Sunday, December 13, 2009

Turning now to indoor gardening...

We finally got the hoses coiled up and put away, and the outdoor water turned off. (Thank God I'm not the one who has to go down in the crawl space to do that!) Not long after came the first snowfall - a swirl of lovely big flakes on a Saturday morning, transforming the landscape but not sticking to the road, an ideal snow. (The only thing better is a weekday snow that shuts down work.)

So now it's official - the outdoor gardening season is pretty much over. Nothing much to do until February, when it's time to think about pruning. Or rather, nothing much to do outdoors.

Indoors, as always around our house, there's much to be done in the way of gardening. Major transplanting is needed! The peppers and eggplants we started from seed a couple of months back are doing amazingly well, given the small 4-inch pots they've been confined to. All of the pepper plants have peppers on them. We have bell peppers, poblanos, and sweet banana peppers. The eggplants are at the blooming stage, with lovely pale purple flowers. All these plants are  amazingly forgiving, but they really, really need to be in bigger pots! And now that John has a new Sunstation design, we can better accommodate those plants that need a lot of growing space. Sadly, we will never have enough indoor space for all the plants we've started, once they're approaching maturity. So some winnowing, as well as transplanting, will have to be done.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The driveway garden revisited

So how did the driveway vegetable garden fare? Reasonably well. The tomatoes were tasty though not prolific. The crop was certainly much better than if I had tried to coax them along in the part-sun of the backyard. The peppers were quite happy, continuing to produce right up until last weekend, when I decided it really was time to start dismantling the driveway garden.

As for the watermelon and squash, that little experiment was less than successful. Each plant produced two fruits. The watermelons grew to a decent size for a "personal" watermelon. However, when cut open both had mushy inedible flesh. And the squash, while they appear well-formed, only grew to about 4 inches long - hardly enough to bother with, though I suppose I should at least cut them open and see what their interiors look like. I guess there is a reason people don't grow these viney crops in containers! Although the squash blossoms were so pretty earlier in the season, perhaps I will just grow squash as an ornamental until the flowers fade.

Next year I'll do tomatoes and peppers again for sure. I'll try some of the tomatoes that are bred to be container size, but I'll also continue with heirlooms. This year my heirlooms started out leggy, having sat for too long in partial sun before I got them transplanted into their big containers. Next year I'll start with sturdier plants, and pinch and prune before they get out of control. And I'll think of something new to try in the driveway garden. Maybe sweet potatoes. Or...?

Monday, November 2, 2009

The mystery plant identified!

It was a shock to discover that the plant I had thought was a sunflower was no such thing. When I went to cut it down, I discovered it was a woody plant. Something in the back of my mind said Paulownia. It's not a tree I'm familiar with, but I thought I remembered reading that it had big leaves and was invasive. I looked it up, and sure enough, that's what it was: Paulownia tomentosa, a native of China, common names royal empress tree. princess tree, dragon tree, etc.

Image: Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources - Forestry Archive,

Even though this tree is considered to be invasive, most of the web hits I got touted its beauty, quality of the wood, and rapid growth. Many mentioned that it is highly valued in Japan. The fact that it is fast growing makes it attractive for some purposes. It also has attractive flowers, and the leaves are indeed impressive. For a different take, see the Plant Conservation Alliance Alien Plant Working Group fact sheet on Paulownia - it makes their "least wanted" list.    

In my book, anything that grows something like 8 feet in 2-3 months is almost by definition invasive. And the damn thing is firmly rooted. I've wrestled it part way out of the ground, but I'm going to need help getting those roots to let go. And it is reputed to sprout easily from roots, so I need to get it out of there.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The vegetable garden: winding down

I grew scarlet runner beans for the first time this year, and only a couple of plants survived the repeated nipping by rabbits. Fortunately, the survivors made a beautiful display earlier in the season, with lovely flame-colored flowers. 

