Thursday, December 2, 2010

Lemons and Some Rough Math

I'm not a big numbers guy, but I'm excited about this year's pending lemon harvest.  I bought my little potted lemon plant two years ago for $15.99.  The first year I harvested 5 lemons.  Then the plant grew a little bit.  This year I've got 14 on the tree.  Organic lemons sell for $0.99 at the local grocery store.  19 lemons x $0.99 = $18.81.  I figure I've spent approximately the positive difference of $2.82 on water and fertilizer since I bought the lemon.  So by my rough estimate this little tree just paid for itself.

I'm already looking forward to the smell of citrus blossoms, more growth, and more lemons next year.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Beets are Good Eats

Chioggia Beets.

Back in August I planted two short rows of Chioggia beets, an Italian heirloom that has a striped interior rather than the traditional beet red color.   I tried growing beets 2 years ago and only succeeded in growing greens with small roots, so this was my second attempt.  After some soil preparation I planted the seeds in 4-foot rows and kept them watered very well.  It wasn't very long before the seeds had germinated and I had greens reaching for the sun (and hopefully roots reaching for nutrients).  I kept a close eye on them and sure enough -- my plants actually looked like beets!

I decided to harvest them today because my taste buds ordered me to do it.  Based upon what I saw on top of the soil I figured I was in good shape.  But once I started harvesting them I noticed dozens of hairy roots all over the beets.  This was not what I was expecting.

Hairy Chioggia Beets.

I started to get sweaty and nervous as each beet I pulled yielded the same results.  Masses of hairy roots.  I decided to put my fear aside and harvest them all, let the taste of the beets do the talking.  After rinsing them, cutting and saving the greens for tomorrow, and slicing them open, I was quite pleased.  The interior revealed the classic swirl-like (some say bull's eye) pattern that makes the Chioggia so unique.

Quartered beets on a baking pan.

My wife also added some freshly picked carrots, garlic cloves, olive oil, oregano, thyme, toasted walnuts, and salt and roasted them in the oven.  She topped off her bowl with chevre, and I opted to keep mine plain.  Goat cheese is a bit too goaty for me.

The final product.

The roasted beets and carrots were good eats for sure.  I'd definitely consider it a successful crop this season.  But I'm still wondering why my beets didn't look like what I expected them to look like.  Guess that means I need to hit the books and read more about soil preparation, watering, etc.  But as I always say, the most valuable information comes from actually attempting to grow things in the first place.  You'll never know if you don't try.

Monday, November 29, 2010

First Frost

I woke up this morning to find a hard frost on the ground, the first frost of the year in Newport News.  I've been expecting it, but for some reason was surprised to see it through my bleary, tired eyes.  The air was crisp, and so were my veggies!  Fortunately most of my plants are hardy and tolerate frost quite well, which is a major reason I planted them.

Frosty head of Winter Density lettuce.

This Winter Density lettuce head was very frosty.  If you look closely, you can see where the dew initially beaded up on the surface and then froze when the temperature dropped.

My carrots held up well.  The roots seemed unfazed as I walked around the garden in my slippers, but the weight of the frost caused the carrot tops to bend down at an awkward angle.  This isn't overly important because the roots themselves are what I plan on eating (even though you can eat immature carrot greens).

Carrot tops, a bit on the chilled side of things.

My bed of kale was indeed happy to feel the freeze.  Kale often benefits from a frost or two, and I'm hoping to make some kale soup later this week.  Here is a pic of a kale plant with ribbons of frost tucked into the deeply ruffled leaves.

Crispy Kale.

Surprisingly my potted citrus plants, which I left outside all night and are still loaded with limes and lemons, were not covered in any frost.  I attribute this to the fact that they are positioned significantly closer to the house, which unfortunately is as well insulated as a hairless dog, and leaks heat to the outdoors.

My poorly insulated hairless dog, bathing in the sun to soak up heat.

