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All summer long, I kept asking myself, “What’s with this place?” The soil here just wants to grow things. Everything I plant takes off in amazing ways.

Those eight zucchini plants — planted more than a month late? Every time I turned my back, there were piles of zucchini waiting for me the next time I wandered through my garden. I’ve frozen 24 cups of grated zucchini and fed relatives in two states. And, even now, there are another half dozen growing away in late September. Eight zucchini plants are more than enough.

Those strawberries that I transplanted? They’ve all taken root, and I expect great things from them come June. In the meantime, growing in their midst is a plot of spinach, Swiss chard, bok choy and arugula — thrown in as an after thought, an effort to start cleaning out my stash of old seed. Planted about a month ago, all are ready to eat right now. I’m eating as fast as I can, and the relatives are doing their part, but let’s just say our little pet rabbit is dining like royalty as well.

But the real proof that this soil is rich, rich, rich? It’s the sunflowers growing outside my bedroom window. Huge! Leaves like sheets of newspaper and heads the size of serving platters. One stormy night a few weeks ago, the wind was slamming these things against the side of the house and it sounded like bodies hitting the walls in the dark of the night. Very, very creepy.

I'm not exaggerating.  Here's one that fell to the ground yesterday, drying out for the before-mentioned rabbit's winter fare.  (That's a standard-sized dinner plate on the table next to it.)

I’m not exaggerating. Here’s one that fell to the ground yesterday, drying out for the before-mentioned rabbit’s winter fare. (That’s a standard-sized dinner plate on the table next to it.)

With a little investigation, I may have learned this land’s productivity secret. My dad tells me that some time ago one of the tenants kept horses for several years on this side of the house, right where I’ve planted my garden. Years of manure curing in the prairie grass. I can’t wait to see what this ground yields next year.

One of the best vegetables I have discovered since starting my garden several years ago is Swiss Chard. I had seen it before in the produce section, but usually it looked so battered by the time it reached my supermarket that I had always found its appearance unappetizing.

Well, that problem is solved when it grows right here in my garden. Like other greens, it doesn’t require a ton of root space, and it seems to thrive in a bit of shade with sun early in the day and late in the afternoon and evening. This has made it a good crop for the back part of my garden, in what I call the high shade of a maple tree. The lowest branches of the tree are about twelve feet from the ground, which allows enough light to reach my crop of greens.

I have found that Swiss chard can be used in just about any recipe that calls for spinach. I have an enormous bounty of chard this year, and I’m using it in huge amounts nearly every day wherever I can think of something to add it to. I made a large pot of lentil soup last week and added about 2 quarts of fresh chopped chard to 2-1/2 quarts of vegetable broth with a large onion sautéed in olive oil and a quart of cooked lentils, salt and pepper — delicious, hearty and packed with nutrients. I’ve also added sautéed chard to a wild rice mix with baby peas and pecans, with amazing results.

For me, Swiss chard seems easier to grow than spinach, and evidently it grows well even in the hot months, as long as it is in the high shade that I previously described. In fact, we had a full month of mostly 100 degree temperatures this year — unusual here in northern Indiana — and the chard seems to be thriving when all of the other greens have failed. It doesn’t tend to bolt when spinach or lettuce does. An eight-foot double row planted in the early spring feeds us from mid June until early December, as long as we don’t get a heavy snow-fall or a very hard frost before then.

Swiss chard contains a high amount of flavonoid phytonutrients, including kaempferol and syringic acid. Kaempferol is heart-healthy, and syringic acid appears to help regulate blood sugar. Chard also contains high amounts of vitamins K, A, and C and the minerals magnesium, manganese, potassium and iron. One cup of cooked Swiss chard provides 10 percent of your daily calcium needs as well.

While Swiss chard is similar to spinach and can be substituted into most recipes calling for spinach, it has a somewhat more mild flavor than spinach and, for this reason, may be more appealing to people who find they really don’t like spinach that much. And if you, like me, can’t find good Swiss chard in your supermarket, it’s easy to grow in pots on your porch or balcony. The leaves and stems are colorful and attractive and are a pretty addition to any container garden.

I’ve been so busy putting my cold-tolerant seedlings into the garden that I haven’t had a chance to brag about the veggies I sowed during the winter in containers and have been enjoying for several months.

Greens grow very well in containers, and many greens, such as this spinach do thrive in cool temperatures. I started this spinach and cilantro in December, it sprouted early in January, and grew quite well under lights until I moved it to my sun porch in early March. On warm days, I moved it outside. On the few nights of hard freeze, it came inside into my living room. Today, in late April, it sits virtually every day and night outside on my front steps.

By mid-March, I began harvesting a couple of times a week — not much, but enough to add to omelets here or soup there. Now it’s all I can do to keep up with what I’ve planted. It’s been lovely, and next year I intend to plant several containers — of lettuce, Swiss chard, arugula, cress, and, yes, spinach.

