Sunday, April 8, 2012

spring: a photo essay

Oncidium hybrid orchid in bloom (a new addition to my collection, this was about to bloom when I bought it so I can't take credit for the bloom, but I hope it will flower again under my care)
Phalaeonopsis about to bloom
Dendrobium 'Aussie's Chip' in bloom (a new addition, bought at the Boston Flower Show)
Meyer lemon in bloom
Kumquat about to bloom
purple basil seedlings
cherry tree in bloom

ferns unfurling within the stone wall behind the house

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

one out of... eight... ain't... so bad?

Here is my eggplant and tomato germination setup:

South-facing windowsill, with a fuzzy athletic heating pad (hey, germinating is athletic work for a little seed) from CVS to keep them at the cozy 75-80F preferred soil temperature. On the right you can see the tomatoes shooting up sprouts all over the place. 7 out of 8 tomatoes are reaching for the light. On the left are some conspicuously inactive squares of dirt. No, those are not mud-pie brownies I made out of frustration with my (currently broken) oven. It's eggplant, doing not much of anything despite my coddling them with cozy heating pads. But wait, what's that I see?

We have an eggplant! It may be only 4 mm high, but baby, it's ALIVE and GROWING. Of course, the other 7 cubes of dirt are still doing a whole lot of nothing, but the tomatoes came up slowly over a week, so I still have hopes for the other eggplant seeds. Did I mention I've replanted the eggplant seeds three times? I had read conflicting information (conflicting "rules" are the special fun of being a gardener) regarding the correct depth at which to plant eggplant seeds--some say 1/4 inch, some say a bare dusting of soil, others say consistent heat is the most important thing--and so I ended up hedging my bets and planting seeds at three different depths. Unfortunately, I do not know which depth this seedling came up from, so there's a lovely science experiment opportunity missed.
Here is what I'm hoping my aubergine will resemble:
Seeds, again, ordered through Seeds from Italy. These babies take 80 days to fruit, so I'm hoping for a long summer.  

Edit: There are now three eggplant seedlings! I wish more had germinated, but now I know better how to plant them, for next year.

Friday, March 23, 2012

it's a gas gas gas

When we bought our house, back in October, we ran all-electric, all the time. Electric heat, electric hot water, electric stove, you name it, it ran courtesy of our town electric company. Having a municipal electric company has its perks. During the Freak Storm and Blackout of Fall 2011, our lights were out for 12 hours, whereas some of the neighboring towns, even those closer to the city, were without power for over a week in some locations. It also means our electric bills are fairly low. But, heating your house with electric is pricey. The former owners heated with wood, and used the electric to supplement, not as their main source of heat. The wood stove served us well, too, through Christmas, and Mike became quite good at getting it roaring hot quickly.
our Vigilant, circa 1977, in October
Just before the holidays, our gas line was run in from the street, and just after the holidays, we had nice hot water baseboard heat on the first floor, powered by a cute and powerful boiler in the basement. It was a good investment, and we hope to extend the gas heat to the upstairs once our pocketbook is no longer feeling quite so bruised and thin.

A gas boiler also means, eventually, a gas stove. Hurrah! I look forward to replacing our glass-top '90s vintage electric stove. I grew up cooking on gas, and learning to cook on electric was an adjustment I didn't appreciate (white people problems, as Mike would say, ha!). Plus, slightly more practically, I can use a real wok (the one I inherited from my mom, the real one with a stand and round bottom) on a gas cooktop.

It also means a challenge in the garden department. How so? Well, on top of our front yard looking like it recently endured the tunneling of a giant mole (from running the gas line, you see), we have this:
Lest you think that this is no big thing, let me assure you that it is right next to both front entrances (garage and formal front door), and that it is a blot on our otherwise welcoming dooryard. Here's another mugshot:

It sticks out about a foot and a half from the side of the house. On the left in that photo is the path going up to the front door. Just in front of that path is a sizable plot of dirt with not much planted within it that I especially want to keep (anyone want a green-and-gold creeping euonymus? I have a dislike of both creeping euonymus and of gold-variegated plants, so this one's definitely out. I'll even dig it up for you and put it in a pot, if you come pick it up). So the question is, what shrub would be most interesting and serviceable in this spot? Oh, also, this is the north side of the house. No direct sun at all. This shrub needs to be:
  • attractive for most of the year, i.e. no oak-leaf hydrangeas or cotoneasters that look like shite in winter;
  • fairly large so as to extend its branches gracefully outward from its place near the corner of the house and screen or otherwise distract attention from the gray metal atrocity;
  • not dwarf Alberta spruce or burning bush/winged euonymus; 
  • bonus points for flowers or other nice features.
But, you say, aren't you the expert? Why are you asking your blogience (blog audience, c'mon... don't give me that skeptical look, it's a great word, use it and spread it around) about what shrub to choose? Solve your own garden problems, you lazy thing! Well, yes, but I already have a list of shrub candidates for this spot, but I thought perhaps you might be more clever.

