So, when am I going to get homegrown vanilla?

The vine is halfway up the two-foot tall trellis- I keep bending it to the side so it will wrap around the trellis, but vines want to grow upward.

The vine is halfway up the two-foot tall trellis- I keep bending it to the side so it will wrap around the trellis, but vines want to grow upward.

I bought thread at the craft store the other day, and the checker herself was shocked at how much it cost. She said something about it being cheaper to just buy a shirt than to make one. Never mind that I wasn’t making a shirt- you would think working at a craft store would accustom you to the idea that people do crazy things for hobbies.
A great example of this is my vanilla orchid.
I have had it for several years,  it is slowly creeping along the trellis I built for it, causing me to panic when it tipped over in the wind and most of the chunky orchid mix spilled out of the pot. I water it with buckets dipped out of the goldfish pond- weak organic fertilizer. The trellis is supposed to act as a humidifier, as well as a support. I baby it.
I moved it inside before it got cold. Vanilla is native to Mexico, warmer and moister by far than my back yard. It could never survive the winter here. The boy’s room has a south window, so all my tropical plants make his room into the jungle room in the winter.
The vanilla isn’t likely to bloom until it gets to ceiling height, and it is about 1 foot tall now.  No matter how big it gets, it won’t survive the winter outside. Once it blooms, I will have to pollinate the blossoms by hand, with a small paintbrush, then wait for the seedpods to develop, then ferment and dry them. Then make cupcakes.
Maybe someday, we’ll get a greenhouse. Just think how expensive that would make the vanilla pods- amortizing the cost of glass and construction into each little pod…
But for now,  I have a happy little vine in a very portable pot, which goes outside in summer, and inside in the winter, and gives me something to look forward to.


Beet Greens- you can grow that!

When C.L. Fornari, the genius garden blogger behind “You Can Grow That” suggested that for the month of February, we pick a plant related to the theme of love, I had to think about it.  I considered the plants I love, or the plants that symbolize romance, and I was kind of stumped.  February is a tough month for planting, around here anyway.  So, I decided to be contrarian, and write about beets.

We heart beet greens! Well, I do. Well, maybe I don't heart them, but I like them.

We heart beet greens! Well, I do. Well, maybe I don’t heart them, but I like them.

I have to confess that we don’t love beets at our house.  When we had a CSA membership, I tried to like them. I roasted them, which is my favorite with most veggies, and I threw them in stir-fry (which made everything weirdly pink) and I marinated them…not popular. I did learn that I liked beet greens, though. A friend insists that beet greens taste just like beets, but I disagree. Or maybe it’s the texture. Anyway, when I saw directions for forcing root crops in a pot, I thought to myself, that’s a good way to get greens without having to actually eat beets.

The directions come from Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest, which is a funky combination of a book- part how-to garden tome, part we-went-to-the-south-of-France-and-drove-around-looking-at-gardens-in-winter travelogue. My kind of book, in other words.

Coleman describes  taking beets, or turnips, or celeriac, putting the roots in damp sand in a sunny window, and eating the greens that sprout.

I decided to start the experiment with beets. I bought a cute bunch, and cut off the leaves that they came with to sautee, then eat in garlic soup (really tasty- follow this link!)

I then filled a 6 inch pot 1/3 of the way with potting soil, then put in the roots, then covered with soil and watered.

BIrd's eye view of 3 beets in a pot, before another layer of soil is added.

Bird’s eye view of 3 beets in a pot, before another layer of soil is added.

The roots won’t get any bigger- storage crops are biennial. During the first summer, they put energy into the root. When they send up leaves again, they use the energy store in the root to prepare for blooming. This means you don’t have to worry about leaving room in the pot for root growth.IMG_0056

We haven’t gotten enough for a big salad, but there should be leaves to add to stir-fry or soup or whatever.  I’m adding some to Quinoa salad tonight.  I hope it doesn’t turn weirdly pink.


Citrus- you can grow that

The leaves are falling, must be time to cover the tomatoes and bring in the houseplants.

