2015 Garden in Review – Resolutions for 2016

As I sit here with my house slowly warming up from a busted furnace yesterday, I find myself missing working in my garden, feeling the warmth of the sun on my transparently pasty skin, and drinking porch beer(s).

With 2016 quickly approaching on this New Years Eve, I thought a little reflection on my gardening successes and failures of 2015 might do me some good (and keep my spirits up that seed starting is right around the corner!).

And… I thought I better post these pictures before I start chugging straight from the bottle of Prosecco… although entertaining, it would probably be an embarrassingly incomprehensible blog post.

So hold onto your hat…  never seen before raw garden footage is coming your way!

For the first time, I attempted to grow sweet potatoes from slips that I grew from organic sweet potatoes that I chopped in half.  I would say it was a somewhat successful experiment, but my harvest definitely left me with some lessons to learn…

I planted the slips in barrel planters and they seemed to thrive and produced impressive foliage.  Unfortunately there was one evening that it got extremely cold outside and the top foliage died instantly (sweet potatoes like it HOT HOT HOT).  I read that when the leaves and stems turn black, it is time to harvest the potatoes because they are no longer receiving nutrients and the rotten plant corpses could also seep down and rot the potatoes.  Trust me, I was panicked.

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Many of my sweet potatoes were really small and misshapen.  My conclusion is that there are three things that could have gone wrong:

  1. The barrels did not provide enough room for them to grow to a proper size and/or I planted too many slips in one barrel and they choked each other off.
  2. The sudden early cold snap killed them before they achieved their optimal size.
  3. I didn’t plant them early enough in the summer.


Trial and error is the name of the game in gardening.  I let the sweet potatoes cure in a closed cardboard box to heal any bruises and to sweeten them up and I only recently started eating them.  I roasted them simply with cayenne flavored olive oil and salt and pepper and they were delicious.  I also highly suggest this recipe for Smoky Sweet Potatoes.  It was particularly suited to my weirdly shaped spuds.

But who wants to dwell on areas for improvement??  How about my successes!  I grew GIGANTIC garlic cloves.  The cloves were literally the size of my palm (with no sacrifice to flavor whatsoever).  They just keep getting bigger and better every year!  I already planted some monster cloves from what I grew this year to hopefully produce huge bulbs next year yet again.  I believe this is my fourth or fifth year growing garlic from the same batch.  I am interested in growing Elephant Garlic for comparison which I think is comically BIG, but is more related to the onion family.  Growing abnormally large vegetables brings me so much joy.




As an area to work on… I did try cooking garlic scape stir fry and I gotta say I was not blown away.  The scapes were very, very mild tasting, almost too much so.  I think I will try a different recipe next year.



Ok.  Let’s talk tomatoes.  The only accurate word to describe my harvest is “shit-ton”.  I grew Al-Kuffa and Rutgers varieties. The rules of determinant tomato plant size apparently don’t apply to me because all of my tomato plants were well over four feet tall (these varieties should have only been 2 to 3 feet tall tops).  But, as with determinant, most of the tomatoes ripened at the same time.  Waaaaay too many… at the same time.  Salsas, various tomato sauces, salads, pastas, pizzas…  I put them to good use as best I could.  I also gave them away to anyone willing to take them.

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I was also happy with my pepper harvest, particularly my Polish Ostra-Cyklon.  I made a lot of salsa and queso and I also successfully fermented the last remaining hot peppers in my fermentation crock to be used for applications such as NACHOS.  Yum.




A cabbage plant that was given to me by a friendly neighbor was my complete gardening disaster for this year.  I planted it in a barrel planter, but soon noticed the leaves were being eaten.  Before I could do anything about it, it was as dead as a door nail.  It must have been some sort of cabbage worm infestation.  It was weird because my herb planter next to the cabbage planter was not infected at all and produced stunning basil and cilantro.




Also, my nemesis the onion, won again.  DAMN YOU ONION!


So I’ve been drooling over the 5 different seed catalogs that I received in the mail so far and I can’t wait to pick out my seeds for next year.  I have about a million yogurt cups to use for seed starting.  I keep toying with the idea of growing a groovy all-purple veggie garden.  Maybe even including purple brussel sprouts!

My gardening resolutions are to blog more consistently, grow veggies that I have never grown before, try more companion planting, and learn to can and/or ferment more vegetables for long-term storage.  I have a genuine root cellar in my 100+ year old house, so why not put it to good use for the zombie apocalypse?!  I hope the gods of the internet hold me to these resolutions.

