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Nearly centered in the photo are three rows of peas in my home kitchen garden. Immediately to the left of the left-most peas are lettuce and spinach with carrots and cilantro to the left of them. When the spring crops- the peas, lettuce, and spinach – wilt in summer’s heat, I’ll remove them, making an 8′ by 14′ clearing in which to grow winter squash. I expect the squash to grow well beyond this 112 square foot area.

When I’m feeling ambitious, I manage multiple plantings in my home kitchen garden. By this I mean I plant the same garden zones two or three times through the growing season. When weather cooperates, cold-weather vegetables planted early grow themselves out as summer approaches. I remove the dying plants and introduce other crops.

Usually, I plant peas, lettuce, and spinach in adjacent rows so there will be space in which to plant something large in June… and my first choice is almost always winter squash. Squash is a great late-season vegetable that stores well; it’ll keep for months on your dining room floor unless your spouse makes you move it to the garage.

Awkward Spring for a Home Kitchen Garden

Weather has not cooperated. This has been an unusually cold spring for my zone 5/6 home kitchen garden, and I’ve heard similar observations from gardeners all over the northeastern United States. I’m used to planting summer crops in April, but we had so many cold days in April and May that my spring crops are about a month behind where they’ve been in past seasons.

It dawned on me this could become a problem when it’s time to plant the winter squash: if the spring crops are still hogging garden space, where will I plant four hills of squash?

So, for the first time in my life, I started squash seeds in containers. When they go in the garden, they won’t have lost the month the cold weather crops lost in April.

Time Lapse Silliness

As my squash seeds started to sprout, I got the urge to capture some of them popping out of the soil: I wanted to create a time lapse movie. I don’t have the best equipment to film such a sequence: my video camera shoots at only one speed, and my digital picture camera has no features to simplify shooting a sequence of photos over an extended period. Here’s what I did:

I mounted my camera on a tripod, and set it on the ping-pong table pointing at my squash pots. I shot one photograph every fifteen minutes for 24 hours. The 24 hours were deadly; I pulled an all-nighter to complete the sequence, and it wasn’t long enough.

About two weeks after popping out of the soil, my squash babies are putting out a second tier of leaves. I may need to pot them up (meaning, plant them in a larger pot) to buy time given how late spring actually started this year. On the other hand, recent summer-like heat may burn off my spring crops before I’ve gotten complete satisfaction from them. It’s been a difficult season for kitchen gardeners in the northeastern United States.

Turning on my digital camera consumes a lot of electricity, and I had to turn it on for each photo I took. It ran through three battery changes. Also, to get consistent framing and focus, I had to push buttons on the camera about thirteen times per photograph. Unfortunately, all this button-pushing caused tiny but perceptible reorientation of the photo frame.

After shooting the photos, I expected to load them into Windows Movie Maker (free software you can download from Microsoft’s web site) and package them as an AVI file. But Windows Movie Maker couldn’t sequence the photos as I wanted. The shortest period it will display a photo is an eighth of a second… but the shortest transition from one photo to another is a quarter second. Whatever settings I chose, the time lapse sequence was choppy.

So… I Googled. My search uncovered a handy piece of free software called Photolapse 3 (you can download a copy at the Photolapse web site). The programmer built this software specifically to create time lapse movies in AVI files. The download was painless, and the software proved easy to use. Within minutes I had built an AVI file that was no better than anything I’d done in Windows Movie Maker.

Through experimentation, I learned it’s important to use small image files when making a time lapse movie. That became the second biggest chore of my project: my photo-editing software doesn’t have a batch mode for reducing an image’s size and jpeg compression, so I manually adjusted all 99 images down to 640 by 480 pixels. For future time lapse sequences, I’ll shoot the photos at that resolution in the first place.

Photolapse 3 produced a lovely movie.

Finishing the Video

The output from Photolapse 3 was just a time lapse sequence of seeds sprouting. To add titles and a soundtrack, I pulled the time lapse movie into Windows Movie Maker. There, it was easy to dress it up and save the assembled components as a new AVI movie file. It was a lot of work for a 33-second video, but it was also a lot of fun for a gardening/photo/technology geek. In any case, I expect to harvest a lot of squash in October.

Here’s the movie:

 

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The milk house sits at the end of the old barn. When my parents bought the property, the barn was already very old. My dad made windows for it, repaired missing and broken boards, built storage rooms, and created space for the horses to come and go. Horses still come and go at the far end of the barn, and I imagine the loft holds hay. Other than that, I don’t think the barn sees much action; my brother’s family focuses attention around their house.

Way back in February, Your Home Kitchen Garden started cheerleading for kitchen gardeners to take up beekeeping. While I promised this blog would not become exclusively about beekeeping, I also vowed to install a beehive in my own home kitchen garden some time in May.

I’ve been a bit quiet about beekeeping lately, but I have been pursuing the dream. In May, I made a day trip to Ithaca to pick up my dad’s beekeeping equipment. I began my trip with high enthusiasm. And, while the trip got me much closer to the goal of starting a bee hive, it was also a significant setback.