Freeze predicted tonight-the radio people keep saying “temperatures in the 30’s” which seems unfairly vague. It is  time to move my pots of citrus inside for the zone 5 fall and winter. and much of spring, if we are honest.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, now 12, I bought a lemon, a lime and an “orange” tree for about 10 bucks, for all 3 from a catalog- don’t remember which one. I thought I was getting a huge bargain- when they arrived, they were twigs.
The biggest was the lemon, which had a trunk as big around as a pencil, and about 4 leaves. The other two were like q-tips. So I planted them and waited.
I didn’t just wait- I had a baby, and watched the baby grow, and taught middle school, and then had another baby and watched that baby grow, and when that baby was walking, the orange tree bloomed.
Heavenly smell, tiny bb sized fruit, that grew to marble sized, then…what’s smaller than a ping pong ball? A big marble? Yeah, big marble-sized. They ripened to orange, but remained small and sour.
Since then, the lemon has produced actual real sized lemons, but not very many, and the lime has produced actual real sized limes, but, again, not very many.
Why bother, then?
They are pretty plants. I have other house plants that don’t do much of anything other than purify the air. When these bloom, they smell amazing, even on the patio. In the Boy’s room, which has the best light, they fill the air with fragrance when they bloom in the winter. The novelty is another reason- one year I brought them to school for the winter, when I had a classroom with windows, and students would bring their friends in and dare them to eat the oranges.
Order them, or if you have a good local nursery with citrus, buy there. Once they are big, they take a big pot- mine are about 12 years old now, and are in 14 inch pots. I use a dolly to move them outside in the spring and back inside in October.
When they come in, spray with the hose attachment of the kitchen sink, under the leaves especially to get rid of any hitchhikers. Looking at this, I realize it might make more sense to spray them outside, instead of in the kitchen, especially if by “hitchhikers” I mean “tiny bugs.”  Which I do.
Citrus like bright indirect light, and humidity. Much like myself. Not too much humidity, though. Dry air can make them drop leaves. It hasn’t been cold enough for the heat to come on very much yet, so there isn’t too much difference in humidity bringing them inside. The Boy’s room has a fish tank which evaporates enough that the plants do okay.
You don’t have to buy a plant, if you are in it to experiment. A neighbor of my mom’s planted a grapefruit seed, or her toddler did, probably close to 50 years ago. It grew big enough that they couldn’t fit it in their house, so they donated it to the public library, where it brushed the ceiling in the children’s section when I was a kid. Don’t know if it is still there.

You can grow this- microgreens


Yuppie chow. Rabbit Food. Microgreens. All the same thing- bags of tiny salad mix work out to 20 bucks a pound, but really, you can grow this, right now, on your kitchen counter.
I got a packet of seeds at the store- Botanical Interests is a local company. Their “mild mix” has beet, red cabbage, kohlrabi, pak choi and swiss chard in it. The sprouts are supposed to emerge in 5-10 days, and the leaves are ready to pick in around 25 days, once they get 1-2 inches tall.
You can cut them, toss into a salad or onto a sandwich, and the plants keep growing there in the pot. A few days later, there is enough for another salad- theoretically.
I put them into a 6″pot on the kitchen counter- they don’t need much light until they sprout, and once they sprout, I’ll move them to where they’ll get more light. There is enough in the package for a whole flat, but I don’t want to give up that much space for it. It suits me better to get a pot going now, then start another in a few weeks, that way as the first pot is petering out, the new one is coming into production.  As the weather gets warmer, I can grow this same mix outside as well. So can you- you can grow this.

I scattered the seeds thinly on moist soil, and I gently spray it twice a day with the kitchen sink sprayer.

Ummm…should the apple tree be horizontal?

A few more inches fell after this. See the oak tree- it looks like a candy cane.

We had a wet heavy snowstorm last week, and people all over town lost electricity from branches falling on power lines, lots of tree damage all up and down the street. We got lucky- full power all day and just a couple of branches gone from the ash tree in front.
I thought we had gotten lucky until I did a fuller inspection of the back yard. My golden delicious apple tree was uprooted. Completely knocked flat.
It is in a shaded spot, so the snow took a long time to melt from it, the way it has melted from the other young trees and bushes. I was hesitant to go out and mess with it right away.

Do you see the apple tree? Me neither.

That's better.

My plan:  first drive some stakes into the ground (it wasn’t staked previously, and it had started to lean when it was weighed down by apples) then pull it upright, stomp on the soil all around it and add some mulch.

It might not survive the winter, which is really too bad, because it had just started to produce.

I always read in garden design books and magazines about planning for “winter interest.” That means making sure there are evergreens and structures that look pretty in the snow. It is not supposed to be interesting like the Chinese curse,”may you live in interesting times.” Winter interest is not looking out the window and wondering if your trees are going to die!
This storm was unusual, but not unheard of. There’s a reason why this region is not forested- there are enough pre-halloween storms that break lots of limbs, and enough May freezes that kill buds to make this a very tricky place for trees to survive.
I keep trying, though.

A year’s worth of garlic, part 2

I saved the largest bulb of my “harvest” to plant, and ordered some from eBay.  The kind I saved from what I planted last year is soft-neck, which is ordinary grocery store garlic, and in fact, this came from an ordinary grocery store. The kind I got on eBay is a hardneck variety, which is supposed to have a different flavor (there’s a question- how different can it be, and still be garlic?) and also it forms flower stocks and blossoms, which are called scapes.

