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Friday, September 30, 2016

A different game of squash

Q: What do you do when summer squash morphs from tenderly edible and cute to a rock-hard, warty weapon? (Oftentimes before you or your *harvest crew ever spy it in the garden!)

A: You unleash your own weapons of mass destruction (aka: your boys) to break the squash into compost-able smithereens.

"Really, Mom, you WANT us to hit the squash? This is awesome!"

Tell the boys they need to rake the spoils so you can measure who has the biggest pile. 

Mom for the victory!

*(Wait, that's fewer squash for the boys harvest crew to eat. Ooh, they're sneaky.)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Durable garden trellises and tomato cages from concrete reinforcing mesh

Cucumbers climb a trellis in a community garden. The trellis is easy to remove at season's end.

Concrete reinforcing mesh outranks typical metal tomato cages in size, strength and ease of both harvest and storage between seasons. The metal grids are widely available at hardware stores and home and garden centers. The mesh comes in rolls of 100 feet or in panels typically 4x8 feet. The panels cost around $8. Yes, that may be pricier than a single tomato cage, but these cages are big enough to place two or three tomato plants inside -- and they'll last for years. The openings are 6 inches across, allowing for easy harvest.

A main advantage of the panels vs. rolls is not having to cut the mesh. To make a tomato cage bring the short ends together and use cable ties to join into a tube. This forms free-standing cages, or you may stake into the ground with rebar poles for extra security. (But they're not going anywhere!) At season's end cut the cable ties and stack panels flat against a wall or fence. 

To make a trellis use three long rebar poles per panel: two at either short end and one in the middle. Hammer the poles into the ground 12 inches or so deep. Attach the panel with cables ties. If you want the trellis to be elevated off the ground, use a wide wooden stake next to the rebar poles to form a shelf for the panel bottom before attaching with cable ties. 

Trellises from concrete reinforcing mesh are easy to set up and easy to take down, but have the strength of more permanent installations -- making them ideal for shared gardens or crop rotations in your home plot.

Poles beans climb trellis made of concrete reinforcing mesh.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Not So Secret Garden

In my post on our travel blog about the huge 178,000 square foot Biltmore Mansion that we visited in Asheville, North Carolina, I mentioned that it was built upon an 8,000 acre estate. The grounds of the estate were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead who also designed Central Park.

The grounds are amazing and if I lived in the area I might buy a membership to the Biltmore Mansion to visit the gardens during different parts of the year as there are plants that grow and bloom throughout the year giving a different experience each time.

There are several different gardens that you can walk through on the estate with paths that meander through. I was impressed by the variety and the beauty of the grounds.

My favorite part was the huge greenhouse that houses several different types of plants.

There were a bunch of different orchids....

and cacti......

and a bunch of tropical plants.

I actually liked the Biltmore Gardens even more than I liked the house even though I think the house is more famous. If you get a chance, visit the Biltmore  Gardens in Asheville. They were amazing.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Weeding gadgets

Tasks that can be done by hand are fine and dandy, but ones that justify the purchase of tools? Even better! 

Leave it to my dad to have not one, but three, gadgets designed for weeding with minimal knee- or back-bending effort. 

This black one (without a brand name) has spikes at the end of the pole. Position it over the center of a weed and press down on the bottom platform with your foot. This action fans out the spikes slightly. When you pull the tool out of the ground the spikes close in around the weed root and extract it. The final move is to push on the knob and pop the weed from the tool. Set up a bucket for target practice and you're on your way to enticing the kiddos into the weeding chore game. This tool concept ranges $20-30 and is available under different makers at most big box stores or online. My dad loves this tool for weeding without damaging existing plantings. He says it is best suited for smaller weeds.

Next are two red ones are made by Garden Weasel in their Weedpopper line. First is the Step and Twist, which has two blades beneath a stepping platform. Like the black tool you place it on the center of a weed and press down with your foot. The difference is you twist the pole. It has two handlebars (a T joint) on top for easy twisting (not shown in my photos). It also has a plunger for popping weeds out. My dad chooses this one for weeds bigger than the black tool can handle -- but it also leaves a deeper hole.  It costs around $25.

The second by Garden Weasel is the Weedpopper Pro.  It has spikes at the end of a hinged metal box. Insert tool just off center of the weed and press on the box with your foot to thrust the spikes upward. It works rather like a mini, foot-activated pitchfork. It can work on all sizes of weeds, Dad says, but bigger weeds may need attack on multiple sides. My dad also likes this one for clearing grass in flower and garden beds.  It is the most expensive of the bunch at $45 online. Whereas the other two tools shown here grasp the weeds allowing you to collect them without bending to the ground, this gadget leaves them in the dirt. But the kids have young backs, right?

