mine). Love (who doesn't need that?!?) .

If these guys work out, anticipate ground cherry chutney or ground cherry cobbler recipes posted!


Monday, May 25, 2009

Book Review: From the Ground Up

Last month, I happened upon Arlington Library's big book sale. I checked out the gardening section (there were perplexing fewer people there) and snatched up Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire and Amy Stewart's From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden. I had to get the former based on everything I've heard about In Defense of Food and The Omnivores Dilemma, but I felt compelled to get the latter because of it's title. You may notice that the subhead to this blog is "gardening & cooking from the ground up" (once I get some produce, we'll talk about the "cooking" part). I thought myself quite clever coming up with that line. Apparently, I was not alone.

Anyways, I get home with my scores (for a total of $3 no less!) and put them on a table, to be forgotten until today. It's quite summery outside in the DC area now. I did all my garden "chores" Saturday & Sunday so that I would be free to do whatever I felt like today, Memorial Day, a coveted day off. And, as it so happened, I felt like reading. I picked up Amy Stewart's book and headed over to Meadowlark Gardens to sit on a bench or in a rocking chair and read outside among the flowers (we're members so it was free. Additionally, we don't have comfortable chairs to sit outside). I then realize that I have been reading Amy Stewart for months now on the Garden Rant blog! It's very funny how the stars align sometimes...

From the Ground Up
is a quick, fun, and informative read. Amy Stewart describes all of her triumphs and mistakes, unapologetically, in her first garden year. Like Amy, I grew up in the South (she is from Texas, I'm from Florida) and gardens weren't really prized. Lawns ruled supreme. Sure, people did have plants & trees in their yard, but they were solely there to accent the lawn. Save my grandfather's terraced garden (which I only remember existing when I was very small. Later it became more lawn) and one summer of gardening by my mother, I don't remember anyone having "gardens." And, I didn't really think of gardening until I was older, like Amy as well. When we started looking at homes to buy last year, a space where I could plant something was put on the "Must Have" list. Also, like Amy, I had little gardening daydreams about me pulling a few weeds, picking handfuls of flowers & tomatoes, and waving at my husband inside as he worked on his computer inside (all while wearing a floppy, wide-brimmed straw hat, pink gardening clogs and purple gloves no less.).

And, like Amy, I learned that gardening is both more work and more satisfying than my daydream. In each chapter, Amy discusses a particular garden story. Whether it's cats, dirt, planning, or tomatoes, she's got a wonderful story to tell that, if you're a first time gardener, you can identify with. Promise. Additionally, at the end of each chapter Amy gives some solid gardening advice, from how to prune roses to what plants to grow to attract beneficial insects to a recipe for a gardener's bath.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the book:

{When talking about her father practicing his guitar & the face he got when he made a mistake, even though *she* couldn't hear it}: "It didn't occur to me that the same might be true of gardening, that gardening, like music, could demand practice, patience, a willingness to make mistakes."

{I think this point is incredibly true}: "There is an old saying that if you have a dollar and a garden, spend ninety cents on the soil and ten cents on the plants, but I hadn't heard that saying yet. I wasn't interested in dirt. I was interested in plants- big, flowering, vigorous plants- and I wanted them now."

{And, finally}: " simple gardening looked. So easy. So obvious. Pull the weeds, turn the earth, mark a straight line, and drop some seeds in. Water. Wait......What could be easier? What, really, is all the fuss about?"

I feel as though Amy has written the book about my first garden. Which is probably a good thing because she is much better at the story telling!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

I'm in a fight.

With a bunny.

That's right folks, I'm dukin' it out with the cutest little brown bunny of all time. I hate to do it, but I don't really see a viable way around it.

At first the little bugger was eating the grass. I have zero problemo with that. Less for me to mow! And s/he is Oh-So-Cute when it darts up & down the garden path as if it's doing laps. It gives me a little smile when I think about *how* adorable that is.

So, "What's the problem?" you might be asking yourself.

I'll tell you what the problem is! The creature is eating my toad lilies! My favorite plant in my yard! If s/he would have just stuck to the ugly bushes or hostas, I would not be mad at it. I thought the slugs were getting to the toad lilies as they were coming up. Nope: Baby Bunnies. I totally caught it this morning, red f'ing handed. And, of course, it just hopped a few feet away under our rhododendron & looks up at me all innocent-like. As if to say: "Who, me?"

Why do bunnies have to be so cute?

Anyways, I can't stand for the decimation of my favorite plant, no matter how cute the eater is. Thus, I will be bringing out the bloodmeal, cayenne pepper spray, and, if I can coax Mr. Radish to pee in a cup, urine (desperate times call for desperate measures!). If this doesn't work, I will move to that spray stuff that bunnies & deer don't like.

What do you do to keep the bunnies away from your favorite plants? Unfortunately a fence is not an option in this case.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Free Water!

