Tuesday, February 22, 2011


WINDOWSILL: Cherry tomatoes (si 2/1), Roma tomatoes (si 2/1), Beefsteak tomatoes (si 2/1), Broccoli (si 2/1), Swiss Chard (si 2/6), Peppers (si 2/8), more tomatoes (si 2/14), spinach (si 2/14)

HOOPHOUSE: Swiss Chard (wo hh), Chinese Cabbage (wo hh), Spinach (wo hh), Lettuce (wo hh), Mesclun (wo hh), Lettuce ds hh 2/6), Mesclun (ds hh 2/6), Lettuce (ds hh 2/17), Mesclun (ds hh 2/17)

GARDEN: garlic (wo), parsnips (wo

si = sown inside
ds = directly sown
wo = wintered over
hh = hoophouse
fc = fall crop


My neighbors saw the grow light in the window the other night and wondered if I was into some kind of illegal activity. Nope, just growing tomatoes, said I. I keep the grow light on from 5 p.m. to midnight and the seedlings are in the sunshine by the window most of the day. All of the seedlings are doing great and the tomatoes are starting to look like real tomato plants. A couple times a day I ruffle the tomato plants so that they develop strong stems.   I noticed a big difference in just a few days. The other day I transplanted all of the 2/1 tomatoes into larger trays. That should do it for them until they go into a big pot and are put out in the hoophouse. The peppers are growing slowly and are not as showy as the other seedlings. Maybe they need to sit on the heat mat for a while. The Swiss Chard and broccoli are growing and should be ready for the hoophouse as soon as it warms up a bit out there. The weather is definitely warming up if you track the temperatures, but the locals keep complaining about the long, cold winter. Almost feels like spring to me! Most of the daytime temps will be in the 40s this week. That being said, we got 2" of snow last night and another 2" the night before, but it is melting quickly. The creek has been running pretty good with all the run-off. We had a lull in the weather and much of the snow had melted so I felt it was time to deal with the winter rye. That stuff is great for the soil, but hard to kill off when you want to put in your garden. Last year I covered it with paper bags (recycled from the grocery store) and with a few inches of top soil, and in a few weeks it was ready to plant. So that is what I did this year. The day after I was done, we had 2 days of 50-60 mph winds and I was expecting the bags to be blown all over the neighborhood. But happily, everything stayed in place and the garden should be ready within a few weeks.

The other day I planted some bulbs that my son Michael brought me from the Netherlands. He gave them to me at Christmas but the ground was frozen and I felt that I had missed my window of opportunity. But I kept them in the garage and when I peeked into the bag the other day, they were sprouting. Now what do I do? Well, I brought the deck boxes into the house to defrost and when they had warmed for a day or so, I planted all of the bulbs into the soft soil. This actually will probablyw ork out really well because the deer around here love tulips and would eat every single one, whereas they will be safe on the deck. It will be a pretty Easter this year with four boxes full of spring blooms. Maybe I'll transfer them all into a big pot on the deck so that every year we have a spring display. I never really got into forcing bulbs, but this may be a new gardening experience for me!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


"A watched seed never germinates". Or so it seems. I have been hovering over my seedling trays anxiously looking for any signs of life. Every time I see a tiny bit of light green starting to poke up through the soil, I celebrate. The peppers that I planted a week ago are starting to wake from the soil and will soon be under the grow lights in the living room. The tomatoes that were planted Feb. 1st have their true leaves and will be ready to be transplanted into bigger pots soon. The Burpee tomatoes had a 100% germination rate which, being the optimist that I am, was a very good thing since I planted only one seed per cell. I really hate culling those extra seedlings. The termperature in the hoophouse today was 66 degrees with a hoophouse soil temperature of 42 degrees. The outside air temperature was 44 degrees. The snow is melting slowly and patches of grass are starting to appear, as if to tease us into thinking that spring is here. But I know that we will probably get more snow and certainly are in for more cold temperatures. The thing is though, the sun is still shining at 5:30 pm, as the daylight stretches out a little more each day. My house plants are responding in the longer days and bright reflected light from the snow cover. It's so sunny inside the house that yesterday I stretched out in a big patch of sunshine on the floor and warmly enjoyed reviewing The Vegetable Gardener's Bible by Edward C. Smith. This book is definitely my favorite and I refer to it often. Another is Eliot Coleman's Four-Season Harvest which is invaluable for hoophouse gardeners. Of course, I was distracted when a Stinkbug marched across the carpet and then suddenly stopped when it saw me. Stinkbugs are new to our area and every day I find a few hanging on the drapes, perched on plants or dive bombing the lamps. They do not like the cold and find crevices to squeeze into the house. They are weird shield-shaped brown bugs with antennae and long legs and I swear they see me coming and raise themselves higher to intimidate me. I don't kill them because they emit a bad smell when squished, but I do throw them out onto the snow where they go into slow-mo while freezing. I'm not sure which is a worse demise - squishing or freezing!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