What are your favorite gardening gadgets? My dad's birthday is coming up and I need ideas!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Butterfly Garden Resources

I'm going to let you all in on a little secret. They don't grow butterflies at a a butterfly garden.They grow plants that attract butterflies. We went to a Butterfly Garden in Greensville, South Carolina at the Roper Mountain Science Center and we saw a lot of plants that attract butterflies, but we didn't see a lot of butterflies.

The garden was set up really well by the Greater Greenville Master Gardeners Association. Each plant had a sign that told what it was, as well as what butterfly the plant will attract. It was very educational and I definitely want to set up a butterfly garden once I live in a home again.

Our favorite plant was the passion flower. I have never seen it before and it seemed like something from a science fiction movie.

In addition to a couple of butterflies, we did find some eggs and caterpillars which was still fun for Madelyn.

If you are interested in creating your own butterfly garden, this website gives you a map that you can click on to find the types butterflies that populate your state.

This page has a list of butterflies and the plants that they are attracted to.

If you have more information or websites about your own butterfly gardens please share them in the comments below.


Friday, June 17, 2016

Farmers Market in Charleston

We get the opportunity to go to a lot of Farmers Markets as we cross the country in our fifth while. We were lucky enough to be in Charleston when they were having a Farmers Market at Marion Square. The subtropical climate must provide great opportunities for growing because the variety and beauty of the produce in the various stalls was amazing.

There were tomatoes everywhere.

I thought that the white and green asparagus was probably the most beautiful thing at the market.

I wanted to buy all the herbs that I could see but it's hard to have a lot of herbs while living in a fifth wheel.

I know we weren't in Georgia but we were close so I wasn't surprised to see peaches as far as the eye could see.

It makes me so happy to go to Farmers Markets and see so many people that grow such beautiful produce, and seeing so many people that appreciate it. Farmers markets are one of my favorite places to be.

Follow our cross country adventure on our blog www.livingagoodstory.com


Friday, May 27, 2016

Repotting seedlings -- plus a genius "duh!" trick to pack soil in flats

When we gardeners start seeds in pots and trays the goal is always to graduate those wee sprouts to the great outdoors. Sometimes the journey requires a bit of middle ground, when seedlings are too big for their first vessel, but the time is not yet right (whether due to temperature, delayed ground preparation, storms or other facts) to transplant to their final home.

Follow these tips to successfully repot seedlings:

• Wait until a seedling has a set of "true leaves." You'll notice that the pair of leaves which first emerges from a seed often has different characteristics in shape from the leaves that follow. For example, the first leaves from a tomato seed are slender ovals without any of the scalloped edges of later leaves. The second pair of leaves will be the true leaves. By the time a seedling produces these it is sturdy enough and has a root structure that can withstand repotting.

• Handle a seedling by the leaves, not the stem. If a leaf breaks off during transplant the seedling can grow another. If the stem breaks ... bye, bye.

• Moisten soil thoroughly in the original container and in second pot before you transplant.

• Turn first pot over in your hand to gently remove the soil plug. With a pencil or other slender tool probe around the seedling to separate it and its roots from the other plants. If there are many seedlings in one cell, as with this chunk of alyssum, start from the outer edges.

• Prepare a hole in second container to accept the seedling. (Pencil works well here, too.)

• Still holding the seedling by a leaf, deposit it into the hole and with pencil carefully bring dirt next to the stem.

• Keep transplants in steady conditions for the next couple of days -- keep soil consistently moist and don't subject them to extreme temperature or light changes.

I purposely sowed the tiny pepper-grain alyssum seeds close together knowing I would separate them into individual cells after sprouting. Other times you get extra sprouts unexpectedly when you thought you planted just one seed. Now, just because you have two (or more) seeds growing in a space doesn't mean you have to keep them all! It may be more appropriate to use another desk tool -- scissors -- and cut one seedling at the ground so the other can thrive.

Here's a look at two tomato sets I treated differently:

1. I could have done my pencil method to easily separate these first tomato seedlings a couple of weeks ago with no concern about roots, but I didn't get around to it. (The story of my life!) Because of decent stem spacing I decided to see if I could slowly, gently pry the root balls apart. This worked. I placed each in a new pot and backfilled soil around the roots.

2. This is the second set. Two tomatoes are ahead in age, with a third smaller sprout right next to them. Seedlings so close in space like these will also have roots inextricably bound. In such cases it's better to use scissors to nip all but the most robust start. Cut your losses instead of risking damage to all. 

