Posts filed under ‘growing’

Extending the Season

By Alison Thompson

Nothing can revolutionize your vegetable self sufficiency quite as much as a polytunnel.  While the growth and survival of outdoor crops has a strict correlation with the weather, plants grown in a polytunnel or row cover have crucial protection from the elements, and can really help to extend the growing season by several weeks at each end.

A top quality commercially produced polytunnel can cost several hundred dollars, but it doesn’t have to be a budget blowing investment. You can make one on the cheap by building a structure using agribon, timber and sturdy PVC or copper pipe hoops.

Here’s a plan for a simple row cover that can be built in less than an hour, from Willi Galloway of  Digginfood.

Gardening with a polytunnel makes it easy to grow crops that don’t traditionally do well when grown outside in a temperate climate. In the height of the season, they are ideal for many tender plants, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, salad, eggplant and peppers.  Whereas traditional greenhouses tend to be quite small, a polytunnel or row cover is much more spacious (extra hoops mean extra length), so the easiest way to cultivate is to build raised beds and then rotate crops as you would outdoors, helping to keep pests and disease at bay.

Make sure to close your row cover up tight or iris the cat may jump in!

To take advantage of the spring extension, plant an early variety of new potatoes and some root crops such as carrots and spring onion seeds, which can all be sown in three months before last frost—they’ll be ready to harvest three months later. Similarly, beets can be germinated in a propagator and then the seedlings transplanted into the tunnel in two months before your last frost date, for an extra early crop.

With your polytunnel, salad crops can be grown for both early and late cropping.  Sow seeds for a winter hardy salad in early October, (just in time to let them germinate and gain a little growth for overwintering) and by February and March you will be picking young salad leaves.  Then, later in the summer, plant lettuce, herbs and mustard greens to have great winter salad after frost hits. The four degrees of frost protection you’ll get with the polytunnel goes a long way, and with some careful planning, you’ll be in the green well into winter.


March 12, 2010 at 3:28 am Leave a comment

Growing Your Own Cat Grass

It’s really easy to grow your own cat greens on a sunny windowsill, anytime of year. Not only do they grow super fast, but it’s just  the bit of green you need to brighten up a bleak January. And, it’s so much nicer to grow your own, so you know for certain they are organic and pesticide-free.

Renee’s Garden Seeds makes a seed pack of Mixed Gourmet Greens for Cats, which features a great blend of organic rye, oats, barley and wheat grass that’s perfect for cats (and will prevent them from attacking your houseplants). So, I gave it a go and put them in a nice sunny window. They grew voraciously (i mean, like, Jack-and-the-Bean-Stalk speed once they sprouted) and within weeks I had bright green shoots that were so welcomed with all of our Zone 6 dormancy.

The packet made a lot of greens, so I was brought a few pots around to friends houses to liven up their winter after our last snowy day. My friend Marilyn’s cat Kato (the king of cats), pictured above, loved chowing down on his fresh pot of greens.

Although carnivores by nature, cats crave fresh greens to keep their digestion in check, which is why some tend to go after houseplants. It’s now been about three weeks since our cat greens sprouted and and they are still growing strong (despite a few mowings). It’s amazing how fast they grow.  Kids will love watching it too, since it’s pretty magical in the dead of winter. I like to put mine in fun planters, and put them around the house.Happy planting!

January 31, 2010 at 7:29 pm 2 comments

Planting Garlic: Step-by-Step

music_garlic_introIt’s getting downright frigid here, and garlic planting time has snuck up on me. But this weekend, I planted Music, German White, Georgian Fire , and Bogatyr Garlic–123 cloves total–in my front yard garden. Above is a picture of some of the Music, on a fabulous Sara Smedley textile. Of all the vegetables I grow, garlic is one of my favorites. Plus it provides garlic greens and scapes for months before you actually harvest it.

When to Plant: The general rule is to plant garlic on the shortest day of the year, and then harvest on the longest day. Columbus Day is ideal for Zone 6.  Garlic is a long season crop, taking 6 to 8 months to mature, so it’s best to plant it in the fall so it has time to establish.

Planting garlic is so easy, and you don’t need a lot of room. Here’s how to plant it in 6 steps:

1. Choose a sunny spotpickasunnyspot

Garlic likes full sun, but will also grow in part shade. Turnover your soil and add some compost to get the ground ready for planting.

