Valentine’s day was over three weeks ago.  Did you by chance receive some beautiful and fragrant roses then that now look more like this?  Do you wonder if there’s anything that dried roses are good for other than the trash can?

The above is what mine look like.  However, I was hesitant to throw then away.  After all, I think roses are expensive (around $1/each when they’re “on sale”), but Dave surprised me with two dozen this year.  It would nice to keep them around longer.  They don’t lose their beauty when they are dried.  I’ve experimented with turning some of them into potpourri and others into an art display.

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August is when most tomatoes are ready for harvest in Boston.  I’ve been watching my Brandywine and Gypsy tomatoes slowly ripen over the months.  Here’s what some of the ripening Gypsy looked like.

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However, I’ve learned that I haven’t been the only one eying my tomatoes. A week later, those same tomatoes looked like this.

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Alas, some greedy animal had eaten them!  My first thought was that it was probably rats since Boston is known for rat problems and my community garden is surrounded by large apartment buildings with dumpsters that probably attract them.  However, as I was standing there feeling sad that I would not be able to enjoy the fruits of my hard work, I saw this rodent scurry over to a piece of a Gypsy tomato left in the pathway next to my plot, carry it to a picnic table, and eat it.

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My tomato thief had been a squirrel!  Although I was upset, I didn’t know what I should do about the squirrels.  I went home that day trying to convince myself that I had enough tomatoes to share a few with the squirrels and half-hoping that the squirrels would find other tomatoes to eat.  But two days later, more tomatoes had been eaten!

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At this point, I knew I had to fend off the squirrels or else we wouldn’t be eating any homegrown tomatoes this year.  Dave and I went into battle mode and decided try some remedies.

Vinegar

First, I used a mix of half water and half white vinegar in a spray bottle and sprayed all of my tomato plants.  I diligently sprayed the tomatoes daily for a few days and I didn’t notice any additional tomatoes eaten, but I only used this as a temporary solution until my wolf urine order arrived, thinking that would be a more potent solution.

Wolf Urine

We heard from a fellow gardener that fox urine had helped him keep rodents away from his produce. Then, we read that online that wolf urine would keep squirrels away. I wasn’t sure whether fox or wolf urine would work better. Should we believe word-of-mouth or the internet? We went with the Pete Rickard’s Wolf Urine Hunting Scent from Amazon.

Since the scent of the wolf urine quickly dissipates when left out in the open, Dave made the following contraption to prevent the scent from dissipating so quickly and to allow for easy refill of urine. The contraption consists of some old socks stuffed inside a plastic gallon jug. Small holes were punch around the perimeter of the jug about one-third of the way down from the top.

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In the garden, the jug was placed in the middle of all my tomato plants and buried halfway into the ground, so that the holes that were punched were above ground. The cap of the jug was unscrewed, urine was poured into the jug to soak the socks, and the cap was screwed back. The stench of the wolf urine was so strong that we could smell it from the edges of the plot even though it was only escaping through the small holes on the sides of the jug.

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Despite refilling the bottle of urine in a few days, I noticed that the squirrels had still been helping themselves to tomatoes. Maybe the wolf urine doesn’t work so well or perhaps, my contraption was not the best way to optimize the wolf urine.

Bird Netting

Another fellow gardener suggested using bird netting. Since the wolf urine hadn’t worked so well for me, I decided to give netting a try. I used a small piece of bird netting around one bunch of tomatoes and a piece of netting from a produce bag around another.

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After a few days, the cluster of tomatoes wrapped by the produce bag were devoured. The produce bag had been chewed through. The cluster surrounded by bird netting was still intact, but they were also higher up off the ground and the tomatoes weren’t ripe yet. The squirrels only seem interested in tomatoes that have ripened at least to the the stage where they are light orange colored, if not red. Another thing I observed was that although my Brandywine and Gypsy tomatoes kept getting eaten, my Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes ripened beautifully untouched. I decided not to continue with the bird netting this year since I felt that having to untie the netting everytime to pluck a ripe tomato would be a hassle. I think I will try to grow my tomato plants a little closer to each other next year, so I can just drape bird netting over the whole cluster of plants, if needed.

