Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Madame Robin

Madame Robin finally settled down on the light fixture between our garage doors. She stayed there through doors opening and closing. She was having trouble building her nest on the fixture, so I added the longer sticks you see below the nest to give her some stability. Hope to get some pictures in the nest after the babies hatch.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Sorrel: Rumex acetosa
I rarely see common garden sorrel being grown in vegetable or herb gardens and I guess it does have an unusual taste. The basis for the Eastern European sorrel soup, sorrel is a pretty, little green plant with sour, lemony leaves. The young leaves can be used (sparingly, to taste) in spring salads and gives them a nice bite. Sorrel is easy to grow, having few pests. It likes a sunny spot in the garden and will grow in a clump that should be divided every 3 to 5 years. Leaves are harvested young and very definitely before the plant is in flower, after which the leaf turns bitter. Several cuttings can be made before the plant sends up its flower spike. I have only purchased sorrel plants, and have not started it from seed.
The main use for sorrel in my kitchen is sorrel soup, which is a lovely green, sour, lemony dish. To make it:
I large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 T unsalted butter
4-5 medium potatoes, peeled and diced.
5 cups tightly packed sorrel leaves, or half and half sorrel and spinach (and you can use lesser amount of leaves)
1 t. grated nutmeg
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper
2 quarts stock (chicken or vegetable)
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 snipped chives, if desired, for garnish

In a 4 qt. saucepan, melt butter and saute onion and garlic until lightly colored (about 15 minutes). Add potatoes, sorrel, nutmeg, salt, pepper and stock to the sauce pan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, 50 minutes. Allow to cool enough until it can be pureed. Puree in a food processor or blender. Reheat. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of chives. Can be frozen. Makes about 10 cups.
Happy eating! And Happy gardening!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Robin in the Sun

After some nest building on an outdoor light fixture and ablutions in the bird bath, this robin was preening and posing for me on the garden gate!
Happy bird watching...and gardening!

Sweet Potato Update 2010

I am experimenting with two methods to produce sweet potato slips this year:
1. The traditional suspend in water method (see photo above) and
2. I cut a sweet potato in half, lengthwise, and buried it in soil less mix, cut side down, and watered it.
Do I have a winner? Well one of the water grown potatoes rotted and was tossed and neither of the other two have sprouted. The sweet potato buried in soil sent up it's first sprout yesterday! (in less than a week)
It may be that this is because #2 is planted in a seed flat that I easily placed on a heat mat (sweets love their heat), but I don't think I can really do that with the ones suspended in water. Next year, I will start all of them using method #2.
Happy gardening!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ginter Gardens

Ginter Gardens
I have been to Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond more than 100 times. If you are in the Richmond area, it is certainly worth a visit. It is especially nice on a cool gray day to take a walk inside the conservatory. But today I did something I had never done there before- I used the library there. I love libraries and I love gardens, so you can imagine what a pleasure it was to work on a project in the library. I am sure that there are more extensive botanical libraries than this one, but it is new, nice, comfortable and the librarian was very helpful (plus it is not far from my home). I found the botanicals and herbals I was looking for, along with a great book on the botanical and zoological art work of William Bartram (son of the American botanist and plantsman John Bartram of colonial Philadelphia) and other neat books on colonial gardens (a recent interest of mine). I intend to go back, very soon, to look up more information on colonial gardens, medicinal/dyeing/cooking herbs, home orchards, and native plants. Above are a few photos from the garden today, outdoors and a few in the conservatory (pansies/violas, paphiopedalum orchid, spiral ginger, clivia). I will write a full field trip report on it sometime soon!
Happy Gardening!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Garden Frugality

The $64 Tomato (and $7 head of broccoli?)

You maybe have heard of the book by this same title (Alexander, W. (2007). “The $64 tomato: How one man nearly lost his sanity, spent a fortune and endured an existential crisis in the quest for a perfect garden” a good read, BTW). Whenever I look at some glossy catalog with some new system for growing, trellising or maintaining vegetable plants, I think of that title and the concept of garden frugality (oddly enough, not as much for flowers, as those are totally for pleasure maybe?). Probably because how I was brought up (that is, I was raised to calculate the cost of a restaurant meal to me versus to the restaurateur to pick the best value, I remember being carefully instructed by my father on wiping the peanut butter off the knife onto the opposing piece of bread so as not to waste it-it short, I was raised by someone who lived though the poverty of the great Depression). I look at each gadget with the following questions in mind:

  1. What is the cost?
  2. How likely is it to increase yields? Or is it a matter of convenience, fashion or appearance?
  3. How long will it last?
  4. What is, then, the per pound or per unit price of this gadget? High? Low?

