Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Broccoli Going Strong through the Freezes...

Wow.  Despite repeated temperatures in the teens and an unreliable row cover material that continually blew off, leaving the plants completely exposed to the freezing night air, the broccoli plants continue to bear lovely crowns of broccoli florets!  I am wowed. Spring planting has never yielded this kind of broccoli harvest.

 Here in coastal Virginia, the rollercoaster spring weather, with leaps into the 70's and even 80's during the early spring months, invariably starts my broccoli plants bolting while they are still quite small and my best harvest has only been a few modest mini-crowns of broccoli florets.  But fall planting, with the plants amiably growing along well into the winter... this is fabulous.  I don't know how long they can keep it up.  We've picked the large center heads and now have side shoots forming heads but it remains to be seen if those can develop far enough to make keeping the plants going worthwhile.

By contrast the cold weather lettuces, chard and spinach have all shown substantial damage from the freezes, even under light cover.  Collards, cabbage and curly kale just shrug it off, of course.

One of the loveliest things in the garden right now is the rainbow chard with it's brilliant red stems and colorful leaves. Some stalks are deep burgundy and purple, others orange and green.  When the sun hits the row, they light up the garden.  What a rewarding plant to grow - talk about your ornamental edibles!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Feasting

Feast!  Thanks to the unusually mild weather, we have lots of lettuces and greens from our raised beds for our Thanksgiving feast.  It was wonderful to stop at Culliphers' Farm Market yesterday to pick up a HUGE basket full of red skinned potatoes, butternut squash, some kind of delightful little acorn-type squash and THREE kinds of sweet potatoes: red, white and purple. Go figure. I think I'm going to try my own sweet potato chips with this medley - like those ones we buy for outrageous prices.  And, on top of it all, a monster-sized bag of collards and another equally generous bad of curly kale. Fresh broccoli.... it's all good.

After recently reading reports that there are NO supermarkets in inner Detroit - nowhere at all for families to buy groceries or fresh food, I am deeply grateful that we have such wonderful small farms around us.  I am also grateful to be able to grow fresh food of my own, enough to have and also to share.  The news articles about Detroit indicated that grants had been set up to help a businessman start up new small groceries in some of these inner city neighborhoods.  At the same time, dedicated volunteers are working to establish community gardens to teach folks how to grow simple vegetables: in plots, in yards, in containers.  

It's really not hard to grow food.  Sometimes we make things so over-complicated with useless rules: you have to plant a certain way, you must look for certain varieties, you must test your soil, you must water and fertilize "just so"..... Folks, we were growing food when there was nothing available but a little dirt, a little water, some seeds and a stick to dig with.  More than half the individual farmers in the world are still growing exactly that way. 

Dig in! Plan to plant a little more this coming spring. Plan to share a little more of what you plant.  And give a special word of thanks this holiday for the hard-working men and women - small farmers, ranchers and fishing folks, market owners and workers, migrant workers in the fields, even that generous gardener down the street who gifts you with squash and tomatoes every all of them we say Namaste' and Thanks for all the food!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hark! The First Catalog Arrives!

Like everything else, I swear it gets earlier every year.  This year the award for First in My Mailbox goes to Pinetree Garden Seeds with their 2010 Seed Catalog.   Looks like their website, however, is a step behind - when I hiked over to their webiste: (the domain was apparently coopted before they could get it - a lesson for all aspiring web businesses) it didn't seem to be ready. Images were missing and looks like they are "in process" for spring.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

No-Impact Man by Colin Beaven

Just finished reading a little book that I must recommend to all those interested in self-sufficiency, improving and/or protecting the environment, the local food movement and all other Good For the Earth endeavors.   Colin Beaven, an apartment-dwelling Manhattan resident, makes the commitment to try, over the course of a year, to reduce the environmental impact of his family of three.... to zero.  Mind you, he goes to lengths most of us wouldn't consider unless the world was already past crisis and we had no other options, but his writing is thoughtful and entertaining.  After reading his book, I was much more aware of things I could be doing but hadn't bothered -- and I had been feeling quite self satisfied.  Whether you consider yourself correctly labeled by "liberal" or not, Beaven's opening premises are well stated and very self aware:

"It's true that I had occasionally tried to make a difference in the world, but I was coming to think my political views had too often been about changing other people - and too seldom about changing myself."

"I made this mistake of thinking that condemning other people's misdeeds somehow made me virtuous.  I'd become, I realized, a member of that class of liberals who allowed themselves to glide by on way too few political gestures and lifestyle concessions and then spent the rest of their energy feeling superior to other people who supposedly didn't do as much."

So, he snaps! and becomes No Impact Man. The book is hilarious, touching and very thought provoking. Beaven doesn't leave all the blame at the doorstep of the individual - he discusses the ways that the individual guilt movement has kept us self-absorbed and self-castigating rather than focused on changing industrial waste and pollution standards, something industry is well aware of and works to support.

The book began as Colin's blog on his progress and the blog is still active.  Hop over to No Impact Man - The Blog to peruse the day-to-day.  I understand that this may all turn into a movie (a la Julie and Julia) but please do read the book before Hollywood makes it into some comedy.

Hurrah for Raised Beds!

Like most of our friends and gardening acquaintances, we slogged out to the back yard after the 4-day Nor'easter cleared to see what remained of our waterlogged gardens.  Despite water over our ankles, the raised vegetable beds looked cheerful and perky.  The water had drained down from the beds, which are about 18" high, so the plants roots were airing out as the water pooled in all the low areas around the garden.

This is in happy contrast to the way plants in our heavy, wet clay soil would contract fungal diseases and die during the winter months.  I am even  more an advocate for raising planting beds after seeing how well we fared in this lousy weather.  With over 8" of rain down at our farm - not as much as some of you got, I know - it's a delight to wade out to find great lettuce, greens and even some late peppers still perfect to harvest for a quick meal.  Broccoli is heading up (had to murder a few cabbage worms this morning), cabbage and greens looking good!

Hope everyone fared nearly as well - although I know of at least one community garden plot in Portsmouth that was flooded with storm sewage and abandoned by the gardeners since the produce was all likely contaminated.  Very sad.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

When Words Become Endangered

I hope everyone, not just environmentalists and educators, will read Anne Keisman's article in National Wildlife magazine, Oct/Nov 2009 (vol. 47 no. 6).  The article is entitled, "When Words Become Endangered".

from the article:

...the word “wren” was removed not long ago from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. In fact, the newest edition of this prominent children’s learning tool no longer defines more than 30 nature words, including “dandelion,” “otter,” “acorn” and “beaver.” In their place, a child will now find definitions for such terms as “MP3 player,” “blog” and “cut and paste.”

If words frame how we are able to think about the world, what does this tell us? How does this narrow a child's view of the world? Isn't this a value judgement? That natural world terms are less "meaningful" than digital jargon?  Will those digital terms even be in use in a few years? Will they be like "eight-track" or VHS, terms that mean nothing? What about Otter? Beaver?  Will they be meaningless or will they just be gone?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Summer Peppers and Onions for Delicious Winter Recipes

It's that time of year, post first light frost and pre-killing freeze, when I'm scurrying around the garden pulling plants and taking last harvests.  Thanks to floating row covers, here in Virginia Beach I'm only now harvesting the last of the big, sweet Italian peppers and some summer annual and perennial herbs (dill, tarragon, lemon verbena).  The house is filled with the lovely smells of herbs drying in the dehydrator. Dill takes almost no time at all and always surprises me with what a clean-smelling "potpourri" it makes as it dries.