The Old Farmstead

I grew up in the city of Ithaca in upstate New York. When I say “city,” I mean I lived in a house in the city. Ithaca is a small city, and things turn rural quickly when you drive away from city center. When I was in my early teens, my parents bought a farm about 15 miles from our house, and we commuted to the farm on weekends and occasional weeknights.

The home kitchen garden of my youth was a masterpiece painted by tractor, plow, and disc. We hauled horse manure, my mom planted and hauled water, and we mulched the whole thing with black plastic. The garden now hosts impressive stag horn sumac trees and some underbrush.

The farm has about 100 acres of mostly wooded land, with only about four acres of fields. A stream cuts through the property and passes within about thirty feet of a big old timber-frame dairy barn. There’s a tiny shack we referred to as The Milk House at the street end of the barn. This used to house a refrigeration tank to hold freshly-harvested milk where a truck could pump it out and transported it to a processing plant.

We had converted the Milk House into an intimate bunk house with a tiny coal stove (in which we burned wood), had fenced the fields and some of the woods to serve as horse pasture, and had established a large in-ground garden bed along one side of the barn. There was no electricity, no running water, and only a portable chemical toilet.

Despite the inconveniences, we spent nearly every weekend visiting the farm to ride horses and do chores. My mom took control of the home kitchen garden—or can I call it that since technically it wasn’t at our home? My dad oversaw maintenance, and he managed beehives.

The Farmstead Today

Many, many years ago, one of my brothers installed a mobile home at the farm and lived there until his significant other’s job took them both to Boston and later to Maryland. Then another brother built a modular home where the mobile home had been. There, he’s raising two daughters and a menagerie of domestic critters.

To illustrate the passage of time, the spruce trees in this photo were between three and four feet tall when my parents bought the property. We fenced in the hillside on which the trees grow and referred to it as the lower pasture. When the horses were bored, they’d eat the spruce branches. The trees have put on close to 40 years’ growth since I first saw them.

My mom died 12 years ago, and my dad’s interests shifted from the barnyard area to the woods. He’s trying to grow various hardwood trees, I guess so he can harvest and sell them to lumber mills when he reaches 145 years of age. My brother’s priorities have never quite matched those that drew us all to the farm when we were kids, and the kitchen garden and the beehives have received no attention in many years; my mom’s garden bed is now home to a stand of sturdy sumac trees.

The Cost of Free Beekeeping Gear

I get back to Ithaca, perhaps, three times a year, but I rarely poke around the barn: I park in my brother’s driveway, and visit inside the house… or I stay with my dad in the city. It was a bit surprising to see that my brother’s horses have kicked a hole in the side of the barn. Other than that, things looked a lot as they had when I was involved with the farm twenty years ago.

Actually, it was uncanny that so many things in the barn seemed to be exactly where I’d seen them 20 years ago: the workbench, some trash cans, saddles, tools… all still in place, but now covered with a thick layer of dust. These are things that, understandably, offer no utility to my brother.

My dad stacked most of the hive bodies, supers, frames, covers, and bases in the barn many years ago where they’ve remained untouched by human hands. Unfortunately, mice had colonized the hive boxes, destroying old honeycomb and building nests in its place. It made me sad, but not in a judgmental way: Priorities change. I’d paid no attention at all until Colony Collapse Disorder emerged and bees were all over the news.

Main components of the beehives stood in several stacks to one side of the barn. Some components hung on hooks over the workbench, and others were in the drawers of the workbench. I began sorting through the stacks to find enough parts to assemble two hives. Essential components of a hive include:

  • A base
  • A hive body or brood chamber
  • A second brood chamber
  • Supers—as many as four or five by the end of a good season
  • An inner hive cover
  • An outer—or floating—hive cover
  • Frames to fill the brood chambers and supers

I also wanted to find the following items:

  • Queen excluders
  • Adjustable hive entrances
  • Bee escapes
  • Hive feeders
  • A hive tool
  • A frame lifter
  • A smoker
  • A pith helmet
  • A bee veil

For this post, I’ll leave you with the “shopping list.” I’ll explain what these things are in a later post.

A single brood chamber had broken away from the stack and tried to escape the barn. Apparently, it tripped on its way toward the exit and spilled its insides on the floor. The brood chamber’s attempted escape saved it from contamination by the mouse colonies, but it still needs a serious cleaning before I set it up as a bait hive.

The point of my story is that I found nearly all of these items. However, the essential components were in especially bad shape. As I removed brood chambers and supers from the stacks, I found two mouse nests inside the chambers. The mice had climbed to the tops of the stacks, chewed old honey comb from within the frames, and built large nests in the mined spaces.

At least one mouse nest had been there long enough that a whole bunch of mouse litter had sifted down through the lower hive boxes, contaminating everything with poop and pee. When I lifted the super containing the newer-looking mouse nest, a mouse fell out onto my foot, scurried up a cement wall, and disappeared under a heap of frames, hive bases, and hive covers.

