It’s ‘Officially’ Here

Today is ‘officially’ the first day of spring.  That’s what it says on the calendar but in reality our garden is still snowed in.  The temperature is hovering a little bit above 30°F and there will be more snow coming down tonight and continuing until Wednesday night. We expect a foot of wet snow accumulation added to what we already have on the ground.  That’s why I say ‘officially the first day of spring on the calendar‘ only.

Plants in the little plot right next to the house have started to come up.  Daffodils and irises the previous owner planted next to the garage are sprouting leaves.  The Siberian garlic are braving themselves in the cold next to melting snow and will be buried again tonight.  But they are Siberian, they should be fine.  Rocambole garlic that I’ve been growing for many years are still staying comfortable underground.

Daffodil & Iris
I’ve been trying to dig this clump of daffodil out from the corner many times but what’s left underground keeps coming up every spring.  It’s always the first to come up since it’s so close to the warm house.
Siberian garlic
Siberian garlic started up in late February but was covered with snow, now the snow has melted away and they still look healthy.

Inside the house is another story.  Amaryllis ‘Red Lion’ that one of my colleagues gave me many years ago welcomed spring with its bright red flowers.  Still one more set of flowers from this bulb is just about to bloom.  I moved them up from the basement as soon as the flower buds came up.

Amaryllis-Red Lion
Amaryllis ‘Red Lion’ bloom with deep velvet red, four huge flowers on one stem. One more stem coming up on the left.

Hibiscus ‘The Path’ also senses the warmth of spring and welcomes it with a bright yellow flower.  I found that the color is paler than when the plant is outside but it’s still beautiful and cheerful as all hibiscus are.  I left it in the basement though, since it’s too big to be in the bay window with the other plants.

Hibiscus-The Path
‘The Path’ hibiscus always blooms through summer, providing that it is well-fed. This one probably sensed the spring warmth and is itching to get outside so it flowered really early, probably as a hint.  The red color in the middle is much deeper when it is outside.

But, …darn, We’re still waiting for reality spring.

The Growing Season Begins

Started Seedlings

We’ve been bombarded with snow storms every week for the last three weeks and still have plenty of snow on the ground as a result.  The temperature dropped back to winter levels again after a warm stretch in February.  But it’s time to start germinating seeds for a new season, especially those that need more time to grow, bear fruit and ripen.  I started our tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings last week.  The tomatoes have already sprouted up.  Chili peppers will need a little bit more time to sprout.

I started these tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings on March 13 and all the tomatoes sprouted by March 17. I forgot to keep ‘Mortgage Lifter’ and ‘Rose’ tomatoes seeds last year so I used the ones left over from 2015 and they still sprouted at the same time as the new seeds.  Peppers and Eggplants still take their time.
True Black Brandywine- ‘is extra large in size and full of deep, earthy and sweet flavor’; Dark Galaxy- ‘The taste is a perfect balance of tangy-sweetness-so juicy and refreshing! Each fruit is a unique work of art..’

Aside from the usual tomatoes we have been growing, Brandywine, Cherokee purple, Mortgage lifter, Nova, Indigo cherry drop…among them, this year we will try two new varieties.  I ordered True Black Brandywine and Dark Galaxy tomato seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, one of my favorite plant and seed companies.  I have never been dissatisfied with their seeds.

Aside from it is highly ornamental, ‘it’s high-test heat is counterbalanced with complex flavors’

This year we also picked a new variety of pepper to try, also from the same supplier, ‘Buena Mulata’ peppers. The description is impressive and hopefully we like it enough to keep it on our long list of chili peppers we grow.

I also started varieties of kale and Swiss chard this week.  By the time the last frost date comes, hopefully in mid April, they all should be ready to settle in to the garden. We agreed that the ‘Dazzling Blue’ kale we tried last year is worth growing again.  If you like ‘Toscano’ or ‘Nero Di Toscana’, you will probably like this kale.  It has similar leaves but with purplish/pink midribs and I find it’s a little sweeter.

These Dazzling Blue kale are from last season, beautiful to look at and tastes delicious too.

We grow organic and love to try new kinds of vegetables so we’re a little choosy about where we get our seeds.  Below is a short list of reliable companies we use for our vegetable seeds and plants:

I hope you find something you like from these companies to add to your garden.  I derive no benefit or profit from suggesting them, just my experience from patronizing them over the years.

Happy planting!

In The Tropic

Colorful Display

It was nice to go from bone-chilling cold to warm and humid weather and be among a variety of very bright, colorful and beautiful tropical flowers.  Now, back to the cold climate and inches of snow on the ground, the longing for the site and the scent still lingers.  Working on photographs I took during the trip helps a little.  Here are a few to share with you.