I had read someplace that scarlet runner beans are edible, but the large fuzzy pods didn't look that appetizing, and I didn't have enough to make it worth drying them just to get a handful of dried beans. Then I  read a Barbara Damrosh article in the Washington Post  about cooking beans, including scarlet runner beans, fresh from the pod. She claimed that fresh shell beans, as they are called, are a treat, and she was right. Once you pry the pods open, the beans inside are a  stunning bright pink, mottled with purple-blue. I cooked them until they they were white with a touch of blue remaining - about half an hour.  I had just enough for a bit of lunch, delicious with a little butter, salt, and pepper.

Right beside the scarlet runner bean is an enormous plant which I assumed must be a sunflower planted by the birds at the nearby feeder. If so, it never bloomed. Not enough sun? Or not a sunflower? I have no idea. I'll cut it down soon.

Elsewhere in the yard, the kale plants that I set out a month or so ago are doing reasonably well. The peas, unfortunately, have mostly succumbed to the rabbits. I kept row cover on them for quite a long time, but finally took it off. Now only some little nubby plants remain. I rejoice that I don't have a deer problem, and in the past was glad that the rabbits were quite well-behaved, only nibbling a bit of this or that, and not systematically taking out entire crops, as they have done this year. Of course, it's possible squirrels have been the culprits - they delight in destruction just for the sheer sport of it. Their usually modus operandi is to dig things up and just leave them lying about, however, and most of my stuff appears to have been chomped.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Daylight Design at the Green Festival

The Green Festival was fantastic! It took us most of Friday to get the Sunstations, plants, and display materials packed up and hauled to the DC Convention Center and then get everything set up. Starting Saturday morning, it was pretty much non-stop traffic through the booth for the two days. By Saturday night we both had sore throats from talking so much. People were drawn to the booth by the beautiful eggplants we were growing under lights. A common comment was "is it real?" (One woman kept insisting they could not be.)

There was so much interest, including from a couple of educators who could see the benefit of having our grow light system in classrooms, and someone who thought they'd be good in a friend's coffee house. Lots of condo or apartment dweller loved the idea of being able to grow some vegetables indoors. The local news filmed some footage, and Voice of America interviewed us! (They said we'd hear  back from them when it's going to air - we'll see if it actually happens.)

I wish I'd had more time to view the whole show. There were lots of interesting booths, and I made it to a few, but didn't really have time to walk the floor, nor to see some of the outstanding speakers.  I've enjoyed previous Green Festivals as an attendee. Last year's festival seemed so cramped that it was hard to see a lot, but this year the layout was better and I think there was more space. People who go to Green Festivals are such a neat crowd - wanting to do the right thing, interested in innovation, and very friendly, and we had so much fun talking to them.

I can't imagine how it must have felt to John to hear over and over things like - how ingenious; great idea; so simple; great design. Any doubts I had about whether this was worth all the hours of our evenings and weekends he has spent to follow his dream are gone. I'm so proud of him!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Cooking With Dirt

This has been a typical scene at our house for days now. A bowl full of dirt on the kitchen counter, bags of dirt on the floor, pots being washed in the sink. We've been starting seeds, transplanting plants to bigger pots, designing a flyer, taking many photos, updating our website.  We're busy preparing for our premiere - the launch of our business, Daylight Design.

This venture is John's brainchild, with some contribution from me. He's been living this evenings and weekends for several years, while I've helped here and there. Of course we've both been living with the fact that our house has increasingly become a greenhouse/warehouse, with less and less room for its occupants. John rented some office space about a month ago - in walking distance and not too expensive. That's rapidly filling up as well.

We had a very late night of preparation last night, and a very long day today, setting up our booth at the DC Green Festival. It's very satisfying that our display looks quite professional and is attracting a lot of attention from other exhibitors. Tomorrow comes the public...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gardening for the insects

 image courtesy Mary Vardigan

Gardeners tend to think of insects as the enemy. It's natural - we spend time planning and tending our gardens, and when we find something munching away on our plants, it's annoying. We know pollinators are good, of course, and we want to see bees and butterflies in our gardens. We probably know that beneficial  insects like ladybugs and lacewings may prey on some of the insects we consider pests. Still, the urge to get rid of a particularly troublesome insect can be compelling.