Not a Great Start

I spent several hours sorting through hive bodies, pulling frames, busting the old (contaminated) beeswax from them, and stacking them in my car. Amazingly, my dad still had boxes of foundation—prepared sheets of beeswax or plastic that you mount on the frames and place inside brood chambers and supers. (There are hexagonal impressions pressed into the foundation sheets that provide a blueprint the bees follow when they build honeycomb.) Not so amazingly, a mouse had spent some time messing with the foundation; many sheets were stained with urine. Still, I found enough usable foundation to fill one brood chamber and one super; perfect to get started before having to buy any.

A brood chamber stands empty with a few pieces of useful gear on top. The bent metal object is a hive tool. You can use either end to pry frames from the hive, and to adjust frames once they’re in the hive. You can also use the tool to scrape off honey and propolis that the bees lay down in inconvenient places. The round metallic items are lids that fit on canning jars. Fill jars with sugar water, invert them in the wooden blocks you see holding the covers, and slide the blocks into the entrance of a beehive: you’ve just provided food for a young hive that hasn’t yet built honeycomb. The wooden sticks on the left are adjustable hive entrances. I’ll explain how they work in an upcoming post.

I scored two of everything on my list but a smoker, a pith helmet, and a bee veil. Except for foundation, I have enough essential components to start two hives, and can return to Ithaca to pick up more supers and frames should my bees require expansion space.

Here’s the rub: dealing with fifteen or more years of neglect was discouraging. I remember my dad assembling new, clean hive components when he started beekeeping, and that memory is way more romantic than the reality of working with dozens of mouse-damaged pieces caked in old, dried-out beeswax.

I estimate it will take a dedicated afternoon to clean a brood chamber and frames, mount foundation, and situate the hive near my garden. I’d have started this project in January had I anticipated the condition of the gear; there were no pressing gardening tasks to deal with in January.

So, I’m getting around to my bee operation about a month later than I’d wanted to. I still have inertia from my visit to Ithaca. There’s one more extenuating circumstance: my gardening budget can’t support the cost of packaged bees this year. So, my new goal is to set up the hive and bait it to attract a wild swarm. Conveniently, my dad offered up a partial frame of comb honey I can use as bait. Here’s hoping it attracts honey bees without also attracting bears.

 

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I plant lettuce seeds about three-to-five to a square inch. To thin and harvest throughout the season, I pull several plants at at time out by the roots. Then I break off the roots, and inspect the leaves for blemishes, rot, and pests. Click on the images if you wish to see the photos in greater detail.

Here’s hoping your home kitchen garden is producing stuff you can eat. By now, many northern hemisphere kitchen gardeners are eating young lettuce, spinach, and other greens from their yards. I recently explained that I plant lettuce close so the plants are very crowded, and that I harvest whole plants through the season as a means of thinning down to the few plants that grow to maturity.

With plants crowded, the lettuce can prevent water from evaporting and cause leaves to rot.

Because of comments from my friend at Inch By Inch, Row By Row, It occurred to me that if you’re new to kitchen gardening, you might never have dealt with fresh-picked produce. While most produce from your home kitchen garden will taste better than any you buy in a store, it will also pose challenges that store-bought produce doesn’t.

Pick, Clean, and Eat

Store bought greens are usually free of soil, insects, and dried plant matter. Growers, packagers, and produce associates rinse produce and selectively remove damaged leaves. When you get it home, it’s nearly table-ready, though there may be a few leaves you want to remove… and you probably rinse to reduce your chances of eating pesticides.

A slug baby hides under a rotting leaf near the bottom of a lettuce plant I just pulled from my home kitchen garden. The krinklier the variety of lettuce, the more places there are for these chewy pests to hide.

It’s hard to avoid dirt when you’re dealing with home-grown produce. Especially growing lettuce the way I do, you’re going to get soil on your plants when you thin/harvest. As well: there are likely to be insects, and possibly slugs and snails, on your lettuce plants. They aren’t necessarily there to eat your plants; insects hang out just about everywhere in your garden.

So, for most gardeners there’s a greater time commitment to serve home-grown lettuce than there is for serving store-bought greens. Here’s how I prepare lettuce from my garden:

Picking—Through most of the season, I thin my lettuce beds by pulling clusters of plants. I immediately snap off the roots of the plants and toss them aside, but not all the soil goes with the roots. I try to brush off any large deposits of soil. And, before I put the leaves in a bowl to take inside, I inspect for slugs and remove any I find.

Another slug on my lettuce, this one unfurled and roaming. I’ve heard that backyard chickens will eat slugs in a kitchen garden. Raises the question: what would I be cleaning off my lettuce leaves if I had chickens?

In the spring, if there are slugs, they’re usually slug babies. These are smaller than pencil erasers, and they especially like my densely-packed lettuce beds; plants pressed together hold in moisture, and I’m pretty sure lettuce tastes good to slug babies.

Cleaning—No, what I do in the garden to freshly-picked lettuce isn’t cleaning. Cleaning happens in my kitchen. There, I fill a large bowl with cold water and I float all the lettuce leaves in it. Leaves float, but soil on them quickly loosens and sinks. As well, pieces of mulch, weed seeds, and other random organic matter I may not want to eat may float free from the lettuce leaves. This isn’t a big deal, because I’m a bit obsessive about eating only clean lettuce.

