2015: a new season

After the snowiest winter in Boston history, this spring, so far, has been a typical one. I’ve started nothing as far as seeds go. Some life changes coming up this year will make gardening, alas, a limited endeavor. But I’ll do what I can, taking pleasure where I find it. One cool thing…the garlic that I planted last fall, and which spend the winter under a deep mantle of snow, appears healthy and happy.



October 14

Planted the fall garlic yesterday.

A very cool followed by a cool, dry fall. Tomato and pepper production was off (peppers WAY off). On the other hand everything (tomatoes, herbs, cabbage) is still alive and coming in. Never did get beans in this year.


2014: Beginnings

2014 is looking a lot like 2013…a late start, seedling purchased mostly from a garden center. I actually tried to start seeds at work and while some did OK most did not. I got brassicas into the ground not too late (early-mid May) but as of now (July 6) they’ve done very little. I got a first batch of tomatoes in last week in June and a second batch just the other day. The soil in the gardens does not look particularly good…I think my failure to add compost the past few years is showing. In addition tomatoes I put in some peppers, also bought at the garden center, but I suspect these will do poorly. I do have some nice heads of lettuce in the back garden although the seeds I planted in the whiskey barrel out front have not produced much.

2013 Redux

Writing this from memory in 2014…

I didn’t get time to devote time to the garden in 2013 like I usually do. Most things went in late and what did go in was mostly purchased late (mid-June) at a garden center. Between the late start, the aged seedlings, and the lack of regular attention, it was not an especially productive year. Herbs did well, tomatoes so-so, most other things poorly.

What WAS remarkable about the season was how long certain crops lasted. Tomatoes went well into late October with no sign of wilt and black spot that usually makes an appearance in late summer. The weather stayed temperate with no major storms…perhaps that was part of it. Discussions with  friends up and down the Northeast revealed a similar experience.

POPYC Garden 2013

An inaugural post for the 2013 POPYC garden.

What Came Back

As always, it was interesting to see what plants from last year returned. And it was fairly predictable: In the vegetable bed–nothing. In the planters, the hostas I planted last year. (The hostas I transplanted last year to either side of the front gate also came back.). In the herb beds, chives, oregano, sage (in a big way), and parsley. The chives and sage are both in full flower this weekend. Both need cutting back to make room for other things. The parsley looks like it’s on steroids and is going to seed (as second year parsley usually does). I’ll replace it with new plants in a few weeks.

This Weekend’s Plantings

Visited Salt Marsh Nursery this today and picked up a few things for the planters and herb garden. For the planters, I’ve decided to go with what worked well last year: for the set near the doors, hostas and impatiens. For the set near the walkway entrance, black-eyed susan (from my garden) and marigolds. I also put in some red snapdragons.

I also did a bit of planting in the herb garden: on the left side I added ornamental grass dug up from my own yard. It should look great once it catches on. I also added small thyme and rosemary plants, plus a few marigolds (Charlie said he’d like to see a little color in the front beds this year).

April 13 Weather Report

Following a cool, but not unseasonably cool, March, April seems ready to enter her rainy period. The month so far has been windy, with a dearth of warm days and bright sunshine. The daffodils have been in bloom since early in the month. The forsythia is just starting. I’ve put nothing in the ground yet, although the broccoli and cabbage are about ready to go.

The cost-effective garden

The-FarmerLike most gardeners, each year I have to make choices about what to plant. Being a practical guy, my choices are largely determined by practical considerations, such as available space, what’s likely to do well, what is most cost-effective, and what offers the best improvement over its market counterpart. There are ancillary considerations that have more of an emotional aspect to them, such as what is easiest to grow and what is most satisfying, although for a practically-minded person one could argue that these are simply reflections of the previous considerations.