Ripening tomatoes indoors

I finally decided that the best way to protect my tomatoes was to ripen them indoors. As soon as the tomatoes show a tinge of pale orange, I bring them inside. So far, this has been the easiest and most hassle-free for us to get tomatoes without a bite taken out of them. Here are some of my Brandywine with varying shades of ripeness.

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Now, the next problem we have to tackle is how we’re going to eat all the tomatoes! Hopefully, that battle will be easier than the one against the squirrels.

Our garden is providing us with a wide variety of produce including zucchini, eggplants, sweet 100 cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, and lots of herbs.  We’ve even had two chocolate peppers from the plants we purchased at the plant sale earlier this year.  The fresh taste of homegrown vegetables is one of the motivating factors for me to continue gardening.  However, our bountiful crop often has us scrambling to find recipes for the produce that is ripe for harvest.  The following are some of our go-to ideas for how use up our produce.

Pizza

Many of our garden produce serve well as pizza toppings.  One of our recent pizza dinners had the following toppings from our garden — a chocolate pepper, cherry tomatoes, and basil.  Here’s what the toppings looked like prior to being cooked.

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After they were put on a pizza and baked, the toppings looked this. Stay tuned for an upcoming post from Dave detailing his pizza recipe!

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Ratatouille

For some, such as Anton Ego in the animated film Ratatouille, this dish brings back fond memories of an idyllic childhood.  For others (including us), this is a simple and delicious dinner.  Below is a picture of the garden produce that ended up in our recent ratatouille dinner — a zucchini, an eggplant, cherry tomatoes, and a chocolate pepper.

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We supplemented the above ingredients with a yellow squash from the grocery store to make the following dish.

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If you are interested in making ratatouille, Dave used a recipe similar to this one.

 

Stir-fry for Vegetable Medleys

It’s difficult to have all the produce you need for a particular recipe ripen at the right time.  Stir-fries are a good option when you have a medley of vegetables that just don’t fit any one recipe.  Below is one of the stir-fries Dave made for us.  You can see the bell peppers, gold rush beans, sweet 100 cherry tomatoes, fingerling eggplant, and snow peas from our garden supplemented with an onion from the grocery store.  This stir-fry was sauteed in peanut oil with a little bit of garlic.

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Are there any recipes you recommend for homegrown vegetables?  Please share!

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Since I started my Brandywine seedlings indoors very early this year, the seedlings were quite tall (1.5 to 2 feet tall) by the start of May.  I was worried that they would not be able to adapt when I transplanted them outside, especially because I hadn’t had the opportunity to harden them off.  However, I didn’t want to start additional seedlings from seed, since I wasn’t sure if they would be big enough to transplant as soon as the soil outdoors was warm enough. I also wanted to give my tomatoes the longest growing season possible, so I decided to try propagating tomatoes.  Here’s the details of my tomato propagating experiment.

How I Propagated a Tomato Plant

Step 1: On May 1, I snipped a sucker — a small growth at the point where a branch meets the stem — from one of my Brandywine plants.  The sucker is shown by the red arrow in the picture below.

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Step 2: I planted the sucker it in a 4″ pot filled with potting soil.  Here’s what it looked like on May 15, two weeks later.

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After three weeks in the pot, on May 22, the new tomato plant looked like this.  The plant has noticeable growth from when it was a sucker.

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Step 3: On May 25, I transplanted the new tomato plant in my community garden plot outside. I used velcro plant ties to loosely tie the transplant to a small wooden dowel for support.

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Step 4: I was patient and kept watering and fertilizing for a few weeks.  Soon, new leaves began to grow.  The sunlight certainly helped too.  I’ve found that grow lights just cannot fully replicate the effects of sunlight, but grow lights are the best alternative when your condo lacks a north-facing window and you live in a city where winter lasts at least four months.  By June 12, about six weeks from when I first snipped the sucker, here’s what the new tomato plant looked like.