Greens don’t need much root space. My spinach is growing in a plastic sweater box. I recommend using prepared potting soil, to avoid aphids, and of course you must be careful not to overwater. But it is a very inexpensive project that anyone can do with little special equipment. Once the seeds have sprouted, fluorescent lighting is required and should be only a few inches from the green seedlings. A desk lamp or two with a couple of those energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs are all you need for this. A sunny spot is useful, but not necessary. (Mine grew in my basement.)

I can’t wait to try this again for this fall. Perhaps I can keep a box of greens or two going all winter long.

My garden blog was inactive over the winter. I hadn’t intended it to be. I had wanted to post occasionally about the many, many dishes we enjoyed during the winter months from vegetables I had frozen last fall. Instead, I took a well-deserved break. Maybe next year, right?

But now it’s time to begin again. In fact, my 2010 garden actually started taking shape in 2009, when I decided to experiment with growing greens inside. That was largely a failure — the lettuce got aphids and ended up feeding our little rabbit instead of us. EXCEPT, the spinach was quite successful. In December, just after Christmas, when I disposed of the aphid-infested lettuce, I planted in its place baby spinach, which is ready to eat right now. I didn’t plant a lot, given that it was essentially an experiment and I only had a little seed left from my spring and summer gardens, but it’s nice to know now what works and what doesn’t.

This spinach was sprouted and grown a few inches under the most full-spectrum shop lights I could find. (You'll notice there is a bit of cilantro thrown in as well, an effort to thwart the aphids.) It's now outside on my front porch awaiting consumption.

In January I bought garden seeds the very instant they started showing up on store shelves. In mid-February, I began planting, starting first by planting left-over herb seeds from last year. I was completely hopeless successfully starting herbs from seed last summer and ended up buying plants later from the nursery. But I learned a lot in my effort, and I decided to give it another go this year. So far I have thyme, lavender and oregano growing great-guns. They’re still very, very small and tender. They grow in peat pots filled with seed starting medium, and I mist them daily to keep them hydrated. Still, I had a lot of failure, but the ones that have made it this far seem to be on the road to success. I’ll report in later with full results. Just this week, I also started basil and more cilantro. The cilantro has never given me any difficulty before. We’ll see how the basil does.

In late February, I started three varieties of tomato: Roma for making sauce, Beefsteak for sliced tomatoes, and cherry for the kids. I was very successful last year with about 50 plants that I started from seed during the winter producing 38 quarts of frozen tomato sauce. I lost about 20 percent of my harvest at the end of September to late blight — I had been aiming for 50 quarts as I thought we would average one quart a week. The 38 quarts turned out to be plenty, but I’m glad I aimed high because of the loss we incurred.

I plan to keep the tomato sprouts inside under the grow lights for another few weeks before I move them to my sun porch. Last year my tomatoes seemed to thrive on that porch before planting outside in mid-May.


After I had the tomatoes off and running, I started the crucifers/brassicas. These plants can be put outside as soon as the ground is warm enough to work. I planted them in larger peat pots and will probably keep them inside as long as their pots are adequate for their growing roots. I had beautiful broccoli last year that I started from seed, which gave me the confidence to grow more varieties of crucifers this year. I have planted cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, which have all sprouted.

The broccoli and cauliflower have been rotated out to the sun porch from the growing lights to make room for more recently sprouted Brussel sprouts, cabbage and kohlrabi.

I have a kind of assembly-line rotating system in place this year to make the most of my available space and limited resources. Once the seeds are planted in their peat pots and seed starting medium, I bring their trays down to the basement to await sprouting. The very first day they pop their little heads out of the soil, they get moved into a room where they will sit under flourescent lights inches from the growing surface. As new sprouts from other varieties move into the light room, the larger or more cold-hardy vegetables go out to my sunporch on the west side of our house.

Newly planted seeds don't require light until they actually sprout. These flats wait side-by-side in my basement laundry area. The second I see that they've surfaced (and I check twice a day) they get moved to soak in full-spectrum light.

I knew last year, my first year ever as a vegetable gardener, that I was hooked on starting my vegetables from seed. I can’t tell you how proud I am of those 38 quarts of tomato sauce that I grew from a two dollar pack of seeds (plus another twenty dollars invested in starting trays, peat pots and seed starting medium). This year the trays are being reused, and the experience I gained last year with my failures will keep my expenses down even more.

Is it ever done?

For the past month I’ve been digging dirt. And planting seeds. And putting in the seedlings that I started myself on my sun porch. And this week, having found a little more space, I added a few commercially started seedlings as well.

And so today, an unexpectedly rainy day, I’m forced to pause and evaluate what I’ve accomplished in my garden so far and what is left for me to do.

For a garden newbie, I’ve taken on a lot this year in my enthusiasm to try growing just about anything and everything my family likes. Pair that with my compulsion to put every seed to use and what do you get? A very large garden, and a few sore muscles to boot.

