the all volunteer army

I’ve grown vegetable plants many, many times before. This is the first time I’ve done so many things from seed. As challenging as nurturing seedlings into full-grown plants can be, babying things from seed adds a whole new level of difficulty. I can’t tell you how many seedlings I’ve seen die from too much water, not enough water, too much sun, not enough sun, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time this season. I’m not sure I’m cut out for this level of commitment every year.

That’s why I’m thankful for the veritable terra cotta army of volunteer tomato plants that I discovered when taking out my (overwhelmingly prolific) pea plants. I’d interspersed spinach seeds in the pea bed, but the peas went nuts and the spinach was crowded out, so I wasn’t expecting much. Imagine my surprise when I saw these lovely offspring from last year’s bumper crop of tomatoes.

(There’s still some straggly peas in there, sorry). I must have pulled out as least as many little plants to sacrifice to the gods of space as what you see freshly mulched above. I decided to keep these guys because, other than Sun Golds, none of my tomato seedlings are turning out well. And by that I mean I transplanted them into large containers over a month ago and they’re still not any bigger than two inches tall.

So this little life lesson is teaching me to be thankful for what I get. Even if I have no idea what types of tomatoes these guys will end up to be. They will still be juicy and delicious and full of seeds for next year’s crop of mistakes.

What’s a garden post without a victory garden update? Drumroll please…

Now we’re cooking with gas. Told you I had a bumper crop of peas. With one pack of snow peas and half a pack of snap peas, I racked in pounds and pounds of the darn things. This also doesn’t count what I randomly munched on before I got inside to the scale, or the ones I missed picking and found while ripping the fading pea plants out.

You can see that the ridiculously hot weather we had this spring did not really help my greens out much. Same thing with the shiitakes (we have a mushroom log, which is fan-freaking-tastic) – we had four giant ones pop out at once, and then nothing, because it’s been so hot.

Things that still look reasonably good in my yard include – the bean teepee (I wanted to do more than one but I ran out of steam), the Parisian pickling cucumbers, dill, creeping thyme, mint, chives, zucchini, onions, garlic, tomatoes, lemongrass. I planted pumpkin seeds but haven’t seen any vines pop up yet, and I didn’t get to a bunch of seeds that I wanted to. But hey, there’s always next year.

holy peas, batman!

I’ve gotten over three pounds of snap and snow peas out of my garden in the past three weeks. My trellises are groaning. I’m in heaven. Peas and beans were by far my favorite veggies to snitch from the garden when I was a kid. My kids, not so much. More for me! I’ve been snitching for days, and feeling quite self-righteous when I do, thankyouverymuch.

(Once I make it to the grocery store to price peas I’ll do the math.)


Yes, I know that’s only three ounces. I’ve picked a lot more since then.


Good stuff from the garden, on its way to a pasta salad for a foodie party. Spinach, red onion, peas, garlic scapes, thyme, oregano, and shiitake mushrooms.


Thanks, domestic goddess turned convicted felon, for giving me the idea to blanch the peas in with the noodles right before they finished cooking.


The finished product. Added some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and stinky cheese, and I was good to go.

Note: the only thing I bought specifically for this spring salad was the pasta. I had everything else (yes, even the stinky cheese) in my kitchen, or I had plucked it from the garden. This, my friends, is one of the reasons why I grow things.

grow it yourself.

I’m working on it, I swear. What Uncle Sam never tells you is how all-encompassing growing things can be. When I’m not out in the garden, I’m thinking about it, cursing it, or dreaming about it. This is not necessarily a good thing.

But – things are starting to progress. Things are sprouting to the point where I feel like I’m not completely useless. The cold frame is done enough that it’s usable (though the windows are not actually attached to the frame at all, making hoisting the darn things a little difficult) and all the seedlings are outside. That is, all the surviving seedlings are outside. I’m not even going to dicsuss how many seedlings looked fantastic one day and dead the next. (Cilantro and romaine, I’m looking at you).

The peas are going INSANE. They’re already waist high and have completely overwhelmed the sad bamboo trellis that worked ok last year. And something has started munching them – though that only started about a week ago, so I consider myself lucky. I drafted my minions to help me wrestle some deer netting (aka nasty spiderweb craziness) and the peas are securely wrapped. Not sure how I’m gonna get to the peas, but that’s a thought for next week.

Now for the real goods: money. I caved and bought some seedlings at the Grow Pittsburgh seedling sale at the Frick greenhouse, mainly because I was unhappy with how my basil was growing and never got around to starting the dill. But! I was only sent two apple trees, not three, so not being charged for the third tree helped balance that out a little. I SWEAR I will buy no other plants or seeds. I promise.

Even better – harvesting has begun:

Yes, I know, it’s pathetic, but it’s only the beginning. In case you’re wondering, I’m weighing everything on our home food scale (that’s the best I can do), and then heading to the grocery store to see what the corresponding price is on the shelves that week. I’d compare it to our local farmer’s market but since that’s only for four hours one day a week and I’m usually doing a screaming trip to the store a half-hour before it closes, I figured this was more realistic.

hello, perennials

I know I’m slacking in the garden update department – yell at my life for getting in the way. Seriously, do it, I need things to calm down a little. Thanks.

I took a series of photos last month of all the things that were cropping up in my garden, and I just realized that most of them (except for the peas, overachievers that they are) are plants that are perennials or that were planted last fall. For me, they are the gifts that keep on giving – when you’re slogging through seed starting, or prepping beds, or attacking weeds that seem to grow faster than anything you’ve planted, it’s so encouraging to look over and see something growing that doesn’t need your help (or at least, doesn’t need your help anymore). I hold onto a lot of baggage in my life, but for some reason, I forget how hard it was to plant those 80 onions in December when I couldn’t feel my fingers. I just see those happy green shoots waving at me and can’t wait to yank one up and see how big the onion is. Though I am being good and waiting for a while longer.