So, I gently stir the lettuce with my hand and then, one-by-one I remove and inspect the leaves. I look for dirt that didn’t wash off in the bowl, and I look for slugs and eggs. Slugs are easy, but eggs? Depending on who lives in your garden, you may find spots on your lettuce that don’t rinse off easily. Usually, these will wipe off with a swipe of a finger or thumb across the wet leaf. I’m not a biologist, but I guess these spots are eggs (alternatively, I guess they could be bug or slug poop)… and while I’m sure they won’t harm me, I’m a tad squeamish about eating them (I’d lose the “eat something disgusting” challenge on Survivor without even looking at the disgusting thing I was supposed to eat.)

A massive thunderstorm splashed soil onto the underside of my lettuce leaves (left), while some critter deposited eggs or poop on the underside of some lettuce leaves. All of this rinses off, though the organic stuff may stick until I rub it underwater with my finger.

Finally, if something about a leaf strikes me as odd, I’ll tear it off and preserve the part that looks tasty. The thoroughly-inspected lettuce goes into a salad spinner, and once spun, to the table (it stays in the spinner’s basket unless we have guests; then it goes in a wooden salad serving bowl).

Too Much Effort?

As laborious as all this sounds, it’s not that big a job. Once floating in water, the lettuce leaves are easy to pick through. I can walk away repeatedly to work on other aspects of a meal, and the lettuce doesn’t complain. In fact, very tender, floppy lettuce often crisps up while floating in my cleaning bowl.

The awesome flavor and money-savings easily pay for this little extra work. Besides, I’ve already worked the soil, cut a furrow, added compost, planted seeds, watered, and harvested. Obsessively inspecting and cleaning my lettuce is a minor additional bump.

While washing this batch of lettuce and spinach, I found a few gross-looking leaves (left), some spinach with organic dirt marks that wiped off easily (center), and sediment in the bowl of rinse water after I finished cleaning the leaves. I’ve already served four salads and lettuce to go on burgers this spring. The greens would have cost more than $10 at the farmers’ market. If I serve salad every day until mid-July, I won’t use all the lettuce and spinach from the garden. We will, however, consume about $50 to $60 of produce. That covers all my expenses for the garden this year, and the harvest has just begun!

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To harvest rhubarb, stand over the plant, grasp a single stalk, and pull with increasing force in the direction the stalk is growing until the bottom of the stalk pops out of its socket in the plant.

Unless you have a home kitchen garden, you probably aren’t familiar with rhubarb. Heck, plenty of kitchen gardeners miss out on this spring treat. If you have space to grow it, but you’ve never tasted rhubarb, I suggest restraint: don’t plant rhubarb until you know you’re going to use it. I can tell you it’s delicious, but you should decide for yourself; most rhubarb enthusiasts grew up eating it, and I can’t think of a familiar flavor to which I can compare it.

There must be thousands of people who acquired rhubarb by buying a house with rhubarb plants in the yard. If you’re one of those people, you may wonder how to prepare the stuff… at least so you can try it once and decide whether to maintain your rhubarb patch. On the other hand, if you have a home kitchen garden without rhubarb plants, and the idea of harvesting your first significant crop in early-to-mid spring is compelling, you should sample some rhubarb and decide whether to add some to your landscape.

If you pull in the right direction, a stalk comes loose with a fan-shaped scoop at its end as you see on the left. If you twist or bend the stalk, it may snap off, leaving a stump in the ground and at the end of the stalk (right).

From Garden to Sauce

In case you’ve never seen it done, here’s how to harvest rhubarb and cook it into a delicious sauce to serve as a side dish, or as a topping for cottage cheese, yogurt, cereal, or whatever else you eat with a fruity topping:

1. Harvest rhubarb stalks. To pick a stalk, pull it directly away from the rest of the plant in the direction the stalk is growing. It should come free as though popping out of a socket. The bottom of the stalk should end in a pink, fan-shaped scoop. Try not to break the stalk off when you pull it.

I like to cut off the leaves and clean up the bottoms of the stalks before I take them into my kitchen; the leaves go onto my compost heap.

2. Cut off the leaf, and pull off any dry, leaf-like material near the base of the stalk.

3. Rinse off soil, insects, and any other foreign materials you’d rather not eat.

To prep a stalk for the sauce pot, I cut off blemishes and dry spots, wash the stalk, and cut it into segments about an inch long.

4. If there are ugly blemishes or dried out spots, incise them from the rhubarb stalks.

5. Cut the stalks into ¾- or 1-inch sections and put the sections in a sauce pot.

6. Add an eighth of an inch of water or less to the pot; just enough to cover the bottom.

After at least 45 minutes of slow cooking in a lidded pot (and with some sugar added), the rhubarb becomes a tangy, sweet, viscous sauce with a vaguely stringy texture.

7. Cover the pot and set it on very low heat; it will need to cook for 45 minutes to an hour at that setting.

8. While the sauce is hot, add sugar to taste and stir till it dissolves. Rhubarb is very sour; I add about one cup of sugar to every quart of sauce.

9. Refrigerate the rhubarb sauce and serve it cold.

Please visit my blog post Small Kitchen Garden Rhubarb for a discussion about planting and growing your own rhubarb.