For years, I hit the final harvest jackpot with armloads of veggies that exceeded our family's immediate needs so I gave them away - even tossed a few that were forgotten and left to shrivel - only to find myself a few weeks into winter stuck at the supermarket BUYING the same veggies, either fresh or frozen.  It was frustrating! Here I was, Little Miss Buy Fresh Buy Local, spending money on peppers flown a thousand miles to get to me - or bagged for an unknown length of time in a freezer section.  I was determined to find a change.

Now we save the end of season pepper harvest in a number of ways.  My favorite method is to gather a good selection of red and green bell and sweet peppers, including the wonderful Carmagnolo Rosso red Italian peppers and the huge, red Giant Marconi stuffing peppers (for seeds, head to  At season's end, there are plenty of peppers fully red and also lots of green/orange young peppers still trying to ripen. I chop all of these into quarter inch bits and combine with an equal amount of well-chopped onions. Although our onions keep well through the winter, it is so terrific to have the onion/pepper combo frozen and ready - this was one of those "pre-made" items I used to grab in the grocery store.  No blanching is needed.  A cup of the pepper/onion mix fits perfectly into a snack-sized, zip&store baggie.  Once frozen, a good "whack" on the counter loosens all the pieces so you can grab a pinch or the entire cup easily.  We use them on pizza, omeletes, soups, casseroles....  The going price on the one cup containers or pre-chopped peppers/onions in the grocery store is about $2.50 and rising.  I save about 45 of these in our freezer in very little space. Savings?  About $112.00.

We also slice the peppers into long strips about 1/2" wide.  Toss the strips with a little good olive oil and some herbs (rosemary, basil, garlic, oregano) and roast them in a low oven (about 300) for an hour or so until the herbs have baked in.  Some cooks like to broil them for a second to get a blackened edge. I don't peel mine, our pepper varieties don't have a very thick skin.  These are then frozen in snack-sized bags and saved for recipes that specify roasted peppers.  Delicious!

So, what other creative ideas have other gardeners come up with for the last, precious summer veggie harvests?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Why Did The Chicken.....

OK, okay, as you know, I do love my chickens. And I "farm", so how can I resist farm radio? More to the point, I can't even resist bad chicken jokes, especially one that just keeps getting more and more lame as the years go by.  Here, you should suffer with me!


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Cheapie Gardener Scores Again!

If there is one thing I love more than plants, it's great plants at little or no cost.  When you drag home plants the way I do, eventually you have to become agile at either budgeting your plant shopping or concocting fabulous excuses for the newcomers in pots crowding the patio, waiting to be planted.  So I'm quickly sharing a tip that you need to make use of while garden centers are still moving plants. 

Check the left-over perennial inventory!

Now you and I both know that by this time in the season, the Big Box stores' garden centers are a mess of dying annuals that need to be composted, not sold.... but hidden amongst them are often some Really Nice Perennials that have simply gone out of bloom.  Your average gardener won't buy  plants that don't have blossoms, so the poor off-season perennials sit and wait ... and wait... until they have been marked down so far that the only recourse is the dumpster out back.  Forget the expiring annuals - wade in and find the off-in-the-corner shelves where the perennials, often quite healthy, are being price whacked with a desperation that makes Haynes furniture ads look tasteful.

Last month, I scored a perfect flat of 6" asian lilies, ready for fall planting, with a price tag of Buy One, Get Six Free.  I mean, really.  Today the take was six lovely Gaura plants, three white and three pink, that are going to grace the back edge of two planting beds and delight the butterflies all next summer .... cost? Buy One, Get Two Free.  Woot!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Big Harvest from Tiny Potato Garden!

Hurray!  I finally harvested the 'tater' crop from my container planting of Desiree potatoes. I have no idea why someone would give a lowly potato such a romantic name but these are gourmet potatoes worthy of desire.  The starter spuds were ordered and planted late, so this was a very late harvest for potatoes in eastern Virginia. The lovely, white-flowered vines finally died back in October so I dug in (literally) and grabbed the potatoes from the roots of the vines.

What a remarkably easy way to grow and harvest potatoes!  I will have to expound more on container growing potatoes in the spring when everyone's ready to plant.  Sure beats trying to grow taters in our clay soil without heavy equipment that the farmers use.

Eight pounds of lovely pink potatoes from one great big planter.  Yes, they really do have a delicate pink skin but are cream colored inside.  Perhaps the blushing color led to the heroine-worthy name?  They make stunning mashed potatoes - I can attest to this from some surface tubers I snatched and ate earlier this month!

My seed potatoes came from Seeds of Change, if you want to check out their many varieties of potatoes and plan for spring, just click here:   Seed of Change Potato Page.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Finally, Back to the Blog!

For those of you who've written to inquire gently whether I'd been strangled by weeds, overcome with humidity, ground in the processor making gallons of pesto, or just off running amok in the glorious fall weather, Thank You for your kind thoughts and, yes, I'm back and, no, it was none of those things. 

I've been working hard with a dedicated team of volunteers as part of a group called Buy Fresh Buy Local Hampton Roads.  A long, awkward moniker for a useful initiative.  Buy Fresh Buy Local Hampton Roads (hereafter to be referred to as BFBLHR, shorter but really no more fun to type) is dedicated to connecting Hampton Roads residents to the many small farms, ranchers, fisherfolks, beekeepers, herbalists and all of the wealth of folks around our cities who are busy growing, harvesting, grazing and creating wonderful things for you to eat and use.

Dozens of farms and food-related businesses signed on as partners and supporters during the first few months and, with a great deal of effort, the volunteers were able to pull together the very first publication, the Fall/Holiday 2009 Food Guide which is now available.    You can view the guide online by clicking   BFBLHR Fall/Holiday 2009 Food Guide

Want to know more about why buying local makes a difference?  Visit the Useful Gardens Webpage: Buy Fresh Buy Local

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mystery Late-Season Blueberry

What a nice August surprise! One of our rabbiteye blueberry bushes has a lovely crop of late season berries ripening. We've never been able to pin down the variety. In addition to the three "standard" rabbiteye (mid-Atlantic) bluberries we grow: Climax, Premiere, and Tifblue, we also trialed lots of varieties up for evaluation as new additions to the commercial blueberry offerings. This blueberry seems to be reliably dwarf, by comparison to the larger, standard varieties, and the berries are just ripening now, 3rd week in August. My vote is Eliot, my husband says Powderblue and I'm also betting it's one that had no name, only numbers, when it came to us. It's always a nice bit of a treat to have this small harvest of a few pints of late summer berries. If anyone has a suggestion on variety name, please let me know!

How Sweet the Harvest!

As the summer season winds down and gardening enthusiasm falters under the long days of heat and humidity, I find that the last harvests from my fading plants often seem the sweetest. The tomatoes, faded from a verdant thicket of brilliant green growth to an untidy sprawl of dusky, rather tattered-looking stems, still hang with deep red fruits. I know that only a few of the small, green tomatoes will ripen satisfactorily now and it makes the rich, ripe fruits I'm harvesting all the more sweet to know that soon enough my only menu option will be tasteless supermarket tomatoes. Quick! One more round of BLT sandwiches! One more tomato pie!