Cost-effectiveness may not be a consideration for every gardener but probably is for most. For me, the aim of cost-effectiveness derives less from an actual need to cut costs and more from the simple challenge of doing so. I do like to experiment with different crops each year, and at the end of each season part of evaluating the success or failure of a particular crop is answering the question, “Did growing this at home save money?” If the answer is No then likely I won’t grow that item again. But it’s also not a one-size-fits-all equation. There are variable,s like the cost of a particular item in my locale and how much I use a particular item. Carrots, I’ve decided are not worth growing at home. Not that I don’t use them and like them…I love them and use them all the time. But they’re relatively cheap to buy, my attempts at growing them did not go well, and the ones I did grow didn’t taste especially better than the ones at the market.

Looking online for articles on cost-effective homegrown veggies I found this article from EarthEasy.com. . It identified these as the top six most cost effective vegetables to grow at home. (No herbs or fruits made the list, I assume because they were not considered).

  1. Lettuce
  2. Bell Peppers
  3. Garlic
  4. Winter Squash
  5. Tomatoes
  6. Broccoli

Interesting. With the exception of tomatoes (not my list at all. I probably would have named (in order):

  1. Tomatoes
  2. Basil
  3. Swiss Chard
  4. Hot peppers
  5. Green Beans
  6. Frying Peppers

Bell peppers I accepted awhile ago just do not do well in my cool, coastal Massachusetts climate. Winter squash requires too much space and even then I don’t use it all that much. The article DOES tempt me to try planting garlic this fall.

Nahant garden 2013…early thoughts: herbs

January 20, 2013Permalink Leave a comment

basilSoon it will be time to plan and begin purchasing seeds for this year’s Nahant garden. As I have a tendency when ordering seeds to get a little over optimistic and enthusiastic, and as I’ve been gardening in Nahant for over ten years now (and coastal Massachusetts closer to twenty), I thought it would be a useful exercise to remind myself, by recording some notes on my experiences with various plants in this climate, what has and has not worked for me, what it makes sense to grow, and what it might not.

Between flowers, veggies, herbs, and whatnot else, there’s too much to cover all of it in a single post. So I’ll break it down, and in this post tackle herbs.

Generally speaking I’ve found herbs are very worth having in my New England garden. Most are relatively easy to grow, even in the cool, coastal climate of Massachusetts. Most are fairly easy to start, if not from seed then from cuttings or transplants. A fair number will  winter over and give you two seasons or more. They don’t take up a lot of space, they’re pleasant to look at, and are largely free of diseases. Importantly, for someone like me who uses herbs quite a bit in cooking, growing them can save quite a bit of money as herbs, especially fresh herbs, are typically not cheap to buy fresh in quantity.

So here’s a breakdown of my favorite garden herbs. I used a star system (**** is the highest) to rate how indispensable I find them in the garden.

Basil (****): If I could only have one herb in my garden, it would be basil. Basil produces so nicely, is useful in so many dishes, and is so expensive to buy in quantity, that growing it is a no-brainer. (Also, the “fresh” basil you find in the market, in addition to being overpriced,  is often wilted, moldy, and  devoid of flavor.) Starting basil from seed is a little hit or miss. Germination is good, but getting the seeds from the sprout to healthy seedling stage takes some attention: too little water and it easily dries out; too much and seedlings damp off. That said, I don’t think it’s necessary at all to buy basil as seedlings unless you can get it at a really good price. Most important, both to raising seedlings and to getting them started in the earth, is to give them the sunlight and warmth basil loves. In coastal New England, basil does not like planting outdoors earlier than mid-June. Seedlings require a lot of light and an environment that doesn’t dip below the 70s.

Basil is an herb best used fresh and in my opinion that’s the only way to use it. Dried basil, while it’s available in the market, retains so little of the fresh plant’s flavor that it is not worth using. For this reason I don’t dry my basil at the end of the season. The bulk of it gets used in homemade tomato sauces (which are themselves frozen for later use). You can also make a paste of blended basil leaves and olive oil which you can freeze to have it available until next season’s basil comes online. It’s not nearly as good as fresh, but it’s a world better than dried.

Varieties: Basil comes in many varieties and every year there is something new to try. I’ve done well with standards like Genovese and Italian Large Leaf. I have tried Thai basil but the plants, while do not produce well, perhaps due to the cool New England climate.

