Too Many Seeds

I bought too many seeds.


My sciencey friends adore Ali Express. It’s a site where Chinese third-party sellers post things at suspiciously low prices. My friends use it for circuit boards and the like. I discovered recently that they sell seeds at suspiciously low prices, as well. And in very suspicious shapes, such as this “breast melon.” That link is not safe for work, if your work is sensitive about long weirdo boobs hanging from a trellis.

I really considered planting all Ali Express seeds this year. I could easily have filled my garden for a couple dollars, and it would have been awfully interesting to see what actually came up. There was, of course, the risk that I’d be introducing strange invasive species. There was also the very real risk that nothing would come up at all, or at least not the thing I was expecting. If I planted breast melon seeds, pretty much the only thing I could be sure I wouldn’t get would be droopy, uncanny valley breasts.

So I went for the other end of the spectrum. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds collects interesting ancient seeds from around the world and makes them available to gardeners. I’m a sucker for weirdo vegetables, especially weirdo vegetables with a history. I’ve also written about a few of their offerings for Gardening Know How’s heirloom section, like the Oxheart Carrot and the Golden King of Siberia Tomato.

I did not go for the Golden King of Siberia, but I did get three other tomatoes – a blue, a deep red, and a yellow cherry that supposedly puts out fruit like grapes. I’m also trying a Purple Tomatillo with high hopes of purple salsa.


I have a soft spot for eggplants. Last year I planted a couple varieties and managed a handful of small fruits, but I’m hoping for more this time. I’m trying Ronde de Valence, a big, spherical French type, and Ping Tung, a super long and skinny Taiwanese type. Maybe I’ll throw in a regular Black Beauty, just for comparison.


I’m going strange with beans. The Chinese Red Noodle reportedly reach 18 inches long. Dragon Tongue is a Dutch bush bean that’s supposed to be very tasty.


I’m going a similar route with peas. The Dwarf Blauwschokkers is another compact bush from the Netherlands. The Magnolia Blossom Tendril produces vines, but with a lot more tendrils than leaves. This is supposed to increase airflow and prevent disease. That’s good, but I’m in it more for the aesthetics.


Gambo and Oda are two sweet peppers that I chose for their bright colors and compact, high-producing plants. There are so many peppers -hot and sweet- that I got a little overwhelmed and just chose what I thought I’d like, which is not necessarily the name of the game here, but it’ll have to do.


I went a little crazier with roots. De 18 Jours is supposedly ripe in just 18 days, which sounds outrageous even for a radish. We shall see. Opposite that little French radish is the totally wild Pusa Jamuni Radish from India. It looks long and tapered with white skin and deep purple, starbursty flesh. It has no reviews and runs $4 per package. To be honest, I don’t even like radishes that much. I’m just excited to see it.

It’s a similar story with the Pusa Asita Black Carrot. Although I do like carrots, I’m more eager to see these things than eat them. The Crapaudine Beet has me excited, too. I wrote an article about this one for Gardening Know How, though it hasn’t been published yet. It’s thought to be the oldest existent beet, possibly in cultivation for a thousand years. From what I’ve read and seen, it’s something like the missing link of beets – more rootlike and barky than modern varieties. Apparently if you bake it, the skin sloughs right off and it’s delicious.


Squash is a tough one for me, since my space is so limited. I love a good squash, and the diversity of heirloom varieties is pretty impressive. A line had to be drawn, though. Winter squash was right out, since I can’t justify devoting so much real estate to something that won’t mature for months. I chose this Desi summer squash almost by chance. It’s a prolific bush-type that supposedly stays small. It’s brand new this season, so I’m taking a bit of a risk, but the catalog reviews it well, at least.

I grew melons for the first time last year. In fact, I grew Kazakh Melons from Baker Creek, inherited from a fellow gardener. I planted maybe ten seeds and got six seedlings. They languished for the first half of the summer, and one made it to maturity. I moved it from a pot down to the garden in the middle of the summer, where it absolutely took off. It produced two softball sized melons that slipped the vine before they were fully ripe. So it was mostly a bust. I learned a lot, though, and I’m ready to try again, this time with Kajari. (Now that I’m taking stock, it looks like I’m going to have an Indian garden). It’s supposed to mature very early, and it’s beautiful!