If an item is largely for ornamental purposes or will not last long or does not greatly increase yields, it fails my test. I know that some of this is hard to do, for example, how was I to know that that “noodlehead sprinkler” ™, which guides water to parts of the garden that needed it, would break after a few months use? I did get a refund, but did not have a way to know in advance that it was fragile (except maybe wading through product reviews, which I would be happy to do for a larger purchase). Same with the “increase yields” question, it is hard to do, but these are just “thinking points” and do not require exact, numeric answers, just some general sense of the reason for the purchase and likely outcome. (On a related note, people have been gardening in dirt with seeds and water and digging sticks and doing just fine for a long time- I know there have been improvements, but that special hydroponic tomato growing system is not one, unless your goals are to garden in an unsuitable area, like on a high-rise terrace, and grow a few pricey tomatoes and herbs. This is fine as a pastime and conversation starter if you enjoy it, but is not frugal gardening).

I know there are other reasons to garden than to get inexpensive, tasty, organic food and pretty flowers. For example, I certainly am more willing to spend a little more money on ornamental features for my ornamental flower garden, because my goals there are different than for a veggie garden. And I guess one could feel the same about vegetable gardening, and I have seen some lovely ornamental features in them. All in all, this position may not be entirely consistent, but the goals I have for each type of gardening vary. So figure out your goals, what is it you want out of gardening…

Visit my garden pod cast, Virginia Organic Gardener, by clicking on the Pod Bean button on the left side of this page or itunes and….Happy Gardening!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ladies and gentlemen, start your sweets!

How to start sweet potatoes

Last year I had good success with starting and growing my own sweet potatoes (which I served for Thanksgiving dinner!). I started them in the traditional way, show in the photo above. Take a sweet potato, put four toothpicks in it (perpendicular to the potato), suspend the rounder end in a jar of water, and put in a sunny window. When the sprouts (called slips) are about 6 inches long, you can either cut them from the plant and directly plant them into the garden, 2 weeks after last frost (they need really warm soil, as the are a tropical vine) or you can pot them up and let the roots form.

I am also going to try another method this year- split a sweet potato in half lengthwise and bury it, cut side down, under some light soil in a plant flat, under light on a heat mat. This way the roots will form well and the slips should be well rooted. The time to do this, in order to plant at the end of April/beginning of May, is NOW! You can use sweet potatoes from the grocery, though might want to order or buy certified disease-free potatoes or even the slips themselves from a nursery.

Visit my garden pod cast by clicking on the Pod Bean button on the top left of this page and...as usual, happy gardening!

Sunday, March 14, 2010


I have used the word "overwintering" a few times in this blog- then a friend asked me what I meant by it. Overwintering is taking a plant that is usually potted, into the indoors or into a sheltered location for the duration of the winter. Overwintering can allow a plant that is not normally hardy to your region to survive until the next growing season. Sometime it is as simple as bringing a plant indoors and putting it next to a sunny window. I do this for hibiscus and a curry leaf tree. Both suffer some leaf loss from the lower light and drier conditions, but later rebound- and the hibiscus sometimes rewards me with an indoor bloom or two! Some plants simply need some minimal shelter, like an unheated garage, and this is where I put my potted exotic bulbs, passionflowers and bonsai plants. I water them sparingly, as they are dormant during this time.

Some plants need a bit more care. Last year I overwintered a Meyer lemon in a sunny window. Though it survived, it looked pretty ratty by about this time. This year, I put my Meyer lemon, Kaffir lime (top photo), lemongrass and a few other outdoor plants in my heated (but cooler than the rest of the house) attic under florescent lights. The plants look great, and the Meyer lemon is rewarding me with fragrant blossoms! (see photo below).

I am also overwintering some large ornamental bananas (photo below), though I am not completely certain they need this level of care. I have read about people in this region storing them in an unheated garage, waiting for them to send out a daughter plant in the spring.

You need to watch for light levels, but also for over-or under-watering and pests. Plants do not put out as much growth in the winter, so could easily get root rot from too much water. When you first bring the plants indoors, you might also bring in some hitch hiking aphids, white flies or scale bugs (among others), so some sources recommend dousing the plant and the soil in insecticidal soap (no chemical fertilizers, you do not what them in your home, as they are not meant for indoor use) and isolating the plants from other houseplants for a few weeks.

