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Even people, who do not think of themselves as ‘vegetable gardeners’ grow tomatoes because almost everyone loves that great ‘homegrown’ taste of vine-ripened tomatoes.

Besides growing tomatoes in the traditional vegetable bed, they have been grown in containers, hanging baskets, stuck in their own forty-pound bag of soil, and raised in herb and flower gardens.

The tomato is a charming fruit declared a vegetable by the Supreme Court in 1893, and one that inspires passions among many gardeners, sending them on an unending quest for the best-tasting tomato, the earliest ripening or the biggest fruit or largest yield. Many growers helped develop the many variations found in the tomato varieties now available. Hybridizers developed tomatoes for their sweet flavor, meaty texture, yellow color, pear shaped, or type of usage.

Its history is just as bewildering. Early European explorers in South American took the tomato plant to Europe sometime before 1544. It was considered poisonous because of its relation to deadly nightshade, which as its name suggests, is a lethal poison. The tomato earned the name Pomme d’Amour, or Love Apple, which gives an interesting insight into personal relationships of the sixteenth century. Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, potatoes, nightshade and jimsonweed all come from the Solanaceae family. We now know to eat the tomato raw only when fully ripened or to cook the green tomato, which breaks down the alkaloids that make it poisonous.

A warm-season crop, tomatoes grow best in temperatures between seventy and seventy-five degrees and won’t grow well until those conditions are reached. A touch of frost quickly kills them, so plant them after danger of frost is past. Garden centers sell many mechanical devices such as crop caps and ‘walls-of-water’ to protect plants set out earlier in the season. The best sites have rich soil that is slightly acidic with at least six hours of sun a day. Black plastic or straw or other mulch put around the soil helps keep the soil warm in cool weather. Tomatoes need watering once a week and the soil fertilized several times during summer. There are manuals and books galore on growing tomatoes that give more in-depth information than presented here.

Due to the diseases which tomatoes are susceptible to, it is best if you do not grow tomatoes in the same spot every year but rotate where they are grown for a series of four years. For the same reason, you should never smoke around tomatoes, or handle them after handling cigarettes.

For the hunter of exotic of heirloom varieties, tomatoes are easy to grow from seed and are available from many catalogue and retail sources. When shopping for seeds or plants, look for short-seasoned tomatoes (quick ripening) for areas in colder zones, and select hybrids with the most disease resistance. The plant label should give you this information.

During the growing season you might have to protect your ripening tomatoes from local wildlife as many enjoy tomatoes as much as we do.  Also, if you see huge green caterpillars known as the Tomato Hornworm which has yellow spots and horns and is the larva of the Five-Spotted Hawkmoth, pull them off and destroy them in soapy water. Or get someone to do it for you.

Photo of tomato hornworm

Tomato Hornworm by Amanda Hill, and given to public domain.


Book coverAn Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries, and Herbs in Cold Climates

By By John Whitman
University of Minnesota Press
ISBN 978-0-8166-9839-4
February 2017|

FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is a marvelous book. It is a large and comprehensive volume for growing edible food plants only, but discusses edible flower garden plants and other unusual and unexpected edible plants. This book is for gardening in cold areas like mine, and as a long-time gardener, I know this can be difficult.

Part I is devoted to the basics of gardening and growing crops organically. It explains a variety of approaches from growing in containers to creating many types of land gardens. Soil and compost is explained along with how to water and fertilize. Directions for plant seeds is provided, but it also includes other methods of propagation. It explains how to grow crops and how to weed and harvest them. The information goes further to include culinary terms, food storage, and even gives reasons why some people love or hate a particular vegetable. All the tools and products necessary for gardening are listed along with safety tips. Great photos and many easy-to-understand charts supplement the text.

One thing among many I learned was that pH means potential hydrogen. I’ve known what a pH reading was and how it applies to plants, but not what the acronym meant. It’s not only the solid information but also the good advice provided, such as the myth the gardener controls their garden, and many ways exist to achieve a bountiful harvest. Author John Whitman encourages gardeners to use whatever method works best for them.

The most wonderful part of FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is Part II– an extensive listing of all the vegetables, berries and herbs that can be grown in the food garden. Many I have grown, but even more I haven’t. From asparagus to zucchini, every crop is described. The information includes when and where to plant, the plant’s nutritional facts, the varieties available, how to grow it, problems and pests that can occur, and how to harvest and store the crop.

While FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is invaluable for gardeners in cold areas, defined in the book as anywhere the temperature can dip below -20 degrees Fahrenheit, the basic information is relevant anywhere. The extensive list and discussion of crop foods makes this garden book one every gardener will seek out repeatedly, not only when choosing plants to grow for the upcoming season, but also whenever problems or questions occur during growing or harvesting of those crops. For beginning gardeners or experienced gardeners, FRESH FROM THE GARDEN offers effective gardening know-how.