2. Get a Digger. This is the tool you use to plant bulbs. It makes it really easy for planting garlic cloves. If you don’t have one, you can use a small trowel instead. (But the digger is so much more fun).


3. Break apart your cloves. Each clove of garlic will magically grow into a full head. I know, amazing, right? breaking_apart_clovesJust break the garlic head up and get your cloves ready.

4. Make a bunch of holes in the ground. Since I don’t have a lot of space, I plant my garlic pretty close together. The standard is to plant it about 8 inches apart, and make the hole depth twice the size of the garlic cloves you are planting. I love planting garlic as a border for my garden, and it helps to deter pests (and prevent munching critters).


5. Place cloves in the ground. Make sure to put the pointy part up, since this is where the green shoot will come up.

putgarlicinthehole6. Then, cover up the hole with dirt, and you’re done. Before winter hits, apply a straw mulch to protect the garlic. Snow will fall, wind will blow, the ground will become frozen solid, but garlic toughs it out, and starts growing again in early spring, and will be ready for harvest around the fourth of July.

Getting garlic: Want to plant garlic but didn’t order in time?  Try going to your local farmers market and either buy a few heads or ask if they’ll sell you some planting stock. Look for larger cloves, and whatever you do, avoid that poor supermarket garlic (it’s been treated with all sorts of anti-sprouting stuff).


Here is the beautiful organic Georgian Fire Garlic I ordered from Peaceful Valley this year.

So, get planting, as long as it’s in before the ground freezes, you’re good to go!

October 19, 2009 at 3:31 am 3 comments

it’s here


blight // (blt)n: Something that impairs growth, withers hopes and ambitions, or impedes progress and prosperity.

I don’t know why I thought I I was secretly immune to it but I did. I imagined my beautiful heirloom tomatoes, lovingly grown from seed (most of ’em) through sheer will and hope and compost tea and milk, would somehow be the ones to elude the dreaded disease decimating tomatoes across the country. As everyone else was spraying nasty chemicals and the price of tomatoes skyrocketed to 8$ for a Brandywine, I was doin’ ok.I had Sungolds and Black Krims and my Cherokee Purples were just starting to turn.

Then today, I saw it—the dreaded late blight—on a Juliet Roman. In denial, I quickly removed the scabby, just ripening tomato, and frantically demolished it to the garbage inside the house.  When I went to check out the rest, i noticed a few of the Black Cherries, Delicious and the Striped Roman had the cancerous looking symptoms as well, just a few tomatoes on each plant.



I made quick work to remove all of the affected tomatoes, mostly just turning red and doomed to be thrown in the trash, and noticed one unusual thing. I didn’t have those dark, oily black spots on the stems that are the surefire sign of late blight, that death sentence of a disease. The fruit had the look of late blight, but the plant looked exactly like early blight. This small detail gave me hope that there was a chance to save these guys.

James Weaver, an heirloom tomato farmer in Bowers, PA, has developed a technique that uses simple pruning to combat early and late blight, and I’m actually testing it out and writing a small piece for Organic Gardening Magazine. James says that cutting the top 20% or so encourages it to put more energy into the base, and the plant actually regenerates. We’re doing some trials for the homegardener, and this is one heck of a year to test it out. So, I’m giving it a go, and keeping my fingers crossed. Will keep you posted.

To distract me from obsessing over the health of my tomatoes, I’m excited to be attending a chef potluck tomorrow night/ photo shoot for Organic Gardening. Chef Alex Lee of Iron Chef/ Bar Boulud fame will be cooking up Tim Stark’s heirloom tomatoes and I will do my best to be happy that at least someone is making Gazpacho. Pictures to come…

August 17, 2009 at 3:11 am 3 comments

Heirloom Varieties

Striped Chiogga Beet

Striped Chiogga Beet

It wasn’t until just yesterday that I realized I had a theme going on in my garden. A friend had stopped by to chat, and as I was showing her what was going on, I realized that I was growing alot of vegetables with stripes—Chiogga Beets, Dragon Tongue beans, Calliope Eggplant, and even Dragon Carrots. So actually, it’s more like a purple stripe theme going on.

