Starting a New Garden

Lettuce when we want it

We have recently started a lettuce garden in a new AeroGarden. We have had an older model for quite some time. We are looking forward to having a couple of salads a week off the garden once it has had a chance to grow. Lettuce can always be grown outside, but there can be temperature problems. Here that typically means too hot in the summer, but occasionally winter steps in as well,In the above picture are pepper leaves in the foreground and a rarer that I would like snow visible out the window in the background. Originally this AeroGarden was focused on growing lettuce but then I discovered the usefulness of Jalapeno peppers.

Our last attempt to grow peppers hit a snag when they didn’t sprout properly. They came up, but they grew much slower than they should (one of them only came up about 6 inches). Their leaves also looked a bit funny. We are hoping the problem is that the garden was not cleaned out well enough after the previous set of peppers, so we are going to try again soon with another batch, and fresh fertilizer just in case.


Goldenrod, Falsely Accused

The real allergy culprit is ragweed

One of the things we look forward to as fall approaches is the goldenrod blooming. The bees and butterflies clearly appreciate the explosion of pretty little yellow blooms as well. There is one small plant that grows outside one of our windows. We cherish it and don’t treat it as a weed. The picture above is of a larger cluster of goldenrod in a bed in our backyard. Unfortunately, as showy as it is, it gets blamed for the crimes of some other plants.Goldenrod is related to asters and is appreciated as a garden plant in some other countries. Here it has the misfortune of blooming at the same time as ragweed, a plant with insignificant flowers that produce large quantities of wind-blown pollen. Goldenrod pollen is heavy and sticky, it depends on insects to be transported between blooms.

Goldenrod is only a weed if it is growing where you want something else to be.

No Vacation From Mowing

Usually, we get a break from mowing during late summer.

In most years, the grass usually stops growing during August and early September. This provides a welcome break from the chore of mowing during the hottest parts of the summer. This year, it wouldn’t stop growing. While pop-up thunderstorms are not unusual, this year there were more than seemed normal, and several other weather systems added more moisture to the area. Every time I look out the window, I can see it there, growing.

As a positive, the increased cloud coverage did keep the temperatures a bit lower. The highest temperature so far was 96.5 F. This is about 5 degrees lower than the 100.1 F from 2016 or 101.1 F from 2015. It was hard to tell though as the extra rain meant that everything was damper and the humidity higher. These temperatures are from the personal weather station in the middle of our backyard. It might not have the best location, but it is definitely better than being next to a parking lot or air conditioner.

Tersa Sphinx

A very stylish and elegant moth.

This moth surprised us when we spotted it a few years ago on a crepe myrtle at our previous house in Montgomery, Alabama. It is a Tersa Sphinx. I thought it a svelte and stylish creature and grabbed the camera. It took me some time to determine what sort of moth it was. It is not considered rare but I had not seen it before or since. The caterpillars feed on catalpa and pentas among other things, and are large and green like those of many other sphinx moths. Perhaps I need to plant some host species and attract some at our current location. I would like to see one again.



Drying Peppers

Compressing Peppers by Drying Them

Green peppers have been one of our most successful and early crops this year. I bought plants from a local store since the ones I grow myself invariably turn out very leggy. This year I decided to concentrate on four plants planted in our raised beds on the south side of a row of tomatoes. Since tomatoes and peppers do not require pollinators, they were in tents of mosquito netting to protect them(mostly) from caterpillars and stink bugs (see Growing Tomatoes in the South). Our first flush of peppers was very nice this year. These were the biggest from three plants shown with a coffee mug for size comparison.

We generally use our peppers in chili and other dishes where they can be reconstituted from a dry state. We washed and diced them, and spread them on screens on four drying racks of our 30 year old Harvest Maid food dryer. It took two runs to get the eight peppers dried. It takes about 8 hours at 135 degrees for each batch.

We store them in jars that we vacuum pack with the jar attachment on the FoodSaver. It takes about 2 tablespoons of the dried pepper to equal an average green pepper. The jars take up much less room and keep without refrigeration.

2017 Garlic Harvest

Growing Garlic in the South

Our garlic year began early last October when we planted 48 cloves of Italian Loiacono, a soft neck variety and 24 cloves of Spanish Roja, a hard neck. These cloves all came from bulbs we had set aside to save from the 2016 harvest. We try to select the biggest and best looking bulbs to save for planting the next year’s crop.

The soft neck garlic is the most common variety found in grocery stores. It is the better keeper although it makes smaller heads. Each head has more but smaller cloves. The hard neck variety is better in colder climates due to deeper roots. It has fewer cloves in each head but the cloves are larger. The poorer keeper of the two varieties, we will use the Spanish Roja first.

