June in the Junkyard Garden!

raised bed gardening

2019 Garden explosion

Oh what glorious changes are wrought with a little heat and a little sun!

My garden is literally exploding and there are baby veggies everywhere!!

Temperatures in the 90’s during the day and 70’s at night were all it needed.

Remember I said I encourage volunteers?

Dill plants growing wild

A sea of dill

This beautiful sea of dill plants, running down the middle of my tomato vines is what you get when you let nature do all the work.

What’s funny about all this dill is that I don’t use it in any recipes, don’t cook with it and don’t even cut it. I encourage it to grow because it brings hundreds of beneficial bees and wasps to the garden every single day.

I also have fennel that self seeded growing up by my pole beans, sun flowers growing next to the garlic beds.

Borage and Bachelor Buttons

Flowers growing where seeds fell.

And one end of my garden is graced by beautiful borage and bachelor buttons plants that seeded themselves!

Mixed in with more dill, these flowers feed bees, help to pollinate tomato, cucumber and bean plants and just plain light up the landscape with their color and their grace.

Serendipity brings them to my garden and they bring a joyful smile to my face every single  day that I am privileged to walk among them.

The heat has given my tomatoes a HUGE boost in growth – both the vines and the baby tomatoes themselves.

Atomic Grape tomatoes

Atomic grape tomatoes

 

Fox Cherry Tomatoes

Fox cherries on the vine

Atomic and Fox Cherry tomatoes are popping up on every single plant — all 13 of them.

And the 5 Kangaroo Paw plants are finally setting tomatoes, too. They look squat and round and I can’t wait to taste them.

Everywhere I look their is Life with a capital L.

The sweet potatoes are branching out; the volunteer tomato is setting flowers and fruit and my newest fig — Phygmalion is beginning to reach for the sky.

Chicago Hardy Fig

Phygmalion the fig

This is Phygmalion’s first full summer. Planted last August, she made it through our rather wickedly cold winter but she was supposed to. This is a Chicago Hardy fig – supposedly able to withstand -40 degrees. She joins Figaro – an Italian fig of unknown ancestry and Evangeline, a brown Turkish fig. Here’s hoping they all produce this year! I LOVE fresh figs but I also love fig jam.

Everything is growing and thriving right now – in those old truck beds or inside the PVC cage made for the tomatoes which are held up by orange and blue twine from my straw bales.

In the smaller truck bed, kale continues to produce while lettuce and spinach bolt and set seeds for me.

And in the big truck bed, the salvaged and bent fencing is fast disappearing under the cucumber vines twining up the links! The portulacas in the middle add just a dash of color while bringing in tiny beneficial bees. Finally, all the work is beginning to pay off. That’s it from this junkyard! Here’s hoping you are having happy gardening in your “junkyard”!

Cucumbers climbing chain link fence.

Cukes climbing the fence

Cukes growing

Healthy and happy cucumber plants

Defending My Garden!

Dill growing in with tomatoes

2019 garden in progress

My garden feeds 4 families, every year. It feeds my soul every day.

It is a place of refuge for me, the birds and yes, even the rabbits. 

Recently, the husband of a dear friend of mine described my garden as a, “Junkyard.”

He will remain nameless (as his worth dictates) but I must defend the space that I call my garden.

 

Yes, I have 2 truck beds in my garden. And I love them. Anyone who gardens knows how expensive raised beds are to buy…especially the 3 foot high beds! Well, one of these truck beds was free; the other cost $100.

raised beds from truck beds

Truck beds for raised beds

Both warm up earlier than the ground does so I can plant early. Both keep my crops safe from rabbits and gophers. Both provide a windbreak for transplants which is very important on our property as we are on a hill. Both save my back from bending over to plant, water, pick or bug bust.

See the chain link fence bent in half in the left hand truck bed? I salvaged it from the side of the road and use it as a trellis for crops like cucumbers to grow along.

