how a garden grows: planting the plants

So last we left the garden, the beds were ready but empty.

Not anymore.

Last year we started from seed, and had a spectacular fail where we lost everything because we brought them outside too soon. So in 2014 we ended up buying seedlings through Penn’s Corner, which they get from several area farms and Grow Pittsburgh. They did so well that we decided to do the same this year, and not go right back to trying to start from seed. Perhaps in a year where spring doesn’t include influenza and job changes, we’ll give that a whirl again.

Anyhow, here’s the breakdown of the plants we planted.


Herbs (containers):

Rosemary – $3.82
Chives (zombie chives from last year) – $0
Thyme – $4.17
Oregano – $4.17
Spearmint – $3.82
Cilantro – $3.82
Rosemary – $3.82
Dill (from seeds we had) – $0

Total Herbs: $23.62

rhubarb plant

strawberry hanging basket

Miscellaneous Plants

Rhubarb* – $13.90
Strawberry (hanging basket) – $13.90

Total Miscellaneous Plants: $27.80
* The rhubarb won’t produce until next year, but we just love it so much we wanted to give it a shot. Need to do some more research on taking care of rhubarb, since this is a new thing for us.

peppers and basil


Peppers, Basil & Broccoli (raised beds)

Basil (one 4-pack) – $3.47
Broccoli* (one 4-pack) – $3.47
Hot banana peppers (one 4-pack) – $3.47
Jalapeno pepper (one 4-pack) – $3.47
King of the North sweet pepper – $3.82

Total Peppers, Basil & Broccoli: $17.70
*Trying broccoli again even though we haven’t had success in the past. Because we just love broccoli. Also, the cages are in the pepper and basil bed because we have been too lazy to remove them after the evening we had to cover all the plants because of the threat of frost. Thanks, southwest PA weather.

tomato patch

Tomatoes* (Mounds/Patch)

Earliana (2 @ $3.82) – $7.64
San Marzano (2 @ $3.82) – $7.64
Italian Sweet Beefsteak (2 @ $3.82) – $7.64
Roma (2 @ $3.82) – $7.64
Sun Gold Cherry – $3.82
White Cherry – $3.82
Cosmonaut Volkov – $3.82

Total tomatoes: $42.02

*All of the ridiculous logs in the main photo are there because they held down covers for the plants during the great frost threat. And again, too lazy to remove until we are definitely out of frost territory. I’ll choose to look at it as rustic instead of a hot mess. All of the plants are staked and caged.

Let’s just take a short time out for a little bit of a geek freak-out. Yeah, there’s a tomato in our patch this year called Cosmonaut Volkov. I can’t really explain the depth of my excitement about the name of this plant. Check him out. Grow little Cosmonaut, grow!


The final two beds are empty looking right now, so I didn’t include photos. But one has corn planted, and the other one will soon have green beans.

Corn and Green Beans

Corn – $0 (seeds we had at home)
Green Beans – Cost TBD (*haven’t purchased the seeds yet, will add the cost to a later post)

Total: $0*

flowers 2015


Pansy (one 4-pack) – $3.47
Antigua yellow marigolds (one 4-pack) – $3.47
Antigua orange marigolds (one 4-pack) – $3.47
Crackerjack marigold – $3.82
Dwarf sunflower – $3.82

Total flowers: $18.05

So that’s what the garden is shaping up to have this year. Everything looks to have survived the “frost,” with the exception of the pansies, though they might rebound.

Total cost of plants: $129.19

OK. So you are probably looking at that total and thinking, what the crap, Joanna. Lowe’s has plants for like 69 cents a piece. How can you have a small urban backyard that has a few raised beds and containers and spend $130 on plants?

A few reasons. We don’t just buy random plants at Lowe’s that will produce food for us to eat. Yes, plants at Lowe’s are better than no garden at all, but I like knowing that my plants are either organic or have been grown with natural methods, limiting the amount of pesticides that our plants have been exposed to. I don’t want vegetables that have been exposed to RoundUp or any number of other nasty sprays. We don’t use them in our gardens and we don’t want them in our plants.