I also hope to continue passing on my love of gardening to my nieces.  And most importantly, I hope to continue sharing my bounty with those who mean so much to me.

Best wishes for great gardening in 2016.

Garden of Eatin’

After having rain for what feels like every day for a month here in the Pittsburgh region, my raised bed gardens have literally exploded into a barely manageable Jungle of Eden.  Every year I say I will cut back on the amount of plants I shove into my raised beds.  Every year I can’t bring myself to NOT plant every seedling that I grow.  I desperately need to make some local gardening friends who will take my seedlings.

This is my raised bed garden on May 23rd.  All of these plants were grown from seed.

From left to right:  Thyme, Bean Purple Teepee Beans, 2 Rutgers Tomato Plants, 2 Marigold Plants, 2 Al-Kuffa Tomato Plants, Black Carrot Seeds, Cosmic Carrot Seeds, and more Thyme.

This is my raised bed on July 13th:

"Determinate" tomato plants have grown taller than me.
“Determinate” tomato plants have grown taller than me!

The wood contraption is to help support my tomato plants (trees).  Both Rugters and Al-Kuffa were supposed to be “dwarf” determinate plants, but they are huge.  Even my Marigold plants are like bushes.  I only have green tomatoes so far… hopefully they’ll turn red soon.  With determinate plants, they will most likely all ripen at the same time.  There will be a shit-ton of tomatoes as long as they don’t get some freaky fungus from all the rain.

Al-Kuffa Tomato Clusters
More Al-Kuffa Tomato Clusters


Rutgers Tomatoes


I love purple beans because their bright color make them very easy to harvest.  Purple beans turn green when they are cooked.  Oooooh soooo many magical beans…

My carrots are getting a bit smothered by my tomatoes, but this happened in my garden last year, and they came back with a vengeance once everything else died.  Let me clarify… I’m talking carrots the size of my calf.  So, I’m trying the same technique this year: direct sow, smother with other plants, MONSTER CARROT TAKE OVER.  They are starting to pop up through my thyme.

Ok, so now onto my other raised bed.  This was my bed as of May 25th.

Left to right: Marigold, garlic, peppers, and Snow Peas and Desiree Garden Peas

This is my raised bed as of July 13th:

I want to camp out in here.

I think I really need to chop off or kill the marigold plant on the far left.  I have no idea why it is so freaking huge.

With the hopes of producing some big, fat, juicy garlic bulbs, I harvested some of my garlic scapes a few weeks back (and I left some on as an experiment).  I meant to write a blog on it, but neglected to do so.  Some say cutting the scape (the long curly cue part with the flower head filled with garlic bulbils) forces the plant to exert its energy on growing the garlic bulb underground instead of the flower up top.  My garlic stalks have a much thicker girth than the ones I had last year!  I chopped up the garlic scapes and used them in a stir fry.  They were surprisingly very, very mild tasting.

Since the leaves are starting to die, I might be digging my garlic bulbs up soon!

Now onto my specific pepper plants.  I am very excited because my peppers did not do so hot last year.  It has been VERY humid here the last couple months, so maybe they are basking in the hot, sticky heat.  They still have some color changing metamorphosis to go through, but they are growing big and abundantly!

These are my Santa Fe Grande Hot Peppers


My Polish Ostra-Cyklon Paprika Peppers


My Polish Marta Polka Peppers


Black Hungarian Peppers


Tequila Sunrise Peppers: These peppers are really cool because they grow upright towards the sun!  And of course who wouldn’t want to grow these peppers while enjoying a Tequila Sunrise.  (my next blog: Drunk Gardening)


And of course my snow peas have made some progress since my last blog.

And I did end up growing some Desiree Purple Snap Peas (but unfortunately they don’t taste as good to me, maybe a bit too fibrous and chewy, but they sure look pretty):

My peas reached the top of my trellis!


Desiree Garden Pea


The Divine Snow Pea


And randomly in honor of the Furry Convention being here in Pittsburgh, this is a sneaky pic I took while dining at a nice restaurant downtown this past weekend.  This furry had such a cute little tail!  Hopefully I won’t catch any furries in my garden or I will have to use my Critter Control. 😉

Even though times have been a little tough for me lately, it has been so nice to have my own little Garden of Eatin’.

Let it snow

… with Snow Peas!