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And by June 27, about two months after the start of my propagation experiment, the new tomato plant looked like the following (outlined in red).

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Encouraged by my initial success, I am now propagating a second Brandywine tomato (outlined in white in the above picture).  The second one seems to have grown more slowly.  Perhaps this is because it isn’t getting as much sunlight, since it is shielded by the neighboring taller tomato plants.  Or perhaps not every sucker is equally good for propagation.  It’s difficult for me to say with only two data points, but as with most science experiments, you don’t always get the results you wish for.  Propagating the Brandywine tomato worked well for me as only 3 of the 6 original seedling survived transplanting outdoors, although even if they had all survived, in my opinion, it never hurts to have additional tomato plants if you have space to plant them.  Brandywine tomatoes are my favorite!  Emboldened by my success at tomato propagation, I no longer have to worry when I start my tomato seedlings from seed to early.  I’m still working on Step 4, continuing to water and fertilize this new tomato plant (and all my other plants), but I suspect I will be able to taste the success of my tomato propagation soon!  Can you spot the fruit?

 

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Our garden is doing very well so far!  The pea trellis we built has been a success – here’s what it looks like now.  The pea plants have been climbing up and up, although they aren’t the only ones that have climbed the trellis.  Some climbing weeds have snuck in on the right side of the trellis and are almost as tall as the tallest peas.  The never-ending battle against the weeds is just another part of gardening.

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And on a closer look, you can see pea pods!  The first peas either of us have ever grown.

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Last Sunday, we enjoyed a meal of our first harvest from our garden this year.  We had stir-fried vegetables and herbs from the garden consisting of kale, peas, lime basil, genovese basil, and sage from garden accompanied by shallots and garlic from the store.

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Vegetables and herbs picked from the garden.

 

 

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Vegetables and herbs stir-fried with garlic and shallots.

 

Nothing can beat the taste of fresh vegetables from the garden.  And it’s even more satisfying when you’ve grown them yourself.  In fact, most of the herbs and vegetables we ate were actually started from seed this year.  The kale, lime basil, and genovese basil were started indoors and transplanted, while the peas were directly sowed into the ground.  We’re certainly looking forward to future meals of vegetables from our garden.  Perhaps, we’ll be eating peppers next.  Many of the transplanted peppers whose outer leaves had died, have regenerated their leaves and are starting to produce peppers!

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Here’s an update on our garden.

Starting Plants from Seed

I started my plants from seed my first and second summers gardening (in 2012 and 2013), but for the past few years since then, I have obtained seedlings from Ricky’s Flower Market for anything that transplants well.  As someone who recently took the Master Urban Gardener course, I decided I should start my own plants from seed again this year.  Starting plants from seed ensures that I will have seedlings of the varieties I want instead of having to pick from among those available at seedling sales.  Last year, when I arrived at Ricky’s, there weren’t many Brandywine seedlings left.  However, I seem to have been too ambitious this year and started too many seedlings too early indoors.  I started Early Long Purple Eggplant, Yolo Wonder Sweet Peppers, Gypsy Tomatoes, Brandywine Tomatoes (my favorite!), cucumber, zinnias, kale, and some herbs — sweet basil, genovese basil, lime basil, chives, and thyme.

Here’s a picture of my initial indoor grow light shelf.  This is actually the bottom shelf of a 3-tier shelf from Target.  Here I have five grow lamps each with a bulb providing 900 lumens.

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As the seedlings grew, they seemed to need more light than the five grow lamps I had, so I added an additional 24″ under cabinet light.

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And here’s a picture of some seedlings up close.  Those tomatoes are growing right into the lamp!

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Transplanting and Funny Weather

As the seedlings got bigger, the tomato seedlings outgrew the 18″ tall bottom shelf, and the seedling area of our condo started resembling a mini jungle.  I decided to transplant the zinnias, the kale, the cucumbers, one eggplant, and half of the tomatoes and peppers I had between the first and second week of May.  I also direct-sowed some pea seeds next to the trellis Dave built.  However, I hadn’t been able to harden off my seedlings as I live in a large building and don’t have a place to put my plants outside (the woes of condo/apartment building living).  This compounded with several days of sudden cold where nighttime temperatures dipped to the low 40s, resulted in the death of the zinnias, the eggplant and the Brandywine seedlings.  It’s a good thing I still have another half of my seedlings to replace these with.  I did managed to pick a few of the zinnias before their death, so I have a photograph of the first zinnias I’ve ever grown!