Found items for the garden

Free barriers

Baskets that were given to me by a friend cover baby plants when it’s cold out. I also use them to keep rabbits from eating tender new leaves on plants or shrubs.

See the yogurt containers on the right? I cut the bottoms out of them (in the foreground) and slide them over vulnerable plants like baby green beans or beets. They are free and they make great collars to keep rabbits and slugs off young plants.

An old screen from the sliding doors we finally had to replace (after 25 years) also provides protection from rabbits, groundhogs and yes, my two West Highland White terriers.

Screen door in the garden

A screen protects beans

Wherever and whenever I can I find and reuse items in my garden and I love being able to do that. I also follow Ruth Stout’s age old advice and use straw to mulch everything from the garden beds and soil to the blueberries, blackberries and herbs.

My garden is not regimented.  Okay, let’s be frank, I am pretty laissez faire when it comes to where some plants show up in my garden.  For example, when my lettuce and spinach start to bolt, I let them grow up and flower. I have 2 ulterior motives – I want the seeds and I want the bees!

Flowers seed themselves

Flowers seed themselves

Borage, dill and bachelor buttons grow together in clumps. Sunflowers grace the back fence. And dill is everywhere! I don’t use dill but it grows where ever its seed landed and I let it grow up and flower.  Why? I want the bees!

 

Volunteer tomato

Tomato volunteers in the sweet potato bed

If you look closely at this picture, you will see a volunteer tomato growing in the sweet potato bed with…yep, some dill.

Volunteer potatoes are growing around the zucchini which I tucked into blueberry patch along with summer squash.

Will this garden of mine win any awards? Probably not. But I love it and I love the food it puts on so many people’s tables.

I love the joy of just wandering early in the morning, the sweet sound of birds singing from morning til night and the beauty that surrounds me every time I step into my garden.

Fresh beets

Fresh beets

First tiny tomatoes

First tomatoes of 2019

Tiny cucumber

First, tiny cucumber of the 2019 season

Spring @ Chez Mucci

Step outside, feel the sun.

Spring at Chez Mucci.

Guess how I know it’s Spring?

Nope, not trees starting to leaf out. Not daffodils or robins or even dandelions. And it’s not the darkling skies of an approaching thunderstorm or the rich scent of dark earth being turned by my fingers, either.

Spring arrives every year when I first inhale the rich, pungent smell of fish emulsion!  The scent is on my hands. Even after washing them I can still smell the perfume of fish wafting in the air. My springtime eau de cologne is from Neptune Harvest. Egg shells and fish emulsion are the only supplements I feed my plants. It’s all they ever get and they thrive on them.

I also know it’s Spring by the state of my basement…actually plant nursery. There are 44 tomato babies in the nursery right now.

Tomato babies in basement

Tomato seedlings

Growing and changing almost daily, these tomato babies will be shared with 3 friends who love getting heirloom, hand raised tomato plants that are non GMO, too.

Beet & lettuce seedlings

Beets & lettuce

My final hint that Spring is here? Baby beets peeking up out of soil, butterhead and oak leaf lettuce enjoying cool evenings and moderate days. Tatsoi shares a bed with the lettuce I seeded in and kale is growing strong and beautiful in one of my truck bed gardens.

This Spring, I also got a new garden friend who is yet another harbinger of one of my favorite seasons.  His name is Maurice AKA Mo.

A birthday present from my funny, sweet husband, Mo is a 77 inch high, metal rooster (I’ve wanted on ever since I read Jenny Lawson’s,  Let’s Pretend This Never Happened). Maurice greets me every single morning as we welcome another Spring day to my backyard garden.

 

Maurice in my backyard

Maurice meets Linus!

Transplanting Tomato Seedlings

It’s moving day for my tomato seedlings — their first moving day, actually.

Tomatoes ready for transplant

Tomatoes ready for transplant

My seedlings move a total of 3 times after they emerge, first into 3 inch pots then, into 5 inch pots and finally, into the garden.