The tease of backyard garden veggies is finally over! I was so happy to see the first vegetables of spring make an appearance in my garden bed. Even though I’m a little disappointed they aren’t the purple Desiree peas, my Oregon Sugar Pod snow peas are really taking off! These peas are particularly awesome because with each cluster there are usually 2 peas to pick. Double the pleasure, double the fun. 😉


I think my trellis is helping to control the vine jungle a little bit, although some of the vines appear to have a mind of their own. Hopefully the trellis will also make it a bit easier to spot the peas. The pods should be picked when they are still flat and are about 4” long, but I had some mutant ones that were hidden last year that I picked well after they were “ideal” and they still tasted great!



Hard to believe in less than month how far my snow peas have come! Nature is awesome.  I think the plants are supposed to grow to be about three feet tall, so we have a little ways to go.


So far I only see white flowers.  If any of the Desiree garden peas germinated, those plants will have deep pink flowers.

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Even though I am SO pumped about producing the first edible fruit of my gardens, the actual first garden fresh munchies of spring are often not fruits at all, but other parts of the plants.

A lot of Asian recipes use pea shoots which are the tips of the pea plants including the stalk, small upper leaves, blossoms, and curly tendrils. I was thinking about chopping off some of the tops of my plants and throwing them in a stir fry. They supposedly have a delicate pea flavor, but this would be the first time I have tried to cook with them. If they are anything like bean sprouts, I’m sure I will love them. I am a bean sprout addict.

Speaking of eating a plant at various points during its life cycle… next up, I will be harvesting another example of an edible bonus plant body part – garlic scapes!  Gotta love this time of year!


Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

I’m hot, stinky sweet…

From my leaf to my…root.  Ok, it needs a little work. 🙂

One tip that I did not share in my sweet potato growing blogs thus far is that you should definitely change the water that your sweet potatoes are sitting in more than once a month.  I did not do so and the water was so stinky and nasty.  Despite almost needing a gas mask, I did finally take the next step to potential sweet potato growing success!

I evaluated the sweet potatoes to see if I could directly transplant them or if I would have to get the slips to grow roots first.  My Jewel potato had some impressive slips, but unfortunately none of them had roots growing outside of the potato.


So with kitchen shears I cut the slips off where they met the potato.  Here is the potato post haircut.


I then needed to find small vessels where the stems would be emerged in water and the leaves could balance on top.  I sometimes like to indulge in adult beverages while gardening, and while doing so I came to the conclusion that these shot glasses would be a perfect fit for my slips and not look weird sitting on my windowsill at all.  My neighbors must think I’m such a lush and/or weird-o. 🙂


The slips balanced perfectly in the shot glasses!  And only after a day, little roots started growing out of the bottom of the stems.


My Japanese sweet potato had slips that had roots that formed on the outside of the potato.  Domo arigato Mr. Japanese Sweet Potato!  I actually took Japanese in college as an elective, but don’t be impressed, that’s the only phrase I remember.


I decided I would pluck those off and try to keep the roots intact as much as possible and directly sow them into my planter.


I bought a whiskey barrel (inspired) planter at Home Depot.  It has cedar in the wood, so it should resist rotting and last a very long time.  I filled it with a mixture of organic raised bed soil and compost.


It will probably be a permanent piece of my back porch decor because after filling it with dirt it probably weighs more than me.  Here are the Japanese slips planted in the barrel.


Since they are so small, I’m not sure if they are going to make it, but I thought it would be worth a shot to try and get a jump start on growing some taters.  I also don’t think they will appreciate the low temperature in the 40’s the next couple days here in Western PA.  I have not lost hope because Mr. Japanese Sweet Potato never ceases to amaze me.

BUT I’m thankful that I have shots (of jewel sweet potato slips) lined up!

Snap, crackle, pop

One of my absolute favorite crops that I grew last year was the Oregon Sugar Pod II Bush Snow Peas.  I bought them on a whim and had never grown them before.  They were an early and vigorous producer and the pods were humongous, super sweet, and very crunchy!  I pack my lunch every day for work and these snow peas were an awesome (and healthy) snack all summer long last year.  I just ate them raw or dipped them in a little ranch dressing or hummus.   I also used the snow peas in spicy Hunan stir fry or just sautéed them with (homegrown) garlic as a side dish.  Delish!  Below is a picture of some of my prime specimens from last year:


This year, I wanted to once again grow the Oregon Sugar Pod, but I thought I’d try growing PURPLE snow peas called Desiree that I bought off Amazon.  As a side  note, I LOVE PURPLE VEGGIES!!  The purple pigment contains Anthocyanin which has been shown to aid in healthy aging (no wonder I look so young and vibrant), to prevent cancer, and to protect against cardiovascular disease.  BUT purple veggies also just look so darn cool.  My goal is to one day have an all purple vegetable garden.  But anyways…

The Desiree peas packaging seemed a bit sketchy that I got in the mail from Amazon, so I don’t have super high hopes for purple peas, but it’s worth a shot.  I think I should have bought them off Baker Creek which describes them as: “Desiree Dwarf Blauwschokkers Garden Pea – Stunning violet-blue pods are produced on lovely little bush plants that do not require staking. The delicious peas are perfect for soups and stews, or pick small and these can be used as a snow pea. A great addition from Holland.”