I haven't had a chance to see how everything else in the yard tolerated the frost because it was already dark when I got home from work (a major bummer of the late months of the year).  But I'll likely post again sometime in the next few days with an update.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mission: Possible -- Carrots

My carrots have been growing for a while now.  The tops are lush, large, and bright green.  So what about the tasty bottoms?  I finally unearthed a few this morning to check on the crunchy roots and voila!  Vibrant orange roots that actually look and taste like carrots!  Nice and sweet.  I'm pretty happy with the results because this is my first stab at growing them. 

A fistful of orange and yellow carrots!
The roots were hairier than I would've imagined, and some of them were less than straight.  If the roots meet any resistance when growing (rocks, debris, etc.) they tend to bend and twist.  Sure, they don't look like your average grocery store carrots, but that's exactly the point!  I'm not looking for average grocery store carrots.  Harvesting was also simple.  The smaller carrots were removed by pulling straight up from the base of the greens.  For longer carrots, I found it helpful to push down on the tops of the roots and then pull up from the base of the greens.  Easy.

I rinsed them off and brought them inside.  I trimmed some of the wayward root tips.  I also cut the greens to within an inch of the roots to prevent transpiration of moisture.  If you don't cut the greens, the carrots will get dry and shrivel in a relatively short amount of time.

Trimmed the tops for better storage in the fridge.
This last picure is a close-up of the surface of a few carrots.  Note the vibrant color, smooth surface texture, and tiny hair-like roots.  I've got an entire 4' x 8' bed loaded with many different varieties of carrots, and it will be a joy to harvest them into the winter.  Can't wait to eat them and grow more next year.

Just need a rinse, peeling optional.  These babies are a sweet and healthy snack.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Okay, orchids don't have anything to do with vegetable gardening, fruit trees and shrubs, or herbs.  But I like 'em and have a few that are blooming or are ready to bloom.

I started growing orchids about 5 years ago, figured they couldn't be too hard to grow.  I then promptly killed my first phalaenopsis.  I was bummed but persisted and tried again.  The second time I had success, and I slowly expanded my orchid collection.  I even joined an orchid society, or as my wife called it "The Dorkid Society".  It was a good place to get information and plants, as well as talk to 85-year-old women who have hundreds of orchids in their houses.  No lie.  While I'm no longer active in the society, I took the tips and tricks I learned there and have put them into use.

Here is a picture of a cattleya that opened this morning on my dining room table.  It lives outside for most of the year until the weather cools in the fall and I bring it inside.  The blooms are about 7" in diameter and have a great fragrance.

Most orchids have ridiculous and lengthy names.  This one is no exception.  It is called Blc. Ronald's Canyon 'Koko Head'.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Inchelium Red Garlic

Mid-October is the recommended date for planting garlic in my region.  A sequential attack of strep throat, travel for work, and laziness derailed my plan to have my garlic planted at that time.  Now it's three weeks later and early November, but I planted it anyway.  I chose Inchelium Red, a softneck variety, because I've had great success with it in past years.  I know I essentially put all my eggs in one basket by only planting a single variety, but I certainly made up for it with numbers.  I ordered (Southern Exposure Seed Exchange) 16 ounces of this type of garlic this summer and 6 huge bulbs arrived in September.  Today I separated the bulbs into individual cloves (50 total) for planting.  Turns out I only planted 48 cloves because one was soft and mushy and I happened to step on the other.  Oops.  Before planting I dug the 4' x 8' bed with my pitchfork, added a dusting of lime, bone meal, and organic bulb fertilizer (not sure why I added the bulb fertilizer), and mixed everything well.  I then raked the soil flat and marked planting rows by gently pressing PVC pipe into the soil.  Once my rows were established, I placed the bulbs at 6" intervals.

Four rows of Inchelium Red garlic at 6" spacing.  I left some open room in the bed (top of picture) to plant some early spring crops.  Not sure what.  Maybe radishes or lettuce.  I'll have to research what grows well with garlic.  The garlic also grows tall and will shade that area for a few hours each day.
Worm's eye view of garlic cloves before planting.