Sala flower, aside from it’s beauty, it’s also fragrant

Sala (Couroupita guianensis) or Cannonball tree has quiet beautiful flowers that look like anemone.  The flower has very sweet fragrant. I wish I could grow it here.

As much as I don’t really like Bougainvillea, I have to accept that the color combination of this plant at the place we stayed, is really something to be seen.

Bougainvillea along the driveway of the resort where we stayed
More Bougainvillea
Pink water lily
Two tone water lily

They look fake but they aren’t.  Waterlilies comes in so many shades and colors here, some are even fragrant. Talking about fragrant tropical flowers, Plumeria is one of my favorites.  It also comes in a variety of colors but I love the nuances in the white variety the most.  The one below is from the rows that grow in front of the resort we stayed at, between us and the beach.

White Plumeria


Marvelous Melon Tunnel

Way To Grow

We are back from a few weeks of vacation on the other side of the planet.  It was nice to be disconnected from the internet.  Please don’t take offense.  I love reading the blogs I follow but sometime we need to disconnect from technology and appreciate what’s around us.

Anyway, we stoped at this temple, Wat Khun-Intha Pramul, to take a look at a reclining Buddha that is the longest, from head to toe, in Thailand.  Aside from the ancient statue, we found an interesting melon garden that is more like a melon tunnel on the temple property.

Variety of melons, gourds and pumpkins hanging down from the bamboo structure
More melons and gourds under one of the ‘T’ shaped tunnels
Melon tunnel-outside
The tunnel entrance also covered with vines

I put a short clip of walking through one of the tunnels.  Coming out the other end was a surprise. Hope you enjoy the walk…

Winter Emergency Feeding

Just In Case…

It’s over 50°F again today and the honeybees came out of their hives even though it’s cloudy.  I observed them carrying out their dead and picked up a few for a closer inspection.  I found that dead bees from hive #2 have their tongues sticking out, a sign of starvation.  So I decided to open the hives for emergency feeding.

Dead bees from hive #2 with their tongues stuck out. Dead bees from hive#1 have no sign of this.

Even with heavy feeding last September, hive #2 still shows signs of depleted food storage.  I think either they were robbed then or new bees emerged during a few very warm days early this month to reduce the supply further.  As I mentioned in the previous post, hive#2 seemed to have more bees than hive #1 now.

I took my cue from them, even though it’s a cloudy day and the temperature is slightly over 50°F they still came out, so it’s ok to open the hives.  What I saw in both hives is very encouraging.

As soon as I opened the inner cover on hive #1 the bees come up to greet me. I looked inside, found plenty of capped honey combs. I decided to feed them anyway so I don’t have to open them again until spring.
There are many bees in hive #2 but they are down below in the middle super. There are a couple of empty frames in the top super. They crawled up to look at me.

After I saw inside hive #2, it confirmed my belief that I made the right decision in an emergency feeding today.  I don’t know when the next warm day will be and I don’t want to find too many starved bees by then.  Mid-winter emergency feeding can be done either with fondant (mixed sugar with high-fructose corn syrup), or granulated white sugar.  I tried to make fondant once but it didn’t come out well.  I didn’t want to buy the fondant either since most corn syrups are made from non-organic, GMO corn and there is no guarantee that the company I buy from uses quality ingredients.  So, I use granulated sugar.  It’s easy too.

  • I put a shim on top of the super to provide a little room between the sugar and the inner cover when re-placed on top.
  • Put a sheet of paper on top of the frames, either make a little cut in the middle or leave a gap.  I used plain natural packing paper, newspaper is fine too.
  • Pour white granulated sugar on top of the paper.  Level it down to a little bit lower than the shim height.  I put 3 pounds in each hive.
For hive #1, I cut a hole in the middle of the paper and poured sugar on it
For hive #2, I left a larger gap between the papers so they have more feeding space. This hive has less food left over than hive #1
More bees from hive#2 came up to inspect the sugar as soon as I poured it in
Put the inner cover back on top of the shim then put the top back on

I find that winter emergency feeding this way is fast and painless.  The moisture in the hive will rise up and condense which will help soften the sugar.  The bees will slowly feed on it.  They will chew the paper, which will be wet with moisture making it easy to chew off, and carry out of the hive.

I feel better now after feeding them.  I also removed dead bees off the screen bottom of hive #1.  I saw that bees from this hive had been using only the top entrance lately.  I checked the bottom entrance and found it blocked with dead bees, too many for the bees to carry out.  Once I cleaned out the dead, they started using the bottom entrance again.

Bees started coming in and out of the bottom entrance of hive #1 again

Hive #3 is confirmed dead.  There are plenty of dead bees and plenty of food left in the hive.  I think they froze to death when the temperature dropped to -5°F earlier in the season.  They were the smallest of the 3 hives.