We got some scapes in our CSA veggie box a few years ago and I had never seen them before- they’re really interesting. You could wear them as bracelets to ward off vampires- long green spirals. I sliced them for stir fry, and they had a bright, super-garlicky taste. Growing hard-neck garlic  means you get an earlier harvest, something to pick before the garlic is actually ready to dig. This helps with the year’s worth deal. Once the bulbs in the basket have either been eaten or started to sprout, there is something to pick that tastes like garlic.

Yes, I know I could just go to the grocery store.

Why bother growing my own? Honestly, carbon. How much diesel fuel is used to plow, plant and harvest garlic in California, or China?  how much energy to ship it here?

I am okay buying olive oil, because I can’t grow that here in zone 5, but I swear, garlic grows itself.

Before the fall equinox, I loosened some soil, broke the garlic heads into individual cloves and planted them. I put them in an area where the compost pile was, so there’s plenty of humus. I’ll cover with mulch, and wait until spring. I won’t water at all until next summer, and then it will still take less water than most people use on their lawns.

Grow garlic!!!!! Seriously!

No photo on this one- better artists than I can take beautiful pictures of bare soil.

A year’s supply of garlic

A bucket of garlic, with the dirt still on it.

Last fall I planted around 50 cloves of garlic- just the boring kind from the grocery store. How do I know how many? Because I just harvested 50 heads of garlic, each of which started from a clove.
I don’t know if this will be a year’s supply- I know we don’t buy garlic every week, so 50 should certainly get us through the year, but many of the bulbs I harvested are smaller than the typical grocery store bulb. And, I need to save out some to plant again this fall.
Late September last year, I got a few heads of garlic, broke them up and put them into the ground- half into a brand new bed by the hillbilly goldfish pond and the other half in the Boy’s garden- a 2×2 space that I dedicated to him a couple of years ago so he wouldn’t dig holes randomly. Also, I was hopeful that if he was participating in his vegetable growth, he would be less picky. Not so much. I talked him into the garlic because he does like garlic bread… I planted the cloves about 2 inches apart, which was too close, it turns out. Next year, more space between.
Last week, the leaves were going brown, so I researched when to harvest, and discovered that the time to harvest was in fact, when the leaves were going brown, and while the soil was dry. The thunder was starting to reverberate while I was on the internet, so I went out before the rain came, so I could dig while the soil was still dry. I was extremely conscious of the metal digging fork in my hand as the storm moved in. Got it dug up and into a bucket before the rain, driven diagonal by the wind, came in.
The garlic is curing now- I knocked most of the dirt off the roots, and put the plants into bunches of about 20. I tied twine around the bunches, and I’ll hang them up in the garage, hopefully somewhere where I won’t bump into them every time I go in there. After they cure for a couple of weeks, I’ll trim off the roots and stems and store them in the basement.
I got most of my info from the fine people at  which has great quirky information- more than you think you need to know about garlic, the native american flute and southwest US petroglyphs. it’s a rabbit hole right after my own heart.
I also plan to order some “boutique” garlic to plant this fall- with a bit more space, in a different location (rotate stuff in your garden, you know- the best way to avoid pests and disease is not plant the same stuff in the same place year after year.)

You might be wondering, why grow your own? it is cheap and legal at the grocery- per pound, it might be the cheapest produce around. Think about this- if your garlic comes from California, or China, what does it take to ship it here? What kind of pesticides and fertilizer? What’s the carbon footprint of your garlic butter? With very little work, and very little space, I have what I hope is a year’s supply.

Citrus in containers

 When the girl was just a twinkle in her dad’s eye, I bought 3 citrus trees from a catalog- tangerine, lemon and lime, all for around 10 bucks. When they arrived, they were tiny- the largest was the lemon, and it was about the size of a pencil, the others were stems with roots. I put them in 8 inch pots, and put them on our west facing porch for the summer. When it got cold in the fall I brought them in, put them in a south window, took care of them through the winter, waited for them to bloom.
And waited…
The girl was a kindergartner when the tangerine tree bloomed, and produced tiny sour fruits… it blooms every other year, or so, and the lemon more regularly. The lime only has bloomed once.
The best winter for them was a year when I took them to school with me- my classroom at the time had a wall of north facing windows, and the heat was turned off at night. Perfect conditions. Indirect sun and cool nights are what everyone recommends for citrus in pots, and that room was perfect for it.