Parsley (****): Parsley is difficult to get started from seed. Germination rate is low, and once germinated seedlings tend to be delicate and spindly for weeks until they finally “get going.” Once it finally does get going, however, parsley is one of the hardiest of garden herbs. It does well in a variety of soils, thrives in partial shade to full sun, and is very good at taking its moisture “out of the air,” so it doesn’t require a lot of watering .Parsley benefits from regular cutting, which encourages new shoots and a fuller plant. While plants typically last only one season, on occasion they may come back for a second. Like basil, parsley is a poor candidate for drying, retaining little of its flavor and none of the attractiveness that make it such an appealing garnish.

Varieties: While I’ve done well with both broad leafed and curly leafed varieties, I find broad leafed parsley such as Giant of Italy more robust, bountiful, and flavorful.

Sage (****): Sage is an absolutely wonderful home garden herb–a perennial, easy to grow, hardy, attractive, rich in flavor and scent, and  fine candidate for drying (although it winters so well it’s as easy to pick leaves from the winter garden as you need them). I’ve never grown sage from seed and never expect to; seedlings are easy enough to buy and do quite well. Sage in my garden does well in full to partial sun, only requiring a little pruning now and then to keep it from getting leggy.

Varieties: Common sage is all I’ve ever grown and all I’d ever expect to.

Oregano (***): Given that dried oregano is inexpensive to buy and fairly flavorful, oregano in the garden is not a requisite. Still, oregano is so attractive, aromatic, and easy to grow that that I can’t imagine going without it. Like most herbs, it’s needs are basic: warmth, moderate to full sun, moderate moisture, and well-drained soil. While growing oregano from seed can be done, it’s much easier is to start it from seedlings. Unfortunately, the seedlings many garden centers sell is not the true Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare hirtum…the hirtum being the important part) but wild majorum (Origanum vulgaris), an ornamental oregano which has a nice scent but zero flavor. To test if a plant is Greek Oregano, break off a leaf and bite into it…true Greek oregano will literally numb the tip of your tongue. It also produces white flowers, as opposed to wild majorum’s pink. In my climate oregano is a slow but steady grower. It’s described as a tender perennial; with a light covering of leaves to protect it I’ve had the same plant come back year after year.

Chives (***): Chives are so simple, hardy, and easy to grow that it’s easy to take them for granted. I’m not even sure where mine came from originally…probably I found them growing wild in the lawn. I don’t use them a ton in cooking although they make a nice garnish in soups, sauces, and salads. They do fine with moderate light and moderate moisture. About the only maintenance they require is separating every few years if they get too thick. From late spring into early summer their purple flowers make one of the showier displays in the herb garden. Once planted, they come back on their own ever year. The only maintenance they require is occasional separating to prevent overcrowding. I don’t go to the trouble of drying my chives for winter use. Like basil, dried chives do not hold flavor well.

Thyme (***): I wish I used thyme more in cooking. It’s certainly something I aspire to. When I think of this classic culinary herb I think of hearty, steaming winter dishes, soups and stews. Like oregano, thyme can be a little tricky to start from seed…difficult at first and prone to drying out. That early stage is followed by a period of slow growth as a seedling. But once transplanted in the ground, when it eventually takes hold, it becomes quite hardy. In fact, it is one of the hardiest herbs in the garden, a perennial that can get by in partial sun with very little care. Like oregano, thyme is one of the best herbs to dry, retaining its flavor quite well. In my garden thyme spreads nicely yet without taking over. While it prefers full sun it does fine in partial shade. Thyme is a perennial that has a reputation  of getting “woody” after several seasons; that is, the ratio of leaf to stem goes down quite a bit. When this happens, traditional advice is to pull out the plant and put in a new one. A fair solution, although not necessary if the current plant is still producing enough leaves to suit your needs.