I decided to try soaking the peas for a few hours to help soften the seed skin for faster germination.  I also planted Purple Teepee Bush Beans from Baker Creek in my other raised bed.


Even though I was happy with my snow pea crop last year, it was a bit of a viney hot mess.  I read that trellised peas produce a higher yield (read: trellis = MORE MONSTER SNOW PEAS).  So loosely based off this website, http://www.diynetwork.com/how-to/outdoors/structures/how-to-build-a-trellis-for-growing-peas – I now have a trellis made of leftover wood and flexible twist tie garden wire (which I never even knew existed!).  I went into the hardware store in town (probably with a look of deer in headlights) and said, “I don’t know what I’m looking for, but this is what I want to do…”  And the worker was like, “oh, you need ‘flexible garden wire’, here you go.”  I think that may have been my first good experience at a hardware and/or home improvement store ever!  The trellis is screwed into my raised bed, but it can easily be unscrewed and moved for crop rotation.


I directly sowed the seeds in mid-April and planted them approximately 1 inch deep and 2 inches apart.  My peas germinated after about 3 weeks.  They took longer this year due to a late April cold snap here in da ‘burgh (trust me, I was freaking out that they weren’t popping up, but they powered through).  I usually put 2 seeds per hole to ensure germination across the row, so I have no idea if any of these baby plants are Purple Peas (fingers crossed).


Below are my peas today and the vines are starting to grab onto the trellis (with maybe just a little bit of coaxing by me).


Can’t wait to snap them directly off the vine, crack them in half, and pop them into my mouth!

A green thumb – it runs in the family

Even though I’m a day late, I thought I’d write a post for Mother’s Day. I don’t know if there is a genetic link to inheriting a green thumb, but if there is, I can surely thank my Mom and Grandma.

Below are two pictures of my Mom with what looks like huge tomato trees in the background! Although we lived in the Oakland neighborhood of the city of Pittsburgh (near the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University), she did not let the urban lifestyle get in her way of growing some veggies!



After we moved to the ‘burbs, she did not have a vegetable garden, which is a shame. In fact, I don’t remember anyone having a vegetable garden in our entire plan. I can only assume growing vegetables was not in vogue and people did not want to mess up their meticulously manicured lawns.

I do remember when I received a free tomato plant in school, I planted it right next to the air conditioner unit right along the house. One day I dragged my Mom outside to help me pick a tomato that was literally the size of a football. We were both so excited! I remember my Mom calling my Grandma to tell her all about it. I think my Dad (who was an amateur photographer) took about 100 pictures of me holding the giant tomato (I’m sad that I can’t find any of those pictures).

I hate having my picture taken and will only make an exception when showing off my veggies or gardens. Below is a picture of me holding a beautiful squash from my garden (this was from two years ago). Both my Mom and Dad would have been impressed!


Often my Mom would plant pansies and violas along our retaining wall. I remember one year, we were literally pulling pansies out like weeds because they had taken over every nook and cranny of the soil and my Mom couldn’t understand why it happened. My sister and I never told her that we were bored one day (or several days) and decided to pick a bunch of the pansy seed pods and scatter the seeds EVERYWHERE. And guess who was assigned weeding duty? Trust me, we never made that mistake again! I planted pansies this year in honor of that memory, but I haven’t cracked any of the seed pods open… yet.


My Grandma and Grandpa always had a big vegetable garden in their backyard. I remember trying to peek over the fence (I’m a little vertically challenged) to admire the green beans, peppers, and tomatoes. I was only granted permission once to pick a green bell pepper (and I remember being so proud of that pepper!). They also had blackberry bushes that my sister and I were allowed to pick and bring back to house by the bucket full. I think growing fruits and vegetables was just a way of life for those of my grandparent’s generation.

