Alliums to Zinnias: a journey of two New Jersey Gardeners

Setting myself up for a tomato glut
February 25, 2014, 5:47 pm
Filed under: flowers, indoors, propagating plants, seeds, vegetables | Tags:

Every year I vow that I will restrain myself with tomato plants. And I do — sort of — when it comes time to put them in a raised bed. But I am less restrained when it comes to starting seeds. After all, you never know what will germinate and what will flop, right? (And last year, the Brit pushed for using up all those Sungold seeds…) So I usually find myself foisting plants on colleagues and/or appropriating space in a neighbor’s bed.

This year could be at least as bad.

In the quest to use up many of the seeds we have so that I can justify those blue indigo tomatoes next year, I have planted 27 plugs, each with a few seeds because, hey, they’re old so will they all germinate? If they all do, I’ll end up with close to 100 plants — probably enough for the entire neighborhood! But that’s a problem for another day, to sort of borrow a phrase from Scarlett O’Hara. In the meantime, I think (hope?) I’ve found a good way to keep track of all of them at least until it’s time to transplant them into bigger containers.

the tomato-planting plan

The good part is that I did use up a lot of the seeds. And that if it all flops, it’s early enough that I can start another round. The bad part is that I still have quite a few, though the variety is much more manageable for that second round. I didn’t even touch the unopened pouch of black cherry tomatoes, which was a tough thing to do. And maybe I’ll find someone who’ll swap a Sungold or a Sunsugar (even sweeter) for one of mine.

Even if I can’t pull off that last part, I could have quite the colorful tomato salad, with nearly a dozen types of tomatoes. The assortment includes plenty of Brandywines (two different gifts of seeds), an orange variety, yellow plum, yellow cherry, a chocolate stripe and more.

And heck, if I’m going to get my fingers all dirty and start a heat mat, I might as well try some other seeds. So the last of a pack of miniscule alyssum seeds is planted, as is half a pack of white nicotiana that I hope will add a wonderful scent to the deck on a summer’s evening.

Next round: Basil? Salad greens?

A winter-sowing experiment

Two days of sunshine and temperatures that hit 50! And on a weekend! Yes, more snow is possible tonight and later in the week, but for now, after this brutal winter, I am thinking spring and the garden.

Not that I can really see much green. The snow, while melting, is still deep, the raised beds are covered and the crocuses are nowhere to be seen. The river behind us? Sprawling from all the runoff.

flooded Millstone

So naturally I planted seeds. Seeds that desperately needed to be used and which I had forgotten to plant in years past. I took some plastic containers that once contained candied ginger, dried cranberries and greens (not all together!) that I had been stockpiling for too long with the intent of turning them into mini-greenhouses. Following the instructions here, I slashed drainage holes, filled with soil, watered deeply, added seeds, slashed air vents … and left them in the snow on top of a raised bed. The idea is that the seeds will germinate as the cold ends and the plants know it’s safe to come up. It will then be up to me to water them as needed and open their air vents more and more.

winter seed sowing

One container is full of Texas hummingbird sage, which promises lovely red flowers and hopefully a stream of hummingbirds. Another is borage, and then there’s mullein and tall fernleaf fiddleneck. The last has half a packet of butterfly weed, whose orange flowers appeal to me as well as to butterflies. I’ll aim to to spread the rest in April, when light frosts are still possible, because the packet says it develops a long taproot and therefore doesn’t transplant well. Just to hedge my bets.

And with that, five of our many seed packets are used up.

One of this year’s goals is to use more of what we have. So no blue indigo tomatoes until next year.

The last of 2013
December 28, 2013, 5:53 pm
Filed under: vegetables, winter | Tags: , ,

december vegetables 001A sunny day, so the Brit cleared out the raised beds today. Our final harvest of 2013: About two dozen stubby orange carrots no longer than 4 1/2 inches (but more often the length of baby carrots), oversized, foot-and-a-half leeks that came to us as seedlings from Ohio and a bowl full of kale.

The beds are now empty (aside from where we planted garlic for 2014 a month ago) and covered with leaves to keep the soil from getting compacted and to restore some nutrients to the mix as they break down.

With winter here, it’s time to flip through the seed catalogs that have started arriving and coming up with a plan for 2014. Any favorites to recommend?

What might replace the oak

In the ongoing (and sporadic) debate over the replacement for the oak, I’ve gone through “Why grow THAT when you can grow THIS?” from my local library. These plants caught my eye, with the first two the strongest contenders for replacing the oak. The others could earn a spot elsewhere.