Finally, here's my "duh!" moment. Do you know how many years I've filled seed pony packs and then patted down the dirt with a spoon or ice cream scoop (for reals!) or trowel or fingers, always making a huge mess? Well, that's a silly question; even I don't know how many years. But from now I will simply press down on another seed container when filling my trays. "Duh" indeed.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A roundup of savory rhubarb recipes

Have you outgrown your childhood nickname? (Come on, Litto Witto, Sassy Pants, Silly Billy and Snuffy -- let's unite!)

Well, rhubarb needs to cast aside its nickname, too. Sure, "pie plant" aptly defines the plant to unimaginative gardeners and cooks, but rhubarb can be so much more. Instead of always designating rhubarb to dessert fare, where a healthy dose of sugar tempers its tartness, unleash rhubarb's pucker alongside meats, pasta and other savory dishes.

I cooked these three recipes for my family -- and we love them! Click on each name or photo to get the full recipe at the source.

Rhubarb chive flatbread.
Photo from bhg.com

Whole stalks of rhubarb are arranged on an easy-to-make yeast bread. The rhubarb delivers a creamy, tangy jolt when you eat the bread, with a texture almost like the filling in a danish. This is prettiest with the reddest stalks of rhubarb. I chopped purple chive flowers along with the green chives to go into the dough. I thought I'd be extra fancy and place whole chives and flowers with the stalks of rhubarb. These flowers burned to a crisp (certainly hastened by the oil oil I drizzled on top), although the chopped blossoms incorporated into the dough were just fine.

Linguine with rhubarb, garlic, black and pepper

Photo from bhg.com

Delicious! This dish also has parsley and parmesan cheese. I chopped the rhubarb extra fine to make this an easier sell to my family, but I won't bother with such disguising next time.  Plus, I think the bigger pieces will retain extra crunch. My husband wondered if there was chicken in there. Nope, all vegetarian. To refine the cooking instructions, I recommend sprinkling the parmesan in gradually. I should have known better than to add it to the pasta all at once; it formed a blob all at once. Imagine that.

Slow cooker pulled pork with rhubarb sauce

Throw a pork roast into a slow cooker with a mixture of rhubarb, spices, honey and worcestershire sauce on top, and walk away. The rhubarb breaks down almost completely. Shred meet and rhubarb together and serve on rolls for sandwiches. This won't have the vibrant color that a pulled pork sandwich made with commercial barbecue sauce will, but it is still nightly tasty. To the leftovers I adjusted the seasoning with chili powder and cumin and used in a Cafe Rio-type salad with greens, black beans and rice.

How have you used rhubarb beyond pies?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Another bouquet of seed reads

One of my favorite things to do is read books with the children in my life. Here is another round-up of gardening-themed books to inspire you and your listeners. Click here or here to read two other posts on this blog about more garden book favorites.

Zora's Zucchini 
By Katherine Pryor, illustrated by Anna Raff

Elementary ages. Three days into summer vacation Zora is bored, well, out of her gourd. While riding her bike she spots free zucchini starts at the hardware store. (Adults will be amused by the original sale sign crossed out to plead FREE!) Zora comes home with 12 zucchini starts and plants them all. This oversupply sets up the rest of the plot as Zora must figure out how to not let the food go to waste. The book's end notes posit that "about one-third of the world's food is wasted, which means that all the water, work and time it took to grow that food is also wasted." The story is a great springboard for discussion on what to do with extra food.

The Tiny Seed
By Eric Carle

Preschool and up. Carle's signature collages depict a journey through seasons as an autumn wind propels seeds across oceans, mountain tops and deserts. Children will enjoy identifying the tiny seed on each page. Naturally, the tiny seed outshines its travel companions and grows into something amazing.

The Watermelon Seed
By Greg Pizzoli

Preschool and up. This light-hearted story isn't really about gardening but invites a discussion about what a seed needs to sprout. Children who know that seeds need soil and sunlight will laugh at Crocodile's plight when he fears a swallowed watermelon seed will grow inside of him. (His dread of becoming a fruit salad is delightfully illustrated.) Use this tale to reassure children just learning about seeds that no, they won't become human seed pots.

My Garden
By Kevin Henkes

Preschool and up. A girl thinks her mother's garden is nice but too much work. If she had her way flowers would always bloom and change colors and patterns to her liking. She wouldn't have to shoo bunnies from the lettuce because the bunnies would be chocolate and she would eat them. This book is a great launching pad for a creative writing or art project of what listeners would want to grow in their own gardens.