 

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The outer leaves of the peppers plants also died, but they seem to be regenerating some new leaves.  See the new budding leaves below.  I find a plant’s ability to produce new leaves from these axillary buds an example of how amazing nature is!

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The kale grown under a row cover and the peas seem to be thriving.  Some of the peas have even attached themselves to the trellis!

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Close up of kale thriving under a row cover.

Chocolate Sweet Peppers

Today, the Trustees of the Reservations had a plant sale in South End and I volunteered there to fulfill part of my volunteer hours for the Master Urban Gardener program requirements.  Volunteering at the sale made me realize there are many varieties of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and other vegetables I hadn’t heard of.  Just for tomatoes, we had Pruden’s Purple, Green Zebra, Rutger’s, Weisnicht’s Ukranian, Pineapple, and more.  One of the pepper varieties that caught my eye was the Chocolate Sweet Peppers.  I love sweets including chocolate!  In fact, I often say I don’t have one sweet tooth, I have 28 sweet teeth!  I bought four of these, as well as two Dancer Eggplants, and one Super Sweet 100 Cherry and have planted them in my community garden plot.  We’ll see how these plants fare as the gardening season progresses and if I get chocolate peppers, I’ll see if they taste as good as chocolate!

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Getting to Wellesley without a car

This past Saturday, Dave and I visited Wellesley College.  We specifically went to see the botanic garden and greenhouses, but also explored the campus and downtown area as well.  As the greenhouses are closed on the weekends during the summer months, this was the last weekend we would be able to visit for a while.  Despite having lived in the Boston area for 5 and 10 years respectively, neither Dave nor I had been to Wellesley College.  One of the reasons we had never ventured to Wellesley was neither of us owned a car.  However, Wellesley is accessible for those without a car, via the Framingham/Worcester commuter rail line or the Senate Bus on weekends.

We decided to try the Senate Bus which runs between Harvard/MIT and Wellesley on the weekends since it is more economical and runs every hour, providing more flexibility in our schedule.  We bought tickets for the bus at LaVerde’s Market in the Stratton Student Center at MIT.  One ticket is good for a one-way trip and costed $3.50.   The commuter rail would have costed $7.00 for a one-way trip and runs roughly every 2 hours.

We boarded the bus at the stop on the corner of Commonwealth and Mass Ave. at 10am and arrived on Wellesley campus at 10:26am.

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The Wellesley College campus has some very beautiful nature trails.  Walking along the trails amongst the trees and bushes, listening to the chirping of birds, and watching the squirrels playing was peaceful and relaxing.  We even saw a family of geese!

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Mama Goose and the goslings

The goslings!

The goslings!

There’s even an arboretum tucked away in a small shallow valley. Here’s a view from within the arboretum.

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Greenhouse Plants

Wellesley has a lot of greenhouses that are linked together like a maze. Each greenhouse is set to a different temperature and humidity level suitable to the plants it houses. For example, there was a desert greenhouse and the tropical greenhouse. Below are some pictures of greenhouse plants.

There was one plant with a label I hope I don’t have to use for any plants in my garden this summer.

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Downtown

Right next to the Wellesley College campus is a small strip of shops. We got subs from Tutto Italiano, ducked into a shop selling art to checkout their ceramics, and looked at a bookstore before we ended our visit to Wellesley and boarded the bus back to Boston.

Overall, our visit to Wellesley was a nice way to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city for a few hours.

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The weather is starting to warm up, I have a pea trellis and I have planted peas, carrots, radishes, and turnips seeds as well as some kale seedlings I started indoors.  We’ll see how they do in a few weeks.

For those who are just starting their garden, now might be a good time to consider a soil test.