My Grandma’s true passion was her rose garden. She grew several different varieties and they were all big and beautiful. She didn’t have a driver’s license, so I think that her flowers were her company when she was lonely. I have a miniature sunblaze rose in my garden, and when I tend to it, I find myself thinking of her. Mine hasn’t bloomed yet this year, but it is looking healthy!


I think gardens can be a tribute to those who have left this physical world, but are still with us in spirit. Happy Mother’s Day!

Sweet Potato Slips Experiment Update

Doesn’t it always seem like once you completely start losing hope on something, it finally happens, like magic…

I honestly started questioning my judgement in conducting my sweet potato experiment and thought that my sweet potato chunks were going to soon start stanking up my kitchen and cause me to have a fruit fly problem.  This may certainly still happen, hehe, but NOW it will be worth it because I have slips to plant!

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I know, they look pretty funky (some may say gross), but I am totally pumped that the slips FINALLY starting popping out of the tops of the potatoes.  The roots formed first, probably within a week, and then as I suspected the slips started slowly growing out of the bumps on top of the potatoes.  The Jewel sweet potato has slips growing on both halves, but one half is certainly growing more vigorously than the other.  It is interesting because one half of my Japanese sweet potato (the longer slender one) is not really growing any roots or slips.  I think I may have read that cutting it a certain way may produce better results.  I think more research needs to be done on my part.  Oh well, you live and you learn.


Below I tried to take a close up picture of the roots because they definitely look like some sort of nasty centipede…


I am going to continue filling their pool with an inch of water and let the slips grow a bit bigger (and let the weather get warmer outside) before I figure out how to transplant them.  I am hoping to plant them in whiskey barrel planters.

In honor of May the 4th tomorrow, I have a new model to posing with my sweet potatoes:


What did the sweet potato say to Luke Skywalker?

“Luke, I yam your father.”

Critter Control

Since I live in a small town that is fairly densely populated, I don’t get to enjoy watching a picturesque scene of wildlife frolicking across my backyard, with the exception of the occasional scurrying bunny, squirrel, or chipmunk.

When I do encounter wildlife, it is usually not enjoyable.  The other day when I was walking my dog, I swear I was dive bombed by flock of Ravens (I’m not sure if that is what they were, but they were like crows on steroids with bigger bills) that were perched along my roof and my next door neighbor’s roof (picture a Hitchcock bird attack).  It was terrifying!

BUT the wildlife that I fear most is… the evil cats.

I know it is a fairly common gardening problem, but I have literally been pushed to my limit with cats using my garden beds and planters as litter boxes.  It is so freaking nasty to come across a landmine while I’m digging in the dirt.  To try and protect my garden beds, I have tried bamboo skewer grids and sprinkling cayenne pepper around my plants without much luck.  I have also considered more, let’s just say, extreme deterrent methods… but I won’t go into detail.

The cats should consider themselves lucky because on a recent shopping trip to the Farm Market I bought an organic animal repellent that is produced locally (and who doesn’t love to support local businesses?).

The product is called Weiser’s Nature’s Defense (http://natures-defense.com/) and it is non-toxic and environmentally safe.  It is also easy to use – you just sprinkle the granules in or around the area that you want to protect.  It should be sprinkled twice for the first week and then once a week for maintenance.


It claims to defend against:  Deer, Rabbit, Squirrel, Mice, Rats, Moles, Voles, Shrew, Skunk, Chipmunk, Woodchuck, Gopher, Groundhog, Porcupine, Elk, Beaver, Armadillo, Raccoon, Possum, and Prairie Dog.  Most of which don’t apply to me (I would love to see an armadillo or prairie dog around town!).  BUT most importantly, it also deters Domestic and Feral Cats.

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The product literally looks like a spice rub.  It contains garlic, cinnamon, clove, white pepper, rosemary, thyme, and peppermint.  Sounds delicious. 😉


Particularly for cats, it says to sprinkle it every time you find a nasty nugget to discourage them from using the same spot over and over again.  This is what the product looks like sprinkled on some dirt.


So, I am hopeful that this animal repellent will work.  Unfortunately, I sprinkled the granules in my onion patch and less than an hour later I saw an evil cat sitting / chilling out in my onion patch.  Luckily it wasn’t squatting, but I’m sure it had bad intentions or had already done its business.  My corgi (Goldie) and I chased it away, but I was bummed that one application of the product didn’t seem to deter the cat at all.  Needless to say, after I brought my dog in, I “seasoned” the patch much more heavily.

The product does say to allow a week for it to take its full effect…  Sigh, gardening is truly a test in cultivating patience and restraint.