I used my thumb to make 2" deep holes for each clove and placed them upright in each hole.  Then I smoothed soil over each hole, added a very thin layer of compost, and watered the bed very well.  Hopefully the cloves still have time to establish some good roots before it gets too cold.  I'll likely mulch the bed with wheat straw before winter and add additional mulch in late spring to retain moisture and keep the soil cool during May and June before mid-summer harvest.  I'll try and take pictures when they pop their heads out of the bed and start growing their green tops.

November Update

It's been too long since I last posted, and too long since I did anything productive in the garden.  I wanted to take a few pics to show how the veggies and fruit trees are doing this month.  Temperatures have definitely cooled off (40s at night) which, not surprisingly, has helped the fall crops tremendously.  Surprisingly, some of the other plants are also still hanging on as if it is summer.  I recently ate a fig and had a few handfuls of Heritage raspberries!  Not quite the same quality or taste as during the peak season, but certainly better than anything I can find in the store!

Swiss chard has been the big winner this fall.  Again, I've never planted it before this year but it is doing very well and tastes outstanding.  I haven't had any bug problems either.  A great no care plant that produces huge stalks of chard.  Hopefully they'll hold up well when the first frost hits the area.

These chard plants are appx. 18" tall.  Simply twist and pull off shoots of chard at the base of the plant and it will continue to grow from the crown.

Carrots are a close second (if not tied) with chard in terms of success.  This is my first year growing carrots and I'm proud of the results, even if I was lucky.  I planted 8 varieties in a 4' x 8' bed.  Mostly French heirloom varieties (thanks Elsa!) and a few American hybrids.  I harvested a sampler of each variety but forgot to take pics before I ate them.  I'll try to do that the next time I pull some from the bed.  But here's an overall picture.  Major difference compared to the picture of the tiny seedlings I previously posted.

American and French carrots reaching for the sky and growing deep in the raised bed.  I also inter-planted a few rows of purple onions to help reduce white fly.  Guess it worked because they were never a problem. 

Lettuce has been a huge disappointment.  I don't know if it was the late hot temps or the fact that my seeds were a few years old, but I've had miserable results this year.  I planted an entire 4' x 8' bed with 5 varieties and have only 6 small heads to show for it.  I was hoping for endless salads, but got endless heartbreak instead.  They are growing rapidly, but it is a sad sight.  Here's a pic of one lonely head looking pretty for the camera.

Winter Density lettuce.

Kale has been hit or miss.  It seems to be growing okay now, but I was battling with small caterpillars that really enjoyed munching on the green leaves.  They were efficient too!  A few plants were totally decimated.  I saw white moths (maybe butterflies?  I don't know, not a bug guy) fluttering over the plants and figured they were laying their eggs on the kale.  It would probably help if I researched this a bit.  I ended up hand-picking the buggers every day and doing the old stomp dance.  I haven't seen any in the last 3 days so I hope I'm in the clear.

Bed of two different varieties of kale (dwarf blue curled and Vates).  I planted three stray Egyptian walking onions in the foreground.  I also inter-planted the kale with radishes.  Thanks again to Elsa for providing tasty radish seeds.  Her grandfather's heirloom radishes from his garden in France are the best!
What about the young fruit trees, you ask?  The potted citrus are still going crazy.  Limes galore, lemons are ripening, and the tiny calamondin oranges are harvested daily.  I'll move them by the window inside the shed when frost threatens, and if temps get really cold I'll move them inside the house.  But believe it or not, my three citrus plants survived 48 hours of temps in the low 20's inside my unheated shed last winter.  So maybe they are hardier than people give them credit for, but I'm not taking any chances this year.  I'd hate to lose them, particularly after being rewarded with fresh citrus.

Calamondin oranges (bottom) and Eureka lemons (top).  Looking forward to harvesting those lemons.
My Russian pomegranate tree is starting to thrive.  It was a potted plant (Edible Landscaping) for 4 years before I planted it in the ground.  This year I was rewarded with 4 small-ish pomegranates and prolific growth of the plant.  I'm hoping this means that next year I'll be swamped with pomegranates.