Gardening is always an adventure and an investigation into the plant world and nature. This year’s vegetable garden has been very different and not very successful. In a word, the cause is DEER, and my garden is not the only one attacked this year. I’ve spoken with several other gardeners whose crops have been decimated by deer. It could be the increase in corn fields around us, which provide also provide food.

Last week we repaired some fencing and put up more fence posts. Yet, this year the grapes have been very successful and weighed down sections of the fence. No matter what Bill and I did, the deer jumped the fence at some point in the perimeter and dined at leisure in the garden beds. The results are the tomatoes have well-cropped tops, and are developing tomatoes on the bottom branches.

Pumpkin blossomYesterday, the deer again jumped the fence and this time ate all the ripening grapes. ALL the grapes of an abundant crop off three vines. So much for making homemade wine. Deer also like Jerusalem artichokes,  horseradish, Swiss chard, beans, and sunflowers. All gone. However, the yellow crookneck squash are huge and abundant as are the pumpkins. On the back deck Bill finally put the lettuce containers on the small table and the raccoons he insists on feeding haven’t been able to get into them.

My flower gardens have done well except for the fact I haven’t kept them as well weeded as they needed to be. Four years after planting the seeds, the white Liatris Florestan White, or Blazing Star, finally bloomed, including one hidden one that I thought had died. I love raising plants from seed and I thought this one a lost cause, and here the plants finally deliver flowers! Deer did eat many of the daylily blooms, but I had daylilies blooming from the end of June to the end of August.  With my vegetable seeds from both Burpee’s and Park’s, I received free packets of ‘pollinators.’ They are blooming in the vegetable garden now and are beautiful.

I also read about using banana peels on plants for fertilizer and implemented the trial. It worked on the tomatoes (although this effort was largely a lost cause) and on the few roses I have. Just wrap the banana peel around the base of the stem. Recycling and fertilizing in one step–how convenient!

While the vegetable garden has been disappointing, it has been an interesting season of gardening. Since I’ve been very busy indoors working on creating an  online course for my classes, painting the walls, woodwork, floors (I truly have a painted house), and writing, most of my gardening has been a few sessions of weeding and much looking. Now I look forward to a fruitful fall hunting season for some hunter, and next spring, new fencing, and another table for the back deck, it should be a good gardening season.

After my post about Gardeners and God Complex, I’ve reaped some bad karma for my presumption.

First, all the seeds I planted when the soil first became workable died or were eaten by birds or insects.

Second, a drought has followed the cold spell that followed the warm spell that let me plant early.

Third, the peas came up but languish in the heat.

Fourth, deer jumped the fence and ate all the new pepper plants I had grown from seeds and just planted, along with the leaves of the Jerusalem artichoke, the asparagus (although we had a great harvest of asparagus), and the parsley that has gone wild in the garden. The deer did not touch the eggplants or tomatoes. Bought and planted more peppers, two of which have disappeared.

Fifth, within a day of  the cucumber seedlings breaking ground, they disappeared, as happened to the beets, parsnips and turnips. And something is eating the young squash plants. Moles? Birds? Insects? Grasshoppers?

Sixth, I planted a bed with beans, but now see I’d planted it with sunflowers too. It will be war of the world all over again.

Seventh, a special someone (not giving away names!) wanting to be helpful tilled the walkways between the beds so my feet sink into loose sandy soil whenever I walk the garden.

So, grrr, I didn’t take into consideration all the things not necessarily under my control. I’m hoping its not too late to plant more crops. What else can happen?

Two good aspects: the grapes seem to have abundant fruit developing for the first time. (I really need to learn how to prune those vines, and I’m sure the Baltimore Oriole nesting nearby will enjoy them as they did the Juneberries!)  Yet the rhubarb is doing tremendous and the ancient apple trees have fruit developing.

Here it is, six weeks later, and some seedlings have s-l-o-w-l-y begun to sprout. The spinach has been up about a week and a half and is only now putting out second leaves. This past week some carrot and kohlrabi sprouts began to show.  At least this give me some hope for the seeds remaining underground—they might spout yet. So okay, up here in north central western Michigan, you can plant as soon as the ground can be worked, but the results, like the weather, might be mixed.Six wees to sprout? Really? Kale, a very cold tolerant plant has shown no signs of germination, neither have the beets, radishes, or Swiss chard. It might work out better for me to plant some of these in late August and grow them through the fall, and just wait until about now to put other seeds in the ground. On the other hand, the annual seeds of camomile and parsley are all over the garden! They have literally turned wild and are competing with the Veronica peregrina, in other words they’ve joined the weed community. I don’t really want to pull any of them out. Perhaps the veronica would make a good ground cover on the walkways between the growing boxes? Gardening is an adventure and an experiment!