Meanwhile, our courtship of the beneficial insects has shown more results. On almost every tomato plant, late-season hornworms (Manduca quinquemaculata) have appeared - but with a new look! Each one is decorated along its back with the egss of the tiny braconid wasps called Cotesia. This terrible (from the caterpillar's standpoint and only occasionally the gardener's) parasite lays its eggs along the caterpillar's back. The larva hatch, burrowing into the hornworm's body. Paralyzed, the caterpillar is consumed alive as the wasp larvae eat it from the inside out. As they burrow out, the larvae spin cocoons and mature into tiny wasps, beginning the cycle again. Knowing what the caterpillar is enduring, it is very difficult for me not to kill the hornworm outright and end what I envision as an agonizing death but doing so will also kill the beneficial wasps we've tried to attract to protect our tomato plantings! Another of the many dilemmas of gardening... when the ally is more frightening than the enemy.

The peppers are really in their stride now. Of all our backyard garden vegetables, the peppers love the heat the most. Dark green and loaded with brilliant red, yellow and green peppers, they are a delight to see. In past years, I've had terrible slug damage on peppers during late summer wet weather spells. This year I mulched each raised bed with several inches of a shredded cypress mulch - cheap (less than $3 per bag), prickly as all get out, and a nice weed suppressant. Bonus! It discouraged the tender snails and slugs right out of those beds! I'm bedding everything with cypress mulch henceforth.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vegetable Garden Maintenance

For all us Useful Gardeners - Just a reminder of how important it is to keep your vegetable and fruit plantings clean at this time of year. Pests and diseases spread and harbor in any damaged, diseased and decaying vegetation and fruits. As you are collecting that hard-earned harvest each day or two, it's important to remove any veggies and fruits that show signs of damage or disease. That slug-bitten pepper will only get more decay, it won't heal and get better. Ditto those tomatoes. If you remove the damaged fruits as soon as you spot them, you'll avoid having to pull off disgusting, rotten remains later and you will have removed and/or discouraged whatever caused the damage in the first place. Removing bad produce will encourage the plants to create new, clean fruits that you can use. There's still lots of time for lovely produce from your garden - don't hang onto the bad stuff.

If you think that the problem stems from disease, as with tomato plants succumbing to Southern Wilt, do NOT compost that material. Most home compost heaps are not "hot" enough to deter viruses and diseases that will later be spread anywhere you use that compost.

If it seems pretty obvious that the culprit is pecking birds, creeping slugs, worms, beetles or any of your other garden co-inhabitants, then toss the veggies and fruits onto the compost heap, making sure that you cover them well with dirt or grass clippings. (In our setup, they are left on top of the heap so that the chickens can enjoy and "turn" them for us.)

The August Doldrums....

Image: Haze turning to rain over the back fields.
The Dog Days of Summer are now in full blowsy, August abandon. Everything wilts, including me. This is a hard time of year for a natural gardener. Sooty mold, blackspot, powdery mildew, slugs... oh, all the unwanted things that love the heat and humidity, are coming on. Hot and sweaty, it's hard to care - but I know we do. All of us summer gardeners who have worked so hard and brought our gardens to the edge of seasonal perfection, large and full of harvest promise, we sweat, drag hoses and pull weeds.... to the point of being overcome by the heat and humidity. Things start to slide. Everything looks a bit "has been".... summer annuals, vegetable and floral, are starting to fade, to fall over, to look like they need a rest.
Come to think of it, I look exactly the same way.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Bargain Seeds and Plants

Most of us who qualify as Useful Gardeners - that is, we garden for productivity and usefulness in addition to beauty - also keep a watch on our garden spending. Each year, I swear that I'm only going to spend a handful of dollars on my gardens.... a resolution that goes smack out the window when I find fabulous "must have" new plants, tools, ornaments - you know the routine. But I do treasure bargains when I find them, including the amazing plants one can find at local Master Gardener fund-raising sales and end of season close-outs at area garden centers.

I just scored a huge handful of good veggie and flower varieties in 2009 seed packets at a local store - lettuce, broccoli, carrots, parsley, you-name-it, for my fall garden.... at 19 cents per packet. Down from $1.99, in some cases. All the garden and variety stores are clearing out the very last of the seeds and it's a great time to grab seeds for now and next spring. Even some of the seed catalogs have end-of season, on-line seed sales going.

I keep seeds in a tupperware-type sealable container in the bottom of our fridge. Leftover seeds and home-gathered seeds from the spring and summer season are in small ziplock bags in the container and "regular" seed packets are just stored "as is". They last not only for the entire year but up to five years, depending on the variety.

In addition, I notice that most of our garden centers are closing out their summer plant stock. Obviously, this is no time to load up on annuals - unless you have an outdoor fall event for which you need show-stopping back yard - but in among the summer annuals I've found wonderful buys on plants that are actually perennial here. This past week I bought a flat of quart-sized asiatic lilies, which do wonderfully well naturalized in our gardens, at Home Depot on a Buy One - Get SIX Free sale. Yep. I bought the entire flat of six good-sized lilies for the price they charged for ONE earlier in the season. Why? Because they were no longer blooming and therefore wouldn't sell. I bought several very nice orchids that will live in our house (porch in summer) for $3 each (formerly $14 each).

Remember that the truly neglected, unwatered plants may not be worth even the small amount the stores are charging.** So look over the stock carefully - but this is a wonderful time to get fabulous bargains on plants and seeds.

So, Frugal Gardeners - shop now!

**(The neglect you see in the stores is often the result of the Pay-Per-Scan regimen that the Big Box stores have imposed on growers in another post. As a former nurseryman, I will rant about that in another post.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Transplanting Daylilies and Renewal

You know, gardening makes philosophers of us all.

I've been out separating daylilies into new plantings. I know it seems like an odd time of year to be doing this but daylilies suffer mid-summer moves well and it is the only way I can judge the bloom color of the daylilies I'm moving - yes, I really have lost ALL the tags. I've been working at this job, off and on, since June, moving clumps into new configurations that better show the colors of each variety.

I think of what this is like for the daylilies as I am tearing clumps apart, ripping the roots free and brutally separating what was a happy, if crowded, family of daylily shoots. Some break, are cut by the shovel, missed in the transplant and otherwise doomed to die. To the original plant, at that moment, the transplanting process must seem like the strike of a horrific tragedy. The shock! The pain! The disorientation!

As I work, I keep consoling them. "It will be better for you in the long run," I assure each traumatized transplant. "You needed to move, to grow, to have a new situation. It will be okay. It is for the best - you will see."

And as I work I think about life and the scale of things and how our lives are torn and upheaved with traumas we think we cannot endure. And I think of all the platitudes and comforts people say to us with love, with concern, and how we cannot hear them at that time.

And I watch the lilies - how they wilt and they struggle. They don't see me caring for them, watering them, watching over them. Slowly, carefully, they put down new roots. Their leaves lift... and they begin to grow and thrive.

Sometime later when I'm strolling through the garden I see the daylilies growing in their new locations - vibrant, blooming, happy. They have coped, they have survived, they are doing even better than they were.

And I tell myself.... remember.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Organic Gardening Turned Me Into a Ruthless Killer

Organic gardening has turned me into a ruthless killer.