INSIDE ON WINDOWSILL:  Cherry tomatoes (si 2/1), Roma tomatoes (si 2/1), Beefsteak tomatoes (si 2/1), Broccoli (si 2/1), Swiss Chard (si 2/6), Peppers (si 2/8)
HOOPHOUSE:  Swiss Chard (wo hh), Chinese Cabbage (wo hh), Spinach (wo hh), Lettuce (wo hh), Mesclun (wo hh), Lettuce (ds hh 2/6), Mesclun (ds hh 2/6)
OUTSIDE:  garlic (wo)
si = sow inside
wo = wintered over
ds = direct sow
hh = hoophouse


guess I should tell you that I’ve been a gardener of sorts all of my life.  In my childhood, I would sneak into the neighbors’ gardens and gather seeds from their Lady Slippers to plant in my mother’s small patch.  My  grandmother was a wonderful gardener, but was interested mostly in flowers, except for one very large peach tree in her Philadelphia enclosed garden.  Now I know that I was small and all things look proportionally larger than when you grow up, but that one tree produced the most delicious largest peaches I ever ate.  Any that were not  eaten right off the tree would be canned and we would enjoy them in the strudels and pies that she would bake in her small linoleum kitchen. When I got married and moved into our first house, uninvited rhubarb sprouted from our backyard and I never really got used to that taste and finally dug it out.  Over the years and in various houses, we had vegetable gardens of little success.  It was usually a shady patch to blame, or the time constraints of raising a family.  But nevertheless, we would always have a few obligatory tomato plants struggling to survive.  And the small harvests from these plants provided a happy feast at the end of the summer.  When we moved into our current house, I again planted a vegetable garden – under a canopy of towering poplar trees.  Between the shade of the trees, and the wildlife living in this poplar forest, vegetable gardening became such a battle that I eventually replaced it with a wildflower shade garden.  It wasn’t until a wind storm toppled some trees, opening up a hole in the canopy,  that I decided to give it one more try.  One more very serious try.   So after spending a few weeks researching the internet and reading anything that I could find about raised bed  gardening, I finally put three 4x8’ beds in.  I filled them with compost and some manure from the horse up the street, leaves from the poplars and some garden  soil to top it all off.  I made a fence out of wildlife netting to keep out the critters and bought my seeds.  Well, that first spring the garden got off to a great start until some varmint ate all the beautiful seedlings.  Not only that, but I caught a squirrel red-handedly (paw?) chewing right threw the plastic netting.  That’s when I went out and bought a metal fence and even though a squirrel could easily climb it, it deterred any additional nibbling.  In fact, I was so paranoid, I put fences inside fences, inside fences and found that once the plants were pretty well established, and maybe because there were other things for the animals to eat, they left my garden alone.   Once I made the hoophouse, the plastic could be replaced by netting making a very effective barrier.   So I guess that there is always some problem – weather, animals, shade, blight – but that’s what keeps it all so interesting. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011


It’s 43° here in sunny Eastern Pennsylvania (~1 hour north of Philly) and it seemed like a perfect day to garden.  Hubby Ron actually had to take the gate off the hinges so I could access the garden through the heavy snow and ice.  Put on my snow boots and trudged out to the hoophouse wondering just what exactly I would find.  Shoveled 1½’ of heavy snow to get to the zippered door and when I opened it up – ahhh, that wonderful smell of growth wafted out and made me anxious to plant.  The soil was a warm 42° and the wintered-over crops (spinach, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, Swiss chard and mesclun) were growing out of the soft earth.   In fact, if this heat wave keeps up, we’ll be eating salad from the garden in a week or two!  I reached in to the hoophouse and did a little weeding, because of course, the weeds wintered-over too and then sowed a patch of mesclun and one of lettuce.  Gave the garden a sprinkling of warm water and closed it up to keep the heat in.  The hoophouse that has a domed roof seems to be surviving the harsh weather.  The flat roofed hoophouse ripped a little and collapsed a bit under the weight of the snow, but considering that it both are in their 3rd winter, I think that my experimental sewn hoophouses are a success.  The wintered-over crops in the flat hoophouse are surviving and starting to grow too, but I do think that the domed hoophouse is the smartest design in an area that gets  snow and ice.  A bigger hoophouse that would span 2 beds would be very cool since I could actually go into it on these February days and enjoy the aroma of spring two months early!  Maybe that will be a future garden project – a bigger, plastic, sewn hoophouse.  My inside plantings have germinated and I moved the tray of seedings (tomatoes and broccoli) onto my grow light rack by my picture window.  Ron constructed a rack out of an old laundry room contraption, added a few grow lights and I am in business!  I sowed some Swiss chard today down the basement and they are being kept warm on the heating mat. 
INSIDE:  Cherry tomatoes (2.1), roma tomatoes (2/1), beefsteak tomatoes (2/1), broccoli (2/1), Swiss chard (2/6)
OUTSIDE IN HOOPHOUSE:  Swiss chard (wintered-over), Chinese Cabbage (wo), spinach (wo), lettuce (wo), mesclun (wo), lettuce (direct sow 2/6), mesclun (ds 2/6)  