Seesaw temperatures make it difficult for both bees and their keepers to maintain the health of the hives.  The bees wasted energy coming out in warm-mid winter weather with nothing to take back to the hive to replenish their stores.  Then they starve if not closely monitored.  In my earlier days of beekeeping, one of my hives died of starvation.  It wasn’t a good feeling to see them that way so I do my best not to repeat it again.






Mid-winter, A Warm Day

Cleaning Up

Today, January 23, the temperature rose up to 62°F and the rain stopped around noon.  Our honeybees from hives #1 and #2 came out to relieve themselves and get some fresh air.  Hive #2 went into winter with fewer bees than hive #1, but today, many more bees emerged as the population clearly has grown.

Honeybees from hive#2 on the bottom landing

It seemed more bees than from Hive#1.  With only a .75 inch entrance, there was a lot of traffic in front of the hives.  I managed to shoot a quick video of them

Some of the bees were taking their dead out.  Many of them flew off with the bodies but some of them just dropped the body right in front of the hive.  They have little hooks on the bottom of their feet that are non-articulating therefore difficult to manipulate, so I watched them struggling to dislodge the bodies.  From the clip below I counted eight bees that made the trip out with bodies.

One the one hand, I’m happy to see them alive and well after a couple of zero degree temp’s, but I’m afraid that they will run out of food before spring arrives.  The sad part of the day is that I don’t think hive #3 made it.  No one came out today.  There was one dead bee just inside the entranceway.  Probing the entrance with a twig will always bring a guard bee to investigate.  But this time it brought no live bee to investigate.  A very bad sign indeed.  Still, quoth the song; ‘two out of three ain’t bad.’


Maximizing Space

Growing Vertically

We devote only a small part of our backyard for vegetable gardening and I’m always looking for a way to add more plants and increase productivity in the existing space.  Though we have put a deer fence up around our backyard, we still have to put a low fence around the vegetable garden.  If we don’t, there would be nothing left.  Deer cannot get in our back yard but rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels and chipmunks are still able to sneak in and enjoy what we grow.  So we are limited to growing vegetables within this little fenced in area, therefore I try to make every inch work to its maximum productivity.

Looking back at the last season, I note what worked and integrate it into the coming season along with whatever adaptation increases efficiency.  The method described below can be used for any plants that grow vertically, not just vegetables.

Aside from incorporating different plants in any one plot, I also grow vertically.  While most gardeners grow beans on a cone shaped ‘teepee’ I believe, I put up a trellis for beans that’s over the path, high enough to walk under, and grow beans on each side.  Last season, I put one up by the vegetable garden entrance.  It worked well and when the beans were fully grown and had developed pods, it looked beautiful and provided easy access for picking the beans too.  The trellis can be moved to any part of the garden easily when needed or I can grow different vegetables on it.

The bean trellis early last July. You can see the netted frame structure behind it.
Toward the end of July, beans have grown to cover the trellis with plenty of pods. It’s easy to walk under when picking beans.
I’m not sure what type of beans these are but their ancestry is Italian. My neighbor brought the seeds back years ago and we have been growing them ever since. They are delicious as young pods as well as dried beans later.

Once the weather was warm enough to remove the plastic from the cold frame, I put up a net in its place, see the first photo, to filter and soften the sunlight.  It reduces the light by about 50%.  Leafy vegetables like lettuce, Mitzuna, and Pac Choi prefer a little shade.   In the middle of summer, when the temperature is high and the sunlight is strong, these leafy vegetable will bolt easily and the lettuce will turn bitter.  With shade over them, they can take their time to grow, their leaves are crisp and sweet and the soil will dry more slowly.  I grow Bitter melon on the side of the frame structure and let them entwine themselves up the frame.  I gradually roll back the filtering net as the melon plant grows allowing it to take over shading the vegetables below.

Bittermelon growing up the frame (see first photo) and completely covering the top of the structure, providing shade for the leafy vegetables below.
The melon fruit hangs down making them easy to pick
Early in the season when the structure still cover with a filtering net. Vegetable that do well in semi-shade here are-Left front to back- Wasabi Arugula, Chinese broccoli, two types of lettuce. Right front to back- Mizuna, three types of Mustard greens
Later on when the melon plants cover the structure, I put in more lettuce like ‘Spotted Trout’ and ‘Truchas’

One down side of having the vegetables grow up the frame is that I have to cut them all down when the temperature threatens to drop close to freezing.  I need to put the plastic back on and turn it back into a cold frame again.  Most gardeners leave the plastic on but open the ends of the structure to let the air flow through in summer.  I could have done the same but I would lose growing space on the top of the structure.  I would also have to put a smaller frame over one of the 3’X18′ plots and cover it with a sunlight filtering net to grow these vegetable in the heat of summer.  I prefer to kill two birds with one stone: shade the vegetables and have extra growing space.