My short list: 
Viburnum rhytidophyllum Leatherleaf Viburnum
Viburnum rhytidophylloides Lantanaphyllum Viburnum
Hydrangea paniculata Panicle aka PeeGee Hydrangea

It really is intensely shady in this spot. The viburnums would most likely not flower, so it would be more about their leaves and form. What do you think?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

jeepers peepers

eeep peeeeeepp peep beeduonk! eeeeep eeep krr eeep peeep beeduonk! eeep eeee eeeep krr kr eeep eeeep peeep krrr eeeep eeep peep

For a week, this has been the sound coming from the marshy woods at the back of my yard. The spring peepers are out in force, along with their friends who go "krrr" and "beeduonk!" If I had a great big boom mike I'd go out there and record it for you, but suffice to say, if you haven't heard peepers before, the above is but a shy approximation of the actual effect. Peepers sound a little like a car alarm, and a little like the shrill crescendo of atmospheric static-y tones played in horror movies when something bad is about to happen. I may just perhaps have come up with the latter when home alone one very dark and humid night over the past weekend  (cat doesn't count, anyways he spent the evening staring just beyond my head with a concerned expression, so that was no comfort). Oh, I know! Listen to the last track of the Neko Case album Middle Cyclone, "Marais La Nuit," and turn up the volume a few ticks past comfort. There ya go.

I have heard spring peepers many times before, but I've never lived somewhere where every moment at home at this time of year proceeded with a relentless backdrop of eeep-peeping. But relentless as they are, I will tolerate the spring peepers because I've always had a soft spot for amphibians, and I'm hoping they and their hopping friends will eat the giant mosquitoes that breed in the neighborhood. Also: do frogs eat ticks?

So hey guys! BBQ at my place! Anyone!? Anyone...?

 I transplanted lettuce and herbs last night serenaded by the spring chorus. The lettuce was starting to send roots groping out the bottom of the yogurt cups, so I gave them a nice new home in some cedar window boxes. Why of course, I always garden by moonlight and frog-song, it brings forth the sweetest piquancy in herbs, so says my grimoire...*

lettuce and radicchio (two rows at right) by porchlight

basil (front), two kinds of lettuce, and parsley by porchlight
Tomatoes, cilantro, dill, chives, and hollyhocks are also coming up, but they are not so photogenic right now.       Eggplant is nowhere to be seen... hello eggplant germs, are you alive? Come on up! I installed most of my young plants, along with the dwarf citrus trees,** on the sunporch, which is very warm during the day and fairly humid. I do not have a heating mat, which they (the green thumb they, not the other they) recommend for eggplant and tomato germination, but the sunporch--which if I forget to leave a sliding door agar can be upwards of 90 on a sunny day--should be sufficient, right?

I leave you with a query: Should I harvest my lettuce piecemeal, the cut-and-come-again method, or should I let it leaf out into a big leafy bouquet and then harvest it?

*I do not have a grimoire, mores the pity.
**The citrus trees, Meyer lemon and kumquat, are sending out explosions of leaves right now, as if they'd been impatient to do so. This is very nice as I was not sure if the kumquat was alive or not, it didn't really do anything growth-like since October. The Meyer lemon, poor thing, keeps trying to flower. I keep pinching off its copious flower buds (perfuming my fingers deliciously), feeling mean, but it is too young to be trying to fruit so promiscuously. It must wait until it is at least 2 and is stouter.