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Most of the leaves in this photo belong to young, volunteer cilantro plants in my home kitchen garden. These sprouted about where last year’s main cilantro patch stood, but there are cilantro volunteers scattered through about two-thirds of my vegetable bed.

My home kitchen garden likes to give me surprise gifts. Most of those, I’d rather not receive; my garden isn’t very imaginative and it tends to give me the same presents year-after-year: dandelions, thistle, and a host of other plants I can’t name and I don’t want. I call them weeds.

But other surprise gifts my garden gives me provide a lot of pleasure. These are plants that grow from seeds left behind by last year’s vegetable crop: volunteers. There is only one significant difference between a volunteer and a weed: You would never intentionally try to grow a plant you think of as a weed in your garden. A volunteer is a plant you would grow intentionally, but it’s growing in a place of its own choosing rather than where you planted it.

I’ve spotted dozens of volunteer tomato plants in my home kitchen garden. While they’re likely to produce mediocre tomatoes at best, I’ll let them grow as long as they don’t interfere with the goodies I planted this season.

Stand up to Volunteer

In past years, I’ve had decorative gourds and pumpkins grow as volunteers in my home kitchen garden. I’ve also had tomatoes, peas, beans, cilantro, and dill weed start unexpectedly from seeds left by the previous seasons’ plants. In fact, I planted cherry tomatoes one year, and harvested little red gems three years in a row—the last two years from volunteer plants.

Volunteers start where seeds fall, or where they end up after spring tilling. For me, these locations are rarely convenient. On the other hand, volunteers amuse me enough that I try to work around them. If I weed my garden, I avoid the volunteers. And, if they don’t overshadow or crowd this year’s crops, I let them grow to maturity.

So far this year, I’ve identified volunteer cilantro, dill weed, and tomatoes scattered among my peas, lettuce, spinach, and onions. The dill weed and some cilantro are in particularly convenient places. The tomatoes aren’t so convenient.

I’ll let most volunteers grow, but I don’t have much enthusiasm for the tomatoes. Last year, I planted from flats bought at a garden store. All the varieties were hybrids meaning they’re crosses between two other varieties of plants.

This is not a stand of volunteer dill weed plants. However, I harvested seeds from a volunteer dill plant two seasons ago and planted them last season. The resulting plants were dramatically more robust than the original dill I’d grown from commercial seeds four seasons earier. This year’s volunteer dill sprouts represent a fourth season of dill grown entirely from descendants of those commercial seeds.

Seeds from hybrid plants may not grow at all. When they do grow, they may not produce fruit. If they do produce fruit, it most certainly won’t be the same quality as the hybrid fruit from which the seeds came. But you never know until you try. So, I’ll let the volunteer tomatoes grow and, unless they become a major inconvenience, I’ll see whether they produce decent fruit.

Volunteers Outside My Kitchen Garden

If volunteers in my garden’s planting bed don’t provide enough entertainment, I have a convenient fallback: my compost heap. Through the growing season, it receives damaged and rotting tomatoes, dead and drying herbs and pea plants, and a gallon or so of pumpkin guts. Usually, some of the seeds in all of that take root and I work around the plants. One season, the heap disappeared under the leaves of some large pumpkin vines and I eventually harvested several carving pumpkins.

Garden and compost volunteers are amusing, and sometimes rewarding. I look forward to seeing what pops up in my garden; it’s a little bit like having Christmas morning in mid-spring.

 

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These pepper plants started from seeds some six weeks ago. However, for nearly three weeks they’ve lived outdoors where cool spring days have slowed their growth.

In the 14 years I’ve grown my own home kitchen garden, I had never started seeds indoors. It’s so convenient to buy plants that someone else has started from seeds and set them in the garden the day the frost stops. For most kitchen gardeners, this is an excellent approach. Who has the time, space, and appropriate gear to plant seeds and maintain them for four-to-six weeks before finally setting them in a garden bed?

The down-side of buying flats (packages of four or six seedlings) is that you have a very limited selection. Most local garden stores offer excellent plants but of no more than five to ten varieties. When it comes to tomatoes, you’re likely to find several of the beefsteak plants. Things labeled Big Boy, Better Boy, Bigger Better Boy (I made up that one), Better Girl, Early Girl, Beefsteak, Beefsteak Hybrid, and Big Steak are common. You might find Roma, and some type of cherry tomato… and maybe one uncommon heirloom variety such as Dwarf Grandma Black Vein Pall-Bearer (I made that up as well).

For broccoli and cauliflower, good luck finding more than one variety of each. And, if you want winter squash other than butternut and acorn, you’re simply out of luck.

So… if you want to choose what you plant from a broad selection of varieties, you need to buy seeds and start them yourself. For many plants in many hardiness zones, it’s best to start indoors four-to-six weeks before your last frost. This head start extends the growing season so you can harvest a bigger crop from your home kitchen garden.

My Indoor Starts

I decided to start my own seeds this year. For me it’s not about variety. We’re broke. OK, we’re not broke, but we’re trying to be financially conservative and seeds cost way less than flats of growing plants. There’s that, and I started writing lots of how-to articles about gardening; I coudn’t write about starting seeds without providing at least one example. No wait. There’s one more reason: a neighbor gave me tomatoes of a variety I’ve never seen anywhere else; I wanted to grow them, and that meant starting the seeds myself.