Varieties: German Winter

Rosemary (**): Rosemary is among my favorite herbs from an aesthetic standpoint: attractive and headily fragrant. It’s also wonderful to cook with, especially as a flavoring for fish or fowl. In the garden I have success…but only up to a point. Given full sun and well-drained soil, rosemary grows quite well in my climate. However, each year attempts to bring rosemary inside to overwinter in pots meets with failure. The plants do OK for a while, but then one day just seem to give up the ghost and die almost overnight. This may well be due to insufficient conditions on my part as I have a brother-in-law who has had the same rosemary plants in his kitchen window for years now. When grown indoors, rosemary demands the right combination of plenty of sun, constant temperatures, and–very important–regular watering, yet without over-saturation. Because these are conditions I just cannot meet, these days my rosemary plants begin as seedlings purchased in the spring. (Growing rosemary from seed, due to poor germination, is very difficult and not worth it.) They go into the garden and end there in the fall, by which time they may have acquired a height of 24 to 30 inches. Rosemary is a good candidate for drying, although the dried needles, while flavorful, do not retain nearly the same heady aroma of fresh cut. Thus, even when I have dried rosemary on hand, in winter I’ll often opt for a trip to the market to buy fresh.

Cilantro (**): As much as I like cilantro, and as easy as I sense it is to grow in some places, I’ve just never had much luck with it. It germinates well enough from seed but I find taking the germinated seed to a healthy seedling challenging. Like parsley, it goes through an extended fragile stage (at least in containers) where too much or too little water can kill it easily. Once it takes hold in the garden (full sun is requisite) it does well enough but goes to seed in a matter of weeks. My best cilantro crop is not one I start in containers but the one that comes up on its own in mid to late spring, reseeded from last year’s plants that bolted. While I’m a big fan of volunteers, the problem is that after that first crop the cilantro does not reseed itself again until the following year (that’s something I’d like to understand…why this year’s seeds do not germinate until next year). The time I’d most like a steady supply crop of fresh cilantro is from late summer to mid-fall to use in with my fresh tomatoes and salsa roja and pico de gallo. Unfortunately that’s when I never seem to have any in the garden. A conclusion I’m coming to is simply that cilantro  is happiest and healthiest when growing wild like a weed. Hence it does not like being started in containers and direct seeding may be a more efficient way to plant. Due to its propensity for fast bolting, to have a steady, full season crop of cilantro it seems you need to start new seeds every six weeks or so.

Mint (*): Against advice to the contrary, I planted mint in my garden several years ago. By the following season, when runners kept popping up everywhere despite almost daily pulling, I acknowledged the mistake. Never again. Mint simply takes over and once it’s taken hold is extremely difficult to remove. Last year as an experiment I tried mint in some largish containers but it did not do particularly well…to thrive, mint, though shallow-rooted, needs lots of room to spread. In the future I’ll stick to getting my mint from the market or from friends (hopefully not neighbors) who grow it. Indian markets are a good source of inexpensive mint since it is used so extensively in Indian cooking.

Dill (*): I list dill here having never really grown it successfully or given it a decent shot. I’ve tried it from seed once or twice and found it difficult to germinate and harder still to bring to seedling stage. But I’d like to try again. Hence this entry is more a reminder to myself than anything else.

Here’s a table summarizing the characteristics of the herbs I’ve listed. Lots of this is subjective…just my best impression based on personal experience. Your mileage may very

Easy to Start from Seed Easy to Grow Dries Well Good Money Saver  Overwinters
Basil Y Y N Y  N
Chives ? Y N N  Perennial
Cilantro Y Y/N N Y  No, but will reseed itself.
Dill N Y N N  N
Mint ? Y N N  Y
Oregano Y Y Y N Y
Parsley N Y N Y  Occasional bi-ennial.
Rosemary N Y Y Y If brought inside
Sage ? Y Y Y Y
Thyme  N Y Y Y Y

Herbs I Tried and Moved on From

  • Bee Balm: This actually did well and was quite attractive but only lasted a single season. It’s use was ornamental only, but I might try introducing it again.
  • Catnip: When it did grow the cats quickly tore it up.
  • Ecinacea: aka, purple coneflower. This grows wild in my area but in my little Nahant garden with limited light does only so-so. Still, it’s very pretty so I may give it another go.
  • Lavender: Tried it once from seedlings. Did not do especially well plus not sure what I’d use it for anyway.