It’s true.

Back when I used popular chemicals to ward off insect attacks, garden defense was a matter of gracefully waving my sprayer wand over my beloved plants, much in the manner of Glinda the Good gracing the Munchkins with her benevolent presence. A gentle spray drifted down over the leaves and slowly, silently, the offending insects fell to the ground. All was well. No distinction was made between “good” insects and “bad” insects, all were treated with equal dispassion. My plants were inviolate. They probably glowed – gratefully, I would have thought - in the dark. While I was never entirely comfortable with spraying, all of the accepted farming dogma insisted that a carefully followed spray schedule was necessary to produce good crops. I was a good grower, I followed the directions carefully.

Eventually, I gave up standard commercial growing and all the chemical pesticide and fungicide formulas. I couldn’t justify poisoning myself any longer, even for perfect looking food. I also couldn’t justify poisoning the frogs, toads, dragonflies, water, earth and air. The list of victims, the collateral damage, was endless. The results were becoming obvious, even on a small farm like ours. Amphibians of all sorts - frogs, toads - and many of the lovely insects we liked – bees, butterflies, fireflies- were scarce. We began creating meadow spaces across the farm, half an acre here and there, where clover, Queen Anne’s Lace and other wild flowering plants could flourish, hoping to lure back and nurture some of what had been damaged.

But let me point out that what never became scarce were the original offenders, the Japanese Beetles, the whiteflies, the hornworms – all of the munching, tearing, sucking, piercing horde that made gardeners like me take to poisons in the first place. The newly available organic sprays worked to an extent, but I was now the caretaker and defender not only of my plants but also of the beneficial insects I worked so hard to encourage. The new sprays were equally lethal to those newly beloved friends. What to do?

And so it came down to hand-to-hand combat, mano a mano with the bug world. Where I once wandered ladylike, gently wafting airborne particles across the garden, I now crept clumsily, eyes narrowed, ready to pounce. I’ve become a one-woman SWAT team for bugs. I’ve graduated from gently knocking insects into water-and-soap filled containers, flicking them down with genteel distaste, to removing them with glove covered hands (and stomping on them) and finally, now, to quickly and casually squishing them with my bare fingers as I move through watering and weeding. I squint into the leaves and I pounce. I pinch a pair of mating Japanese Beetle and feel a grim satisfaction as the shells crack. No grubs will come from that pair to destroy my plants next summer. I move a waiting mantis and flatten the nearby berry-eating stinkbug. I’d leave him for the mantis but she takes too long. She can have the ones my eyes don’t see.

All of this brings pest control down to a very personal war zone. I have to take personal, individual responsibility for every tiny life I’m taking. I don’t like it. Not only the squishy, icky parts of it, but also not the karmic, I-can’t-pretend-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing part of it. We are locked in a fight for food, these bugs and me. This is what the natural world dictates; this is what it all boils down to. For one to eat, another may not. And it is always this way. When I buy ‘conventional’ produce at the grocery store, I know that somewhere a field has been sprayed and resprayed, like bombers spraying over the far-away jungles we heard about when I was younger. Thousands have died there. Here in my garden, death is selective. If I can move the offenders to a different plant, less desirable to me, then we share. If they are too greedy, too voracious, if the plant is suffering and my crop – the whole purpose of the endeavor – is damaged, then we move to ultimatums. They bite into a fruit; I pounce. They are ruthless in their pursuit of food. So am I.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Glorious, Overwrought Thunderstorms

It is the summer storm season, finally. The humid, hot afternoon air builds up to towering cumulonimbus thunderheads, each sailing ponderously through the skies overhead like giant ships. Most of the time the storms really are "isolated" - pushing through alone, highlighted by sunlight and casting huge shadows across the fields. Some meld together, as they did last night, to create a giant, whipping rainstorm.

Ray Bradbury described thunderstorms stalking across the landscape on lightning legs, a description that always comes to mind when I watch night-time rainstorms. The electrical power went out, darkening the house as though the storm would allow to competition for its pulsing light display. Two inches of rain, eight hours of power outage. Uncomfortable but worth suffering rather than sending any poor lineman out into that dark wind and rain.

Amazingly, the daylilies stood valiantly through the night and all blossoms were high and brave this morning. Some of the tetraploid hybrids have such huge blooms that I'd assumed all stems would be broken. A storm that snaps trees -- but the lilies survive. Brave plants! I hope the several mockingbird nests did as well. There's one in a large variegated, tree-form ligustrum that hangs over my head when I'm puttering in the daylilies and its occupant, intently mothering in the nest over my head, has been hissing and squawking at me daily. Last summer the mockingbirds were so irate and protective that walking to the barn required taking a tennis racket to wave for protection. (I never actually swatted a Mocker, of course, but the dratted bird-parents were determined to connect with my head!)

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Beetles are Coming!

photo source:

For years, I've used a weather diary to track not only the precipation and temperature but also the changes that move through our gardens. One coincidence of timing is the match between the blooming of the Chinese Chestnuts and the arrival of the Japanese Beetles. Regardless of the weather, these two have almost pefect synchronicity. The Chestnuts bloomed this weekend. The beetles should be out in noticeable numbers by mid-week. I have the diatomaceous earth and Surround kaolin spray ready to apply before the voracious coleopterans munch their way through my plantings.

This is the advantage of keeping garden records. After a while, you begin to notice how the events turn, hand in hand, throughout the season. Soon, the parade of events, how one thing heralds the appearance of another, becomes clear and expected. "How did you know that would be next?" friends inquire. "Experience and observation", the gardener replies. And she means it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

June is the Time for Desperate Measures

They are in! All the potted, purchased, seeded and forgotten plants are firmly in the ground. By the time the last poor, gasping pepper plant was carefully lifted and placed into the Pepper Patch raised bed, it was looking thoroughly disreputable. It's bad when your home grown plants, the ones you cared for so tenderly, are so straggled by the time they finally arrive in the garden that, really, had I seen these at one of the garden centers, I would not have bought them. These are the back of the pack plants, leftover from the initial, energetic garden plantings. Finally, too desperate to be given away and too dear to be discarded, they have been tucked into some corner of the garden. Watered and fed, perhaps they will find the strength to flourish again.

Catching Up to June

As always, May rushed through so quickly that I almost missed it. The quick, subtle transition from cool spring to warm days, longer days, windy spring days.... and it's June!

The "natural lawn" project has been a lovely success. Those areas we left to their own spring growing came up in white clover, long grasses and wildflowers we did not know we had. There have been hundreds of bees, ladybugs and other insects working like mad in each patch. Gradually, as the spring blooms die back, we are mowing those areas and letting some others grow up, trying to keep a balance between nature and having lawn we can no longer get a mower through. It's hard enough now, I have to mow very slowly. The bees seem to have no recognition of the lawn mower. The whipping blades can be right on top of them and they will keep working the clover blossom, as if they can't detect what, on our scale, would be a whirling, thundering tornado a few inches away. In previous years, I've always "assumed" that the bees and such made a getaway ahead of the mower. This season, watching them carefully, I am convinced that they do not do so - certainly the determined, short-sighted bumblebees don't.