These are two total weirdos I’d never heard of until I wrote about them. They’re both very old fashioned salad greens that lost the war with Big Spinach somewhere along the way. Strawberry Spinach tastes a lot like spinach but produces brilliant red (and unexpectedly bland) clusters of berries. Red Orach tastes something like spinach but is bright red, heat tolerant, and enormous.  I’m looking forward to it.


This last bunch didn’t fit into any other groups. The cabbage came complimentary with the order. The Carentan Leeks are for my housemate Will, though I’ll probably plant some too. Leeks are a household favorite. The broccoli is for Ben, who wanted the most basic broccoli money could buy (no ancient, barky beets for him). As a bonus, it’s called Waltham 29, presumably named after Waltham, Massachusetts, where we used to live. I also got myself Beleah Rose Lettuce, a deep, deep red variety that should look interesting.


And that’s it for now. I hope I can scrounge up the space to try everything. I’ll have to do some serious container planting. I’ll document as I go and keep track of what works and what doesn’t. I’ll write some reviews for the Baker Creek site, as well. The information for quite a few of these is awfully sparse, and more than once I had to sift through reviews for a success story from a climate similar to mine in order to be confident it would grow at all. I’m sure other Zone 6-ers would be happy for the input.

Surprise Carrots

What do you get when you plant carrots in March and dig them up in February?

Carrots, apparently.


I sowed my carrot seeds last spring with no method to the madness. I picked a carrot spot and just blanketed it in seeds. A thick patch came up, and every now and then, I’d pick the biggest one or two and eat them, making room for the smaller ones to grow.

It was a decent system, but it got away from me. November came, and it got dark and cold. And then my hoop house failed spectacularly. The carrots were still growing, but I wasn’t feeling it anymore.

Then the real cold came, and a few snowstorms. In the back of my mind, I knew those carrots were still down there, but I gave up on them. I didn’t know if they were frozen or mush, but I knew they were beyond help.

Turns out they weren’t!

The weather today was beautiful. I went down just to take stock, and I came back with something like ten pounds of carrots.

Some have split.


Some have really split.


Some are big.


Some are small.


And some are strange.


But most are basically happy and healthy. I cut off the tops, rubbed off the dirt, and stuffed them in a bag in the crisper.


We’re gonna have a heck of a roast one of these days.

Spider Plant Magic

Winter is here with a vengeance. It’s been unseasonably mild, but the honeymoon is over and we’re finally getting some real cold and snow.  This is now the only way I can leave the house.


My spider plant must not realize this, though, because it’s flowering! I noticed it was putting out a long shoot and thought for sure it would make another baby spider. I was excited, since all the previous spiders had been ripped off by the cat.


Instead I’ve got a long series of buds, two of which have already opened. There are a couple grassy strands at the end, too, and I won’t be surprised if they do turn into a baby spider.


I’ve had this plant since I was a sophomore in college, and I can’t recall it ever flowering before! Whether this is a special event or I’ve just never looked at the right time, I don’t know. Nor do I know if spider plants are self pollinating, but I’m going to go at it with a Q-tip regardless and hope for the best.


These are exciting times we live in.

Winter Is Probably Still Coming

The hoop house may have been a bust, but my cold hardy vegetables are none the wiser. The kale, chard, carrots, and beets are all growing happily.

A little too happily.

I haven’t done a big harvest in a while, and the kale has been getting away from me. My hope is that the hoop house will pull through this time and keep it alive into the winter, but I’m not putting any money on it.


Instead, I’m freezing my leafy greens before New England gets a chance to. I’m not giving up entirely, so I left enough leaves that everybody should be able to keep growing, making for some strange shapes.


I found myself with more loose leaves than I could ever carry in my arms. Luckily, I was lazy and never put away the containers from my poor doomed peppers and eggplants. I threw together some festive arrangements and headed home.