Finally…Some Herbs I’d Like to Try

  • Cumin
  • Savory
  • Valerian

Christmas chiles

January 13, 2013Permalink Leave a comment

hot_peppers_for_treating_psoriasisFor Christmas my sister Karen gave me an assortment of dried peppers she purchased at Christina’s Spice & Specialty Foods of Inman Square, Cambridge, MA. As I wasn’t familiar with the varieties (and as in addition to eating them I might want to try planting them come spring) I looked them up. Here they are described.

  • Puya: Large (6″ long) finger-shaped. Online description: “Red, ripening to black, hot pepper growing to about 4″ long. The puya is popular in Mexican cooking and its origin dates back to early Central America. The peppers are fairly hot (6 of 10 in heat), with a nice, sharp flavor.”
  • Ancho Pasilla: Chunky heart-shapped 4″ long by 2″ wide. Online description: “Deep red, to black colored pepper with a mild flavor. Extremely popular pepper, used to make mole sauces. In the United States producers and grocers often incorrectly use pasilla to describe the poblano, a different, wider variety of pepper whose dried form is called an ancho. Pasillas are used especially in sauces. They are sold whole or powdered in Mexico.”
  • Tianjin Red Chiles: medium (4″ log) finger-shaped. Online description: “The tiny, red chili peppers that grow in Northern China look innocent but contain a scorching, mouth numbing heat. Also known as Chaotian Chili, Havista Tianjin Chili Peppers are harvested, dried, and served in traditional Chinese dishes around the world. Tianjin Chili Peppers are not for the weak at heart, but chili lovers will savor their tantalizing heat and earthy, slightly fruity flavor.”
  • Peguin: Small, about the size and shape of a watermelon seed but thicker. Online description: “Tiny chile, about 1″ long, but extremely hot (13–40 times hotter than jalapeños), and commonly used in ultra-spicy meals. Flavor is described as citrusy, smoky (if dried with wood smoke), and nutty. Plants are semi-annual and in warmer climates can survive for several years.”
  • Arbol: Small (3″) finder-shaped. Online description: “The Chile de árbol (Spanish for tree chili) is a small and potent Mexican chili pepper also known as bird’s beak chile and rat’s tail chile. Their heat index is between 15,000 and 30,000 Scoville units. The peppers are a bright red color when mature. Chile de árbol peppers can be found fresh, dried, or powdered. As dried chiles, they are often used to decorate wreaths because they do not lose their red color after dehydration.”

In addition to the chiles (and an assortment of Belizean-style hot sauces) she also gave me several interesting spice mixes .

  • Aji Amarillo Powder: Also Known as Aji Escabeche Powder, Peruvian Chile Powder or Yellow Chili Powder. Origin: Peru. Taste and Aroma: Distinctive, lemony, medium heat and fruity. Uses: Sauces, rice, soup, Peruvian Cuisine, stews, salsa and chilis.
  • Chipotle Morita: Chipotle Chile (Capsicum annuum) powder is made from grinding whole Chipotles, seeds and pod both. This Chipotle Powder is 100 pure to provide an authentic flavor. Chipotle Peppers are the familiar Jalapeno Chile, first smoked, then dried. They have a deep brick reddish brown color. Use Chipotles in enchilada sauces, chili, stews, barbecue rubs, and corn bread. Their smoky quality combines well with poultry, meats and fall squash. My note: a definite hot tang on the lips and tongue. Should be excellent in chili.
  • Chile Mix Dark: A dark (black pepper-colored) chili seasoning mix. Not sure what’s in it (besides plenty of cumin). Minimal heat. Can’t wait to try it, tho. 🙂

First frost?

October 12, 2012Permalink Leave a comment

Dipping down into the thirties tonight, potentially the first frost of the season although more likely the temps will stay in the upper 30s. Still, it was enough to get me to bring in the potted rosemary, pick a bunch of basil, and harvest as many of the hot peppers as were usable in size. Tomorrow I’ll scour the garden to harvest any additional usable peppers and tomatoes.

I also need to put together a year end report for the Nahant garden. So I’ll do that as well.