Strawberries hanging out with the daffodil leaves and ivy in the front yard.

Carrots I didn’t realize were there last year – tops are still good for stock or smoothies.

Elephant garlic with yellow onions behind.

Thyme with some male pattern baldness – it’s filled out since then.

Oregano came back with a vengeance.

Sage reaching for the sky (ignore the weeds in the foreground).

Asparagus! I cannot tell you how stupidly excited I was to see this come back.

hanging with the kiddos

Mother’s Day is the one day a year where I can reasonably expect to get help in the yard from my family without (too much) complaint. This year I plotted to get the most effective use of my eight year old’s time before he declared himself ‘boo-oooored,’ though the rain thwarted some of my plans. This got me thinking about what’s worked in the past for keeping my stubborn mules interested in food:

  • Get your kids involved in planting. The best way I’ve found (so far) to get my kids to try to eat something is to enlist their help in planting seeds and managing the plants. Even if they out and out refuse to eat a pea or tomato from the store, they’ll snitch straight off a plant.
  • Look for recipes that will keep their interest. One year, the Easter bunny brought my picky eater a kid’s cookbook, and we picked a recipe from the book for our low-key meal (I’ll bet you’ve never had chili cheese dogs for a religious holiday). He helped make the meal, we talked about from-scratch cooking vs. processed, and he’s been more involved in meal planning ever since. We’re also in love with ‘Chicks and Salsa‘ by Aaron Reynolds, a book that’s part picture book and part recipe. Both of my kids enjoy reading the silly story about the escapades of farm animals inspired by cooking shows, and the Hog Wild Nachos recipe (what the farm animals create over the course of the story) is GOOD. Like, it’s what we serve on Super Bowl Sunday good.
  • Throw in some creativity. I recently schlepped the kids to the Union Project, a local community space with a ceramics studio in the basement, for a Garden Marker Party. It took the kids a while to warm up to the process, but in addition to my traditional peas and carrots signs, we also have princesses guarding the weeds and a warning against alien ‘abducshun.’
The overarching way I’ve found to get and keep my kids involved in the garden is to give them ownership. That’s *their* plant, *their* recipe, *their* artwork. Hey, whatever gets them sticking around long enough to help with the weeding is fine by me.

freaking out.

I know, I know, I’m working on it, Sam. 

Have you enjoyed the summer weather in March lately? I did, sort of… sometimes with one eye over my shoulder, wondering when Old Man Winter was going to sneak up again. Other times (much more frequently), I posited that we were going to be absolutely screwed when July and August came around if it was already 80 degrees in March in Pennsylvania. Global warming a myth, my Aunt Fanny.

So I’ve been quietly freaking out lately – which I do about everything, more or less. I’m not an easygoing person by nature, not someone who easily gets their zen on (as my yoga instructor will undoubtedly attest). I suspect those people I know who compliment me on my competence don’t realize that I first have to go through a massive freakout before I can get down to bizness. If you don’t believe me, ask my husband. And this wonky weather has not been helping my freakouts about my garden.

Here’s a (partial) list of my garden freakouts in the last few weeks:

  • the aforementioned weather freakout, where I worry about global warming, if the seeds I’ve directly sown will germinate at all when it’s so warm, and whether or not I’ve started my ‘tender annual’ seedlings soon enough to take advantage of this warmer weather.
  • the flipside of the weather freakout, where I worry about snow coming from now until Easter (it has happened in my lifetime, you know – probably when I was a kid, but I know it’s happened), the speed at which we’re constructing the cold frame we decided to build on a whim to make it worth our while to have made the darn thing. Oh, and whether or not I’ve successfully stripped the five gazillion layers of paint off the old windows we bought at Construction Junction so my kids won’t get lead poisoning from the paint flakes when they eat the vegetables. Not that my kids are actually eating their vegetables these days.
  • of course, the tangential freakout to this issue is the one that involves freaking out about the leaded glass windows we bought for the cold frame. Research shows us that we should be ok encapsulating the canes with polyurethane, but come on. Part of my job involves dealing with home rehabilitation. Did I have temporary amnesia when I saw these windows and forget about 1978? Not my finest moment.
  • similar cold-frame related freakouts involve the sourcing of the wood for the frame, how it sits on the ground (and how we need to dig trenches for it to sit in the ground so as to not get cold underneath, thus negating the viability of said cold frame), and how long it took us to get the ground ready for the cold frame at all.

That’s just what I can remember in five minutes of typing. Yes, I need a therapist. Once I get through the rest of my to-do list.

However, in the spirit of fairness, I feel the need to crow about my progress a little. I am not completely hopeless when it comes to starting seeds (as I feared I would be, add that to my freakout list above). Then again, as I told my husband this week, if growing plants were that hard, humankind would not have turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Not sure what that says about me, but there you go.

In the past few weeks, I have:

  • mapped out my garden to date so I don’t have to keep everything in my head. 
  • documented progress on the cold frame project (a joint venture between me and my husband, which could go either very well or very badly. So far, so good). Yes, this picture was taken at night. Don’t ask. 
  • make seedlings grow in containers that were not originally designed for this purpose. With the volume of veg we’re planning on growing this season, this is definitely a Good Thing. 
  • and successfully thwarted several attempts by my dog to sabotage the seedling process. Thankfully, I have no picture of that family mutiny in progress.

All in all, I think we’re coming out ahead. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

And now, the numbers (I know, it’s getting a little unruly):

Not too bad, for getting pretty much all the seeds I said I would get at the beginning of this challenge. I’d say this is a decently stocked produce department. Remind me of this moment of zen when I’m freaking out about drowning in produce in August.