My daffodils. scilla siberica, and hyacinth  are all blooming, and in the wild, so are the Amelanchier trees, so I can state spring is well underway here. Doesn’t mean we won’t have more snow! However, the blueberry plants from White Flower Farm arrived last Friday and I planted them Sunday. Hope they survive.

Well, I’ve checked the planted bed. Nothing has popped out of the soil. While the soil remains workable, the weather has not. My location has been hit by several snow storms and very cold temperatures. I know when seedlings wither, they are gone quickly and probably invisible on my soil. So have some sprouted and died, or has nothing come up? Will the seeds remain viable until the weather goes from freezing to cold? Is it just the unexpected swings between seasonable and unseasonable weather this spring?  I expect to know if I have to buy more seeds in another week or so. Perhaps the ‘workable soil’ soil timeline is different in Northern Michigan than in Southern Michigan or further south. Certainly an experiment, but at least I’ll know  one way or another.

Yesterday morning.

Yesterday morning.

I planted some cold crops two Saturdays ago and another group one Saturday ago. As of last Wednesday, nothing had sprouted. Well, the plants in the indoor biodome have. Two types of tomatoes, eggplants, amaranth, and Penstemon ‘Rocky Mountain’ have come up. I’ve tried the Penstemon outdoors two years in a row with no luck, so at least I should hopefully have plants to put in the ground this year. Nothing else up in the vegetable garden except the carrots left over from last summer, and the garlic is coming up.

Thursday a long lasting snow-sleet storm hit the state, and even the community college where I teach was closed. The snow continued on into April Fool’s Day. It was very cold, but today (Saturday) is in the 50s. Most of the plants emerging from the soil remained impervious to the weather. I have twigs and branches to pick up and lots of last year’s stems to remove from the flower garden, and weeds emerging, so work is already lining up. But no emerging crops. Maybe that is a good thing.

Time will tell, but it started the season off early, and looks to be a different season. Looking forward to spring. Snowdrops and a few crocus are already up and blooming, and daffodils have leaves emerging from ground.



Spring is going to start early this year. Already the normal 12″ of snow covering my garden this month is gone, the snowdrops are blooming with many honey bees hovering over them. Since most garden books say as soon as the soil can be worked, the cold crops can be planted, I’m going to try it. Just watch, a week or two from now a heavy snow storm will dump on the sprouting seeds. I’ll discover what happens to those baby plants then. I’m ever a pessimistic optimist.

So what are cold crops? Mostly leaf or root crops started from seed that actually prefer growing in colder temperatures. They vary in hardiness, but most will survive frost, and some of them even snow. What makes them great are they are typically short season, too, meaning they’ll be on the table quicker. Many ‘cole’ crops are cold hardy, but cole refers to crops from the Brassica genus or mustard family, vegetables like broccoli, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi, cabbage, or cauliflower. While these are cold crops, many other vegetables are similarly cold hardy.

Most root crops such as carrots and onions (basic cooking foods) parsnips (mashed like potatoes only sweeter), turnips and rutabaga (essential for pasties), beets (borscht and pickled beets, yumm), and leeks (leek and potato soup) prefer cool temperatures. Some leafy vegetables like arugula, lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, maché (a old leaf crop in France relatively new to the states), and parsley (combine all for marvelous salads, plus spinach and Swiss chard make good cooked greens) favor cool weather. I’ve seen parsley still fresh and ready to use growing up from snow. It is also biennial, meaning it harvests for two years, but it has also reseeded itself in my garden. Peas, which are grown for their fruit, produce best in cooler temperatures.

Some of these leafy crops like spinach, lettuce, and Swiss chard (I’m not fond of kale or collards) will be ready for the table by the end of April. If the summer is relatively cool, they’ll keep sending up new leaves even after several harvestings. The root crops will take longer to develop, but will be ready to harvest when tomatoes and pepper plants are only becoming safe to put in the ground (May 15th to 30th depending on your last frost zone).

Two more good things about cold crops are that they can be planted again in mid-August to the end of September providing a late season crop, but most seed companies have seed sales in the fall, so you get the seeds cheaper. One more good aspect of this is those cheaper seeds will be just as viable for the spring growing seed. I’ve grown fall season carrots, which are very cold, even freezing, hardy, and while I can’t get into the snow covered garden to harvest them, I have dug them from the ground in the early spring.

In July we took out granddaughter to New York City. Day one we went to the Medieval art museum, the Cloisters, on the northern tip of Manhattan. I’ve traveled the NYC subway system before, but this trip was unusual. Our train stopped, everyone was told to get off, and we were left to find our own way. A friendly New Yorker led us one level down to 1 Train. (Definitely not your Times Square station type of stop; kind of scary.) Anyhow, after a taxi ride and a walk through the park surrounding the museum we arrived.