Buying our seedlings locally gives us a higher measure of trust in the quality of the plant and where it’s coming from. It also means we’re supporting the same farms that grow food for us, our CSA organization and a local non-profit that gets more people gardening and gets more fresh food into the diets of Pittsburghers. And that’s something we get behind. Lowe’s doesn’t need our money.

Technically seeds are cheaper than seedlings, but we also spent money powering our grow lights last year and buying the starter soils and building the contraption that held them. So that differential seems like a wash. We also know that last year’s seedlings from these farms produced a redonk amount of vegetables, which is why I’m keeping track this year of expenses versus the value of the food we receive. I am confident we will get a return on our investment.

And in the meantime, I get to do what I’m doing right now – sitting on my back deck in front of my pots of herbs and flowers, relaxing in a funky green Adirondack chair, watching the sun set over Carnegie, watching the garden grow.

Total garden cost to date: $265.93

How a garden grows series
Raised bed and container prep


how a garden grows: raised bed and container prep

We spent the better part of the day Saturday getting our raised beds and containers prepped for the growing season, which for us starts this week with the arrival of our seedlings.

So here’s what the gardens and yard looked like before we started. You can see we were cultivating quite the variety of weeds.

weed garden

And these containers? So sad that the watering can just gave up and dropped. The zombie chives were somehow undead, and flowered.

sad containers

So the first order of business was to weed the beds. Which took several hours. Because these weeds were fierce and big with strong roots. And you can’t just pull the tops off, you have to dig in deep and get the whole thing.

Which is probably why people do this a lot earlier in the season. Lesson learned. Remind me in 2016 that I need to get out and weed those beds early.

Side note – apocalypse films and novels never really do justice to just how much weeds will take over the planet when society collapses. I am now convinced.

After the beds were weeded and Mark had mowed the lawn, we were ready for the delivery of our soil and mulch. We’ve been going to Federouch Landscape Supply for the last few years and we have always been really happy with them. This year, our delivery guy was especially nice.


We get one cubic yard of black mulch and another cubic yard of a 50/50 mix of topsoil and mushroom compost. So here’s where we start to keep track of costs. And where you realize how much it costs to NOT have a truck.

2015 Garden Costs
1 cubic yard 50/50 mix: $34.34
1 cubic yard black mulch: $35.35
Delivery fee: $60

Soil and mulch total: $136.74

We could rent a truck from Home Depot or try to borrow a vehicle from someone, but with Federouch having the product we want (not a lot of places carry the compost we want), we just consider it part of the costs of the garden.

And then while I finished weeding, Mark hauled the loads of mulch and soil mix in our one wheelbarrow from our back alley where it was dumped (since we have no driveway) into the yard. We spread it in the beds – soil mix in the pots and raised beds and mulch in the flower beds lining the garage.

Once it was all spread, we put up the fencing around the raised beds to keep the chickens out. And we had this.

prepped beds 3


prepped beds 2

prepped beds 1

I also am happy to have the mulched areas cleaned up, notwithstanding the pollen that fell from the trees all over it to make it not look as perfectly black from the mulch.


Plus, I have learned not to worry about the edges of the mulching. As soon as I care about straight lines, the chickens go dust bathe in it and do this.

egg in mulch

We do have a lovely flowering bush behind the compost. No idea what this is. Can you tell what an expert green thumb I am?

pink flowering bush

We also have a wild strawberry plant behind the compost area, but the chickens get to any and all berries there are before we even know they grew. But it’s fun anyway.

wild straberries

And then there’s this gooseberry bush, which managed to hang on last year and is going like gangbusters. Gotta figure out if we need to stake this guy.

gooseberry bush

So that’s the backyard, prepped and ready for seedlings.


garden update: october

October is the time when the garden of the summer fades. And if your garden looked like a mess in the spring or summer, it doesn’t get any better once things start to wilt. Because then it doesn’t look so much like a garden, but a bunch of overgrown hobo weeds.