To be exact, my garden is actually three garden plots. The first is the one where I have my spinach and lettuce and 18 Roma tomato plants that I started in March from seed, with some cilantro mixed in and a row of onions.

My corner garden plot.

My corner garden plot.

This plot gets full sun in the morning up until about 11 a.m., when shade from nearby maple trees shade it somewhat, making the light more filtered, but still relatively bright. At about 3 p.m. the southern third of the plot gets full sun once again for about four more hours. This is where I have the tomato plants. It is not my main tomato plot, but I put in the extra plants here, the ones that didn’t fit in the plot next to the house with the rest of the tomatoes. That plot gets full sun all day long, but I have to say that these tomatoes in the corner plot are doing very well too. They were smaller seedlings when I planted them about two weeks ago, but they’ve almost caught up with their brothers in the full sun. It turns out that they benefit from a daily watering early each morning just before dawn, courtesy of my next door neighbor’s automatic sprinkler. (I hope this is a good thing. So far, it has been.)

I continue to grow my lettuce inside their soda bottle-cloches. I’ve been harvesting lettuce from this plot almost daily for three weeks now, cutting the outer leaves and leaving the smallest one or two for further growth. (I probably should have started at least a week earlier.) The plants are starting to get too tall for the soda bottles, and a couple of days ago, as I’ve been removing the bottles to cut lettuce for our salad bowl, I started moving the two-liter bottles over to the new row of lettuce that I planted two weeks ago. The bottles have been great for leaving my lettuce leaves free of aphid, slugs, spider mites and the dreaded cut worms, and I’m holding my breath on how the older plants will do without them.

The baby spinach, on the north end of the plot, did not do well inside the cloches and this crop has been a bit of a disappointment. The extra warmth provided inside the plastic caused the plants to grow spindly, and the leaves wilted and burned if they touched the plastic. I removed the cloches once I realized this, and my girls and I have had a couple of salads and a breakfast spinach frittata from this crop, but now I see that red spider mites have damaged the lower leaves on most of the plants. I’ve tried washing them off, as I’ve seen recommended on several organic gardening sites. But I haven’t been entirely successful. We’re finishing off this crop and replanting new spinach in the place of the old as we do. This time I’m taking out the pine mulch and planting the spinach in rows closer together — with the individual plants about five inches apart on all sides.

Here’s my tomato and pumpkin plot next to our house:

My tomato plants and pumpkin hills share this garden plot with flowers and herbs.

My tomato plants and pumpkin hills share this garden plot with flowers and herbs.

Here I have 38 Roma tomato plants, six hills of pumpkins planted with 30 pumpkin seeds (19 have sprouted at last count), four sweet bell pepper plants and loads of herbs and flowers. I started the nasturtium inside by seed, both climbing and bush plants, and they seem to be thriving. My marigolds, on the other hand, also started inside in flats, are not. Of the 50 I planted, I have three left, and they are tiny little things — although they’ve grown considerably once I got them in the garden and out of my sun porch. You can see I also have lovely roses and the lamb’s ear is flowering right now as well. I’ve planted a variety of sunflowers directly next to the house, and there are four o’clocks (a childhood favorite of mine) starting to sprout there as well.

You can see that I have a few soda bottles over the smaller tomato plants in the foreground. That’s to protect them from my grandchildren, who are particularly drawn to this plot and sometimes walk about inside it, which is a bit of an inconvenience, as I’ve forgotten to put in garden paths here and there. Actually, I’m removing those bottles as soon as the rain clears, because the plants inside are starting to outgrow them, and their leaves don’t like touching the plastic either.

I have to show you how I’ve planted some herbs directly into this garden. It looks a little compulsive but, like I said, it helps signal my grandchildren (and me, because sometimes I forget) that something is planted there. I cut the inside cardboard from toilet paper rolls into halves, label the top edge with the name of the herb I’m planting there, put the cardboard into the ground, fill with starting mixture (because I’m planting delicate herb seeds) and then plant the seeds inside the cardboard.

You can see the basil sprouting inside the cardboard.

You can see the basil sprouting inside the cardboard.

I have found this method very handy, as there is no way my little herbs would survive otherwise. I don’t always take the time to look at the seating chart before venturing into my garden.

You might be wondering, why so many tomatoes and why Romas? Apart from my inability to stop planting once I’m on a roll, you can also attribute this to our family’s need for mega abundance in tomato sauce throughout the year. None of us cares that much for fresh tomatoes (although I have one plant each of cherry, grape and Big Boy for my grandchildren and one son). Since I was planting from seed, I wanted to make sure enough survived to give us a decent harvest. So far, so good.

Then there is my large garden plot, which is next to the drive and the garage:

My long and narrow garden plot follows the drive and extends back along the drive into the back yard.

My long and narrow garden plot follows the drive and extends back along the drive into the back yard.