In the veggie garden the last of the "early spring" crops, the sugar pod peas, continue to bloom and produce. Knowing that we are counting the days, we munch them down as we weed and water the beds. I don't think we've ever cooked this vegetable, surely it is at its best flavor - a crunchy, cool, sweet bite - straight from the vine. By next week, the last plants will be pulled, the bed turned over and the basil seeded for our summer crop of pesto.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Coleopterans in the Coleus!

Hercules Beetle found in old bags of leaves out back. Truly an amazing sight!

Well, spring has sprung and the beetles have begun appearing all over the farm... and all over my precious plants. Some Coleopterans (beetles) I value and protect (when I can), like our bright Ladybugs, but many others, are here to drill into the trees, worm under the bark, eat the leaves, lay eggs to hatch larvae to eat everything.... ah, it's amazing how much damage they can create across a property. There are over 300,000 distinct species of beetles and the parade of them is relentless. Did you know that across North America, there are over 400 species of what-we-call Ladybug or Ladybird beetles? I try to be fair and forgiving of most living things, but I'm working to get a lot more savvy about beetles since I've started seeing serious bark beetle and ambrosia beetle damage in our fruit trees. The trick is to learn who's who, so I'm targeting the damaging insects and not the helpers.

It's interesting that it is usually the beetle larvae who are either the heroes or the villains -- the adults become the visual clue to the presence, now or later, of those larvae. I discovered a few seasons ago that I'd been diligently wiping the bright yellow eggs of the Ladybugs off my plant leaves, which explained why I wasn't getting any wierd little orange "alligators" (larvae) to eat my aphids. On the other hand, they aren't the only orange egg layers and things get really crazy. The key, always, always, seem to be continued observation, slowly getting to know who's who in all their stages.

When the famous evolutionary scientist, J.B.S. Haldane was asked "What has the study of biology taught you about the Creator, Dr. Haldane?", he replied, "I'm not sure, but He seems to be inordinately fond of beetles."

Monday, May 4, 2009

Plant A Row for the Hungry - Hampton Roads

Plant A Row for the Hungry is a people-helping-people program to help feed the hungry in local neighborhoods and communities. Launched in 1995 by the Garden Writers Association (GWA), Plant A Row encourages gardeners to grow a little extra and donate the produce to local soup kitchens and food pantries serving the homeless and hungry.

Drop-off sites are being set up across the region so that as our gardens come into full production, there will be places you can easily donate produce from your garden to help your local Food Bank. This year, with the financial crisis and resulting job layoffs, Food Banks are supplying more hungry Hampton Roads residents than ever.

You already know that nothing beats the taste and nutrition of freshpicked vegetables and fruits. Growing and eating from your own garden can improve your health, save you money, increase your sustainability, and decrease your carbon footprint. And now, just as important, your garden can help a lot of people in need. By donating produce directly to the food agencies, gardeners help organizations stretch their meager resources. Fresh produce is often lacking from the diets of economically challenged families because canned or processed foods are easier for humanitarian organizations to obtain and store. During the summer, at least, we can change that, making sure that area children have access to the same wonderful vegetables and fruits that we harvest from our gardens.

There is a new page on the website to assist the local PAR campaigns. As drop-off sites are finalized, the information will be posted on our Plant A Row for the Hungry webpage. This year, you don't have to wonder what to do with all those extra tomatoes, squash, beans, figs or other garden bounty -- donate them so that less fortunate folks in our communities will have some delicious, fresh vegetables on their tables.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Seeking Clarity

You may notice some interesting changes in the blog format over the next few days as I work to find the most easily readable format. There are lots of fancy templates available but the aim is to make sure that most of our readers can enjoy the entries and photos with minimal effort (in other words, without new reading glasses). Enjoy!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Strawberry Time!

The local strawberry fields were full of energetic, earlybird pickers this past weekend - April 25th and 26th, which is as early as I ever remember strawberries being ready to pick in Virginia Beach. This bounty comes to us through the efforts of the growers, who have selected very early varieties and protected the blossoms with diaphanous spun row covers, and the surprisingly hot weather.

The Pungo farms, Henleys and Bakers, were picked out by the end of the weekend but email messages from Tom Baker reassure customers that by mid-week the berries will be ready for another early harvest.

This is the best of the best of Buy Local - so don't miss it! If you need directions and info for any of the farms, go directly to the website: for contact information and a map showing where all the farms and fields are located.

Happy picking!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Salad Days

Cooks Garden lettuce/mesclun mix, Romaine Little Gem forms small heads perfect for one person salads.

Weekend temperatures near 90 even out here at the farm are really pushing the lettuce crop. We're eating salads like mad, knowing that this kind of warmth pushes those timing buttons that tell the crop of greens to start bolting. Bolted lettuce has a nice sharp tang for a short while and then becomes too bitter, overpowering any salad with its flat bite. It's okay, though, our rotation plan for the raised beds calls for all the lettuce to be harvested by late May when the space is needed for the heat lovers, the tomatoes, basil and peppers.

Speaking of spring beauties, did you notice the striking display of pink beauties at Home Depot on Sunday? Yep, those were the sunburned gardeners from Saturday - sunburned but still determined, loading up on more supplies and doing an outstanding job of stimulating the local economy via the garden centers.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Suddenly.... It's Summer!

As local temperatures hit the high 80's, the wisteria in the raised bed gardens exploded into glorious purple blooms that wafted fragrance into every gentle breeze. Yes, yes, we all know that wisteria is invasive - and stranglingly so - if not kept rigorously in check. Mine gets cropped back throughout the growing season - there's no waiting for "dormancy" with this one - and even then keeps pushing its limits throughout the summer. Most importantly, because it is a reasonable size, I'm able to prune off every seed pod that forms from those glorious blossoms, preventing the lightweight seeds from blowing into nearby stands of trees where the resulting offspring would love to vine and drape throughout the suffering tree limbs. The darling of Victorian gardens, Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria chinensis) is not a garden plant for those who love to let things go... if you are going to plant and enjoy this kind of exotic, then you must also commit to keeping it in its place, your garden, and take the steps necessary to protect the surrounding environment.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Spring Frozen in Place....Momentarily

The annual Easter freeze arrived in Blackwater last night. It was, as usual for spring and fall frosts, a full moon with clear skies and little air movement, perfect for radiant cooling. We've had this frost (or freeze, even snow in 2007) between April 7 and April 10, annually almost without fail. The recording themometer on the barn shows a low of 26 degrees here at the farm. The white frosting is obvious on the cars, less so on the grass. The early morning sun instantly melts any frost it touches, so you'd have to be up early to appreciate the true cold.

Our outside salad beds, where our poor lettuces had been battered for two days with strong winds, were well watered before sundown and covered
with a light Reemay-type row cover.* Watering raised bed and container plants before a frost offers a little additional stress protection. The water drops release heat as they cool and freeze - that light coating helps prevent dessication of the leaves. The water also protects the roots which are more exposed in raised beds and containers than they would be in ground.

*FYI, after much searching, I finally found floating row cover, which also protects plants from insects such as squash borers and cabbage moths in a useful size (5x50') locally at Anderson's Greenhouse in Newport News.

On the good side of cold weather, I noticed some early season aphids on daylily clumps - perhaps the frost will knock those early insects out. I doubt it however, the aphids will hunker down in the center of the clump where the heat of the plant itself will protect them. (Yes, a growing plant really does release heat!)