This year I am growing four different varieties but two of my favorites – Atomic Grape and Fox Cherry  are indeterminate so they need to be transplanted before the other two varieties.

Tomato seedlings in cells

Tomato seedlings

Starting my seeds in the grow trays has advantages. I can get the soil warm, quickly and I can keep it consistently moist. Heat and moisture help speed up the process of sprouting for tomato seeds.  The one disadvantage is that indeterminate tomato seedlings outgrow the cells very rapidly.

At the age of 3 weeks and 3 days, these babies are ready for new digs. I start all my seeds in an organic soil specifically created for seed starting. It gives them an edge at the beginning of their lives and makes my life a bit easier too. But when it comes time to transplant, I add a little something something to make the soil lighter – coir.

Coir is coconut husk and it really adds value to the growing process. It improves soil structure by aerating it which is good for baby roots. And coir manages water – regulating water by holding it or dissipating it as needed.

I start by putting a spoon of my soil mix in the bottom of each 3 inch peat pot.

Soil and egg shells in peat pots

Soil & eggshells in peat pots

I also sprinkle just a bit of chopped egg shell on top of that for slow release feeding of the baby plants.

As I take each tomato seedling up out of its cell, I strip off the bottom two leaves and lay the plant at the bottom of the peat pot.

 

Then, I slowly pack soil around its stem until I fill the peat pot to the top. Sinking the seedling to the bottom of the pot lets the stem put out more roots and ground the tomato plant into the pot.

Tomato transplants in peat pots

Tomato transplants in peat pots

Once in pots, I water in each baby tomato to ensure there are no air pockets around the tiny roots of each plant. Then I move them onto trays and over to my plant stand.

They will look a bit battered for a day or two but recover quickly and start to grow into their new homes.

About a week after transplant, I will give them a feeding of very dilute fish emulsion and water. By the 3rd week of April, I will be transplanting all of them, again.

Tomatoes last transplant

Tomatoes’ last pot before the garden

This time, they go into 5 inch wide, 6 inch deep plastic pots (reusable) following the same process – small amount of soil and egg shells, strip off leaves, pack into the new container, water in, rest and a bit of fish emulsion in a week.

Currently I have 44 tomato plants humming along in my basement – that’s about 20 more than I have ever planted but, every year, I give the extra away. My sister-in-law, my niece and 2 gardening friends get 4 or 5 hand-raised, heirloom, organic, non GMO tomato plants to play with.

I love the process of growing tomatoes and I think I love sharing them almost as much!

FYI, I’m also hardening off the tatsoi, kale and lettuce I started in my basement in February.

Kale, spinach and tatsoi

Kale, spinach and tatsoi transitioning to the garden.

It will go in the ground just as April begins. Here’s hoping that the worst of the winter weather is behind us!

Gardening & Climate Change

Global warming is real.

But if you are a gardener, you already know that your world is getting warmer!  But most of my proof was anecdotal. And because the seasons are spread across 365 days, it’s sometimes hard to be sure about what you saw last year or the year before.

I do know that my garlic sprouted in February last year, almost 3 weeks ahead of schedule. I saved most of my crop but I only thought to check the beds because I saw forsythia blooming…in February.

This year, migrating birds started showing up at my feeders the first week of February. I’ve seen Downy Woodpecker and Red Wing Blackbird yearlings struggling to get food around the thousand plus grackles, starlings and cow birds that crowd the bird seed and suet feeders.

They arrived a full month ahead of schedule when temperatures were in the 50’s and 60’s. It looked like Spring was getting started; it seemed like the right time to fly North and start mating and nesting. Then the temperatures plummeted into single digits and the birds got caught by two snow storms and one ice storm.

Volatile weather is another symptom that the globe is heating up. Arctic streams of cold weather are pouring across the mid West and shoving into the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states. Snow is falling in states and towns that have never seen snow before.