Ahhhh...rain barrels!

I've been meaning to blog about ours since we installed it a few weeks ago but I always come home & forget to take pictures! I assume tonight will be no different so the pictures shown here are from the manufacturer's website.

That's right folks: We went fancy & bought one pre-built. This was a "Mr. Radish"-task & I let him do it his way. Other options include the workshop in Arlington County (or for Fairfax residents, this one) which is a cheaper option. You could also 100% DIY. There are enough websites out there telling you how to do it.

However, these are things you need to keep in mind with the rain barrel:
-Food-grade plastic. If you've got a veggie garden, you definitely don't want anything leeching into that soil! If you don't, the stuff that lives in the soil would prefer it to be toxin-free. Recycling a food barrel is great idea.

-Spigot near the bottom. Mr. Radish couldn't quite understand the barrels that had the spigot 6 inches from the bottom of the barrel for "easier bucket filling." I mean, are you supposed to tip the barrel to get at that last 6 inches of water? Because, ya know, it's kinda attached to your drain pipe... Let's just call it a "design flaw". Also, the filling of the bucket issue is easily solved with putting the barrel on cinder blocks.

-Keep mosquitoes out! As the picture below shows, our rain barrel does not have an open top. A connection to the downspout and a pour spout are the only openings & they have caps. Other barrels with open tops have fine-mesh tops. Some with this kind put a layer of oil (oil rises to the top) to keep mosquitoes from laying larvae. But it's important if you have this kind of rain barrel to...

-...Have an overflow hose a few inches below the top of your barrel. This also prevents mosquitoes from having access to your rain water so they can lay their eggs. For those with rain barrels like mine, this is also important as the barrels fill up quickly in a rainstorm & you don't want all that water pressure to build.

So far, I'm loving ours! I only wish we could run a soaker hose on it, but I think that might be solved by a submersible pump. I'm also considering maybe getting another one. With us reclaiming our yard from wilderness (well, as "wilderness" as Arlington gets. I guess "years of neglect" would be a better term), we're going to need more water for the dry summer months. And I'd hate to have to pay for it!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Most Awesome Plant Finder Site of All-Time

Most of the plants I lust after are full-sun. Which would be fine if even a (non-veggie garden) corner of my yard had something even *close* to 6 hours of sun per day. But, I don't.


Instead, I'm constantly on the search of part-sun/shade plants that look cool. It's even better if they *sorta* look like sun plants I love. It's hard, though. Many site, you're lucky if you can sort by zone and *maybe* sun tolerance. Then you're left to your own to wade through the shrubs, annuals, perennials, and biennials yourself. The sites that do allow you to search by plant type, zone and light requirements are often nurseries so the selection is limited to what they carry (and for part-sun/shade can get really limited).

Enter National Garden Association's Plant Finder. Whoa. You can even search by color of flower! Color of foliage! Special features! Bloom time! My search of zone 7, part-sun, perennials yielded FOUR pages of results.

It's like a dream come true...

Friday, May 15, 2009

Review: Book About Bugs

I have been looking for-ev-er for a decent books about bugs. And I mean, ALL sorts of bugs: the good, the bad and those outside the garden. I scoured the library and the local bookstore. Nothing.

Well, tonight, the stars aligned. I had looked on Amazon for a bug book & found one highly rated. It looked promising. Then, after dinner, I went to a different bookstore & lo! there it was. Of course, I could have saved a few bucks via Amazon but the instant gratification was just too much for me. So I bought it: Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs.

And, it's truly awesome. Lots of pictures. Easy understand info. The only downside to it, from my perspective, is that it's almost entirely identification information. It does not have how to get rid of bad bugs nor how to attract good bugs. That, I will have to look up elsewhere once identification is made. But, I'm stoked with it, nonetheless. There are these weird looking bugs that, thanks to this book, I believe are lady bug larvae.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Despite reading everything I could find on seed starting, attending a seed starting class, AND talking to all the veteran gardeners I knew, I had some pretty horrific casualties this year. The moisture pads that I bought to keep the plantlets watered during our vacation worked for many of the plants but notably, not my bergamot (sniff), parsley (sniff) or one of my thai basil (sniff). I have planted the scrawny surviving bergamot (which I had initially planned to discard) and a half-revived parsley, but I have little hope of them surviving.

Let's move on to peppers that were looking terrible BEFORE I even went on vacation. Three out of the 6 (or more. I've lost count) hot peppers survived unscathed: 2 cayenne & 1 thai pepper. One Kung Pao looks a bit pathetic (thanks aphids!), but I planted it anyway. My sweet peppers? Mostly gone. And I had like 8 of them! I think I was able to salvage 2. I've also bought additional sweet & hot pepper plants to get me up to my desired number.