I have to admit to doing some pretty stupid things myself - like hand picking off the caterpillars eating my parsley. Anyone who know anything about butterflies knows that those were nascent black swallowtails. Mea culpa! I'll never squish anything again without knowing exactly what it is.

What really changed my whole view of gardening was hearing entomologist Doug Tallamy speak. Tallamy is an entomologist at the University of Delaware, who is passionate and articulate on the critical importance of native plants in supporting the food webs we all depend on. (I've gone to hear him give essentially the same talk five times now, and I'd go again, so you know he's compelling.) The bottom line is, native insects are a major food source for birds and other animals. And it turns out, most native insects are adapted to eat only the native plants with which they've co-evolved. Many of our non-native ornamental plants are simply inedible to these insects. No food for these insects, and food webs will begin to collapse.

I needed no convincing about planting natives - I was already doing that. But seeing my plants as food for insects - in a positive way - that was a new idea!

Tallamy focuses a lot on butterflies, since most people love them and would like to have more in their yards. But to have butterflies you've got to have caterpillars, and something for them to feed on. Caterpillars are also major food source for birds and for their young. In his talks and in his book, Tallamy's photos of weird and wonderful caterpillars are fascinating. 

If you can't go hear Tallamy in person, buy his book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants. The book, and his website, lists the plants (mostly trees, with oaks at the top of the list) that support the most lepidoptera species. Visit You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be convinced.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Can you spot the hummingbird?

It wasn't until I uploaded photos from the camera and got a good look that I realized that I DID get a photo of Ruby. She's pretty hard to spot in this smallish image, especially as her coloration very much blends in with the leaves and ground. She's between the cardinal flower and a seed head of the anise hyssop. Can you spot her?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The transition season

It's the tag end of summer, for me an odd season in the garden. I've given up on my annual goal of REALLY getting control of the weeds. It's not that long till some heavy frosts will take care of them - for a few months.

Once again I'm gearing up for fall planting, something I really haven't gotten the hang of yet. It always seems too early to be planting for fall in the blazing heat of early August, and by the time I really get going on it, it's usually too late. Last year the turnips and rutabagas I planted, probably right around this time, overwintered and started growing again in the spring. They rather quickly sent up some tall yellow flowers - something I certainly didn't expect from a turnip. They never really did get much of a root.

This year, at least, I have some kale and other cole crops started indoors, ready to be planted out. And over the weekend I planted peas - snow peas and sugar snaps. Their respective seed packages say that the sow peas don't really care for cool weather, but the sugar snaps do. So I'm hedging my bets - maybe at least one of the 2 will do well.

The truth is, I'm usually happiest in the spring garden, with all its promise. I think of the late summer garden as full of lanky old timers, quite able to take care of themselves. Yes, I'm happy for the bounty of tomatoes and peppers, and eager to see how my watermelons turn out. But the summer garden is about expectations fulfilled (or not), with a hint of autumn melancholy.

But this year, the frequent presence of the hummingbird (now named Ruby) has made the transition season a time of anticipation and joy that is usually reserved for spring. Will she be back next year? Will she bring friends? Where else will cardinal flower show up in my yard? Ruby has brought a whole new dimension to my summer garden.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Hummingbird update

I see her all over the yard now, and it's a thrill every time. (She's a female or a juvenile; no red throat.) Most frequently she's sampling the cardinal flowers, but I also see her perched on the blueberry plant or the privet, or exploring the rose-of-sharon. She's certainly skittish, but sometimes when she flies off it turns out she's only gone as far as the front yard.