DIGGING AT LAST - kind of!?

Eventhough it is icing out, I sowed my early tomatoes (cherry, roma and beefsteak) and broccoli in small, sterilized cells down the basement.  The 'seed starter' medium worked well last year, so I did the same for this year.  They are all covered with a clear, plastic cover and set on a heating pad, since both tomatoes and broccoli like to be a bit warm (~75-80 degrees) when germinating.  My tools were miniature - a toothpick and a flattened table fork.  I watered everything with room temperature water from my outside fish pond - instant fertilizer! I marked my timeline, referring to 2010 and 2009, so I can chart the garden's progress.  Last year at this time, I had already planted some of my greens in the hoophouse!   It felt so good to finally be working in soil, getting my hands (actually my finger tips!) dirty and actually gardening.  A huge ice and snow storm is supposed to hit here tonight and I am thinking that it might be sometime before I can dig my way to the hoophouses.  I should have left the gate open before the gate got stuck closed.  I'll mark that suggestion on next year's calendar. 


Air Temp:  21°       Hoophouse Soil Temp:  35° - not quite frozen
I suppose that you can’t be a serious gardener without being a serious eater!  And if you love to eat, you love to eat even more if it is fresh from your own garden.  What could be more satisfying, more fulfilling, than to cook with your very own produce.  How much more local can you get than from your own backyard?  But after one successful year with my raised beds, I bought seeds for vegetables that had previously been taboo.  I never, ever grew butternut squash before this last year.  In fact, I never grew any other squash than zucchini.  Maybe after growing that prolific vegetable, which turns into a baseball bat-sized monstrosity when left too long on the vine, I was actually afraid that all squash would be potential giants – almost like Woody Allen’s giant vegetables.  But last spring for some unknown reason, I found some butternut squash seeds at my local Agway and planted a few seeds along my fence.  It turned out to be a very good idea as those small seedlings grew into long vines with about 12 squash.  Since I trained them on the fence, they took up very little garden space and even inadvertently provided a little shade during our very hot July.  I even crocheted little hammocks for each squash which gently supported each as they grew.  This proved to be unnecessary as I found that butternut squash had very strong stems.  But my crafting friends thought it a funny, creative touch to my garden.   So at the end of the growing season, I had 12 butternut squashes in the basement storeroom waiting for winter soup.  I found this excellent recipe on the internet and recommend it highly with fresh baked bread and winter greens.  Enjoy! 

Butternut Squash Soup with Apple & Bacon

 8 slices bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch strips
2-1/2 lb. butternut squash (about 1 medium), peeled, seeded, and cut into
1/2-inch dice (to yield about 6 cups)
1 small Granny Smith or other tart-sweet apple, peeled, cored, and cut into
1/2-inch dice (to yield about 1 cup)
1-1/2 Tbs. finely chopped fresh sage leaves
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
4 cups homemade or low-salt chicken or vegetable broth

 In a 5-quart or larger stockpot set over medium heat, cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until crisp and golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon to a plate lined with paper towels.

 Increase heat to medium high. Add the squash to the pot with the bacon fat and cook until lightly browned, 4 to 6 minutes (resist the urge to stir it too often or it won’t brown). Stir in the apple, sage, salt, and pepper and cook for about 4 minutes (you’ll see more browning occur on the bottom of the pot than on the vegetables). Add the broth, scraping up any browned bits in the pot with a wooden spoon. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to maintain a simmer, and cook until the squash and apples are very soft, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool somewhat.

 Add about half the bacon to the soup and purée, using a stand or immersion blender (you’ll need to work in batches if using a stand blender). Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Reheat the soup and garnish each serving with the remaining bacon.