And tomatoes? A Cherokee Purple just...well...shriveled up & died. For no reason I could really tell. I have little faith in my other tomatoes. They looked awful when we got back from vacation, but did perk up a bit with some more regular waterings. The Sungold Cherry Tomatoes are wicked tall & I don't think that's a good thing. The other Cherokee purple looks pretty sad, as do the Wonder Lights. However, I've planted all of these in hopes that something will come of them with good natural light, fertile soil and some fresh air. My fingers are crossed, but I've got little faith. A friendly freecycler, Karen, gave me some of her tomato seedlings in case mine are worthless. Thanks Karen!

All that said? I'll be starting seeds again next year, more experienced & wiser. I plan to germinate the tomato seeds like I did the peppers, get another grow light so that there can be more air circulation around the plants, try very hard not to let aphids in the house and not get emotionally attached to the plants. After all, I'm going to eat them!

How did your seed starting fair?

Busy, Busy Weekend. Full of Plants.

Happy Mother's Day to all those with spawn! With today being Mother's Day, you know what that means, right? Planting of the summer vegetables! Which, for now, are my babies. :)

It started out with pulling weeds which was infinitely easier given the 10 days straight of rain we've gotten. Most came out, roots & all, with a gentle tug.

Also, with the square foot garden don't-step-on-the-well-draining-soil mantra, I didn't even need a trowel to dig holes! After I dug said hole (with gloved hand), I put some water in the hole & then plopped in the plant, loosing the root ball when necessary. Next up, I surrounded the vegetables with crushed eggshells (most of my herbs aren't something that slugs would want to eat). Then, as another anti-slug measure, I sprinkled the area with Sluggo. Can you tell that I am anti-slug as well as anti-aphid?!? At least there is some preventative stuff you can do with slugs...

Which reminds me, so of my peppers STILL had aphids on them, the rat bastards. I planted some cilantro in the middle of them so hopefully that will eventually attract some ladybugs to the area (ladybugs feast on aphids). So, here's the garden plan(s):
(like the mood lighting?)

The Herb Garden. The middle part's plants are TBA.

And here it is planted:

The Vegetable Garden. Half isn't going to be used this year.

And here it is planted:

I ended up putting a row between the tomatoes & sweet peppers. Not sure if I'm going to plant there or place stones that I can stand on to easier tend the garden. The white pot contains a Old Fashion Rose scented geranium. It will live outside until winter, when I'll take it inside & put it near our sunniest window.

And just for fun the strawberry patch:

About a month ago

And now!

That's chamomile in the middle. Per the instructions on them, I'm snipping off the buds of all the junebearing this year in hopes of a bigger crop next year. I'll stop snipping off the buds of the everbearing mid-July.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Postcard from England: Hidcote Gardens

Last week the husband & I vacationed in the stunningly beautiful Cotswold District of England. Let me tell you, when the English say "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty," they ain't messing around. Seriously. This was the most naturally beautiful place I've ever been (The Alhambra is the most beautiful man-made place I've ever been).

I admit it, I got a little teary-eyed when we were driving away. If only I could find a job there....


Most of the houses in the Cotswolds seem to have the most charming gardens. Their yards, which aren't MUCH bigger than my 1/10 acre lot often include a small green house. Meaning, the English are serious about gardening, which I kinda knew, but then watched Bridget Jones' Diary & thought maybe that was a thing of the past.

One of my favorite places we visted was Hidcote Gardens, a National Trust Site. It was the home of Lawrence Johnston, a famous horticulturist. Hidcote is often described as one of England's great "Arts and Crafts" gardens. The garden itself is divided into "rooms" with each room having it's own theme (there's the Red Border, White, Upper Stream, etc.). I think we spent an hour and a half there and honestly, I could just pull up a tent & set up camp & live there forever. And, it should be noted, I don't really like camping. It's THAT beautiful.

Here are some photos that in no way accurately depict the loveliness that is Hidcote Manor Gardens (click on the photo to see it larger):

Monday, May 4, 2009

Bunny-Proof the Goods

There has been a lapse in my posts, and for good reason, I promise! Pinky-swear even! But, I'll go into that tomorrow (how's that for a cliff hanger, eh?)

So, you may have seen little cute, cuddy, hopping creatures around your garden. I know I have. Yesterday I saw a little baby bunny even! So cute, yet soooooooo not good for the garden given their vegetarian lifestyle and me growing, well, vegetables! What I wanted was something that was relatively attractive, removable and not too expensive.

My genius husband came up with the idea of creating "frames" like this: (Pardon the photo. It's raining outside! This was taken from a window inside)

You'll notice that the back of the bed on the fence side does not have a removable fence. Instead chicken wire is stabled to the bed's boards & support stakes. Basically, this was how this fence was made:

To be honest, it was really time consuming, but I'm happy with the results.