London plane instead of a birch. It says: Large deciduous tree grown for brown, gray and white bark. I say: Bark looks like a military camouflage pattern. It’s also described as tough as nails (a plus to me!) and can be 75-100 feet high, 60-75 feet wide, hardy from zone 4 to zone 9, wants full sun.

London Plane bark, courtesy of

London Plane bark, courtesy of

Yellowwood instead of a mimosa. It says: Fragrant white or pink spring flowers, gold fall foliage. I say: This could work. It has the height — 60-80 feet. It gets 40-50 feet wide. Rosea is the pink-flower cultivar. Hardy from zone 4 to zone 8. What’s wrong with the mimosa? A brazen hussy, says this book, spreading its seedlings across the U.S. Southeast. True, we find seedlings, but then what about a maple? Mimosa can be 20-40 feet, for reference. If our mimosa has died, this is too tall for that spot.

Yellowwood tree flowers, courtesy of

Yellowwood tree flowers, courtesy of

Tupelo instead of Callery Pear. It says: Spring flowers bring bees from miles around. Orange to red fall foliage. Eastern native. I say: Spring and fall pluses, though more spring color would be nice. 30-50 feet high, hardy from zone 3 to zone 9. Callery Pear, by the way, is described as “trouble with a capital P.”

‘Morning Cloud’ Chitalpa instead of a dogwood. It says: Small deciduous tree grown for multiseason pink flower. I say: Multiseason flowers a plus. 20-35 feet high, so just may be tall enough. hardy from zone 6 to 11. Other alternatives to a dogwood: Pagoda Dogwood (flower, fruit, fall foliage, zones 3 to 7, just 15-25 feet high) and Chinese dogwood (flower, fruit, red-purple fall leaves, zones 5-8, 15-30 feet high).

Seven-son flower instead of birch. It says: Small deciduous tree or large shrub grown for white bark, white to pink fall flower, pink fall fruit. I say: Probably too small for the oak spot (just 15-20 feet high) but like that it’s called a showstopper and has interesting park plus flowers and fruit. Will take part shade as well as full sun, and is hardy from zone 4 to zone 9.

Redbud instead of a jacaranda. It says: Zone 4-hardy redbud is the cover girl for small garden trees. I say: We couldn’t grow a jacaranda anyway (zone 9+), and this scores on spring flowers and terrific fall color (purple in some cultivars instead of gold). 20-30 feet, full sun to part shade. Zones 4-9. Rutgers says the Eastern redbud is occasionally severely damaged by deer. Was a friend offering a seedling?

Elderberry instead of a Japanese maple. It says: Grown for fine texture, multiseason purple or gold foliage in cultivars, edible summer fruit. I say: Can I have both purple foliage and the fruit? ‘Black lace’ foliage looks appealing. And how would it taste in jam? But it’s on the short side: 15-25 feet high, just 10 feet wide so perhaps a more manageable size for elsewhere in the yard. Zone 3 to zone 9, full sun to part shade. Shallow roots, almost seem more like a forsythia when a thick hedgerow is mentioned here. Another vote for elderberry over forsythia is here (with spicebush as another alternative). Rutgers says the red elderberry is a shrub and rarely damaged by deer. I see a garden project sneaking up on me….

Goumi instead of olive. It says: Large shrub or small tree grown for edible summer fruit, fragrant yellow spring flower, multiseason silver foliage. I say: This could be a fun shrub, only 8-10 feet high so not a tree replacement. Not that we could ever grow an olive tree. Goumi is hardy from zone 4 to zone 9 and also appears in “Paradise Lot”. Full sun to part shade. Fruit works in pies and jellies.

Chinese fringe tree instead of an ornamental fruit tree. It says: Sweeping cloudscape of fragrant white flowers in spring, foliage turns gold in the fall, when female plants produce blue berries. I say: Two pluses are that it is rarely bothered by diseases and pests, and it needs little pruning. Hardy in zones 5 to 9, just 10-20 feet high (and wide). Rutgers says seldom severely damaged by deer.

What tree should we plant?
December 1, 2013, 9:07 am
Filed under: books, garden, tree | Tags: , , , ,

Tree with purple leaves

We had to take down an 80-foot oak this fall. It was stressed with an bacteria that is infecting oaks all over our area and was dying — and near power lines. Three tree companies agreed it needed to go (they disagreed on others, so we left those, though we left those, though there is another oak that we are worried about). We ended up with lots of wood to split for firewood, no leaves to rake up — and a dilemma.

This tree was in the southeast corner of the property, so we know it helped shade the house in the summer. Fortunately, it was next to some giant spruces that we think started out as Christmas trees for the previous owner. So we still have some shade givers, plus a divider to the neighboring property.