These pepper plants started indoors six weeks ago, but remained there until yesterday. They are many times the size of the outdoor plants, and already have flower buds about to open. The plants that remained inside are weeks ahead of their wilderness survival counterparts. Don’t rush to get your seedlings planted in the garden.

So, I set up low-hanging lights, bought peat pellets and planting soil, and bought seeds months earlier than ever before. I’ve had reasonable success, though some seeds started way faster than I expected while other seeds have taken as many as twenty days to send sprouts above the soil. The most interesting of these (to me) have been the pepper seeds.

A Tale of Two Peppers

I hate that subthitle; please forgive me for it. I filled a windowsill planter and two sawed-off gallon milk jugs with potting soil. I planted bell pepper seeds in both containers indoors under lights. After sprouts emerged, I moved the milk jugs outside to get the plants used to wind and changes in temperature. The window planter stayed inside under lights because some seeds in it didn’t sprout and I wanted to start more (peppers sprout best when the temperature is above 70F degrees).

For the three weeks I’ve had the milk jug peppers outdoors, it has been cold and rainy. The peppers have acclimated, but they’ve nearly stopped growing. In contrast the windowsill planter peppers have charged ahead. There are multiple branches on these plants, and flower buds have formed.

This brings me back to an observation I’ve offered repeatedly: Don’t hurry your garden in the spring. You can plant cold weather crops when the soil thaws, but if the temperature remains low, seeds you plant three weeks later may catch up quickly. Also, no matter how warm it gets in March and April, you could still have frost in mid May. Don’t risk your plant babies by getting started too early.

 

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I built a sandbox when my oldest child was three-and-a-half years old. He’s now 16, and no one has played in the sandbox for at least five years. While it’s close to the playset, it gets plenty of sunlight and will make a terrific planting bed for tomatoes.

When I was young, my dad managed our family’s home kitchen garden. It consisted of four rhubarb plants in the back corner of the yard, a small stand of chives near the outside stairway to the basement, and a bed of strawberries along the driveway. Everything else my parents gardened was ornamental: perennial tulips, peonies, roses, and lilacs, and annual marigolds, pansies, and whatever struck my mother’s fancy.

Then my brothers and I outgrew the sandbox and we discovered my dad’s passion for tomatoes. He carted garbage cans full of horse manure to the sandbox, mixed the manure with the sand, and planted tomatoes. High on horse manure, the plants grew tall, tomatoes grew large, and I staged many rebellions against the disgusting fruits my father harvested. (I genuinely despised tomatoes.)

My Kids’ Sandbox

Fourteen years after leaving home, I settled in central Pennsylvania. Being on the road nearly constantly, I knew I wouldn’t have time to tend a garden, but regardless, I bought a flat of tomato plants and set them in the existing garden bed. I’ve grown tomatoes every season since. In those years, I doubled the size of the garden, and squeezed many vegetables in around the obligatory tomato plants.

I also built a sandbox. For years, my kids made towers and tunnels in the sand, but eventually they abandoned it for other pursuits. Soon, weeds grew and the box itself rotted and collapsed. Now it sits next to the play set, gradually evolving into a climax community forest.

Sandbox Tomatoes

It’s my turn to repurpose a sandbox, echoing my dad’s project of some 40 years ago. I had hoped to do this last weekend, but the weather didn’t cooperate. So, at my first opportunity, I’ll take on the job. Here’s what I’m planning to do:

These tomato plant babies started about three weeks ago from seeds in my basement. They’ll soon be residents of the sandbox.

  • Remove the rotted box and the kids’ debris from the sandbox. There are toys lying on the sand, and probably several buried in it. I’ll extricate whatever I can find.
  • Pull (or excavate) the weeds, trees, and other plants that have moved into the sandbox.
  • Cover the sand with about six inches of horse manure. My daughter takes riding lessons and the stable owners are amenable to me carting away garbage cans full of manure.
  • Turn the manure over into the sand. I’ll try to mix the sand and manure well, but the most I’m willing to work is to jam a shovel deep through the manure into the sand, leverage out a shovel-full, and turn the shovel over so manure ends up under sand.
  • Rake the planting bed smooth.
  • Plant tomatoes
  • Set stakes to which I can tie plants as they grow.

Repurpose Your Sandbox

If you have an old sandbox that you want to incorporate into your home kitchen garden, there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • A molded plastic sandbox will become a mud-pit in times of heavy rain. Tomatoes don’t want to live in mud. So, drill holes through the bottom if your sandbox doesn’t have drainage holes.
  • Tomatoes grow deep roots, so top up the sand in the box, but leave room to add lots of humus. Combined sand and humus should be **at least** 12 inches deep—or as close to it as your sandbox allows.
  • If your sandbox has rotted away as mine has, consider building a new retaining wall around the sand when you remove the rotted wood. Working the sand and added humus with a shovel and rake will encourage it to spread if there’s no barrier to hold it in place.
  • You don’t have to grow tomatoes. A repurposed sandbox is fine for any vegetables.
  • Monitor moisture in your converted sandbox. Chances are the sandy planting mixture will drain more quickly than other garden beds, and you may need to water it more frequently.