In the unheated greenhouse, the temperature sank to the 40's. The trays of seedlings on the benches were tucked into the same kind of light cover. After listening to Dr. Andy Hankins (VSU) talk about farming projects using direct planted,unheated greenhouses (hoop houses), I believe next spring I'll move the benches out and put the seedling flats smack on the floor of the greenhouse, after the ground warms, so that their roots are protected by the warm ground . (sigh) It's just so much easier to work with the seedlings at waist height, rather than ankle height....

Saturday, April 4, 2009

It's Salad Time!

Looks like truly freezing temperatures are gone for this spring so area gardeners are setting out their first and hardiest seedlings. For us, this is the time for transplanting romaine and other lettuces that have been growing in the unheated greenhouse to the raised beds. Should a late frost threaten, just cover lightly with a woven row cover or a light sheet. Most greens tolerate frosts well.

Lettuce is remarkable easy to grow and transplants well. Even the small plants make delicious salads and with a cut-and-come-again planting, you can enjoy several salad harvests from each planting. The photo shows a flat of our romaine lettuce seedlings on their way out to the garden for planting. We like "Little Gem", a little cos type romaine that forms a small, compact head perfect for a personal salad. We also grow several of the lettuce/mesclun (greens) seed mixes so that we have a varied and lovely salad selection. Cooks Garden ( is one of the best suppliers of gourmet lettuce seed. I love that their lettuce and greens are organized not only by flavor but also by season.

The little window box salad garden pictures is one we created to give as a gift. Despite the small size, the box contains a dozen assorted salad greens including several lettuces and arugula. By cutting the plants and allowing them to regrow, this little garden will supply a number of salads. You know, one of the most expensive "gourmet" items in the supermarkets these days are the pre-cut, "baby greens" in those fancy, unrecyclable containers. For just pennies, you can grow your own salad greens in any handy container from now until the truly warm weather arrives. To extend your lettuce season, move the container into the shade when the temperatures hit 80 and be sure to keep the soil gently moist.

Dude, Where's My Lawn?

We've been worried about local honeybees and other pollinators, so this spring we gave them a gift - we held off mowing most of the five acres and let the beautiful purple henbit, dandelions and other flowering "weeds" have their day.
The bees were ecstatic and you know what? It is absolutely beautiful.
Want to learn more about the plight of bees and the wonderful world of beekeepers? Hike over to the Ted Project and hear the inspiring talk by Dennis vanEngelsdorp: I promise you, you'll never look at your lawn the same way again.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Potatoes... and more potatoes!

For many Hampton Roads gardeners, March - St. Patrick's Day, actually - is the folklore target date for planting cabbages, potatoes and onions. Many happy Foodies have been enjoying the new "gourmet" varieties of potatoes available through local growers, farmers markets and CSA subscriptions. On the other hand, it can be difficult for home growers to find any but the most generic seed potatoes at garden centers.

How many kinds of potatoes are available? I checked in at The Potato Garden online to see their variety list. It is amazing. Take a look:

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Women's Land Army

You've seen this poster here on the website - you know I love it! Turns out I'm not alone. A new account of the Women's Land Army, Fruits of Victory, written by Elaine Weiss, is now available. The Women's Land Army of WWI was formed of 20,000 women who took to the fields to keep America (and Britain, separately) supplied with food and farm products.

They wore uniforms, as the poster shows, lived in camps and broke ground for significant women's issues by insisting on working an eight hour day and receiving the same pay as men (in 1917?! Outrageous!). The "Farmerettes" lived in work camp barracks, entertaining themselves with camp songs (the Land Army Song was composed to the Battle Hymn of the Republic) and sharing stories and supplies. To the amazement of skeptics, the women not only maintained but exceeded the former output of the male farmers.

From the publicity for Fruits of Victory:
Imagine a spunkier, and more controversial, Rosie the Riveter--a generation older, and more outlandish for her time. She is the "farmerette" of the Woman's Land Army of America, doing a man's job, in military-style uniform, on the rural home front during WWI.

"During the war she was the toast of Broadway, the darling of the smart set, a star of the wartime cinema newsreel, and highlight of the Liberty Loan parade. Victor Herbert and P.G. Wodehouse wrote songs about her, Rockwell Kent drew sly pictures of her, Charles Dana Gibson created posters for her, Theodore Roosevelt championed her, the New York Times wrote editorials about her, and Flo Ziegfield put her in his follies. And then she disappeared. "

What a great story! I'm hooked!
Fruits of Victory: The Woman's Land Army of America in the Great War

Monday, March 16, 2009

Marching through March

Cherry blossoms, March 20th.

Undeterred by the chilly winds, grey skies and constant drizzle, the fruit trees and vegetable gardens are sprouting into spring. In the farm orchard, the Santa Rosa plum is in full glory - a cloud of white blossoms! - although its companion, tag long gone, shows only a slight bud break. This is the general routine with our plums, showing that we did a poor job of selecting appropriate cultivars for pollination. Not only does the Santa Rosa bloom too early for its pollinator, but it also tends to spring into flower at the first warm spell, leaving the blossoms open in the chilly, wet March weather without a pollinating bee or butterfly in sight.

Meanwhile, the apple orchard's flower buds are still tightly closed but the Asian Pears are starting to show some tip color. I'd like to get a light dose of dormant oil with Neem on each of the trees before the flowers can open but it will not be possible until the rains stop and the trees dry out. It's important not to spray any materials with insecticidal properties (Neem) while the trees are flowering - one does NOT want to be killing the poor pollinating bees, already in crisis from bee colony collapse. The ornamental cherry trees are all coming into flower and the clouds of pink blossoms are delightful.

Beautiful, mahogany-red new leaves are coming out on the thornless blackberries, encouraging me to fertilize them all a bit. No buds out on the raspberries.

In the veggie garden's raised beds, the cabbages are starting to look frisky but they won't make a St. Paddy's day feast this year. After having great success with fall starts left out over winter, the poor plants took a hard, hard hit this year when the temperature in April shot down to 6F. Now they are rallying and the onions and garlic have shot up 4-6" in the last couple of weeks. Sugar pod peas are up and I know they will shoot skyward at the next warm spell.

In the currently unheated greenhouse, fairly well cleaned after the total disaster with the soot from the malfunctioning kerosene, the tubs of lettuce and mesclun seedlings are becoming lovely with assorted green and red leaves. Spinach is coming up, although my attempt to use up the last of the saved seed from a couple of years ago gave me only about 30% on the planting. That's okay, it will become enough for us.

The tarragon has delicious new growth, the rosemary is in full, beautiful blue flower and the oregano is regaining its flavor. Interestingly, our oregano does well over the winter, staying green although growth stops, but the flavor is very insipid. The true, strong "italian" flavor doesn't return until the temperature comes back up. The catnip is up, up and enticing the neighbor's cats.

This week we will close in the end of the hoop house and start, belatedly, our tomatoes and other veggie seeds that require a heated environment.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Garden Updates from the Farm

When we started the Useful Gardens website, I promised that I would share the progress of our gardens here at the farm in Blackwater, just to give everyone some basis for comparison (good and bad) and a jump-off point for your own garden planning.