Late season kale is a haven for little powdery bugs. I’d sprayed for it a few months ago, but the kale kept on living and the bugs eventually came back. I washed, leaf by leaf, until I was completely sick of kale. And then I washed for another hour or so.


Meanwhile I boiled a big stockpot of water and, batch by batch, blanched my leaves for two minutes. This supposedly kills any microbes that might be hanging around. It also turns everything a healthy green.


From the boiling water the leaves went straight into an ice water bath to halt the cooking process. From there they went into a colander and I went to the freezer to dig around for more ice.


After the first batch of leaves, the water turned a distinctly orange color. Is this because kale is so high in iron? Er… yes. Let’s say that it is. Because I honestly have no better ideas.


After draining the cooled leaves, I gave them a good squeeze to remove excess water and mould them into handy portions. No one wants a solid gallon of frozen chopped kale. I don’t care who they are or what they think they need.


I let the leaf balls sit on their cookie sheets in the freezer over night. In the morning I had some very sturdy and very frozen balls of solid fresh leaf. I packed them away into freezer bags and stowed them in the freezer. In all, it was three or four hours’ work for an amount of vegetables that would cost me a few dollars at the store.


No wonder people usually just buy food.


The Tragedy of the Hoop House

Remember my hoop house? Remember my palpable excitement and hope for summer vegetables well into the winter?

I remember, too.


Sadly, it was not meant to be.

I think I severely overestimated the hoop house’s ability to store heat. I’d read so many warnings about overheating, I made sure to leave the ventilation flaps open when the sun was up. On the night of the first frost, I dutifully went down (after the sun had set) and closed things up snugly. It was dark, so I don’t know if my plants were already dead when I tucked them in for the night, but it’s a pretty striking image.


In retrospect, it makes sense that if the air inside the hoop house is cold when you close it up at night, it’s not going to heat up much. Plants produce a tiny bit of warmth when they respire, but nothing like a breathing animal would.

I remember covering blueberry bushes with my dad to protect the blossoms from late spring frost, and I was under the impression that this would have a similar effect. I think the difference is that we draped sheets over the blueberries, making a barrier directly between the blossom and the cold air, blocking heat transfer. The hoop house is a big room, with lots of head space for cold air to swirl around.

We also covered the blueberries before the sun set.

The pepper plants, though wilted, still kept their vivid green color. I thought maybe they could be saved, until I actually touched the peppers.


It was like squeezing a stocking full of Cool Whip. The slightest pressure made it distort, and I had to be careful not to put my thumb right through it. A stocking full of Cool Whip would have been sturdier.

The eggplant plants were stone dead, but the fruit fared better. I managed to salvage three small ones.


I left the plants in the ground for a week in case of a miracle, but none came. The cold weather plants, of course, don’t know what all the fuss is about and have been doing fine. With any luck I can keep them going and the hoop house won’t be a total bust. Going all-in on greens and roots, I ripped out the frosted plants and sowed some seeds. They came right up! I have tiny lettuces.


And tiny radishes. I’m a little worried about the shortening of days. Even if they’re warm enough, these guys may not have enough sunlight to grow. We’ll have to wait and see.


Funnily enough, the plants that did survive were only an afterthought. I brought all my healthiest specimens down to the “safety” of the hoop house, but they wouldn’t all fit.


The scragglers had to stay up by the house, where I hastily covered them with the leftover plastic the day before the frost to give them a fighting chance. I didn’t attach the plastic tightly, and they had air circulation all night. They also had something I never even considered: a shared wall with our house. They made it through the first frost and subsequent frosts with no problem.


I even have a brand new baby pepper.


The hoop house has irrigation! Possibly.

There is a system in place that may prove itself in time. But time is running out! Today I caught these guys beating a quick retreat.


Honestly, the irrigation is more important for me than for the plants. It’s a pain to open up that tent and water. And before long the city will turn off the water in the garden for the winter, meaning I’ll have to schlep water from home. It’s important for the plants because the easier things are, the less likely I am to skip a day or five and let them dry up.