After the last frost, my plants will go back outside. I might try to acclimate them to outdoor conditions for a week before the last frost, and will first put them out on a shaded and protected porch for a few hours, increasing the length each day. This is not possible with my HUGE and HEAVY banana plants...I can only ask my son and husband to drag them out of the attic to their final destination in one go! (DO NOT heavily water a large potted plant just prior to moving it- let it dry out a bit, or it will be a messy job to move!)
[Later note: my husband, upon viewing these plants in our attic asked if I had posted photos of them on this blog, so that I could get the "proper insane, obsessed gardener street cred." ! ]

Visit my garden pod cast, VirginiaOrganicGardener by clicking on the pod bean button on the top left of this page! Happy gardening!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Row Tunnel: Brief Update

The two photos above illustrate the success of an inexpensive row tunnel, an under $20, 18 foot long and 2 foot wide tunnel of plastic sheeting on metal hoops. Despite the colder than usual winter and heavier than average snowfall, the greens (and "purples") were protected. We have plenty of organic, early-March lettuce, arugula and baby kale. See how you can extend a season by starting it early???
Happy Gardening!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Book Review: Food Not Lawns

Book Review: Flores, H.C. (2006) Food not lawns: How to turn your yard into a garden and your neighborhood into a community.VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.

I picked up this book because of the cover. Or rather, I picked up this book because of the title. I dislike lawns and am an great proponent of converting lawns into gardens for beauty, pleasure and food production. This is not just a how-to garden book, it is a book espousing a particular philosophy of gardening, one I agree with for the most part. I approve on the emphasis on local, organic food (and how much more local can you get than your own yard???), converting wasted lawn to growing space and the ideal of community life. I like the helpful tips on seed saving, building the soil, polycultures and improving the soil, among others.
What I don't like about this book are a few things: first, assertion that organic food can cure all sorts of ills, from depleted energy to bipolar disorder. If it only it were that easy! And if only there was more than anecdotal evidence of this. I do believe a lifetime of a healthy, organic, vegetable-dominant diet may be able to prevent some ills, but cure them? Second, I don't think this book will reach the main steam due to some of the author's stated beliefs about food and life, it might be too "radical" for some. But if you can get past this, it has some good idea and funny moments (the section on the pro's and con's of backyard fowl are funny "ducks are loud and quite stupid..." turkeys are "big, mean and ugly. They will chase children and demolish the garden....Guinea fowl make a hellish screeching sound similar to that of a busted fan belt on a car..."). Another concern I have is with the author's sourcing, which may not always be the most authoritative. My last concern is related to the index: I love a good index, one that makes it easy to find information, and I understand it can be hard to compile at times. I knew that there was a section comparing backyard birds, but could find no related entry in the index under poultry, chickens, backyard birds or fowl.
If you are interested in converting some or all of your lawn into garden, this book is a good reference, take from it what you can use.
Happy gardening!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Get Out and Dig

I thought of two possible captions for the photo above: "a picture only a gardener could love" or "love me, love my dirt!" (and it is beautiful soil!) We have a main vegetable garden and two newer garden areas, called the Oscar bed and the Barkley bed, named for the dogs that reside on either side of us (and the Barkley bed now has the Zoe extension, after Barkley's sister). I was in the Oscar bed today digging and weeding and the photo is one result. The snow is gone, the ground is finally dry enough to dig , but not too dry to impede pulling weeds, and the weekend weather should warm up to a delightful mid- to upper-50's in the Mid-Atlantic region this weekend- the perfect time to dig and get ready for those early season crops, seeds of which you can begin planting now! These include lettuces, arugula, chard, kale, beets, radishes, and peas. So hop to it! The winter doldrums are ending, and we all need to get more active (if only to shed those extra Christmas cookie pounds)!
Happy gardening! The season is here! As my friend Jim says "Boy howdy!"

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What a difference...

What a difference a season makes! Three photos of about the same area in my front flower garden, one in September at the verdant height of botanical lusciousness, one from earlier in February after the snow and one from a few days ago. These photos illustrate the usefulness of photo documentation of your yard and garden, which is so easy now with digital cameras. It is hard to recollect from season to season what I have planted where, and documenting the garden with photos really helps me track where those bulbs are buried, how tall the plants usually get and what might be lacking in a part of the garden during a particular season. You can do the same thing with garden mapping and design software or through meticulous records, but I find that photo documentation is far easier and much more fun!
Happy gardening! And garden photography!