Monday, March 12, 2012


Just a typical Sunday spent whacking at tree limbs.

after--note that I also ingeniously pruned our neighbor's house out of the picture

This weeping Higan cherry (Prunus subhirtella), cultivar unknown, had suckers all over and a mass of monstrous, criss-crossing branches.  Previous owners liked it to look like a large green mushroom during the summer (whereas I like better a cherry with graceful branches that touch the ground), so they went snip snip snip around the "skirt" of the cherry branches, without thinning the branches up top. Some damage was done over the years of this pruning regimen. For example, the overlarge claw-like branch at the left in these photos. I could not take it out because it would leave too big a hole, but I'd like to try to re-shape that side of the tree, eventually. Can you see the difference? I hope that it blooms well! I've only seen it looking bare, or like this:

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


I am not the first person, in any way, shape, or form, to write about her kitchen garden. There are an infinity of garden-related blogs out there. What's so special about my garden experience that is worth sharing? Many gardeners grow vegetables from seed year in and out without any fanfare. People all over the world grow vegetables and fruits to feed their families, and some truly suffer if the squash crop fails or there is a drought/tornado/wet spring/insect infestation that year. I can go to the fancy family-run grocery in an affluent suburb 10 minutes away and get beautiful produce if my garden doesn't turn out okay. Then why do it? Why grow things and why write about it?

Well, for one thing, this blog is a selfish endeavor. I am recording my experiences for myself. Because this is something I love to do, and is occupying a good deal of my free time, I am sharing it with friends and family who might like to know what I am up to (and perhaps if they see that I am *fingers crossed* going to get some tasty edibles out of the endeavor, they might lend a hand and thus harvest and enjoy some of the fruits of labor as well). I also find this exercise worthwhile because... well, simply, plants are amazing. Every new leaf, every root hair that emerges from a lifeless looking tiny wisp of seed, fills me with wonder. It's almost spiritual, and it is certainly intensely geeky. Things like the genes responsible for certain characteristics of individual plants, the hormones that enable a plant to bend toward light, or the fact that different seeds require special conditions for germination, these are awesome facts and they are all part of the reason why I grow plants: to witness these small miracles.

Transplanting my small but rapidly growing plants to larger containers is one of those times when I can't help but feel admiration. It's a time for checking out their progress. All those lovely translucent white roots that emerge as I gently extract the plug recall the few weeks ago when that plant was a seed not much bigger than this letter a.

Now my lovely little lettuce and radicchio have more than two leaves, and have graduated to separate pots. I didn't have enough one-size-up peat pots, but fortunately I like yogurt and had not taken out last week's recycling. Next, they will go into still larger containers and move onto the sun porch, which will be an experiment: I'll have to monitor the temps out there so as not to lose plants. There is a lot of light from the two skylights and three walls of sliding doors, and it gets into the 70s in there on a sunny day, but then drops dramatically at night (I will have to take a photo of this room, but first need to make it ready for its closeup. Right now it still has debris from Christmas wrapping and craft projects lying around. Do not judge me). My "canary" is a little plastic pot of catnip, bought at the grocery store for Chizwick, which has been on the sun porch for the past, what, three weeks I think? It is doing quite well, even though we've had some nights in the 15-20 degree range (it was brought inside one time, when temps dipped into the low teens), so I think lettuce will like it too.
newly transplanted lettuces
Regina di Maggio
Passion Brune
parsley sprouts its first true leaves
basil 'Classico' cotyledons (seed leaves or embryo leaves)
beginning to wilt as their true leaves come on 
purple basil infant acrospire (a word I just learned which means "the first sprout")

Monday, March 5, 2012

a tale of two lettuce

I ordered seeds from a few different places, and also bought some at big-box stores (the stuff I forgot to order from the nice seed place). Seeds from Italy has beautiful seed packets. I was inspired to order from them based on a mention on one of my favorite blogs, Gardenrant. The color photos on the large Franchi seed packets are so sharp and mouth-wateringly beautiful, they look almost three-dimensional. That is one reason why I was disappointed by the performance of one luscious-looking lettuce, by the sexy name 'Passion Brune.' If this is brunette passion, I can see why gentlemen prefer blondes.* Its green cousin is pumping out huge leaves, but ma brune didn't even sprout consistently. See photo evidence below.

Above, growing in the right-most cells, is 'Regina di Maggio,' about two weeks out, nicely sized and healthy. See that empty cell in the front on the left, and the one behind it with a puny runt of a wee sprout? That's the 'Passion Brune.' Humph. 
Here's another view of the wrinkled, freckled little things. I might get a few plants from them, but out of the 10 seeds planted I have about 5 puny plants, which is not happy returns. 