So instead of our garden looking like this right now:

Photo from backroads.org

Photo from backroads.org

We have this!

tomato 2 resize

This is our large tomato patch jungle, complete with collapsing fence posts and a chicken to the right, who just wants the fallen tomato that’s hanging out in the front. Not that she couldn’t pick off the ones hanging over the sides of the fence, too.

And here’s the cherry tomatoes.

Tomato 1 resize

We’ve reached our maximum saturation with the garden, picking the last of the tomatoes (both a blessing and a sadness). Even though the tomato plants are still hanging in (at least some of them), they aren’t ripening anymore on the vine with the change in weather. I’m thinking it’s time to go collect the green ones and try out Mark’s grandfather’s way of ripening tomatoes over winter. Rumor has it he took a box and layered green tomatoes in it with newspaper like lasagna, and then let it hang out in their cold basement. The release of ethylene over time helps them to ripen slowly. Might be a fun experiment at the least.

Some beds we have already ripped out, like this empty bed we used for green beans this year. They did really well, but eventually we pulled them when they stopped producing, so we can make way for some fall greens if we choose to plant some. (Though stay tuned on that one, because we’re a little behind on the fall planting.) As you can see by the big weed that sprouted in the empty bed.

beans resize

The corn was prolific this year, but we made a rookie corn mistake and left it on the plant too long. It basically became starch nuggets, and we had to just share it with the chickens because it did NOT taste good. But the dried stalks are going to make good porch decoration for me, at least!

corn resize

And last but not least, we have the peppers and chard. The peppers are still there, but like the tomatoes, have stagnated in their growth. I think we’ll let some of them go, though, since we already have an abundance of preserved hot peppers. The chard is still coming, but I’m letting it hang out while we eat up some CSA items.

peppers resize

Again, note that there’s nothing picturesque about these gardens. They are overgrown and wild at the moment. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t get a ton of amazing food from them this year. Which perhaps illustrates one of the coolest things about gardening – you don’t have to be perfect at it to do it. You just do the best you can with what you have and nature surprises you with its resilience and abundance.

Have you finished off your garden for the year or are you still going strong?




garden update: early september

Really, this post should be subtitled “The Tomato Jungle” because that’s pretty much what we have going on right now. It’s kind of a hot mess in our backyard right now.

But let’s start with a few things that aren’t tomatoes. After the great chard harvest of 2014, the plants are rebounding and we’re getting another batch. I hope this lasts into the fall.

It seems like our bell pepper plant is slowing down, but this poblano one? It has exploded with tiny peppers, just recently. Where the heck were all these guys in August?

Storms have collapsed some of our corn stalks, but we were able to salvage the ears of corn from them so really this just looks worse than it is.

Now if I can just get the broken stalks out of there so it stops looking so much like a scene from the Wizard of Oz.

Beans need a final pick, but I haven’t been able to get to them because of this situation.

Those pictures are from two different pickings, within 4 days of each other. Our tomato plants have been heavy with green tomatoes for more than a month, and recently they finally decided to start to ripen. Like gangbusters.

I pick some of them slightly early, as soon as they turn a little bit red, because of this situation.

The plants are so big they are collapsing over their too-small cages (that was our big fail with these things this year) and falling out to where the chickens can reach them. So I try to grab them as soon as they go slightly red, to bring them inside to ripen, outside of the reach of the tomato hungry ladies in the backyard.

Some of the stalks are breaking and dying off, which is probably due to their weight. Not pretty or garden blog worthy, surely, but I can’t complain about how much these plants have produced.

Though seriously, we have to do better with caging and trellising next year. This one is just begging to be set free.

So far, we’ve been freezing tomatoes to keep up with them. I’ll do a post on that at some point, too, but from just a fraction of the tomatoes in that first photo of the on our island, I got 15 pounds of frozen tomatoes, ready for sauce and chili.