We planted the individual cloves in early October into a 4 foot by 8 foot bed and covered them with about four inches of crushed leaves that we had collected with our lawnmower’s grass bag. The garlic sprouts will push right up through the crushed leaves but it will stifle most weeds.

Here in Alabama by the end of November the sprouts will be 6 to 8 inches tall and growth slows as the weather cools. In February, they will start growing again and by the last half of May are ready to be pulled. This year we started pulling them on May 21.

After pulling the plants we place them on screens out of the sun to dry. The drying will take about a month.

When the plants have dried we cut off the tops and the roots. We use a small scrub brush to remove the dirt from the root end of each bulb. This is when we decide whether a head is good enough to keep or if it is too small or damaged or for some other reason not worth using. Such discards will go into the compost pile. Now is when we set aside the heads we will use for planting in the Fall.

We finished with 43 heads of Italian Loiacono and 18 heads of Spanish Roja .

Here is the result of our 2017 harvest.

In colder climates, garlic is planted in the spring and harvested in late summer or fall. If you would like information on gardening in the north, I recommend Rural Revolution, This is one of our favorite blogs covering gardening and homesteading with archives and links covering a multidude of topics.


Growing Tomatoes in the South

Tomatoes go tent-camping

Last year we had serious problems with our tomato crop. The first tomatoes were nearly all destroyed by stink bugs and a sneak attack by tomato hornworms. We tried an experiment and managed to coax four of our not-so-determinate Rio Grande plum tomatoes into producing a second late crop. When the weather started threatening frost, we picked everything that looked like it was starting to change color and got quite a few to ripen indoors. They were not quite as good as vine-ripened but better than store-bought.

Our experiment was in buying a cot-sized mosquito net tent. This year we decided to grow 6 tomato plants split into two 4 by 8 foot beds and to cover each bed with mosquito netting. We grew Rio Grande tomatoes from seed since they had done better than our purchased Roma plants the year before. The tents let in much more sunlight than the picture makes it appear, especially down here in Alabama where sunscald can be a problem. The stink bugs we have spotted have all been crawling around on the outside of the netting and I only found two hornworms, probably from eggs laid before we got the netting up. We have picked over 20 pounds of tomatoes so far. The tomatoes are sharing space with 4 green peppers which are planted on the south side of the tomatoes. Both tomatoes and peppers can produce fruit with only the wind and an occasional shaking to spread pollen so the net does not affect the plant’s ability to set fruit.

We like to put up our tomatoes as frozen sauce. They could be canned and we have done so but for now we put them up in the freezer. For the first batch we put ten pounds of washed tomatoes through our Squeezo Strainer to take care of the seeds and peels. The Squeezo is over 35 years old but we can still find parts. So far only the rubber seal for the screen has needed to be replaced. The pulp came out nicely thick this year and two hours of simmering brought it down to a good consistency. We do not try to produce tomato paste. The time needed to produce a thick enough sauce can vary widely.

Our ten pounds of tomatoes produced four 20 ounce freezer jars of sauce. We use them in making spaghetti sauce and chili. We prefer the flavor we get from using our own frozen sauce.

Garden Pests: Deer

Suburban gardeners in Central Alabama share many pest problems with city gardeners, but the biggest pests by far are deer. They can cause a frustrating amount of damage in just one night. Our subdivision is located near large, undeveloped areas of open land and trees which are perfect for deer, the bane of the suburban/country gardener’s existence. The back of our lot seems to border a game trail of long-standing, and the does seem to consider the brushy area near the compost pile to be a perfect location for hiding a fawn.

Deer are pretty, and the fawns are really cute, but they are garden-eating machines. Our first garden at this house consisted of a bed of pole beans. It produced a bumper crop; but only because every night we went out and put on the bean’s “party dress” of nylon netting.

Sometimes the deer visit the back of our yard in the daytime, including a fairly large buck. Like many of the photographs in this post, these are from a game camera and the focus is not perfect. If you garden, buy or borrow a motion-detecting camera and set it up for a few nights. You might be surprised what visits your garden at night.

As the garden near the house became larger, a fence became necessary to keep out the deer as well as the rabbits and armadillos. This garden consists of six 4 by 8 foot beds. We pounded in T-posts and installed small animal fence and deer netting. The gate is constructed of PVC pipe covered with the same materials. For hinges we use zip ties; they need to be replaced a couple of times a year but they are cheap. The fence is only 5 feet tall. Perhaps because the enclosed area is fairly small and since the deer have a hard time seeing the top of the fence, they have not yet jumped in.