Happily, all of the other Franchi-brand seeds--parsley, basil, and the radicchio 'Orchidea Rossa' are looking wonderful. I am particularly happy about the radicchio, as it is so expensive in the supermarket (I mean the one variety of burgundy-and-cream brains that you can find typically), and there are many neat plants in the chicory family with all sorts of interesting colors out there. If this one does well, I'll try growing other types, too, for a wonderfully bitter and colorful salad (I like to pair radicchio/endive/chicory with a sweet (citrus, or perhaps pear) fruit and/or creamy-sharp cheese like Stilton or goat feta).

This is the promise of 'Orchidea Rossa.' If mine don't look like this, I'll hold myself responsible. How could I resist? Tantalizingly, a note pasted to the back of the packet says that the plant looks better in person. How?

*I know many passionate brunettes. I am one. Perhaps it is only brunette lettuce that lack luster? 

Sunday, March 4, 2012


 We had a wet week in Maine last September, though we didn't let that stop us from hiking. We enjoyed the sunny breaks and cloudy views. Sometimes I think Maine is best viewed cloudy. All that rain brought out a slew of fungi. All the following photos are from one hike, and there were more fungi not fotografed. I was VERY TEMPTED to forage, but seeing as it was a national park and they would probably not have survived the car trip, I resisted. It was DIFFICULT. I mean, look at that FIELD of Black Trumpets. ARGH.
Note: I only *really* know chanterelles and black trumpets and hesitate to forage for anything else, even if I am relatively sure of an identification. If anyone knows the identities of the other fungi pictured above, let me know!

mon potager

This is a good time of year for changes, with spring on its way and all. There have been many changes in process since last fall, though, so change is nothing new in my household. Six months ago I got hitched to this wonderful man, and we celebrated by hiking and sailing in Maine.
That was six months ago, and we have been very busy. We've settled into "the homestead," a lovely colonial house a short crow-flight west of Boston, and are deep into the nesting process. I am itching to sink my fingers into our 1.3 acres, and you better believe I've been planning. This year I plan to concentrate mostly on the front dooryard and the vegetable garden. I have grown vegetables (zucchini, peppers, lettuce, herbs) in containers, but never from seed (except a few radishes and parsley), so this is exciting... so much space! Lots of sun! This is our backyard:
The back of the house faces south. There is a small weeping cherry that keeps calling to me to prune him, and a massive stone wall that is crying out to be decorated with sedums, ferns, and alpines. 
I planted a few things last fall: a discounted thrift (Armeria), a sad-looking delphinium that probably won't survive, and a few large handfuls of bulbs, but aside from the two-day Leaf-Raking Extravaganza, that was really it as far as garden maintenance. Now that the amaryllis has died down, and snow drops are poking up round about, my green thumb is tingling to get active. My plan, at least near the house, is to go big: drifts of grasses and perennials, à la Oehme Van Sweden. Septic hill, too could use a big swath of heather to mask its artificiality. We'll see how it goes, what we can afford and what I have time to do. For now, what I have time for is this:  
That is Chizwick, my sister's cat, on the sill. It's a good bird-watching spot. He's hanging out with us for the moment, until he can catch a flight out to CA, where they've moved. Anyway, see my lovely little plants! Wait, I'll give you a better look: 
You want to see even closer? Here: 

That's my little radicchio in the foreground, blushing with the attention. Behind it is basil. These photos are now a week old. Now the lettuce (above, right) is huge and needs to be transplanted. I've also planted a startlingly purple basil, just now showing its teensy ultra-violet leaves. Alpine strawberry and garlic chives have yet to show a hint of green above the soil, though I just read that chives want to be germinated in the dark. Whoops, I'd better remove them from the window sill. Waiting in the wings are tomatoes, eggplant, arugula, cilantro, charentais melon, squash seeds that I saved from I think a kabocha squash that was especially tasty, zucchini, mint, haricot verts... a few other things, and some flower seeds... I've probably gone overboard. But! Not everything will be planted at the same time. The black kale seeds probably won't be planted, for example, until August. And some things (the flower seeds) will be planted directly into the soil. Maybe I'm not crazy. Maybe I am. Time will tell. 
I thought I'd try to post the vegetable garden's progress here for a while, so you all can be entertained at the mistakes I make, or as the bunnies all eat the feast I prepared for them, or whatever other disaster befalls. I've cared for vegetables before, I know how to weed, I'm stubborn and willing to get up early to water my plants at the crack of dawn. So... how bad can it be? 

I am most afraid of all the other things, besides me, that will want to eat my plants.