Again, some might say that this is all anecdotal – it doesn’t prove that our planet is getting warmer. Want hard evidence that the globe is heating up? Just visit the National Phenology Network – NPN – and watch spring weather creep up the East coast a full 20 days early!

While the rapid approach of Spring may seem like good news, it is really symptomatic of larger and much more serious issues, globally. And it changes any type of growing, including backyard gardening, into a roll of the dice.

Tomato babies under the grow lights.

Tomatoes ready for bigger pots.

That said, I’m still starting seedlings in the basement. This week it’s 48 tomato plants of 5 different varieties. Why so many? I count on some of the babies not making it to adulthood. And I always give tomato plants to 3 of my fellow gardeners (in North Carolina, Virginia and right here in Pennsylvania).

That should leave me with about 24 to 28 tomato plants for my backyard garden. And it ensures that I have plenty of tomatoes for breakfast, lunch and yes, sometimes dinner!

Hope your garden starts are doing well this very cold morning in PA.

 

 

 

Seed Starting Made Easy

My palms are itching. My toes are tapping. My heart is beating faster! It’s time to start the seedlings.  Not all of them, you understand but it’s  enough for me to start the cool weather babies — lettuce, kale, tatsoi and spinach.

Starting seeds indoors is easyIt’s still very cold outside but I am heading to the basement and pulling out my trays, my seed starting soil and my seeds.

Seed starting is really easy as long as you pay attention to a few basics including the right seed, the right starter and the right planters.

Buy the right seed. Now what in the world does that mean? Seed is seed, right? Not in today’s world. Unless it’s certified organic, you could be buying seeds infused with herbicides and pesticides. And guess what? The herbicide and pesticide actually grow right into your plants and right into your produce.

So, only buy 100% certified organic seeds. Where? My favorite outlets for healthy and happy seeds are:

  1. Seeds of Change
  2. Seed Savers Exchange
  3. High Mowing Seeds
  4. Hudson Valley Seeds
  5. Territorial Seeds

These folks have healthy seeds that ensure you grow healthy plants and healthy produce. And they have ideas, tips and equipment for getting started. NOTE: you do NOT have to buy a whole lot of “stuff” to start gardening.

Start your seeds in the right dirt. I know, dirt is dirt. But is it?

Seedlings get a good start in healthy dirt.

Healthy dirt means healthy seedlings.

And what difference does dirt make to growing healthy, happy plants and healthful food? Dirt is everything.

This is one thing I buy every year. Why? Because dirt for starting seeds has to be organic. I get mine from Gardener’s Supply – employee owned and US-based, their seed starting mix has stood the test of time for more than 25 years!

Have the right equipment and tools. Most of my gardening stuff was used when I started. It still is. My favorite seed starting tool are my seed starting kits.

Grow trays are best seed starting tools.

Grow trays are perfect for starting seeds.

I bought these 25 years ago and they are still working great!  The small cell of dirt heats up fast. The base and mat ensure the seedlings never dry out but they also never get too wet or damp off.

If you’re just starting out, don’t invest too much before you start growing. Look around. Use stuff you already have . Check Craigslist to pick up gardening equipment for a song!

I found most of my tools and you can too so don’t let the cost of tools scare you off. (The post on finding tools was written 5 years ago but it still stands as does its companion post on garden tools that are nice to have.)

Getting started is so easy. I hope you take a chance. Grow your favorite vegetable on your patio, in a pot on the back porch or in a plot in the back yard.

Green and organic garden in summer.

My garden in July, 2016.

Give it a shot and just 5 months from now, you could be looking at gorgeous, healthy veggies growing on your very own plants!

Looking for more tips on seed starting? Margaret Roach, one of my most favorite gardening gurus, offers her own seed starting wisdom, too.

Join in. Get your hands dirty. And start growing your own food. It’s fun and it really is easy!!

Happy Spring (almost) everyone!

Homemade Ketchup & Other Garden Goodies

Ratty tomato plants in September

My tomatoes

I know, it’s been awhile since I posted. I’ve been busy!