Two small Russian pomegranates and one really fat thumb.
6-foot tall pomegranate tree.  If you look closely (with a magnifying glass) you'll see 3 small pomegranates at ground level.  Next year I've got visions of this shrub loaded with reddish globes.
The peach tree grew fairly well this year.  I had lots of pink blooms in the spring and about 10 peaches mid-summer.  They were a bit on the dry and hard side, but I think that's because we had very little rain and unfortunately I didn't water the tree very much.  The tree is about 8 feet tall now, so I'll probably prune it in early spring to keep fruit within reach (and spray it with dormant oil this winter).

Redhaven peach tree on semi-dwarfing rootstock.  Looks like I've got some weeding and mulching to do.  Any volunteers?
Of course this post wouldn't be complete without another shameless plug for my fig trees. My espalier-in-progress thrived near the shed and grew from a little cutting to over 6-feet tall.  And the cuttings from my aunt and uncle's ancient Celeste fig tree located in Virginia Beach did great as well.  I started 25 cuttings this spring and now have 22 Celeste fig trees ready for sale next spring.  I put a 4-foot measuring stick in both pictures for scale.

Espaliered fig against the corner of the shed.  The lower laterals reach out at a 90-degree angle from the trunk against both sides of the shed.  I'm going to pull down the upper laterals this winter and slowly bring them horizontal with the lower laterals.  
22 Celeste fig trees that I rooted earlier in the year.  Pretty good results for one growing season.
That pretty much sums up the status of the yard as we begin the second week in November.  Notice I've had very little luck killing the grass.  I'm still going to continue my attempts to smother it with cardboard and mulch.  I don't want to resort to chemicals just so I don't have to mow the lawn.  Also worried that any herbicides would harm my fruit trees and veggies.  If so, that's not an option.  Drop me a line and let me know how your gardens are doing as we transition into cooler weather.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Lime Harvest

I went out to look at my potted Bearss lime tree this morning.  Lots of limes have been ripening over the course of summer and fall.

I gently squeezed a few of them and they were just slightly soft.  They have also started to lighten from dark green to light green.  Both of these are signs that they are ripe.  Surprisingly limes are actually fully ripe when yellow.  But I heard that they are picked earlier so the average consumer can determine the difference between lemons and limes in the store.  Not really sure if this is true.

I picked 6 limes and left another 20+ limes on the tree for harvesting later.  My lemons and calamondin oranges are not ripe yet, but that's okay with me because I want to extend the citrus harvest for a few months.  So far so good.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Chard, Beets, Basil, and Garlic

It's been over 2 weeks since my last post, and note the progress in the garden.

Basil (top left), Swiss chard (center), and beets (bottom).
The swiss chard has been growing like a weed, I still have loads of basil, and the beets are starting to thrive.  Carrots are growing well too, but have been more problematic because apparently they are so darn tasty for a variety of worms.  I think they are from butterflies and moths.  Means I have to keep an eye open for those buggers.  I pick 'em and squash 'em when I can find 'em.

It's been very hot here lately (80s and 90s during the day) so I've added a thick layer of straw mulch to the beds.  I think it's helped to keep the soil cool and retain moisture that otherwise would evaporate.  Straw mulch is the best mulch because it's very effective and very affordable.

My garlic also just arrived in the mail!  Nice big bulbs of Inchellium Red, a softneck variety that I've grown with good results for the past 2 years.

Inchellium Red garlic bulbs, before being broken into individual cloves for planting.

I ordered from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a great outfit from Mineral, VA.  They grow and sell things well-suited to the Mid-Atlantic.  Hope to plant the individual cloves in October.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

September in the Garden

The weather is changing.  Don't get me wrong -- it's still ridiculously warm, but the humidity is starting to break and the weather is now in the 60s at night.  I snapped a few pics this evening because I recently started transitioning the raised beds to fall production by planting seeds.  Carrots, swiss chard, kale, lettuce, onions.  Many seeds have already germinated!  But still no luck with the lettuce.  I think the recent temps in the upper 80s and low 90s combined with very little rain may be the problem(s).