This plot is 60 feet long. For the first 15 feet or so on the western side, it is about 12 feet wide, but closer to the garage it narrows to 10 feet in width. Here we have patches of what’s left of the peas. As I put in this garden, I started on the western side (in the background of the photo) and day-by-day worked my way east. I had to pause for a week or so to wait for my nest of rabbits to grow up and leave, but yesterday I planted over the spot where I uncovered the rabbits a couple of weeks ago. I still have about eight feet on the eastern end left to plant, but all-in-all, I’m nearly done now.

In this plot I have several rows of filet beans (bush style), one row of which is now more than a foot tall with blossoms. These beans I planted in a small flat back in April, hoping that I might be able to have an early crop. It looks like that effort may be paying off soon. I also have 30 pole bean plants — you can see the bamboo teepees that they will soon be climbing as they grow. I also have two hills of cucumbers sprouting as well nearby.

And what else? For squash: three rows of zucchini and three rows of yellow, two rows of spaghetti, and four hills of patty pan squash. For brassica: two rows of broccoli (which I started inside from seed), two rows of brussels sprouts, one row of cabbage, and one row of cauliflower (these last I bought commercially started). And, of course, there are radishes planted in between everything.

On the far eastern section of the garden, there is no direct sun until after 2 p.m. in the afternoon. There I have put in (going west to east) carrots, onion, and my lettuce mix. (I also have earlier-planted carrots in between my two rows of broccoli.) I have another eight feet left to prepare at the very end of this plot. I had hope to do that today, but today’s rain has postponed that until tomorrow. I’ve decided simply to put in more lettuce varieties, and I have purchased two salad blends for this: French Mesclun and Italian (Plantation Products, Inc.) You can’t tell I’m really enjoying these daily pickings of fresh lettuce, can you?

After that? Well, there are the two small flats of muskmelon that are growing heartily still on my sunporch. It’s been such a cool spring this year that I’m a little nervous about getting them out into the garden. But that’s going to have to happen this weekend. I’m going to put them on the western edge of the garden, outside the fenced area, so that their vines can grown out onto the wider portion of the drive there. If we are successful with the muskmelon this year, we might also try watermelon next year.

They aren't pretty, but they get the job done.

They aren't pretty, but they get the job done.


Several of my readers have commented on my cloches, made on-the-cheap from various bottles that largely have come from my household. By and large, these are one- and two-liter soda bottles. We had an entire winter’s supply of plastic bottles in our garage, awaiting recycling, when the idea came to me that I might be able to use them in my garden.

(Actually, if truth be told, we really don’t drink that much soda from bottles. I, however, love seltzer water, which I buy in two-liter bottles, and average about one bottle a day, whereas my daughters are fans of Walmart’s flavored seltzer, which comes in one-liter bottles. Between the two of them, they probably average eight to ten bottles a week. Yes, that’s a lot of plastic, but our water here is very bad quality, and even purifying it doesn’t seem to remove the bad flavor.)

Initially, I cut the bottles roughly about one-third down from the top of the cap. Two-liter bottles are 12-inches tall, and using a utility knife I cut the bottles at the point where the label ends, somewhere between 7-1/2 and 8 inches from the bottom. I cut the 10-inch tall one-liter bottles in about the same place, two-thirds up from the bottom, along the edge of the label. Then I’d remove the labels and use the bottoms. Later, when I ran out of bottoms, I realized that the tops also could be used with the shorter seedlings.

When I place the bottles over my seedlings, if the surrounding ground is soft, I can push the bottles down into the soil an inch or two, which secures them from toppling or getting blown about in the wind. We have had some windy days, but I have only had a couple of bottles desert their posts. With the fence around the garden — which is really not fencing at all, but deer netting secured to stakes — none have blown away to liter my neighbors’ yards. When I covered the spinach seedlings, which had sprouted in place in their garden setting, I soon learned to loosen the soil surrounding them with my hand spade before attempting to secure the bottles over them. Otherwise, the flimsy plastic of the bottles curls under and the cloches don’t stay in place.

One of the reasons I really like the cloches is that I can pile up the mulch fairly thickly around the plants and close to each individual plant without smothering the seedlings underneath. As the mulch settles into place and weathers down after steady rains, it forms a nice ring around the plants without actually touching the stems. My regular readers may recall that I have been fighting unusually high pH levels in my soil — it measured above 7.5 when we first turned over the soil in March — and after an initial application of aluminum sulfate that brought the pH down to just under 7.0, I have been attempting to maintain and perhaps lower that a bit more with pine needle mulch, graciously provided by my next-door neighbors. The cloches help prevent the needles from actually touching the seedlings, thus avoiding any possible burning from their high acid content.