My garden is looking a bit ratty, especially the tomatoes. Because of all the rain we have had, you can see that almost every plant has Septoria.  The yellow-ringed brown spots cover many of the leaves and the ones farthest gone have turned brown and died.

Septoria damage on tomatoes

Septoria

 

Despite the bout with disease, the absolutely drenching rains and the wonky temperatures, as you can see, these plants continue to produce. I am getting 2 to 3 quarts of Fox Cherry, Atomic grape and Genovese tomatoes every 2 or 3 days!

And I have a volunteer Fox Cherry that decided to plant itself in my compost bin and this baby is producing fruit that is just now starting to ripen. Oh my, more tomatoes! I’ve already made sauce, salsa, scallopine and paste!

Fox cherry volunteer tomato

Volunteer Fox Cherry is huge!

Today, in self defense, I am making ketchup. This is a first for me but I am LOVING what I see and smell.

There are a lot of recipes online for homemade ketchup but the one I liked best was by Pioneer Woman.

Homemade ketchup

Ketchup bubbling away!

This recipe has the least amount of sugar and the subtlest spicing done with fresh onions and garlic, also from my garden.

Homemade wine vinegar

Homemade wine vinegar

 

 

And I got to use some of the wine vinegar I made and bottled last year. The color, flavor and taste of this vinegar is superb — a full mouth feel and soft wine finish.

The recipe for this amazing and rich tasting ketchup is below!

Blueberry, blackberry and cherry jams are lined up on my pantry shelf. Blackberry and cherry brandy are aging in gallon jugs.  And I’ve put up eggplant, green beans, made salsa, scallopine, tomato sauce and tomato paste!

Linus loves the garden.

Linus loves the garden.

So this has been a very good year for my garden. And for my volunteers…who include this new rescue Westie, Linus!

Linus joined our family a short 8 weeks ago after the tragic death of one of our Westies, Spike. He has settled in and is really loving the back yard!

One last thing to share. This is a bite I sustained last Tuesday. It is most likely that of a brown recluse spider. The pain was immediate and immense. Almost simultaneously, my arm stared to itch. There was a single strike mark which raised into a 1/4 inch high blister surrounded by a 2 inch square of rapidly rising smaller blisters.

Week old brown recluse spider bite

Week old spider bite

I did not consult a physician but did use my family’s tried and true remedy for all bites – a baking soda paste, applied immediately to the wound.

The pain and the itching were completely controlled but this bite mark is persisting and will probably leave a scar, maybe in the shape of a heart!

So, in this very wet summer, please make sure you keep your eyes open, be careful and enjoy the fruits of all of your labors.

Recipe: Pioneer Woman Homemade Ketchup

INGREDIENTS
8 Tablespoons Olive Oil
12 cloves Garlic, Minced
4 Medium Onions, Diced
8 Quarts processed tomatoes
1/2 cup Brown Sugar
1/3 cup molasses
1 & 1/3 cup Apple Cider or Wine Vinegar
4 Tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
2 teaspoons Chili Powder
1 teaspoon each of Powdered Ginger, Ground Allspice & Cinnamon

NOTE: if making large batch of ketchup, simply determine total ounces of tomatoes and increase all other ingredients, accordingly.

Directions:
Process tomatoes using the Vittorio juicer to remove seeds and skins. Put tomatoes in large, non-reactive sauce pot and cook overnight on very low flame to reduce and boil off water.

Heat a large, non-reactive frying pan over medium heat. Add olive oil and onions, sauté until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Add sugar, molasses and vinegar to the onion mixture and bring to a slow boil, lower to a simmer and cook for 10 to 12 minutes while the sauce reduces and thiikens slightly..

Add the onion mixture to the tomatoes and continue to simmer, uncovered overnight until very thick. NOTE: Because there is added sugar in this recipe, make sure to keep an eye on it and stir it to keep it from scorching.

Jar and, depending on jar size (pints or quarts) water bath appropriately. Cool, label and store.