Here’s a layout of the equipment as suggested by Ben, who’s a little more orderly than I am. We bought a 25-foot permeable hose that’s designed for slow-release, long distance watering. We also got two connectors that would thread into each other, and a bunch of rubber washers. Basically, we needed to create a tightly sealed passage through a hole in the bottom of the bucket leading into the hose. We just winged it in the garden hose section, but if you’re looking to have an easier time, this would probably do it.

Not pictured is Home Depot’s greatest marketing scheme, the trusty and unmistakable orange 5 gallon bucket. Maybe you don’t have them where you are, but they’re three dollars and versatile and in New England you can’t move for them.


We drilled a hole through the bottom of the bucket and pushed one connector through with a washer attached, creating a seal inside the bucket. Another washer went on the outside, which you can see here.


We screwed the two connectors together, tightening them to create a good seal.


The seal was not as good as we’d hoped. It took a few trial fillings and a few replacement washers to get it right.


Once we were convinced no water was escaping, we installed the whole thing in the hoop house. We fit the bucket just inside the tent in the hope that the water won’t freeze as quickly this way. We perched it on a milk crate so gravity will build up some pressure. That’s my biggest concern: Will lifting the water a foot off the ground be enough to push it to the plants that are 25 feet away?


I filled it up with a few gallons of water on Sunday morning, and despite a slow start, by Monday morning the water was gone! Those few gallons had gone somewhere, and I think it was exactly where I wanted it to go.


This hose truly is slow release. It seems to be full of water and ever-so-slowly beading it out. To human me, this seems like an unconscionably hard way to get a drink. But to the plants, this might be just fine, and preferable to waiting for me to get around to watering them.

One area I’m worried about is the container section. The hose takes a steep climb to get to these guys, and while there’s plenty of water seeping out farther down the line, this section is bone dry. Is this something to do with the pressure needed for the elevation change? Ben’s officially a physics PhD candidate now – figuring this out will be his assignment.


Apart from in that one elevated section, the hose seems to be doing its job. My main worry now is that there isn’t enough of it. Twenty-five feet of hose for a forty square foot area may not be enough, particularly with a drip this slow. 20151011_124218For the moment I’m going to wait it out and see how well the plants fare with no additional watering. With the plastic roof and constant water flow, I may wind up creating a self-contained ecosystem. A little bio-dome.


If the nuclear fallout comes, I’m gonna go live with the vegetables.

Winter Is Coming

Inspiration is a funny thing.

Gardening Know How asked me to write a piece about building hoop houses. I didn’t know a single thing about building hoop houses. So I researched it, and then I wrote my authoritative article, and then I built one of my own. In that order.

This little guy is my boyfriend, Ben. I enlisted his help because he loves building projects, and he loves trips to the Home Depot. He’s never been too keen on squishing around in foamy buckets of fermented fruit, so this was a good opportunity to do something together. 20151004_142425

We’re hovering right around the first frost date for our area, depending upon who you ask. Some say it’s as early as October 3rd, and some say it’s as late as October 31st. Looking at the forecast, I’m more inclined to believe the latter. This wild map suggests that it varies by a few weeks within the city, with the line following, as far as I can tell, the contours of the hills.

So I may be a few weeks early. Or I may not be. I have too many frost sensitive plants that are just starting to produce in earnest to want to cut it close, though.

Construction was a breeze. My plot is roughly ten feet by three feet. We bought four ten-foot lengths of PEX tubing and sunk them deep into the soil. This made a tunnel just high enough to cover everybody. The trellis didn’t make the cut, but the cucumbers and melons on it had all but given up for the season, anyway. It was a mercy killing.

The cross beam was… improvised. Across the top we zip-tied three wooden stakes I’d been using as a trellis. The ends were still wet with dirt. The plan is to replace them this weekend with an irrigation pipe of some sort. But for now the stakes are performing admirably.


We draped a single translucent plastic tarp over the whole thing. It’s ten feet wide, so it overlaps just right with the sunken ten foot poles. It’s roughly a million feet long, so even with plenty of slack to fold up securely on either end, we cut off quite a bit extra that I plan to rig up into a smaller enclosure for my container garden by the house. We attached it to the structure with a bargain bag’s worth of plastic clamps.