The cloches also have very nicely protected the plants from rabbits, mice, raccoons, squirrels, ground hogs and all of the other Rodentia that prey from above the soil. Additionally, they had been very effective against the much-despised cutworms that strike from above — that is, of course, until the cloches were removed. They didn’t seem to protect them from underneath though, and the cutworm species that attacks the roots were able to achieve their mayhem unhindered, even with the cloches in place. I’m hoping that I will not have the problem with cutworms in subsequent years as cultivation alone seems to work against them as time goes on.

The two-liter bottles, by virtue of their larger circumference, fit over larger peat pots. I have sprouted my seedlings in 2.5-inch and 1.75-inch biodegradable cells, and the one-liter bottle cloches do not fit around the larger cells. So I have used them on the seedlings in the smaller cells (the lettuce and spinach, for example) and saved the two-liter bottle cloches for the seedlings in the larger cells. My lettuce plants have gotten so large now though that I am transferring the larger cloches to them as they become available. I expect I’ll soon be harvesting some of the lettuce, perhaps within the week.

However, I find I actually prefer the smaller one-liter cloches whenever I can use them. I have found that the flimsy plastic on the larger bottles curls under with age, which makes it harder to push them down into the soil. Loosening up the soil around the small plants first before pushing in the bottles over them helps prevent the curling, but in time the plastic eventually curls anyway. I extend the life of these larger cloches by trimming off an inch of the plastic when it starts to curl, but they will end up in the recycling bin before the season’s end, I’m afraid. The smaller bottles, on the other hand, will likely survive several seasons.

As I’ve needed larger and larger bottles, I started cutting off the bottoms of the bottles instead of the tops. I only take off between an inch and two inches when cutting from the bottle, which gives me a couple of inches more in height. This also is actually a better design functionally for cloches. The plastic at the bottom of soda bottles is a tiny bit thicker, which makes for a sturdier cloche. And the tapered top of the bottle allows debris to slide off easily, optimizing the sun that reaches the plants inside. Additionally, I have the option of removing the bottle cap and watering the seedling inside the bottle without removing the cloche, when I think that not enough moisture is reaching the roots directly under the cloche. This isn’t a frequent problem, though. Being able to mulch up close to the seedling allows the soil to retain moisture much more effectively between rainfalls. And, of course, I water with a soaker hose, so as long as the roots are getting what they need, it doesn’t matter whether or not the surface soil is damp.

I’ve been so happy with my improvised cloches that I’ve started using just about every plastic and glass container that would otherwise head straight to the recycling bin. This is what I’ve learned: I don’t like the gallon-sized milk and water bottles. The plastic in our gallon bottles is milky in color and translucent rather than transparent. I don’t think the seedlings inside get enough light or enough water to best sustain them. I love juice bottles the best, especially the large round Juicy Juice bottles. They are made with a thicker plastic, but are big enough in circumference to fit around larger peat pots. And when the bottoms are cut off, I have the same tapered top and the same option of using them with or without the lids.

Any clear glass or plastic container can be put to use in this way. The only limit is the size of the opening. Smaller jars can be used on tiny first sprouting plants and replaced with larger ones as the plants grow. In time, of course, the plants will outgrow them all, but by that time they will have a more solid footing in this world and be less vulnerable to attack. A loss of one leaf on a large plant is not the potentially fatal blow that it means to a seedling. Roots are larger, stems are sturdier, and leaves are more plentiful on older and larger plants.

It was about nine o’clock in the morning, mid April with the sun barely showing from behind the clouds. There was a look of soft rain in the gray sky hanging low on the horizon across the horse pasture that loomed off in the distance behind my dilapidated white-washed garage. I was wearing my black-and-white zebra stripe flannel pajama pants, my floppy old pink Isotoner slippers, and the black velour hoodie that I had bought a month ago on clearance at Target. I was clean, but without makeup, and my hair was damp from my morning bath, and I didn’t care who saw it. I was everything the novice gardener ought to be. I was going outside to check on my early planting of peas.

My garden sits across my crushed rock-covered drive about a dozen feet from my bottom porch step, still damp from an early morning shower. I briefly glanced at the spinach and lettuce seedlings nestled comfortably in their flats, having been left outside on the porch in the cool night air to prepare them for transplanting later in the week, when the ground was less wet. As I moved down the slick wooden steps, I took care not to fall, holding on to the rail, until my slippers crunched on the surface before me. I stopped and stared over the field beyond the road, where a weathered farm stand still rises from the landscape, a relic of another time when gardens were royalty and their attendants, ladies in waiting. In the distant haze lay the apartments constructed not so many years ago and beyond them my beloved Target and Menards and Kinkos, reminders of the times in which we now live.

My attention was drawn back to my garden before me when I heard the distant shout of a golfer in the course a hundred yards from the rail fence that separates my land from my neighbor’s. I heard also the crack of the iron against the ball, although my view of the play was shielded by the towering pines behind my neighbor’s small sturdy barn. I moved thoughtfully across the drive to my garden plot that follows one car length between the drive and the neighbor’s rail fence and then continues along the full length of my old garage until it nearly reaches the ancient maple that separates the front plot from the smaller garden bed in the back corner of my lot. And then I saw it, and my heart sank and my soul despaired.