Why get a soil test?

I got my first soil test last year when I first acquired a plot at Symphony Road Community Garden in Boston.  My main motivation for getting a soil test was to check the lead levels of the soil.  A lot of soil in the Boston area is contaminated with lead due to the use of lead paint on many residential homes until it was banned in 1978.  I wanted to see how much lead was in the soil before I planted anything.

Other reasons for getting a soil test include the following:

  • Helps you improve yields
  • Helps you save money (don’t buy/apply nutrients the plants don’t need)
  • Helps you manage the nutrients in your soil (know which nutrients to apply)
  • Helps you optimize soil health (the importance of organic matter is discussed below)

Soil Test Results

The most important numbers on your soil test are pH and CEC (cation exchange capacity).

If the soil pH is not within the range that your plants need, they may not be able to absorb all of the nutrients that are available in the soil.  Most plants need the soil pH to be between slightly acidic to neutral.  The following chart provides the ideal pH ranges for some plants.

Ideal pH range Plants
5.1-5.4 Blueberries, rhododendrons, and azaleas
6.2-6.5 Green beans, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, peas, onions, peppers, spinach, and squash
6.4-7.0 Most garden plants and turfgrasses

Cation exchange capacity is a measure of the soil’s ability to hold moisture and nutrients.  The lower the CEC, the more sandy the soil and the lower the capacity to hold nutrients.  The higher the CEC, the more clay-like the soil, and the higher the capacity to hold nutrients.  If you add organic matter to sandy soils, the CEC increases, if you add organic material to heavy clay soils, the CEC decreases (more on organic matter below).

What do soil test results looks like?

Click here to see what my soil test results looked like for my plot at Symphony Road Community Garden.  Surprisingly, my garden plot has very low lead levels and contains a lot of nutrients! If you are unfortunate to have higher lead levels in your soil, all hope is not lost:

What if you have high levels of lead in soil?

  • Locate gardens away from old painted structures and busy roads
  • Plant fruiting crops
  • Incorporate organic materials
  • Lime soil to pH 6.5—7.0 (Lead is less soluble at this pH)
  • Discard outer leaves of leafy crops and peel root crops
  • Mulch soil surface to keep lead dust to a minimum
  • Use a raised bed and fill it with other soil (This can be pricey).

Where can you get a soil test?

For those who live in Massachusetts, you can order a soil test from UMass Amherst.  That’s where I got my soil tested, and it only cost me $15.  See their website for order forms.  My soil test results above are only for the Routine Soil Analysis, but if you get a soil test you should consider getting the Organic Matter Composition Test as well for an additional $6.

Organic matter is the remains of plant and animal life in the soil.  The amount of organic matter will affect the soil’s structure and drainage.  Ideal soil contains approximately 50% solid material (roughly 45-50% minerals and 2-5% organic matter) and 50% open or pore space (25% air and 25% water).  Sandy soil will not hold water and nutrients well while clay soil can hole water and nutrients but can pack down, decreasing aeration and making it difficult to till.  Clay soil also because hard when dry, which can restrict root growth.

Addition of organic matter will both clay and sandy soils.  When added to sandy soils, organic matter will help bind sand particles together, increasing their capacity to hole water and nutrients.  In clay soils, the addition of organic matter will increase granulation which will allow water to move through the soil more quickly.  Compost, composted manure, leaf mold, and composted grass clippings are good sources of organic matter.

When to get the soil test?

For those who have just acquired a plot in a city that is known for having lead paint in the soil, such as Boston or Cambridge, you might want to consider testing the soil before you plant anything edible in it.  However, now is peak season for ordering soil tests, and it can easily take over two weeks to receive your results.  If you can wait, you can test your soil in the fall or even in the early spring as soon as you are able to get a shovel into the soil.

If you decide to get a soil test and you’re part of a community garden, it might be nice to share your soil test results with others, especially if the soil has high levels of lead.