I'm always looking when I pass the window or step outside, in case she's about. If I see her my instinct is still to grab the camera, but so far all I've recorded is the blur of tiny wings. I'm trying to remind myself just to watch and enjoy. And to reach for the binoculars - the up close view is sensational.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The driveway garden

The potted plants in the driveway are thriving. The squash plant has been putting forth beautiful blooms every day, and at last some little squash are starting to form. (You can just barely see one at the base of the flower in the picture.) Every day they have grown visibly, which is fun.

The tomatoes in pots are much happier than the few that I planted in the ground in the backyard. Planting tomatoes in pots wouldn't be my first choice, if I had more sun in back. But there are some advantages. It's fairly easy to make sure that they get a steady supply of moisture, which tomatoes like. And it's easy to provide good soil - I used half finished compost and half potting soil for mine. Fresh soil means there's less likelihood of fungal diseases that affect tomatoes. These can remain in regular garden soil over a period of several years, once tomato plants have been infected. The recommendation for in-ground gardens is to plant in different locations from year to year, but that can be hard to do with a small yard.

One downside of pots is that tomato plants get so big! They always sneak up on you too. One day they're well-behaved little things, and suddenly they're sprawling giants. Kind of like kids, I guess. I'm using tomato ladders to support mine, which is working fairly well. Next year maybe I'll test some more docile patio-sized plants to see if I can find some tasty varieties. But for now, I've got the real thing - 3 varieties of heirloom indeterminate tomatoes that keep growing like Jack's beanstalk!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Hummingbirds visit

Lobelia cardinalis , or cardinal flower, really is a hummingbird magnet. This patch of cardinal flower came from a single plant I started indoors from seed several years ago. I planted my original seedling near a downspout, since cardinal flowers love water. They flower in their second year, after spending the first year as a rosette growing low to the ground.

My lone plant, when it bloomed, was unusually tall and robust - a small shrub. The next year, a few plants seeded themselves in the front yard. This year the original plant has been replaced by many offspring - a little jungle of cardinal flowers. It probably didn't hurt that I sprinkled seed from the parent plant liberally. Plus this year's plants must have loved our rainy spring.

Last week I had a brief sighting of a hummingbird on the cardinal flowers at the front of the house. Yesterday came the real payoff. A hummingbird landed on the top of my scarlet runner beans. He actually sat still for a few seconds, then flitted over to the black-eyed Susans, and on to the cardinal flowers, where I had the great treat of watching him sip nectar from blossom after blossom. After that he found the rose-of-sharon, where he blended in so beautifully it was impossible to track him further. I'm determined to get a picture of him, even if it means sitting quietly in wait for him with my camera in hand, while the mosquitoes feed on me.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Growing peppers indoors

Tonight John made one of our favorite dishes, beans and greens. We often include greens we grow in the garden - usually kale or collards. But this is the first time we have used peppers that we grew indoors! The Nardello peppers have done beautifully under lights. I harvested the largest ones, and left the smaller ones to mature.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Watching the watermelons grow

Aww, aren't they cute? Baby watermelons, growing in a big pot in the driveway. Lots of room to sprawl on the gravel; lots more sun than in the back garden. This heirloom variety is called "Moon and stars" because the skin develops yellow spots on a dark green background. The leaves are speckled also. Supposedly they're a small melon, though one website mentioned 25-50 lbs. (Kidding, right?)

Will they make it to maturity? Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Little House in the Suburbs

Shortly after John and I met, he said he pictured me in a yard filled with butterflies and a goat or two. Six years later we don’t have the goats (yet), but we do have butterflies, bees, and birds. For the last few days, the goldfinches have been making merry in the yard, feasting on the seedheads of purple anise hyssop flowers outside our window.

Inside the house live our seven “indoor birds” – five cockatiels and two parakeets. Our indoor vegetable gardens are thriving. John is growing pepper plants under lights. The bell peppers are a little small but healthy looking, and starting to turn red. The nardello peppers (mild sweet chilis) are gorgeous. We’re trying out dwarf eggplants – what a coup that could be – eggplants without the annoyance of flea beetles!