 

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Young pea plants have a very distinctive appearance. If this is your first season growing peas, watch for emerging seedlings that look like these. Presumably, anything else growing within a few inches is a weed you should remove.

I once had a minor epiphany in my home kitchen garden, and it has come to mind repeatedly as I’ve started working the soil this year. This post shares that epiphany, but with a disclaimer: I called it a minor epiphany because, really, it was more of a reminder of something we all know—or should know—as gardeners.

OK, we all know it, but I suspect that most of us think little about it. The spring pea crop of 2004 (I think it was 2004) brought it home in a most profound way. That’s right; my minor epiphany came to me through my pea plants.

Spring Peas

As in most years, I planted three 14-foot long double rows of peas in April of 2004. The garden was probably very muddy when I planted because it was probably raining.

The peas sprouted and grew vigorously, apparently drinking happily of the copious water that fell on them nearly every day. On days it didn’t rain, skies remained overcast, so the soil didn’t dry out; there was more moisture in the soil than any sane vegetable gardener would want.

On those rainless days, I’d mow the lawn, dumping six or more inches of grass clippings between the planting rows of my garden. The grass-clipping mulch grew high, but the peas grew higher. In no time they reached the tops of my pea trellises. Along the way, the pea plants started flowering and, thankfully, pea pods formed.

I’d check the pods each day, in hopes of finding harvestable peas. But lo, each day the pods were flat.

A wall of peas grows up the trellis in my garden. The trellis runs between two rows of pea plants spaced about six inches apart. It tops out at about four-and-a-half feet, and in several weeks, the pea plants will extend above it.

A Growing Pea Crisis

The clouds and rain continued, I kept mowing more than I wanted, the pea vines grew ever upward, and more pea pods emerged on the plants. By late May or early June, there were three thick walls of pea vines clinging to trellises in my garden. The plants were covered with pods, but I had not yet harvested any of them; I wanted peas, not snow peas.

I was both puzzled and miffed by the behavior of my pea plants. I’d grown this variety for years because they’d been reliable. Now, apparently, they’d turned on me.

Typically, pods form a few inches behind the leading ends of the pea vines. As the vines grow upward, lower pods plump up and you harvest them. A few days later, you harvest peas a little higher up the plant, and so on.

And the Epiphany

After more than a month of continuous overcast skies, the clouds cleared. We had a most gorgeous sunny day. That gave way to another sunny day, and then a third. By now you know where this is headed, right?

Round about sunny day three, every single pea pod on my trellises was plump and ready to harvest. Harvesting peas eight or nine times a season for fifteen minutes at a time is relaxing and enjoyable. Harvesting all those peas in one day is not.

As I cursed the massive load of peas, I also marveled: Peas hadn’t developed in the past month because there had been so little sunlight; the plants put what energy they could into growing. But until the sun shown through, there had been no extra energy to stockpile.

Sure, we all know that plants need sunlight to grow. But it was a real rush to see such a dramatic expression of the phenomenon: Plants capture the energy of sunlight through chemical reactions that release oxygen into the air and assemble molecules into food. All that good stuff I harvest from my garden would not exist but for extraterrestrial-light-powered plant factories that build fundamental links of our food chain.

Bring on the sun!

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Home Kitchen Garden Bare Ground

Each time I mow the lawn, I dump the clippings in the garden. The accumulated depth of the fresh clippings might total four feet, but the clippings decay into the soil. By next spring, the soil is bare… though weeds abound.

This past week finally produced the kind of weather that gets me started in my home kitchen garden. While conventional wisdom says to get out there as soon as you can work the soil, I tend to delay a few weeks. There are a few advantages to this strategy:

1. When the soil first thaws, it tends to contain a lot of moisture; working in the mud is unpleasant, and waiting a week or two lets the soil dry out a bit.

2. I’m usually pruning and grafting fruit trees until their buds start to open; I do this in late winter because those days aren’t miserably cold, but it means I’m busy in the trees when my soil thaws.

3. After the soil thaws, it takes a few weeks for the weeds to start growing. Were I to start in my planting bed at this time, I might not spot the dandelions, thistle, and elephant grass that rooted last summer. These grow rapidly, and in a few weeks their new growth will make them easy to spot; I begin spring planting with a ceremonial removal of last year’s weeds.

4. Sure, cold-weather crops such as peas, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and onions will withstand cold days likely to hit after the soil thaws, but they won’t do a whole lot of growing. I’ve seen peas sprout in the produce drawer of my refrigerator where it’s always about 42F degrees. But after a month at 42 degrees, the peas were still just sprouts. Why not let the soil warm just a bit so the seeds feel cozier when they go in the ground?

A First Look at my Garden Bed

Last week, I finally assessed my garden bed. To put things in context, here’s how I left things in the fall:

I mulch between planting rows with grass clippings from my lawn. I pile these on all growing season. They keep the weeds down except along the plantings—wherever I maintain a gap for vegetables to grow, there is a green oasis of competing weeds.