The Cloisters, besides housing some wonderful sculpture, tapestry, and painted art, plus The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, a handmade and painted prayer book (heaven for a calligrapher to view), has an herb garden typical to the times (13-15th centuries AD). I’m wandering through the beds seeing how many of the plants I grow, when I come across… a weed! Plantain! Growing in the immaculate beds of the Cloisters.

I stopped. What?

Plantain in the Cloisters' herb bed.

Plantain in the Cloisters’ herb bed.

I had to get close just to make sure.

I had to get close just to make sure.

So the plantain growing in my driveway is another useful weed brought by colonists? Seems so — Plantago major, a common, pervasive weed.

On returning home I checked out my copy of Pamela Jones Just Weeds (you’d think I’d have known this information already from perusing this book) and there it was listed, a plant that literally followed the footsteps of the Roman army, although she admits the boundaries between fact and fiction about this plant are blurred. According to Jones’ entry: ‘Leaves, roots, and seeds of plantain, fresh or dried, have been used for centuries in the treatment of such varied ailments as poison wounds, asthma, dysentery, earache, and kidney disorders. Rich in potassium salts, plantain is regarded as one of the finest remedies for cuts, abrasions, infections, ulcerations and chronic problems of the skin.’ According to her it can even heal other plants — she tried it on a fruit tree with blight and it worked!

Plantain is also edible. The new leaves  can be used like spinach. Older ones are tough. Plantain contains healthy amounts of Vitamin A, C, calcium, and iron. I’m trying out a recipe for a skin salve, too, since claims make it sound like a panacea for skin injuries and disorders. Food and medical recipes can be found all over the internet. Guess I just wasn’t looking!

Warding off Halloween vampires did not spur my desire to grow garlic; no. A neighbor inspired me. Last August I visited her house and in her kitchen a braid of garlic led up one wall, crossed the ceiling, and descended the other wall. Wow, So much garlic! I love to cook with garlic. I had to try growing it.

This fall I ordered a pound of garlic from Burpee Seeds (along with a garden dibbler– a tool to push holes into the ground) and waited for my garlic to arrive. It seems the fall is a good time to plant garlic, which is perennial, but needs eight weeks of cold to chill the bulbs for proper growth. I don’t need to worry about that where I live! From the end of November to the middle of March I expect to see snow on the ground.

Since I had garlic coming, I read about what type of soil was needed. Recommendations stated loose, well-drained soil with a high organic matter. Check, I got that–Good ole’ sugar sand with several years of mulch decomposed in it. The package arrived last week along with thirty-six daffodil bulbs and twenty-five bluebell bulbs, but whenever I was free, the weather turned rainy–cats and dogs type rain.

However, some young men came over to spread mulch on my flower gardens Sunday, so it seemed like a good time to plants bulbs. After separating four large bulbs of garlic into cloves, I grabbed my new dibbler and trucked out to the vegetable garden. The directions said to make a hole two inches deep and drop the flat side (root end) of the garlic clove into the hole first. The dibbler worked great, not only making the fifty needed holes easily and to the proper depth, but I could also use it to measure the space between the holes. In about an hour I had garlic, daffodils, and bluebells planted. After I spent another half-hour on general garden chores, the boys were done, so I took them home. The weathermen promised rain for the next day, so all the bulbs would be set in place as the water drained through the soil; all done until next summer.

From Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs (1987 edition, page 215) I learned many ancient herbalists thought garlic held magical properties that could ward off evil, so of course anyone needing protection wore a garlic amulet. They also believed that if eaten, garlic provided speed, strength, and endurance, and since it was the herb of Mars, the God of Battle, Roman soldiers ate garlic. This belief also made it a good food to feed slaves and serfs who did the hard manual labor through the next few centuries. Historical records also proved garlic prescribed for patients who suffered from many different ailments, including plague and intestinal worms. Okay, time to stop.

I use garlic for cooking many main dishes and sauces, but I’ll include my favorite garlic accompaniment: garlic toast. While toasting some bread-store bought bread slices, leftover French bread, hamburger or hotdog buns, whatever is on hand–mash one or two cloves of garlic and place in a quarter cup of butter. (Use more butter-garlic if six or more slices of bread are used.) Melt the butter with the garlic in a small pan and let cook on low for a couple minutes, not long enough to burn the butter, but long enough for the garlic to release its essence. Spread on the toasted bread coating it well while removing any large clumps of garlic. Sprinkle the bread with shredded Parmesans Cheese, stick under the broiler until lightly browned, and serve. Hopefully, by including this simple dish in your fall menus, no vampires will want to suck your life’s blood.



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