Growing Tomatoes

The Trellis Experiment

I know it’s the middle of January but I also know that plant and seed catalogs start pouring in.  Many of us comb through them and get that gardening itch.  Like it or not, winter is a time to think about the next planting season, at least for me anyway.  Looking back to see what worked well and what was a failure.  Looking forward to see what new experiment might fruitfully improve the garden and what new plants to grow.

We love tomatoes and have been growing a variety of both large and small sizes.  The challenge of growing tomatoes for me is keeping them straight up.  I bought a variety of tomato cages early on but they never worked well for me.  Most of the time they’re too short.  My tomato plants grow over six feet tall and some years I have to get on a ladder to tie them in place.  So I have been experimenting with ways to keep them from flopping over in the least amount of time.  Tying tomato plants is a time consuming process.

These are some of the varieties of tomato we grew last season.

When the tomato cages failed, I used long poles to tie the main stalks up, then used some shorter and smaller ones vertically in between for the branches.  This method worked well but risked damaging the roots when I pushed a new pole into the ground to support a branch.  The tomatoes also flopped over when I failed to have enough time to keep tying them regularly as they grew.  I also used a lot of smaller poles, too many of them, in fact.  I had been using this method until last season.

I made this railroad trellis on one side of a three feet plot and planted ‘Baby bell peppers’ and some leafy vegetables in front of the tomatoes
It worked quite well with cherry and grape tomatoes which tend to creep like a vine. The red ones are ‘Sakura’, yellow are ‘Nova’, and the black and orange on the far left are ‘Indigo’

I experimented on a new method last season.  I still use the longest and largest pole, 8 foot long, to tie the main stem to.  But this time I also put these long poles on either side of the plant, making a railroad track with plants in the middle.  Each tomato has 1 foot by 16 inches in space.  Then I tie smaller poles, horizontally, connecting each long pole together.  I keep a foot of space between each horizontal bar.  Once the tomatoes grow and branch out, I just tie their stems to these bars.  Restricted to gardening on the weekend some weeks, the branches still rested on the bars, without flopping down.

The trellis also worked well for large tomatoes. On the far left are ‘Tie-dye’, then ‘Brandywine’, ‘Cherokee Purple’ with ‘Mortgage Lifter’ at the far right.  At the end of this plot is Swiss chard and Kale.

One mistake I made was to use thinner sticks for some of the bars.  I ran out of the the sturdier ones so I used the ones made for hoops in their place.  They bent way too easily  under the weight of large tomatoes.

Toward the end of the season, ‘Tie-dye’ which grew profusely, got too heavy for the thin sticks I used
When I installed the correct size pole, it worked well. The larger tomatoes, some over a pound, can rest on the bar as well. These Brandywine tomatoes, most either over a pound or close to it, are resting on the bar. I tied some of the fruit stems to the bar as well, to support the weight.

At the end of the season, once I cut all tomato plants down, I untie the poles and put them back in the toolshed.  That saves a lot of space.  I can always shrink or expand the trellis according to how many tomatoes I grow.

Happy About The Honeybees

They Survived

After a week of Arctic blast temperature here, we have a balmy 60°F temperature this morning though raining.  The rain will continue for the rest of the day and is expected to stop by Saturday morning.  But 60 degrees Fahrenheit is high enough for the honeybees to come out of their hives and start cleaning themselves.  This weekend the temperature is predicted to drop below freezing again.  After I looked at the thermometer on the patio, I promptly took an umbrella and cellphone out to the garden.  What I saw really made my morning.

Despite the rain outside, bees from hive 1 have come out to enjoy the 60 degree temp’.
Not many of them came out of hive 2 but enough to make me believe that they are alive in there.
I haven’t seen live bees in front of hive 3, just fresh dead bees, but someone had to take them out.

We’re so happy to see them pull through a brutally cold, -5°F some nights, and uneven temperatures throughout.  If they pull through this winter, the next generation will be more adaptable to the climate in our neighborhood.  My concern is hive 3, the smallest one.  There were a lot of dead bees in front of the hive when I checked on them the first time this winter.

Hive 3 on January 7th
January 7th, dead bees in the snow in front of hive 3

My consolation is that they have to have live ones to carry the dead out.  Even this morning, there are fresh dead bees on the landing.  I have hope for them.

At least two more months before spring comes, I hope they have enough food to last until then.  Heavy feeding since late summer should help.  In the meantime, the squirrels are making a lot of pockmarks in the lawn, digging up crocuses that we planted for the bees.

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