What’s Growing?

A long long time ago I bought some seeds. When some of them got too unruly, I transplanted them outside and hoped for the best. Now we’re well into June and everybody’s out in the ground.

Or dead.

A week after planting out my tomatoes, I transplanted all the others – the eggplants, peppers, melons, tomatillos, and cabbages. And it did not go well. The next few days were incredibly windy, and the very next night dropped down to 39F. I’d babied the tomatoes, hardening them off gradually and wrapping them in plastic. This second round I did in much more of a rush, and I paid the price. Melons dissolved. Cabbages crumbled.

A couple of the stronger and better sheltered ones, like this tomatillo, have held on. I’ve seen healthier plants, but compared to what he was, he’s in top form.


The tomatoes, by now old hands at outdoor life, are a mixed bag. Three of my five grow bag plants are the picture of health.


The other two are… flagging. Those in the garden are in the same boat. I planted three varieties of tomatoes, and there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to this gross inequality. Two of the giants are Paul Robesons, and the third is a Blue Beauty. Here’s another Blue Beauty looking no bigger than when I planted it out.


The seeds I started in the ground outside are all seem happy. The Red Orach started slow…


But now it’s taking off. The leaves taste fine. The best word I can come up with is minerally. So far I’ve only eaten the odd raw leaf, wanting to give the two plants a chance to grow. With the bigger over a foot tall, now, I think I can safely cook some up.


My Beleah Rose Lettuce is coming in nicely.


But nowhere near as nicely as my green lettuce, self-sown from last year’s crop. Eating salad has become something of an obligation in my house.


I have a third variety of lettuce, all on its lonesome with the kale, that’s the lone survivor from a crop I tried to grow in the hoop house in November. All the others froze, but this one must have tucked itself under the plastic just right and is absolutely thriving.


The Magnolia Blossom Tendril Peas are gangbusters. They’re already taller than the trellis and me, and they’re showing no signs of stopping. The flowers are beautiful, the tendrils are cool, and the peas are… fine. More of a green taste than that nice pea sweetness. I’ve only tired the young whole pods, though – maybe when they mature the peas inside will be a different story.


My other peas are these snazzy Dwarf Blauwschokkers. They’re a Dutch bush variety that produces deep blue blossoms and even deeper blue pea pods. Just like the tendril peas, though, these guys get high points for presentation and low points for taste. I’d describe the flavor of these as so green they seem unripe. And maybe they are. The name makes me think that they’re meant for shucking and will be better when they’re more mature, but my Dutch is rusty.


On a strange note, some of my Blauwschokkers have come out as the plainest, greenest, pea-est peas I’ve ever seen. Where did these guys come from? I think there’s been some intermingling…


The Crapaudine Beets are doing well, though germination has been pretty sparse.


Likewise with the Pusa Asita Black Carrots, which seem to have been taken down from the site I ordered them from! I hope that’s not a bad sign… The plants that have come up seem to be nice and healthy.


I planted two kinds of beans: Chinese Red Noodle and Dragon Tongue Bush Bean. I wish I knew which was which. I also wish I hadn’t taken up valuable trellis space with a bush bean, but this is how we learn.


My Desi Summer Squash is coming in great.


My Kajari melons were coming in great, until they disintegrated in the cold. I’ve planted some seeds directly in the soil and they’re well on their way. This is supposed to be a fast-producing melon, so with any luck I’ll get some fruit out of it before fall.


One of my cabbages also fell apart, but I replaced it with another seedling I hadn’t put out yet. This is the state of a lot of my transplants – the scraggly guys who weren’t fit to put out at first are the new stars of the show.


Some are coming into their own, like this pepper.


And others, like this adorable little eggplant, have a long way to go.


Whatever happens, I probably won’t go hungry this summer.















Tomatoes on Their Own

A while back I bought too many seeds. And then I planted them. So before I knew it I had too many seedlings.

Here are my little baby tomatoes back in March. Aren’t they cute?


Here they are last weekend. Not so cute anymore.


This poor seed tray was overrun with tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplants, peppers, melons, and cabbages. The tomatoes were the real problem children – they got so big they flopped over and started to grow up again at a 90 degree angle, shading everybody in the process.

After an unseasonably warm winter, early May was unusually cold. I waited as long as I could, but finally had to give up and move them outside. The nights could be warmer, but the danger of frost seems to have passed. And these things can’t keep growing in the living room.


I got three varieties of tomatoes and grew three plants of each. I have a second plot in the community garden this year, but there’s still nowhere near enough space, so I’m going container crazy. I got a few 7 gallon fabric grow bags, and boy do they hold a lot of dirt. If the tomatoes aren’t happy with this amount of space, I don’t know what to tell them.


You can bury tomatoes deep when you transplant them, which is nice when your seedlings are over two feet tall. Even so, they have some very funny bends to them. I tried to angle them toward the bars of the cage and tied them gently in place. With any luck they’ll grow up straightish from here.


Since the nights are still chilly, I wrapped the cages in plastic painters’ drop cloths. The idea was to retain a little bit of heat, but as evening fell and the wind picked up, I decided they’d be even better for wind protection. I did harden the seedlings off over the course of several days, but spending your first night outside in the wind and tied to a stake would be rough on anybody.


The end result was a pretty sturdy set of tents. It wasn’t supposed to get below freezing, and I wasn’t looking for a repeat of the hoop house – all I wanted was a little extra protection.


I did put a few tomatoes in my garden plot as well, and I gave them the same wrap treatment. The wind in the garden is considerably stronger than at my house, and I was slightly worried I’d just tied my seedlings to big sails… They survived the first few nights, and then I took the plastic off due to rising temperatures and sheer anxiety.