And that’s it! From inside, it looks like a veritable tropical paradise!


From outside, it looks like that scene from Independence Day.


“Release… me…”

After just a few minutes, it definitely felt warmer inside. It was a windy day, though, so I suspect this came more from the plastic functioning as a windbreak. I’m sure the plants will appreciate that as the wind gets nastier.


There was some room on the end where I’d ripped out the cucumbers and melons. I had planned on planting peas there, but since the trellis didn’t make it into the enclosure, it wasn’t in the cards. Rather than planting something new, I decided to fill the space with as many hot weather containers as I could fit.

This is my secret garden – the three-foot-wide strip of concrete along the side of my house. It gets full sun, it’s not in anyone’s way, and while it’s a pain to water, it gives me a steady supply of tiny eggplants.

Plus, the cat loves it.


After some agonizing, I picked out my strongest producers and carted them down to the garden. I fit three eggplants, a pepper, and a tomato, which I removed from its cage and stretched lengthwise along the kale. You can see one little arm reaching up in the distance. Quarters are tight, but they live in buckets. They’re used to it.


And that’s that! The thing that distinguishes a hoop house from a greenhouse is that it’s labor intensive. Where greenhouses rely on heaters and fans to regulate temperature, hoop houses rely on the sun and wind. The sun is absorbed passively. The wind, however, is left to human intervention. The ends have to be opened up daily to allow for air circulation, otherwise the heat from the sun will get so intense it’ll just cook your vegetables where they stand.


Since it’s still warm out, I’m leaving the ends perpetually rolled up, and I’m treating the hoop house mainly as surprise frost protection. Once the temperatures start dipping lower, I’ll have to roll the ends down at night and up in the morning. With any luck, this will keep the warm weather guys alive long past their unprotected neighbors. With even more luck, pollinators will be able to find their way into and out of this thing.

I’m expecting the eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and squash to give up the ghost eventually. The days are going to get too short and the bees are going to go into hiding, and any tomatoes I eat in January will come from California. For the leaves and roots, however, I have high hopes! With some mulching, and maybe a flap cut into the roof in preparation for access through the many feet of inevitable snow, there’s a chance I could be eating fresh vegetables on Valentine’s Day.

It’s just like they say: Beets are a girl’s best friend.

Anything Can Be Wine If You Just Believe

20150913_150117_HDRI’ve got some peach wine brewing. It’s made from locally grown peaches and it smells just like summer and I’m sure it’ll be my favorite thing to drink in the dark of February.

But who cares?

I’m making cucumber wine.

In my garden plot I have three cucumber vines that can’t be persuaded to climb a trellis but are nonetheless producing like crazy.

I’ve made them into pickles and I’ve munched on them whole while I water, but they just keep coming!

I had never tried or, to be honest, heard of cucumber wine, but I thought it must exist. I thought that every food must, at some point, have been thrown into a bucket with yeast and sugar. It seems the list may be finite, though, and cucumbers are right at the bottom of it, because my internet searches have brought me exactly one recipe. It can be found in a few different places, but it’s always exactly the same, copied and pasted over and over. And I’m here to carry on the tradition!

Of course, once I’d set my mind on using “all these cucumbers,” I discovered that I had only four, and that they weighed about half of what I needed for my recipe. My mission to use up extra produce suddenly required a trip to the grocery store. Oh well. The light green pickling cucumbers came from my garden. The dark green traditional ones came from a farm somewhere in Rhode Island, if the produce department is to be believed. One of them is missing an end because my boyfriend took a bite out of it. So it goes.20150913_183455_HDR

The recipe called for two lemons and two oranges, cut into slices. I imagine this is because cucumbers on their own don’t have a lot of body to them. Also, even though I’m looking for a cucumber flavor, a fruity base might be what it takes to tip this thing from pickle juice into wine territory. I’m a little apprehensive about how the orange flavor will mesh, but since this is my first try I’ll put all my faith into that one mysterious person who devised this recipe and follow it to the letter. Maybe the oranges will add some complexity that lemons alone can’t.