Well, here is this spring's first crisis. The kerosene heater we used to the hoop house warm to protect the lettuce and greens malfunctioned during the night. When we came out the next morning to turn it off, the greenhouse interior looked like the inside of a chimney - solid black, greasy soot. Over everything. Luckily the young plants had been covered by sheets for extra protection and were not coated. As soon as the weather warmed, the plants went outside and I tackled the first stage of the cleanup, removing the inside layer of poly sheeting so badly coated with soot. I stopped midway and took this photo, figuring that you might enjoy (ha!) seeing the mess I had to contend with. The clear plastic visible is the outer layer of a (formerly) bi-layer insulation. The black streaks are on the inner layer, now being removed. The mess is everything I tossed onto tables and out of the way.

Now, surely this is going to make someone feel better about whatever discouraged them in the garden this month.

Monday, March 2, 2009

March - The Cruelest Month

"Up from the sea, the wild north wind is blowing
Under the sky's gray arch;
Smiling I watch the shaken elm boughs, knowing
It is the wind of March. "

-- William Wordsworth, Written in March

It would be hard to describe our own weather for this first week of March any better than Wordsworth, who must have written those words during a very similar storm. We are under true gale conditions, a frozen, snowy Nor'easter in full progress. Although my own very southside location here in Blackwater/Pungo did not get the snowfall, we are "dusted" with frozen rain, getting colder - even in the daytime - and I am watching the heavy rain puddles freeze as I type. Forecasters are calling for "record cold" tonight, but I'm skeptical - we've already been at 6 degrees out here and it doesn't look clear enough to drop lower than that tonight. If it does, then the snow should be welcome to those of you who have it - it will insulate your plants against the cold. Snow doesn't hurt daffodils and spring plants at all, except as a heavy weight squashing them down, and snow cover insulates plant roots against temperature variability. I would have loved a nice snowfall over my poor cabbages.

Variable is going to be the key for weather ahead - forecasts are calling for high 60's come next weekend, meaning we are well into the March weather rollercoaster that does more damage to plants than a solidly frigid winter ever does. Inspect the trunks and main stems of young apples, pears and other fruit trees to make sure the warm sun hasn't expanded the cold and frozen bark, still thin on young trees, until it splits - usually on the south side. Painting trunks with white latex paint helps, so do those ventilated tree wraps*. If you see bark splits forming, treat them by coating with dormant oil spray (horticultural oil) - even by rubbing in some vaseline. Keep an eye on the bark throughout the season - those split lines can become entry points for bark beetles and other pests.

This is another good point for a nice, thick garden mulch - it prevents freezing-and-thawing from heaving plant roots out of the ground and modifies the soil temperature.
* [I don't like leaving tree wraps on throughout the growing year. Too many beetles and other damaging pests can "hide out" under the wraps, damaging the stem unseen. In addition, certain wraps prevent air flow, encouraging dampness, mildew or rot and restrict plant growth.]

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Heads Up! Spring Veggies and Fruits are In!

I notice that the early spring vegetable plants are in at the garden centers - cabbage, greens, broccoli, onion sets. Fruit trees and fruit plants are also available, both potted and bare-root. This week will have been great for those tiny veggie plants in their six- or nine-packs -- get them before the weather warms up next week because the garden centers do NOT keep them watered. They dry out instantly and just a few days of stress will set the plants back for the whole season. Ditto bare-root stock.

Word to the wise - before you buy fruit plants, check to make sure that the varieties being offered actually do well in this area. Most of the Big Box garden departments have a regional buyer but that "region" may be all of the state or even all of the southeast. Consequently, you will generally find the main two or three "known" varieties - not those that actually flourish here. I'd like to say that the locally-owned garden centers are better about tailoring their stock to the area but I've seen that it's often not true. If you are not sure about a variety you see for sale, check over at the Useful Gardens Gardeners' Group at for suggestions.

McDonald's Garden Center on Independence Blvd in VA Beach generally has a nice selection of fruit plants, including figs and asian persimmons - always worth a look. As with all the garden centers, if you make it clear that there are interested customers, they will increase the % of edible plants they provide so don't be shy about asking!
Enjoy the snow and wait for the warmup,

Friday, February 20, 2009

Gardening Discussion Forum

A number of great questions and discussion have started, both from this blog, emails to the site and on our Google group discussion board (located at ). I will try to keep all the ideas, questions and answers posted on the discussion board.

I've been out this week planting sugar pod peas in the raised beds, fingers crossed all the while. We've started lettuce, mesclun mix and spring spinach in flat "trugs" in the greenhouse. These sturdy, plastic containers, about 2'x3' with 8" high sides, are actually the large, flat trays sold in the home improvement stores for mixing cement. We drill holes in the bottom for drainage and they make wonderful, very large planting flats. There are electric heat mats under the mats, bedsheets over for a bit of insulation (not the best, but the clear plastic hoop house is also insulation). Tonight, Feb. 20th, promises to be very, very cold out here in the country. The stars and moon are very clear, so we'll have a lot of radiative heat loss. I'll be checking those weather monitoring sites for comparison with the recording thermometer on our barn!

The tomato gardeners are way ahead of me and discussions on variety choices and starting methods are on the Useful Gardens group page. Gardener Nancy reports "Sungold is certainly a winner in my household. too. Other than Sungold, I have slowly switched over to heirloom varieties, finding the flavor superior. I haven't started my seeds yet either, but plan to this weekend. I have florescent lights set up in my garage. I start the seeds on a heat mat, sowing them thickly in tiny containers. Once germinated, they can handle the cooler temps in the garage, although they will grow slowly until it warms up a bit. After about 3 weeks I transplant them into 6 packs. In early April I start leaving them out outside to harden [bringing them in if we have a cold snap or unusual storms]. I sow seeds over about a four week period, and start putting plants in the ground Mid- April through Mid -May. Varieties that have done well for me include Cherokee Purple, Box Car Willie, Aker's West Virginia and Heidi. "

I always have to grow some heirloom vegetables just for the wonderful names.

One of my new varieties for this year's garden is a tomato - my seeds just arrived for Burpee's new "Sweet Seedless Hybrid Tomato". It's described by the catalog copy poets as being "the perfect balance of flavor and sweetness, meat and gel, solid firmness and juiciness" - while being seedless and disease resistant. As a rule, I'm with Nancy - I like vegetables that I can save seed from, open pollinated and not copyrighted by a corporation. But we have family members with diverticulitis and I'm hoping this variety may save endless picking of seeds from tomatoes.

Incidentally, one of the questions I used to ask my beginning horticulture students was this: "If seedless watermelons have no seeds, where did the Seedless Watermelon seeds in this packet come from?" Hopefully, all of you know the answer. If you haven't pondered it, the clue is hybrid.

Snow's is Gone but Weather Tracking is In!

We woke on Monday, Feb. 16th to a lovely dusting of snow here in Pungo/Blackwater, as much enjoyed for the bit of wetness it brought to our landscape as for the beautiful scenery it provided. The bitter irony for the Virginia Beach children, alas, was that they were stuck inside at school - even on President's Day, normally a holiday for them - making up a "snow day" for the schoolday cancelled last month that actually brought NO snow. Go figure. I hope a few elementary teachers let the little ones go outside to at least play for a moment or two.