One of my favorite memories of the tangerine is from that year I brought it to school- I had a student who was hungry all the time- all teenage boys are, to a degree, but this guy- hungry all the time. The tangerines were hanging from the branches, still green, still wickedly sour. I was on hall duty, the bell rang and I came inside. The air was fragrant- I could tell someone had picked and eaten a tangerine- “Who?” all the boys tried to look innocent, especially Miguel, whose lips were in a permanent pucker.

Unfortunately, I only had that classroom for a year, and now the trees have to suffer through winter at my house.We have a low-slung ranch house, and there are no north windows, the west ones are shaded. The citrus live in the boy’s room, which therefore has a jungle aura to it. He doesn’t mind, at this point…

I underplanted the lemon with a jade plant- neither seems to suffer, although I can’t say either is benefitting. I have wondered if I should try to separate them, but I think I’d wind up killing both. It’s in a 14 inch pot, near a west window that is shaded. I move it outside in May, and watch the low temperature predictions.
The tangerine is the giant of the bunch, and it bloomed tremendously this winter. Because it bloomed inside, there weren’t any pollinators around, so I had to play bee. I took a paint brush out of the boy’s watercolor set and went around transferring pollen from one blossom to another. There are tiny green marbles on the plant now- although not as many fruits as there were flowers…not an exact science.
The lime is still the tiniest of the three, I may move it to a different pot, with new soil, this spring to see if that will jump start it.

So, at 11 years old,, are these plants thriving? Not really. If I lived in a place where citrus could grow in the ground, and these were ten year old trees, I think I would have more fruit than I could give away. In containers, they are much more like pet houseplants than anything that contributes to my food pantry. The Logee’ s book I reviewed the other day has some helpful tips, that I mostly already learned the hard way, in keeping them alive for 11 years.

 Someday, when I get my conservatory (dreams can come true) maybe they’ll produce more, but right now, I’m kind of disappointed.

 But, hope springs eternal, I’ve ordered a Meyer lemon, also cheap and tiny, and I’ll nurse it to adulthood as well, fighting for window space in my kids’ rooms. It arrived the other day, and I’ll now count down the years until I can make lemon curd. We’ll have a party, with vanilla ice cream, too.

Ack! Undormant Fig Tree!

I peeked under the laundry bag which had protected my Chicago Hardy fig from any light in the basement this winter, and was shocked to see that it had leaves, it had buds, it had broken dormancy. Crud. (no pictures, I seem to have misplaced my camera, again) It is warm out, but too cold at night to expose tender new growth. I had also been planning to transplant it into a bigger pot with a self watering resevoir in the bottom, but I don’t think I’ll be able to manhandle it out of the current pot, root prune it, then stick it in the new pot without killing the thing. Or myself.

But it is such a cool plant! Big biblical leaves, dark and shiny in the summer, and last year, it actually produced 2 real live figs- they tasted just like Newtons, except without the cookie part. I think in a bigger pot, with more reliable water, it can produce even more. Here in zone 5, it is not likely to be hardy in the ground, so I am struggling with the pot, and the dormancy. 

I know, some people buy figs at the grocery store. Or they just don’t eat them. Or, they don’t complain about their trees.  From what I have read, though, figs have a long history of people messing with them- I’ve read about Italian immigrants in the Northeast wrapping their fig trees in tarpaper and straw. So, my plan is, wait two weeks, bring it upstairs and put it on the covered porch- it will get more sun, a little cold, but not enough to freeze the new growth, we hope. Next step, ask for help in the transplant process, so I’m not dragging it around myself.

I want to live in a conservatory

I ordinarily don't like red, but this warmed my soul.

We went to the Denver Botanic Gardens last week- the kids had the day off school, so I got a sub so we could have an adventure.
DH had a conference in Denver, so we loaded up the car and went down. We were prepared for the worst,  “bring coats, wear a fleece!” I said as we left the house, but we were graced with amazing weather.

I’ve been to the gardens a couple of times, and this time I bought a membership, so I can go again. I’ll drag other people, too, so beware! Or, wait patiently for an invitation…
You would think that February is an unlikely time to tour a Botanic Garden, but I planned it knowing that the conservatory has at least an hour’s worth of hanging-around time. Everytime I go there, I wish my house was a greenhouse. Not a sunroom, or a lean-to.   I want to live in a conservatory.

Marni's Pavilion has a rotating orchid display.

 Lots of things were in bloom, it was warm and humid. Perfect for a February day, with uncertain weather predictions.We saw banana trees, and pineapples and bamboo, and a waterfall. And orchids! Love orchids.

I’ll sort through the outdoor pictures and post about them another time- it turns out we couldn’t have picked a better day- sunny with no wind. Today I want to share the flowers in the conservatory. Aah. Orchids.

There were four or five of these sprays of dangling orchids, moving in the breeze from the fans. Amazing.

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