Still, we know we want to plant something, though perhaps a bit further away from the lot line and those spruces. But what? A more disease-resistant oak? Something that flowers in the spring and also adds color in the fall? The Brit and I do like the other neighbors’ Korean dogwoods, but they don’t get anywhere near as tall as the oaks.

I’ve consulted Tracy DiSabato-Aust‘s “50 High Impact, Low-Care Garden Plants,” but nothing is higher that 10 feet. “Why Grow This When You Can Grow That” thankfully is not just about flowers and has a few suggestions. And I’m just finishing an intriguing book called “Paradise Lot — Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City.” The goumi tree (bush?) has caught my eye because it adds nitrogen to the soil and has tart berries. (OK, we’d no doubt be fighting birds for those!) But it seems to be only 6-9 feet tall.A pawpaw tree that the same guys grow? Or would it be a deer magnet? Same with persimmon, which they also mention?

I’ve also seen some trees in the area with purple leaves that would add some nice color and contrast, though again they don’t seem to get that tall. See the picture at the top. Are they purple plums?

We’re taking suggestions! And should we plant in the spring, or wait until fall?

Hopefully we won’t be facing the same decision with our mimosa tree in the back yard. It looked great at the end of August, and still had lots of those pink-and-white tufts. Then it went bare sometime in the first 10 days of September. We’ll be watching in 2014.

Mimosa tree in bloom in the backyard

Our hardiest flowers
November 28, 2013, 12:48 pm
Filed under: fall, flowers, garden | Tags: , ,

These were the final holdouts of 2013 and still in bloom last weekend, despite many frosts. They are shriveling up, but even that biting rain and cold just before Thanksgiving hasn’t been able to quite finish them off and turn them black.

This low-to-the-ground black-eyed Susan’s microclimate is tucked behind a clump of ornamental grasses and by the garage downspout. Nearby black-eyed Susans were caught by the first frost a month ago.

last black-eyed susan of 2013

The pair of asters was protected by other perennials that had died back. I wouldn’t have found them if I hadn’t been doing some fall clean-up. Like the black-eyed Susan, they are on the small side. Unlike it, these didn’t have that pop of color.

aster in November

Finally, I found a couple of vinca flowers in a shady bed on the north side of the house, in a narrow strip between the air-conditioning unit and another wall of the house. And the flowers are even lower to the ground than the other examples. All the hostas on the other side of the air conditioner have died back, of course.


Now it’s time to wait for the lenten roses that share that space to give us some winter color.

November 17, 2013, 8:44 pm
Filed under: fall, food | Tags: , ,

sign at a pick-your-own apple farmMy third type of harvest, and my good deed for Thanksgiving to boot: Gleaning apples in support of New Jersey Farmers Against Hunger.

The Brit and I were part of a relatively small group of volunteers who descended Saturday on a pick-your-own apple farm in northern New Jersey. The farmer said he’d had a great year, but there were plenty of apples still on the trees and yet more good ones on the ground. The goal was to collect enough apples for other people to pack into mixed bags for food pantries to hand out for Thanksgiving. So the apples didn’t have to be the perfect “fancy” grade that you find in a supermarket. We were told to also take those with a bruise that could be cut out and used for pie or apple sauce. Here’s to hoping the recipients don’t turn up their noses at something less than perfect!

Apples on a treeCan’t reach the apples on the tree? Some people used an apple-picking tool that kind of looks like a lacrosse stick. Painfully slow. The rest of us learned to give the tree a strong two-handed shake that would send the apples falling to the ground, where they generally survived (some did crack) and we’d recover them. Quick, but the downside was a few bops to the head from falling apples. One woman decided her basket could serve as an ad-hoc helmet, but I just took the hits.

basket of apples

It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, and we filled basket after basket, dumping them in turn into giant bins that hold more than 1,000 pounds. We only started to flag in the final half hour. Still, we harvested about 15,000 pounds of various varieties of apples in under three hours — a record for one gleaning there, the farmer said. And we didn’t finish. There’s another gleaning planned for Saturday.

If the apples don’t get picked, they’ll just go to waste.

And it’s still shocking how many apples already are being left to rot on the ground to turn into compost by spring. Imagine what you could d if you had a cider press!

Bonus for us volunteers: We all went home with a bag of apples. I went for the green-gold Crispins (sweet and crisp) and the red Winesap, a tart and firm heirloom variety. I made some apple crisp, but it’s time to start looking for some more imaginative recipes.

pallets of apples


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