It's interesting to compare weather from year to year. Looking back through my weather records for this week in time, I note that on Feb. 16, 1989, there was over 15" of snow on the ground in Norfolk. So there's a ten year weather difference for you. I don't believe we've had snow like that since. On Feb. 18th, 1980 records show 14" of snow in Norfolk and more in the rural areas. Do I think winter in VBs are warmer? Well, overall, I do although we still get very cold spurts - certainly we've gotten less snow precipitation. I know that more folks are reporting fruit harvests from loquats and in-ground-bananas*, fruits whose bearing is very winter weather dependent here.

Speaking of weather records, Mike left a comment here on the blog about a mesmerizing little webpage entitled "Current weather at Jim & Terri's" (at their site in Landstown Commons) . I was captivated immediately. Reporting real time weather reports from their own backyard! I promptly followed the site, backtracking to the Weather Underground regional weather monitoring website (, get it? Hmmm... does anyone else hark back to the 60's?). Anyway, here I found The Map locating all the "Interactive Radar and Weather Stations" in our area:
Shazam! You just find your closest location, click on the little number and the site pops up. You can bookmark it and follow along at your leisure. I have now been meandering through the sites for a good hour....

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The blossoms have begun....

Bush Cherry Joel at Sybil's farm

Spring comes in fits and spurts here, long before the final warmup into summer. The "heat wave" of 70+ degrees last week brought out the local daffodils, flowering quince, forsythia and cherry blossoms. Does anyone grow quince for the fruit? I'd love to know about it.

I miss the little bush cherry (4') we had along the front fence which always burst into wonderful pink and white blossoms this time of year. It was a lovely little "Joel" developed by Elwyn Meader, an outstanding plant breeder in New Hampshire. He bred three bush cherries and named them for his grandchildren: Joel, Jan and Joy. We trialed all three to see if we would be interested in carrying them as a nursery plant but Jan and Joy perished quickly in the recent hot, dry summers. Partially shaded by a crape myrtle, Joel managed with virtually no care and produced delicious crops of "pie" cherries (I love tart cherries), despite being ravaged by Japanese beetles annually and gradually developing enough disease to require being removed.

Although catalog descriptions maintain that the each plants require a pollinator, our hardiest and last standing, Joel, produced cherries on its own for several years. Joel suffered the life of a test plant - I always trialed our new varieties to see how they would hold up under total neglect by a homeowner - but I was impressed enough that I probably will replace him with new plants next spring and treat them with Surround & Neem protection. I'd do it this spring but my happy reviews apparently fell on listening ears and the reliable sources say they are sold out for 2009.

If you don't know of Surround protectant spray,here's the info from in VA where I order mine every couple of years. Surround clay spray looks very wierd, turns the leaf and stem surfaces white and you'd swear the plant would smother along with the insects but the plants love it! SurroundTM Crop Protectant - Made from Kaolin clay, this white coating for plant surfaces suppresses pests and reduces harmful solar effects. Developed by the USDA, its micro-particulates link together to form a semi continuous porous "particle film" barrier that protects your fruits, vegetables and foliage but doesn't block light. Use on: Tree Fruit; protects against insects like psylla and plum curculio and reduces heat stress and sunburn, Vegetable and Field Crops; suppresses insects such as flea beetles, Japanese beetles, lace bugs, leafhoppers, thrips and more. Tank mixes with most other pest control products except dormant oil. Mixes well with lime-sulfur and wettable sulfur used for disease control. Surrround can be applied during bloom on crops. It is best to apply when bees are not actively foraging. You can increase wetting ability if you mix in Safer soap with the surround. This is especially helpful on shinny and waxy foliage. Trials at 7 Springs show flea and cucumber beetle suppression on many crops. Thorough coverage of fruit and foliage before infestation gives best results. Using our backpack sprayers, we find it easy to mix, apply and clean up.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Gardening Weather!

This weekend seems to have all of us (gardeners) out and about - I'm out cleaning flower beds and the vegetable garden, along with most of my friends and neighbors. Did I have indoor things that needed to be done? Of course! But not today - at 60+ degrees and sunny, what gardener can resist being outside? To be able to work outside without hunching over to avoid the cold winds - ah!, my whole being is happy.

Today, I burned off the asparagus bed. Yes, I know that's not the same as carefully composting the remains (which I do with most of the post harvest garden foliage), but this method was given to me as a preventive for some of the fungi that can affect asparagus and which seemed to take out some of our spears last spring. My asparagus grows in a 4x8' raised bed, easy to control, and it took about 90 seconds to crisp off the remaining dead fronds. Nice hot little blaze that gave off little smoke and I suspect did a fine job of roasting any pathogens in the exposed debris. I'd rather do a quick, clean burnoff than drench the bed in fungicides, no? Now I can lay down a nice, thick mulch layer to keep the roots cool and moist through the spring. We love fresh-picked asparagus, snapped off from the base and eaten on the spot, crunchy all the way to the tip. Delicious!

Incidentally, asparagus roots generally show up for sale in the early spring, so check for the at Southern States, Virginia Beach Feed & Seed or any of the garden centers or catalogs. No matter how I try to get the "male only" varieties listed, there are females in the bunch - discernable by the lovely bright red berries in the fall. I'd "weed them out" but the little finches and such seem to love them, so I figure this way the bed feeds both me and the wild birds. Asparagus are long-lived perennials, so follow the many online instructions for planting (see links below) in rich, well-drained but moist soil. Takes a couple of years before you harvest them (the first growth is to supply the root system, don't get greedy) but, after that, wonderful harvests!

Even though this is out of our area, it's a wonderfully clear instruction set for asparagus:

Asparagus Culture in the Home Garden

The web community has an interesting set of articles on asparagus, including a photo of someone's asparagus hedge! on Asparagus

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Planning the Veggie Garden - Early Spring

Let the cold winds blow, indoors the gardeners are insulated from the outdoor chill by the piles of garden seed catalogs stacked around them. It's seed ordering time! At last count, I saw twenty some garden catalogs decorating our coffee table, dining room table and spread open across the arms of the couch. Even as the coldest month moves into Hampton Roads, gardeners are already into the springtime, planning their first garden plantings. I braved the 28 degrees and blowing winds to pace through our raised beds one more time, plotting what my first plantings should be.

I already feel "late", ordering my early spring garden seeds. Our region's weather surprises me every year. All the way into March I'm still thinking it's too cold, too early to plant. By the time I get my sugar pod peas (Oh, joy! Oh, deliciousness!) into the ground in late April and growing - wham! - hot weather! I still have to adjust to 80 degree temperatures in May and start planting those peas while my frigid body assures me that it's too, too early. I think this year I may try planting our raised bed pea patch in late March rather than April. I don't have to worry about cold, wet, pea-rotting clay soil in the raised beds. I remember peas coming up through the snow up north, so I suspect I've been much too careful in the past. I'm looking forward to hearing from some other pea-loving gardeners - has anyone gotten the timing down? (shown Sugar Snap Peas -

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Welcome to Useful Gardens - The Blog!

Welcome to the Useful Gardens blog site! It is our hope that this site will become an easy way for local gardeners to share ideas and answer questions about growing wonderful vegetables, fruits, herbs and other useful plants. The best resource in horticulture is other gardeners, so we hope that you will make use of the experience we all have to offer. Resources and additional info are updated on the website: We may also draw from the group's ideas for postings on the website for those who have difficulty accessing the blog page.

As always, please be creative, considerate and kind in your comments and posts.
Happy Gardening!