Five days later all the plants are doing well. No one has wilted and no one has gotten wrenched in half by a gust. Last year’s tomato season was something of a bust, so I’m really hoping for a good showing this summer.


With nine plants, I have the numbers on my side.

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.

Saving Seeds


I’ve started saving seeds. I wasn’t planning on it, but when you go away for the last week and a half of June, some decisions get made for you. I left orderly rows of leafy greens and roots. I came back to anarchy.

The lettuce had bolted. So had the bok choy and last year’s leeks. And so had this downright tumescent radish.

My community garden has a plastic baggie pinned to a bulletin board where you can dump old seed packets. Just to fill in space where some of my kohlrabi had failed, I planted some seeds from this baggie. They were for some daikon-like radish packaged for 2010. I wasn’t expecting much, so I threw in the whole packet’s worth of seeds. And they all germinated.

I thinned them down to just a few and picked most of them when they were a reasonable size. They looked just like white carrots but had a serious, almost peppery bite to them. This last one I left in the ground before my vacation, and by the time I came back it was in full flower. I let it go until the flowers turned to seedpods and the seedpods started to be eaten by birds. I yanked the whole thing out of the ground, then, and brought it inside to dry. I hung it upside down in the cellar from a ribbon the cat likes to play with, because there was no string on hand and I couldn’t just leave this monster draped across the kitchen table.20150909_131149_HDR

If you’re doing the math, you may have figured out by now that this thing has been hanging in my basement for quite a while. You’re right. I’ll admit that I’ve found the prospect of dealing with it daunting, and knowing that something’s dried and not going anywhere is fantastic for procrastination. Now that I’ve gotten my act together and discovered that seed collection is all the work of a few minutes, I’m planning on going at it full throttle and becoming that old seed saving woman in Mad Max.

I dragged the whole plant upstairs and returned the ribbon to where the cat last left it. The radish had formed a big network of spreading twigs, and at the end of each one was a seed pod. I quickly found that the easiest method was to break all these pods off first to get the huge, brittle structure out of the way.

While breaking off pods, I found one bunch of flowers that had been blooming when I picked the radish and dried with the rest of it. The flowers were so delicate when they were blossoming, and I can’t believe how well they were preserved. Maybe next year I’ll grow a couple just for the flowers. I wrote a post recently for Mother Earth Living about cutting and preserving bolted vegetable flowers. Go have a look if you’re in the mood.


Once I’d collected the pods, my task suddenly seemed a lot less daunting. They were dry as a bone and split apart easily in my fingers. 20150909_132143

In just a few minutes, I had a healthy little pile of seeds. Sometimes gardening seems like magic to me. I often say that if someone told me you could make unlimited food by sticking a little bit of old food in the ground for a while, and I didn’t know that’s how it actually works, I’d never believe it. A single seed sat in the ground for a while and made all of these new seeds. How can that be right?


Anyway. I tucked all my radish seeds into an envelope labelled Big White Radish because I have no recollection of the real name on the packet, and I got to work on some other plants I’ve had lying around drying for far too long. This is a bok choy, another surprise success from the ancient seed baggie. A lot like the radish, it produced these branched seed pods for the convenience of the collector.


I did my best with a spinach plant I’ve been drying since forever, but I’m worried the seeds may not have matured. I pulled the plant at the time because it was stone dead, but the seeds had to be pried off with force and don’t want to break apart from their clusters readily. Are the seeds too young, or have I just been spoiled with these pod-producing plants? We’ll find out in the spring.


That’s my seed arsenal for the moment. That and a bunch of chives I saved when I noticed the chive flowers I’d picked were dumping seeds onto the kitchen table. It’s no fail-safe against the fall of civilization, but it’s mine. I could have let the leeks die to produce seeds, too, but I picked and dried them still in bloom because they’re just so cool. I can buy leek seeds.


Accidental Gardening

20150612_114023_HDRMy strawberry wine appears to be sprouting. While interesting, this isn’t exactly what I was going for.

This is still very much a learning process, and today’s lesson is in straining your fruit must thoroughly. A search has found me one person on reddit who had exactly the same problem. There were a few assurances that it should be alright, lots of confusion, and not one but two references to The Circle of Life. There was general encouragement to plant the seeds, which I’m going to do, because why not? And there was more or less a consensus that I should get the wine out of there as 20150612_112956quickly as possible. So I’m going to rack the wine, about two weeks before I was intending to, and I’m going to hope it keeps fermenting. I’m also going to rack it into a half gallon bottle, because today’s lesson is also in head space, of which I apparently have way too much. All that residual air is no good.


Doing my best to keep the siphon in the middle of the fermenter, between the sediment on the bottom and the seeds on top, I’m sending the wine through a mesh strainer in a funnel, hoping against hope it’ll catch the seeds but allow the yeast to pass through. I have a racking cane with a pump, so I usually don’t even bother putting my secondary vessel on the ground to siphon. The funnel, however, just barely fits into the lip of this jug, so I’m balancing it between my knee and the kitchen cabinets. When the person you usually conscript into holding things has been conscripted into photography instead, you have20150612_122718 to improvise.

A half gallon of wine has survived the transfer. There’s still sediment in the bottom, but no seeds have made an appearance and there’s already activity in the air lock, which means some of the yeast made it as well. The jug is a growler from Endless Brewing, a great little brewery from my hometown. If you find yourself in rural Pennsylvania and craving beer, go to them and tell them I sent you.

There’s still quite a lot left over, but not enough to justify saving in a separate container. It smells fantastic, and I have visions of whiling away the afternoon writing and sipping my young strawberry wine.


I’m just going to tell myself it needs to age.