Dragon Tongue Beans

Dragon Tongue Beans

Dragon Tongue Beans: These were so easy to grow, I just direct seeded in May, and they quickly bunched up with pretty violet flowers, followed by large yellow bean pods with wavy purple stripes. I love serving these raw, because when you cook them, they lose their stripes. They are also great stirfried with cumin, garlic and olive oil.

Chiogga Beets and Dragon Carrots

Chiogga Beets and Dragon Carrots

This is what I love about growing your own food from seed—-you have access to a world of different types of heirloom vegetables that you just can’t find in a store. These Chiogga Beets and Dragon Carrots are both just as easy to grow as typical beets/carrots, and they have such a story to tell. The Chioggas, dating back to pre-1940 Italy,  have peppermint-type rings inside, (which also means they won’t make everything pink when you cook them). Dragon Carrots, with their bright purple outside, and yellow/orange rings inside, have amazing flavor and look fantastic on salads.

And to complete the purple theme,  the  especially obvious Calliope Eggplant:

The Striped Calliope Eggplant

The Striped Calliope Eggplant

I had a friend share 12 eggplant plants with me last month, and this was the first to all-of-a-sudden show up with a bunch of tiny purple striped eggplants. So, yes, this one was accidental, but quickly caught on. The Calliope Eggplant is also good for containers, producing tons of purple striped fruit. I’ll let you know how it tastes when we pick them later this week.

July 19, 2009 at 11:21 pm Leave a comment

Harvesting Heirloom Garlic

Check it out----garlic harvest 2009

Check it out----garlic harvest 2009

Of all of the things to grow, garlic is easily my favorite, and probably the simplest thing out there. You just plant a clove in October and pick a head of it in July. And heirloom garlic is a million times better than what you get at the supermarket. Hardneck varieties like Music,  Siberian, and Rocambole are favored by chefs, and also are very easy to grow at home.

Over the past few years, I’ve been buying my garlic seed from Fleur de Lys farm outside of Kutztown, the cutest little farm you’ve ever seen (with heirloom, organic chickens that lay blue eggs!) and this year, it finally paid off.

Fleur-de-Lys Farm

Fleur-de-Lys Farm

Lori even shared a new garlic called Maxatawny, named after a township nearby. She told me a passerby dropped it off last summer to keep the seed going, and I’m happy to see that it worked!

Heirloom Maxatawny Garlic

Heirloom Maxatawny Garlic

How to pick garlic

When the garlic leaves start turning brown in July/August, it’s time to harvest. Stop watering about a week before you plan to harvest, to make it easier to pull. Actually, I say pull, but you really should shovel up the earth a bit, so you don’t break the garlic by the stem (I had a few casualties over the weekend.)

Next, separate your garlic and label it if you want to keep the varieties straight. Tie about 5 to 10 stems together, and then hang somewhere dry for about three or four weeks. This will allow the garlic to dry out, and then you can store it in a dark place for 6 to 10 months, depending on varieties. Softnecks store longer, hardnecks about 6 months. When ready to store, the garlic skin should be crinkly, like paper—simply remove the very outer skin (don’t remove too much, and don’t wash in water) and then cut at the stem and trim the roots if you want. Voilà! Garlic through next winter (if it lasts that long).

July 14, 2009 at 2:33 am Leave a comment

Garlic Scapes and Pesto

crazy scapesI just love the funny shapes garlic scapes make as they swirl around.  But, one of the best things is eating them. Although these actually used to be discarded by farmers, now everyone’s caught on to how good they are, and they are flooding farmer’s markets and CSAs everywhere right now.

The garlic scape is the flower of hardneck garlic varieties (softneck varieties do not produce a scape), and these appear around late may or june in our zone 6. In order for the garlic bulb to fully develop, you’ll need to cut the scape off, or pull it gently from the base. The entire scape is edible, although some parts are tougher than most. We’ve been throwing garlic scapes into everything over the past few weeks—-stir fries, omelettes, pasta sauces, salads, you name it. You can also make an amazing pesto with garlic scapes. Feel like making pesto?

Scape Pesto

20 or more garlic scapes

1 cup of parsley

1 cup walnuts

1/2 – 1 tsp sea salt

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/8 cup of Parmesan Cheese

Just put everything in a food processor and blend. Stores in a jar all week. Or, make a bunch of batches and freeze. Enjoy!

July 1, 2009 at 2:45 pm Leave a comment

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