Swiss chard seedlings.  This is my first year growing chard.  Got my fingers crossed.
Kale.  Perfect greens for soup and holds up well even in frost.
Carrots.  I planted six different varieties.  This is only my second attempt at carrots.  I failed two winters ago for a variety of reasons.  Not this year!

While these pictures suggest fall, the figs and basil are still producing as if it is mid- to late-summer.  This will be my second huge harvest of basil (I've got pesto coming out of my ears) and I'm pretty sure these figs will ripen before it's too late.  The Heritage raspberries have also done pretty well despite my neglect, and of course those tasty gems get eaten well before any thought of a picture.

I planted basil down the sides of my tomato beds for a companion crop.  Still going strong.
Peter's Honey figs peaking out from the dark green foliage.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dusk at Colonial Williamsburg

I made an evening trek to Colonial Williamsburg earlier this week.  I was interested in seeing some of their gardens, particularly the vegetable garden across from Bruton Parish Church and also the gardens behind the Governor's Palace.  Unfortunately the Governor's Palace was closed so I wasn't able to see everything.  I still took a few pics to share, but be warned --  the quality of the pics isn't great.

Deep cold frame bed.  Looks like peas?  It's amazing how early (and late) they can grow veggies in these things. 
Late summer veggies with Bruton Parish Church in the background.
Large pomegranate trees loaded with fruit.  The orchard has 4 or 5 of these and they are about 15 feet tall.
Hanging gourds and muscadine grapes on a massive trellis/arbor.  Sometimes they dry the gourds and turn them into birdhouses.  
Small kitchen garden behind one of the historic buildings.
Fig trees that were cut to the ground about 2 years ago.  Now they are appx. 10 feet tall.
Hidden path flanked by amazing old boxwoods.
Governor's Palace.  Bummer...the best gardens locked behind the gate!  I'll have to return this fall.
Kitchen garden at the Governor's Palace.  Tiered beds prepped for fall planting. I managed to snap a few pics over the brick wall.  
A different view of the Governor's Palace kitchen garden.
You can walk for miles and miles at Colonial Williamsburg and see something new each time.  And if you wear out your shoes in the process make sure you swing by this place on the way out of town.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Partners in Crime

What happens when a wayward bird or greedy squirrel wanders into the yard in search of an easy meal?  The Brute Squad chases them away!  That's right, this fearsome dog duo handles all the wise guys in the yard.  Their reward?  A few cherry tomatoes and berries (and figs if I'm not looking).  They earn their keep.

The Brute Squad.

Monday, August 2, 2010


I'm a fig junkie.  Right now many of you are probably rolling your eyes thinking about grandpa's nasty dried figs.  But if you haven't eaten a fig plucked FRESH from a tree, you don't know what you're missing. I eat them whole, sliced, chilled, and even grilled.  And yes, also dried when not in season, but it's like comparing apples and oranges.  There are many tasty varieties that do well in southeast Virginia.  Right now I'm growing Violet de Bordeaux, Black Jack, Celeste, and Peter's Honey.  I've been growing them for a few years and they are still relatively small.  Violet is definitely my favorite, Black Jack is so-so, Celeste is old reliable, and Peter's Honey is a green fig that hasn't done very well this year.

Unripe Violet de Bordeaux figs.  They are very dark and droop when ripe.
Ripe Violet de Bordeaux figs.  Notice the distinct change in color and size when ripe.
It's actually quite easy to propagate figs by rooting dormant cuttings.  I took cuttings of my uncle's Celeste fig tree late last winter and rooted them in perlite this spring.  Then I moved them to 1 gallon pots and now they are growing like weeds.

2-3 feet tall rooted cuttings from a mature Celeste fig tree.
I'm also growing an espalier fig against the corner of my shed.  I'm training two long branches very close to the ground (much like a stepover) and growing two more branches a few feet up, similar to a traditional multi-tier espalier.  It will take a few years to train the fig for the right appearance, but I'm looking forward to the challenge.  Notice the growth from the left picture (early June) to the right picture (early August).  The tree currently stands about 5 feet tall and is developing nicely.