My peas. My lovely precious glorious peas. Murdered. Slaughtered. A full botanical bloodbath had occurred while I peacefully slept in innocence inside. Who had done this retched thing? Who had bitten off the tops of nearly half of my exquisite slumbering seedlings? Homicidal rodents, that’s who. Vicious rampaging rabbits. Or gluttonous groundhogs. Perhaps maniacal savage squirrels. How often I had heard their challenging chatter in the overhanging branches of my yard’s many towering oaks. They were not content with the plentiful bounty of acorns that roll beneath my feet with my every step. They had been biding their time, plotting, hatching a plan, waiting for their chance when they could strike and make off with my growing greenery.

And then they struck. They had been watching, those treacherous, sneaky assassins. They had seen me remove those hundreds of protective makeshift cloches that I had so lovingly constructed out of discarded one- and two-liter soda bottles. They had seen me rotate them over to my shorter lettuce and spinach seedlings in the back garden bed, leaving naked and vulnerable my beautiful, trusting and pure-hearted peas now liberated and reaching their faces up into the sky above. And then they struck. When my back was turned.

Sensing their one lucky break — a late afternoon and evening downpour that prevented fickle me from standing out in the cold and wet April air and hammering two dozen fenceposts into the soggy soil and then wrapping my garden behind protective chicken wire fencing to foil their sociopathic visions of pea-seedling slaughter — these crafty criminals struck in the dead of night. And me, having left the night before with my little peas looking like this:

(This photo was taken at 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, April 28, 2009.)

(This photo was taken at 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, April 28, 2009.)

. . . Returned the next, following damp morning to see this:

(This photo was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

(This photo was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

. . . And this:

(This photo also was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

(This photo also was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

Is there justice in this world? Is there vengeance to be found? It is a harsh world out there. Evil lurks around every corner. We must be bold and face them down. We must triumph and fight for good. That is why my garden now looks like this:

(Photo taken 9 a.m Thursday, April 30, 2009.)

(Photo taken 9 a.m Thursday, April 30, 2009.)

Be brave, little seedlings. I am armed with hoe and rake and shovel and spade, and I will make sure the deaths of your brothers and sisters will never leave my memory. Because I am valiant, and I will battle onward for truth and justice, making certain those hellion horrors, those devious devils never ever have a chance to sink their treacherous teeth into your vitamin-rich, chlorophyllous, photosynthetic flesh again.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Dandelions growing in my neighbor's pasture

Dandelions growing in my neighbor's pasture

When you are trying to learn a new skill — like gardening, for example — you just never know what useful information you might stumble across in your quest to master this new domain.

A recent encounter with persistent dandelions in my garden beds is an excellent case in point. While searching the Internet for organic remedies for this annoying pest — hoeing and heavy mulching appear to work best — I was astounded to learn that dandelions rule as one of the world’s most nutritionally dense edible greens. They are high in beta-carotene, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium and phosphate, as well as the B vitamins thiamine and riboflavin. I found The Leaf Lady‘s web site particularly informative.

Now keep in mind that I am not a nutritionist, nor am I an historian, only a mom armed with her Mac and a brilliant mastery of Google. But it turns out that the humble dandelion is a European import brought to the States to be farmed in vegetable gardens throughout the colonies when our country was young. Dandelions (from the Old French “dent-de-lion,” which means “lion’s tooth”) kept many a settler alive through tough times and continues to be cultivated and eaten the world over — adored by everyone except us disdaining Americans.

Now I knew dandelions were edible, having learned this fascinating fact the summer before I started high school. That year, my grandfather brought a car full of relatives to our home for an afternoon visit. Among them were his 92-year-old Aunt Alma, who was visiting from Missouri. There were many details about my tiny and unassuming great-great aunt that made an impression that day, among them that she, the youngest of ten siblings who immigrated from Sweden with their widowed mother, married her husband the very day after she met him for the first time (although they had been corresponding for several years) and with him went on to have eleven children of her own. Somehow, during the course of that visit, the conversation turned to food — as it often does when relatives get together — and my Aunt Alma professed an undying love for dandelion greens, much to the amusement of those gathered around her. Given that my Aunt Alma went on to live far past her 95th birthday, I suppose I should not have been so surprised at the healthfulness of her favorite green.

My Great-Great Aunt Alma, lover of dandelion greens

My Great-Great Aunt Alma, lover of dandelion greens

I spent an hour this past Saturday afternoon digging up dandelions out of my yard and garden, then got the brilliant idea of harvesting the greens and trying them for myself. That took the remainder of the afternoon and part of the evening as well. Not only did I have a lot of dandelions but it took a great deal of time to separate the leaves from the rest of the plant, bits of grass and a fair amount of dirt before cooking them. And then the product of my toil — sauteed with chopped garlic in olive oil — was a particularly chewy and bitter dish that we all sampled and no one liked.