 

 

 

The past weekend, Sharon and I decided to do some work getting our garden plot ready for planting. This year, we decided that we’d like to grow some peas, and when Sharon asked me to build a trellis I was more than happy to break out my tools. Peas that are of the vine variety need a trellis to provide support since vines climb.  The peas will have tendrils that search from things to grasp onto.  The trellis also keeps the peas off the ground and makes it easier to pick the pods. Our plot is relatively small and we’re going to be growing plenty of other vegetables, so the trellis had to be compact. Additionally, our community garden has a height restriction on any garden structures of no more than 5 feet tall.

I started by measuring and cutting two 8′ long 1×3″ boards into two 5′ boards and two 3′ boards. The trellis is going to end up standing a few inches over 4′ tall, because almost a foot of the 5′ boards is going to be buried underground.

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I then cut one of the 3′ boards to be 1.5″ shorter than the other. The reason for this is because the shorter board will be inset between the 5′ boards, whereas the longer board will rest on top of the 5′ boards, forming the top edge of the trellis. Therefore, the inset board will need to be shorter by an amount equal to twice the thickness of the boards. Since the actual thickness of these boards is 3/4″, that comes to 1.5″.

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Next, I drilled the pilot holes for the angle brackets that will hold the frame together, and screwed them in to the side pieces of the trellis.

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The next step was to screw the top and bottom pieces onto the angle brackets as well. I forgot to snap a photo of the trellis before putting it into the ground; the side pieces extend down into the ground about a foot, leaving a nice rectangular trellis sitting above ground.  IMG_0570

I then started to tie vertical lengths of string between the top and bottom pieces of the frame. These will be the supports that the pea plants can grab onto as they grow upward.

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The last step is to attach some horizontal lengths of string if you’re so inclined. I attached screw hooks to the sides of the frame, and then tied more string between the hooks to form a grid pattern.  Here is the finished trellis!

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When the trellis was finished, we went ahead and planted some peas.  Hopefully they’ll be popping up out of the ground soon!

The gardening season in Boston is just getting started!  It’s the perfect time for gardeners to consider using row covers for their leafy greens.  What is a row cover?  It is a light, semi-transparent piece of fabric that lets sunlight through while providing the following benefits:

  • Prevent bugs or other pests from chewing holes through your leafy greens
  • Provide some protection from cold weather and wind

I had tried to grow leafy greens once before, but most of my greens were eaten by mysterious garden thieves (bunnies being the most suspect) and the ones that remained were full of little holes from bugs, so I used a row cover last year for the first time and it worked wonders.  Here’s what my setup looked like:

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I used the following materials.

The raised bed may not be necessary for your needs.  My plot in the pictures above did not have good quality soil, so I used a raised bed.  If you are able to plant your vegetables right into the ground, you can make a row cover structure directly in the ground similar to the smaller one on the right in the above picture.  If you need or want a raised bed, you can also build one with materials from Home Depot for a lot less.  I have built my own raised bed before but as a car-less city dweller, a trip to Home Depot requires me to get a rental car, so I opted to order one from Amazon last year.

To build the row cover structure, you simply insert one end of the hoop into the soil and bend it over and insert the other end into the soil to form an upside-down U shape.  You want to space the hoops close enough so the row cover won’t sag too much.  In the picture above, my hoops are space about 2 feet apart.  Once the hoops are set up, drape the row cover over the hoops and weigh down the edges with rocks or bricks.

Here is what my leafy greens looked like right after I set up the raised bed and planted the seedlings.  I didn’t start these leafy green from seed and got them from Ricky’s Flower Market in Somerville.  The raised bed contained a total of 22 seedlings.  There were red lettuce, bok choy, kale, and swiss chard.

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On the first day the seedlings were planted.

Three weeks later, the raised bed looked like this!

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And another week later, it was brimming with vegetables!  All hole-free!

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Harvest time!

I was able to harvested leaves of my vegetables for a few months until the lettuce bolted and I decided to harvest whole heads of bok choy, but I continued to get some kale and swiss chard throughout the season.  If you’re a gardener and haven’t used row covers before or if you’re a beginning gardener, hopefully this post has convinced you to give row covers a try!