I hope to can at least a batch of them this year, if not two, and possibly do some salsa as well, depending on how the peppers look. We’ve done more freezing than canning this year, which is weird, but at the same time, we’ve had less available weekend time due to triathlon and marathon training.

We’ve been able to preserve most of the tomatoes from the garden thus far. I just hope I can keep up as we get the final deluge!

How’s your garden doing? Are you still harvesting or ready for fall? 


garden update: early August

Really the subtitle of this post should be “all the green tomatoes” because primarily, that’s what we’ve got going on in our garden right now.

Yep. And there’s more.

These ones look almost like pears or peppers.

This is just a tiny snapshot of the tomatoes we have going on right now. You can imagine the scope of the tomato issue when I show you that this is what the tomato beds look like right now.

Yeah… It’s kind of a jungle. We don’t win awards in this house for aesthetics, that’s for sure. But in just a few weeks we will likely be up to our eyeballs canning tomatoes and making salsa. I’m not complaining because they taste pretty great. The few that have ripened so far were made into the first batch of fresh tomato sauce (which we freeze) and it filled the house with the best smell – like the best of summer.

Beyond the tomatoes, the beans have been producing like mad. This was not even all of what I picked the other night. I had about another two bags of that size.

So the netting we have to keep the chickens out is still askew from me ripping it apart to get in there and pick. I was racing a thunderstorm that night so I was moving as fast as possible. Again, not winning any awards for aesthetics.

None of our cucumber plants made it, but we have had so many cucumbers from our CSA and my grandparents’ garden that I’m honestly kind of happy we don’t have any more.

One really cool thing though, is this bed of sweet corn. 

It’s so tall – and we’re seeing some silk. Here come the ears!

It will be pretty awesome to have a few ears of corn from our own backyard. Crazy to think just a couple months ago these were just seeds. 

The chard is also still doing well. Big huge leaves and vibrantly colored stalks.

Last but not least we have peppers. Lots of those coming, of different types. Hopefully right around the time for salsa.

Late August is the peak time for us for gardening and canning, so I’m trying to stay ahead of the game with what veggies we’re eating and preserving with a little white board on our fridge. 

How’s your garden doing?

starting seeds: abject failure and plan b

Welp. Remember the seedlings we so lovingly started and then transplanted? Yeah, those ones that lived under Mark’s elaborate grow light complex that probably made our neighbors think we were growing pot for months? They’re gone. Dead. All of them.

It’s really hard to admit when a project that you think you have a handle on ends up as an abject failure. But we brought them outside too soon, and did not bring them in as often as we should have, so the cold got them first. And then the series of hail storms and torrential rains finished them off. Really I can’t even share a photo of them because it’s just too sad after all the hard work and love we put into them.

Right now I feel adamantly against trying to grow from seed next year, after the time and money we spent this season which was wasted. But the desire to try, try again is strong in me, so I’m sure come late winter next year you’ll see me posting about which seeds we’re starting. For now, we have to turn to Plan B. 

Thankfully we still had time to order healthy seedlings from Penn’s Corner, who supplied them from several of their member farms as well as Grow Pittsburgh. After prepping the beds last weekend, Mark planted the tomatoes and peppers yesterday and I potted the herbs.

This bed has pepper plants, as well as extra room where we’re going to try a couple of our direct-seed items. Perhaps we’ll grow something from seed after all this year.

We rotated tomatoes out of the bed where we had them last year (which has yet to be filled). This year they have plenty of room in this “pen” garden. 

We also collect eggshells during the garden season, dry them out and “give” them to the tomatoes. It’s worked well for us in the past. 

We also have a berry bush growing, which was rather unexpected, since we thought it wasn’t going to make it, after a shipping problem. Seems like it’s holding on so far.