If You Plant a Seed
By Kadir Nelson

Preschool and up. Beautiful illustrations, with few words on each vast spread, relate the story of a rabbit and mouse who balk at sharing the fruits of their labors. The book covers gardening basics with the parallel to planting seeds of selfishness vs. seeds of kindness. Get this one just for the actual-size, intense stare-down of visiting birds.

A Gardener's Alphabet
By Mary Azarian

Preschool and up. Bold wood cut illustrations and sparse one-word or phrase entries take the viewer from A to Z. The meat, for grown-ups, is in the artist's introduction. She considers gardening the most difficult of the arts, with its demands of design and color skills, knowledge of plants and climate; and all at the mercy of fickle weather. Sometimes it's better to give up and go on a trip! Yet, "The garden provides such an intriguing challenge and is such a source of wonder and joy that to not garden is unthinkable."

The Curious Garden
By Peter Brown


Tokyo Digs a Garden
By Jon-Erik Lappano, illustrated by Kellen Hatanaka
Elementary ages. These two books follow the same theme of living in industrial scenes practically devoid of nature. In both a boy is an agent of change but with different reactions in their towns. Read together, these books frame a thoughtful comparison how our attitudes toward nature ultimately influence its survival. We may get what we deserve.

In The Curious Garden, a boy explores abandoned elevated train tracks and is surprised to see a few lonely, bedraggled flowers -- the only plants in the area. They need a gardener. The boy makes mistakes at first, but he nurses the patch to health. The restless garden yearns to explore and spreads through the city. The townspeople likewise come to life with renewed interest and appreciation for cultivating nature.

Second, Tokyo lives with his grandpa in a small house surrounded by tall buildings. Grandpa tells stories of how things used to be: deer in meadows, salmon leaping from streams. It's all gone. The city had to eat something after all, the grandfather shrugs. Tokyo receives three seeds from a strange woman; she promises him they will grow into whatever he wishes. It takes some searching to find a piece of ground, but sure enough -- when Tokyo plants them the seeds sprout and change the landscape overnight. The return of wildlife inconveniences people so much that they question, What are we going to do? Says Tokyo, "I think that we will just have to get used to it."

What are some of your favorite books?

Monday, May 9, 2016

Herb hairstyles and how to groom them


Herbs are among the most easy-going plants around, but left to their own devices they can become a mirrored, botanical gallery of your worst-ever hair days. (You have them, right? I'm not the only one?)

I must excuse the annuals from these style crimes. Because basil, cilantro and dill last only one season in most climates, they don't develop the same crazy growing patterns that can befall perennial woody herbs like sage, thyme, lavender and rosemary.


Thyme in need of pruning.
The thyme comb-over. Strands of least season's stems compete for attention with this year's new green growth, making the plant look straggly, sparse and well, silly. No, this isn't fooling anyone.  The solution: cut the plant back by at least half this spring to allow the plant to grow into a bushier shape. 

The unwieldy no-style sage, with nary a trim in a decade. 

We're not talking Crystal Gayle's luxurious below-the-waist locks. This is more like never getting a cut AND never brushing. Perma-bedhead. If you never prune a woody herb it will still produce green shoots at the end of last year's growth, sure, but its stem structure will also get larger. Eventually you will have a plant that is more wood than herb. 

This woody mess is a sage plant after I started hacking away at stems. I brought it home from the nursery in a 2-inch pot probably 10 years ago. I always cut away spent blossoms, but I should have pruned far lower. Yes, it had new growth this spring at the very edges, but I was surprised how much bare wood it sported.  It has clearly outgrown its space in a rock border by my garden box. 

Solution: Time to go in favor of starting with smaller plants again.

This picture shows the length of bare wood before green begins.

Size of the rootball from a 10-year-old dug up sage plant.

The oregano mullet, with last year's faded extensions.

Oregano, also a perennial herb, differs from thyme and sage in that it doesn't form woody stems that continue to get larger each season. Oregano can grow tall but it flops over and hugs the soil; it almost looks like a ground cover this way. Its new leaves start low to the ground beneath last year's stems. Solution: Cut out those stems.

Oregano spreads, but not nearly as invasively as mint. Mint is that bear of a guy at the beach: hair with no boundaries! If you grow mint, do so in a container. If you want mint in the ground, plant it container and all.

The best way to style herbs is to harvest them all season. Pinch off flower heads from annuals like basil to encourage round, bushy growth. Cut back perennial woody herbs by half at least once a year: in fall, spring or both. 

My last herb style shows how these plants truly can grow anywhere: the parsley tuft in the ear, I mean, crack in the sidewalk. It's staying!