So I turned back to my trusty Internet and, once again using Google, found tips for harvesting and for preparing the benevolent dandelion. It turns out that the most tender and least bitter dandelion greens come from the young plants that have not yet flowered. I found harvesting with a pair of scissors the most practical strategy, and by cutting one leaf at a time, I could most easily avoid getting blades of grass in the mix. Many dandelion afficionados advocate soaking the leaves in lightly salted water overnight to remove bitterness and to boil in water before sauteing to soften them. So in my second attempt to prepare my dandelion greens, I followed this advice and found a much more palatable result.

Additionally, I found the tiny flower bud that forms in the center of immature plants, when picked before the stalk forms and sauteed in butter, very tasty. I was able to gather about a cup of these delicacies with about four quarts of tender young dandelion greens in about an hour’s time. All I had left to do was careful rinsing and I was ready to prepare.

I’ve played around with a few recipes, and this is my favorite:

Saute four cloves chopped garlic and one thinly sliced onion in two tablespoons olive oil. Add one teaspoon of curry powder and 2 tablespoons golden raisins and cook, stirring, until the raisins have softened. Add two quarts of young dandelion leaves (which have been thoroughly rinsed, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces, boiled for ten minutes in salt water and then drained). Stirring, saute an additional ten minutes and serve.

Prepared this way, the dandelion greens are tasty, although I am even more fond of the dandelion buds in butter, which has a very nice, nutty flavor, I think.

Note to Mom and Dad: If you read this, do not send money. We are fine.

My peas have grown so tall that they were pushing their little faces against the tops of their makeshift one- and two-liter bottle cloches. This morning there was no putting it off. The cloches had to be removed. My peas would have to face the world — and all of its dangers — on their own now.

Meanwhile, in the lettuce patch, my lettuce seedlings also were straining to grow beyond their smaller bottle-top cloches. Many were waving at me through the holes at the top.

The obvious solution was to remove the bottle bottoms from the peas, freeing these mighty botanicals to reach for the sky, and to trade the lettuce’s smaller cloches for these larger ones. Then the lettuce cloches could be moved over to the rows of spinach, sown in March, that have now sprouted. Even garden plants, it would appear, inherit hand-me-downs from larger family members.

Graduation day.

Graduation day.

So, this morning, as I set about to the task of rotating the plastic cloches, I contemplated whether or not they were worth the effort. First of all, they are not particularly attractive, especially as covers for my conspicuously crooked rows of peas circling the periphery of the elongated garden bed that spreads out along my garage and extends about one car-length beside my drive. And, second, when I initially decided to try using them, I worried about high winds carrying them away and littering my neighbors’ lawns or the golf course adjacent to my neighbors next to me. In an attempt to prevent this, I push the plastic about an inch into the soil and then heavily mulch around the cloches with pine needles and oak leaves. And, thankfully, so far no cloches have sailed away in the wind. And then, finally, there is the simple, time-consuming aspect of cutting the plastic bottles, putting the cloches out and now removing or rotating them.

I came up with the idea of cutting plastic one- and two-liter bottles into makeshift cloches while putting in my peas early this month. In the hour or so that I spent today moving them about, I had to smile at the similarities I show in my parenting style and my approach to gardening. How often I have wanted to wrap my children up in their own plastic bubbles before sending them out into the world. What do I fear for my garden plants that makes me so intent on protecting them that I would expend a valuable hour of my day for this enterprise? At present, my fears are rabbits, squirrels, birds, deer, ground hogs, and raccoons. Birds and squirrels eat pea seeds. Rabbits, groundhogs and raccoons relish the sprouts. Deer nibble on budding pea flowers. My heart despairs to consider the devastation these critters could execute upon my garden plots.

But in the same way a mother has to find a balance between protecting and overprotecting her children, so too must a gardener seek that same balance. I can’t help but observe the difference between my four rows of spinach sprouts whose seed I sowed directly into the ground six weeks ago and their younger siblings, the flat I planted with seed from the very same packet (Baby’s Leaf Hybrid, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.) when I became impatient waiting for the seeds outside to sprout. Despite having been sown more than three weeks later, the spinach sown in the flats sprouted several days before those outside. The sprouts in the flat, now spending most of their time outside on the porch steps awaiting transplant, are larger, to be sure. But they are more gangly and fickle in form compared to their squat, sturdy brothers in the patch out back.

My gangly flat-started spinach seedlings

My gangly flat-started spinach seedlings

And so I wonder, have the advantages experienced by the seedlings that sprouted so easily through the soft starting mix inside the flat’s peat pots inadequately prepared them for the world’s capricious hardships? I won’t really know until I have harvested from both plantings. Certainly, more of the seeds planted inside have sprouted. In fact, I don’t believe a single seed failed to sprout. Outside, there appears to be a seed failure of about 25 percent. I have 76 spinach plants growing well there, and I have counted 26 gaps where seeds never sprouted.