Home Kitchen Garden Mint Family

If you find a square-stemmed plant with purple blossoms in your home kitchen garden, it may not be a weed. These are members of the mint family, and you may be growing them as herbs. The square-stemmed plants in my kitchen garden are probably catnip. I don’t want them there, so they’re weeds.

I pulled the tomato stakes and threw most of the dead tomato plants in the compost heap, and I swiped a few panels of the garden fence to put around fruit trees I planted in November. Finally, my kids raked the lawn and tossed all the leaves onto the planting bed.

There was little snow over the winter, so there was nothing to compress the leaves and encourage them to decompose.

Here’s what I found in the garden:

The grass-clipping mulch is gone! It has completely rotted away to bare soil. I’m used to finding a thin cap of dry, decomposing grass on the soil at the beginning of a growing season, but there is none.

There are leaves all over the planting bed, though most had gathered at the east end, blown there by the prevailing wind and trapped by the garden fence. The prevalent weed is dandelion, but there’s also a patch of something out of the mint family—I guess catnip because it has no minty scent.

Rhubarb on the left, and oregano on the right are making excellent starts in my home kitchen garden. I reserved about four feet at one end of the raised bed for perennials, and these are the ones that thank me.

Already, rhubarb is pushing up through the leaves, and there’s a lot of green deep under the dried stalks of last year’s oregano. I planted a single pot of oregano four years ago, and it’s now a four-foot diameter circle that laughs at winter chill.

Finally, I found clusters of delphinium leaves in a corner where I planted them when I planted the oregano. I don’t know what came over me that day; it seems a travesty to have given up garden space for something I’m never going to eat.

Just One More Thing

As I scanned the garden bed, imagining where I’d plant each type of vegetable, I noticed a small patch of grass clippings where a tomato plant had stood last summer. I suspiciously (and gently) moved some of the grass aside and made an aggravating discovery: a rabbit had beaten me to my garden. The nest held at least four nearly-naked babies.

This is the third season I’ve found such an obstacle in my planting bed, and I’ve managed to work around rabbit babies in the past. Thankfully, mother rabbit didn’t approve of my meddling, and she carried her babies off to a new nest later that day.

Home Kitchen Garden Rabbit Babies

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What’s Your Favorite Chore?

Please leave a comment identifying the gardening chore that you enjoy above all others.

As spring slowly gets rolling in my home kitchen garden, I’m doing a few gardening tasks that I particularly enjoy. I’ve finished pruning my fruit trees, and have made about three dozen grafts (here, in reverse order, are posts in which I wrote about pruning and grafting apple trees). I love pruning and grafting because it gets me outdoors in trees while most people are still indoors awaiting warmer weather. There are few times when unadulterated sounds of nature are so audible in my yard.

To pollinate squash or pumpkins, I pick a male flower, tear off its petals, and rub the stamen/anther structure around on the pistols of any open fruiting flowers. Since I started doing this, my squash and pumpkins in my home kitchen garden have been reliably prolific.

With the temperature finally climbing, I plan to lay out some rows in my garden, and start peas, spinach, lettuce, and, perhaps, cilantro during the weekend. The prospect of working in the garden has me a little jazzed, but I admit that I don’t care for some spring gardening chores. I don’t till the whole garden; I turn soil directly where I’m planting. However, I also dig out every weed that I ignored through last year’s growing season. I don’t enjoy weeding, so I reserve the job for early spring when I have greatest enthusiasm for gardening.

Chore Anticipation

As I’ve completed my cherished late-winter tasks, and I anticipate the early spring weeding and planting, I realize I’m looking forward to some specific gardening moments that won’t come until later in the season. Harvesting just about anything is right up there on my list of favorites. Even better is cooking with the harvested produce. I especially love to make new potatoes and peas (I meant to share this mid-winter, but now it’ll have to wait until I’m picking peas), and nothing beats this awesome tomato salad.

Still, there’s one gardening chore that I anticipate more than any other: pollinating squash and pumpkins.

Growing Squash and Pumpkins

A pumpkin surrounded by squash and (shudder) gourds from my home kitchen garden. In a moment of weakness, I planted gourds one season and they came back on their own for two more years. My attitude now: if I’m not going to eat it, I’m not planting it.

In my first year growing squash and pumpkins, I felt some despair when I’d notice a female flower blossom and then, a few days later, fall off the plant along with the fruit. Eventually, I guessed that only pollinated squash and pumpkin flowers grow into fruit, so I initiated the morning pollination patrol.

In the cool of each summer morning, I pluck a male squash flower and strip away its petals. Then I wade among the squash plants, and use the stamen/anther of the flower I hold to paint the pistols of any female flowers I find in bloom.

I listen to birds sing, I watch bees work, I enjoy textures and aromas of the vegetable plants, and I bask in the cool that will soon wilt under the rising sun. It takes about three minutes to spot all the squash flowers and pollinate the ones that fruit. Still, it takes about a half-hour for me to return from this gardening chore that I most enjoy.

What’s Yours?

Please share! Leave a comment describing the one garden chore that you enjoy above all others.

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