I sliced the citrus and roughly chopped the cucumbers. I added seven cups of sugar and yeast nutrient, then I poured a gallon of boiling water over it all. It smelled like a spa treatment.

Up until now I’ve always used sodium metabisulfite to sanitize the must before adding yeast, but now I’m experimenting with using just boiling water. I have no political or health reasons (I had no idea I was supposed to hate sulfites until I came across recipes that proudly omit them). I’m just curious to see if it works.


Once the must cooled (it took hours!) I added pectic enzyme to help break things down. After 24 hours I pitched the yeast and let it do its thing. It made a beautiful froth and all but disintegrated the cucumbers. The skins and seeds were still floating around, but the meat disappeared, making for a slimy goop that I could pick up in my hand and had a heck of a time filtering.


But filter it I did. The finished product is an interesting color: green from some angles, yellow from others. Does it taste like cucumbers? Yes! Does it taste good? Not particularly. Does it smell like pickles? Not as much as I expected, but that’s not a no. Is it so full of citrus that it burned every little cut in my hands as I cleaned the equipment? Oh yes. Taste-wise, the citrus is a little overwhelming, too. Between the lemon and the alcohol, it’s like an astringent medicine that happens to taste like cucumber. I’m hoping it settles down over time.

Even if it doesn’t, it’s a good conversation piece. And it’s not more pickles.


An Attempt at Science

This summer I’m using Neptune’s Harvest Fish & Seaweed Fertilizer on everything I grow. It has great Amazon reviews, and it was available at the urban farm supply store where I talked so long with the owner I felt obligated to buy something. I’ve gone whole hog on ideas for much stupider reasons.20150611_094656_HDR

And I have to say, my garden does look a lot more impressive.



On the left we have last year at this time, and on the right we have this year, all fishified.

The fish-drenched guys are definitely further along. The chives are enormous, the greens at the far end are a solid mass, and the peas have completely escaped their trellis. Of course… last year I didn’t plant anything until I got my plot at the end of April. Most of the things in this year’s picture were planted indoors during a February snowstorm. There are more scientifically rigorous studies…

Like this one!

I’ve chosen two vegetables I know grow quickly. I don’t know anything that grows faster than radishes, but I’m worried the hot weather will set them back, so I’m planting beans as well.

20150618_161848_HDRThe Neptune’s bottle suggests soaking seeds before planting in a solution of 1 tsp fertilizer to 1 cup water. Do radish and bean seeds like to be soaked? I’ve never heard they do, but I’m doing it anyway! I’m also doing a control of seeds soaked in regular tap water.20150611_182021_HDR

If you’ve never used fish fertilizer before, trust me when I say it smells just as good as it looks.

I let the seeds soak for 24 hours, then planted them. Another use for Neptune’s, and the one I’ve been using in my garden, is a simple watering with a very diluted solution every one to two weeks. So I sowed a set of each seed that will be watered normally, and a set that will be fished. If you’ve been doing your math, you’ll know that comes out to eight different treatments.


And here they are!

All sown at exactly the same time in soil from the same bag in basically the same containers are plain radishes and beans, fish watered radishes and beans, water-soaked radishes and beans, and fish-soaked radishes and beans. I’ve put three seeds evenly spaced in each pot, so hopefully individual seed quality doesn’t get too much in the way. I lightly watered the plain pots with water and the fish pots with fish solution.

After only four days the radishes, true to form, were making an appearance. At least one plant emerged in every pot.

Oddly enough, though, the water-treated seedlings look vastly healthier.








Go ahead and click on the pictures to enlarge them so you can see the seedlings and my beautiful labeling. The plain seedlings look more developed and vividly green. Their leaves are splayed out completely. Also, only the completely untreated pot has two of its three seedlings already. The fish seedlings, on the other hand, look yellower and not fully opened yet. This could be chalked up to a few hours’ difference in growth at this stage, but I really did sow everything in one go. Eagle-eyed readers may notice that there are berries just everywhere. They’re mulberries, and they’re getting a post of their own soon.

I’ll be tracking the seedlings’ growth and updating every now and again. If this current trend continues, maybe I’ll have enough evidence to bring down Big Fish.