So that’s the story of how we lost all of our seedlings, but still ended up with a planted (or mostly planted) garden. Now we just need to finish the last bed, fill up the existing ones and get the flowers planted, and the backyard will be complete. One step (and one failure!) at a time!

book review: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

I have read most of Michael Pollan’s works, including all of his books pertaining to food. I’ve reviewed Cooked on this blog, as well as Second Nature.I find his writing really engaging, so I stick with his books not just because he’s considered one of the top food studies experts in the country. 

I had seen the documentary based on The Botany of Desire around the same time as I first watched Food, Inc. years ago. (You can actually watch the documentary on PBS’s website here.) I realized more recently I had never actually read the book. The subtitle, A Plant’s-eye View of the World, is fitting, and probably what makes this book about plants stand out from any others I’ve read.

Pollan acknowledges that for centuries, we’ve believed that we as humans control plants. But for this book, he turns that around and asks if it’s possible that plants are shaping us as well. He centers the book around four basic plants and how they evolved over time to satisfy something humans want. Domesticated plants have a reciprocal relationship with us – it’s a two-way street.

The plants he covers are apples (sweetness), tulips (beauty), cannabis (intoxication) and potatoes (control). In the section on apples, he discusses the legend of Johnny Appleseed – how much was true, how apples evolved in America, and how they’ve been used over centuries to satisfy our cravings for sweet. Most apples from seed are bitter and their fruits were used to make hard cider. It’s only through grafting over many years that we were able to cultivate sweet fruit, partly owing to a backlash against alcohol. My favorite part of this section was learning about how apples protect their genetic diversity – they are very different from many other plants. Human behavior threatens them by reducing that diversity in the quest for the same, consistent and sweet fruit.

The tulip section tries to answer the question of why we spend billions of dollars cultivating flowers that we can’t eat (besides their use to bees) – the desire for beauty. The info on floral reproduction was a little bit dry, though useful. However, the discussion of the tulipmania that swept Amsterdam in the 17th century, where a single bulb cost a fortune, captured my interest.

Probably my favorite section of this book, ironically, was the section on cannabis. It starts by talking about how plants protect themselves from predators by poisoning or sickening them, yet also draw other animals to them for their own purposes (reproduction). Culturally, it’s almost universal that groups of people are drawn to plants and substances that alter consciousness – and marijuana has provided that for centuries – in use since recorded history began, at the very least. When the U.S. war on drugs threatened its existence, it evolved to be grown indoors (and out of the reach of government efforts to curb its growth). Because it has to be grown so carefully, cross-bred for the best traits, etc. marijuana has reached new heights of growth and potency – the opposite of what the war on drugs wanted to achieve.

Scientists study the effects of intoxicant plants on humans, finding the tetrohydracannibinol (THC) that marijuana produces binds to receptors in our brains that affect memory and consciousness. But we also produce THC-like chemicals naturally, that do the same thing. It’s like we’re hardwired to respond. 

The potatoes section talks about the history of potatoes being a sustaining crop for many cultures, and also the problems that came with that dependency – the Irish potato famine in the 19th century. Within weeks, a fungus destroyed all potato crops – the result of a monoculture grown where no plant could offer up any resistance and the fungus could spread like wildfire. While the resulting starvation of a huge population of people was also due to factors beyond the destroyed, it served as a lesson to growers that monocultures are a great risk. However, we’re still growing monocultures of potatoes today – in particular, the Russet Burbank (the fry of choice for McDonald’s). This portion of the book talks about the effect on farmers and land, trying to grow potatoes in monoculture and make them disease and pest resistant (this is where lots of chemicals and genetic modification come in). 

It’s not often that we look at agriculture from the perspective that Pollan does in this book. I’ve never thought of plants having priorities – but it makes a lot of sense, and goes hand in hand with research that’s being done on plant intelligence. It certainly makes me look at my own garden differently – and will probably shape what will be planted in the coming year. Will I go for the maximum return for me, in what I desire? Or the maximum return for the plant, at the expense of beauty or taste? Hopefully the answer lies somewhere in the middle.