My squat and sturdy spinach sprouts growing out back. (The circle in the dirt shows where their plastic cloches rest.)

My squat and sturdy spinach sprouts growing out back. (The circle in the dirt shows where their plastic cloches rest.)

Like any good mother — or gardener — I worry that my protective cloches may not actually increase the actual bounty. And ultimately isn’t that the whole point anyway? Did the protection provided by these plastic cloches make my peas stronger and taller, more prepared for battle against the dangers awaiting them? Or did it weaken them? I experienced some failure with my pea seedlings, but about the same with the seedlings that had cloches and those that didn’t have them. (Although I didn’t have the foresight to actually count each group.) All I can say is that a small portion of peas didn’t do well when first transplanted into the garden, whether or not they were in the cloches. Keep in mind that I also am growing four varieties of peas. Two are snow peas, Mammoth Melting Sugar and Dwarf Gray Sugar, and two are shelling peas, Dark Seeded Early Perfection and Burpeeana Early (all W. Atlee Burpee & Co.)

I was worried that perhaps the peas roots’ might not get enough water with their plastic shelters. That worry appears to have benn unfounded. While the soil immediately surrounding the peas’ stems often would remain a bit dry at the surface, the roots have had plenty of moisture. One unexpected advantage of the cloches was that I could mulch heavily between each plant and the bottles protected the seedlings inside from getting covered by the mulch. As weather allowed the mulch to settle, and as the seedlings inside grew taller, the stems were protected from the mulch’s excessive moisture, and yet the roots below benefitted from the long water retention in the soil between rainfalls and waterings.

Now that I have cloches in place over my spinach sprouts outside, I will be mulching between the rows here to give that them that same benefit.

My spinach and lettuce crop, inside their hand-me-down plastic cloches.

My spinach and lettuce crop, inside their hand-me-down plastic cloches.

Today is the third of three straight days of rain. As a gardener, I find I’m suddenly grateful for rainy days. The rain has not been constant, but the air is moist and cool and the ground solidly rain-saturated. The moisture nourishes my little seedlings outside and gives me time to rest and regroup again here inside where I’m warm and dry. And, because I’ve been mulching with pine needles as I’ve planted the seedlings into the garden bed, I’m confident they’ll have plenty to drink for much of the coming week. Weather forecasts for Friday and Saturday are in the high 70s. Grow, garden, grow!

By putting out the last of my peas and the lettuce, I have opened up several flats and space on my sunporch that I can now use for the next batch of seedlings. Three weeks ago I bought several packages of peat pot cells that had been reduced for clearance (30 percent off), and as I’ve moved out the cold-hardy seedlings into our garden plots, I began filling new pots with potting soil and placing them in the empty flats. In the past couple of days, I have planted two varieties of broccoli, muskmelon and a low-growing red nasturtium called Empress of India, adding them to my sunporch filled to the brim with flats of Roma tomatoes, marigolds, leeks and cilantro. A couple of weeks ago, I was beginning to get impatient with the four rows of spinach that I had planted directly into the garden, and I finished off the seed packet by planting what was left in an empty 50-cell flat. As it turned out, the flat seedlings sprouted about a week before their sisters outside. I intend to plant these babies just after I get in my last flat of lettuce mix. I also have begun sowing flats from a large packet of perennial flower mix, and I have infant alyssum, lupine, shasta daily, calendula, coreopsis, dianthus, poppy and Rudbeckia sprouting up all over the place.

I don’t know how much the purchase and use of peat pots, flats and soil mix will speed up and perhaps increase my harvest in the end. But these cheerful little seedlings have been great encouragement for this novice gardener, steady reassurance that perhaps there will be lavish bounty of peas and greens as early as June. In the meantime, while I’m waiting out the rain, I am once again at work filling my flats. Today I sowed the last of them: rosemary, thyme, chives, oregano, basil, and a climbing nasturtium mix (Fordhook Favorites Mix, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.).

Apart from the cold hardy crops that I will finish transplanting later this week, plants from the other flats of seeds and seedlings on my sun porch will wait for transplanting (unless they are bursting out of their pots and can’t wait) until after I have put in the seeds that will be sown directly into the garden after the last spring frost date, which is May 15 in our area. Having these seeds started and growing will make me feel less pressured to get everything out into the garden right away, once mid-May arrives. I’ll be able to spread out the planting over a week or so, which will be much less stressful for these old bones. And, once I’m finished with planting, it will be time to start thinking of taking in some of the lettuce for a great big salad.

I’ve shared many photos of my garden space and sun porch. Let me share a little of the scenery that surrounds us. This photo was taken four days ago at sunrise.

The view from my lettuce patch at sunrise.

The view from my lettuce patch at sunrise.

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