Our Garden Grows, Despite the Aphids

28 Mar

Last year we had almost no bugs in our garden, but this year is a different story. I guess the word’s out that there’s a new garden in town.

And not having much of a winter means the bug population is exploding.

I battled caterpillars on the lettuce last fall (and again this spring) and now the latest pests are aphids. On the lettuce they were green, but on the tomato plants they are tiny and black. I never even saw them on the lettuce until I washed it, and I had to wash the lettuce three times to get them all off.

And I didn’t notice them on the tomato plants until I took a photo of one of our first blossoms.


I’m going to try and get rid of them with some soapy water this evening. Hopefully that will do the trick. I also want to purchase some ladybugs and praying mantises to help eat the bugs.

The seedling mystery may be solved soon. I have seven authentic okra seedlings coming up so I will be able to compare them to the ones I’m not sure about and make a proper ID. I asked someone at the garden center why they haven’t have any okra plants out and he said it was because the ground isn’t warm enough yet.

Ours is!

No mystery here: THAT is an okra plant!

Last year our tomato bed was like a jungle. We had a bumper crop of tomatoes before the heat took over, and the tomatoes weighed down the plants so much Michael had to rig up a system of ropes to hold up the plants. This year we’re going to try tomato cages and see if that helps.

Also last year we didn’t put up a trellis for the peas to climb on, and they pretty much died off from powdery mildew from being on the ground. Hopefully this will help.

After a weekend with temperatures in the 80’s, my winter lettuce is seriously bolting. It’s time to start thinking about sewing some new lettuce seeds. I bought three different varieties this time, so it will be fun to compare them.

Michael bought a red bell pepper plant that is already blooming. He’s excited about having red bell peppers very soon.

He’s also growing jalapenos and habaneros from seeds he took directly from peppers we ate for dinner one night. And he says I have the green thumb . . .

With temperatures in the upper 70’s and 80’s these past two weeks, I’m glad we started our garden early. I have a feeling it’s going to be an even hotter, longer summer than last year, which means a lot of the things we’re growing now won’t make it through the intense heat.

I may have to figure out a way to grow some things in pots and keep them in the shade during the hottest part of the day.


Swiss Salad Dressing Recipe

24 Mar

There's nothing like salad from your own garden

The other day I wrote about growing loose leaf lettuce. You can’t eat salad without a great salad dressing, and I’d like to share how I make mine.

It’s super easy. I learned the basics of how to make it when I lived in Switzerland and I’ve tweaked it through the years.


  • Stone ground mustard: 1 small spoonful
  • Vanilla Greek yogurt: 2 large spoonfuls
  • Raspberry vinegar: 1 large spoonful
  • Extra virgin olive oil: 2 large spoonfuls
  • Fresh herbs, like thyme, basil, oregano, chives (hopefully from your garden)
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Kosher salt
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup minced onion

Mix together with a whisk, or place in a container with a lid and shake.

All measurements are approximate, so taste before serving.

You can omit the onion and garlic, of course, and add other spices. I always add fruit (strawberries, orange slices, apples) to my salads, with a little cheese, and the raspberry vinegar is always a great complement.

You can double or triple the amounts and make extra. It keeps well in the refrigerator for about a week.


Greek oregano in the herb garden

My favorite herb, thyme


Is it Possible to Overdose on Lettuce?

23 Mar

Last spring we planted a row of red loose leaf lettuce. It was the easiest thing in the world to grow, and I couldn’t believe how delicious it tasted compared to the lettuce that’s sold in the grocery store, even the organic lettuce.

The best part about growing loose leaf lettuce is that it keeps growing from the top after you cut the leaves off from the bottom, which means many harvests from one plant.

We had salad almost every night for weeks off that lettuce, until the extremely early, ungodly heat caused the lettuce to bolt into tall stalks.

This fall we decided to see if we could grow lettuce during the winter. We used the rest of the seeds from the original package and sowed two rows. Even though there were a few nights where the temperature got close to freezing, it was overall an extremely mild winter, so growing it was a cinch.

The seedlings sprouted, and I had a hard time thinning them out. I wanted to put them all in pots and give them away. (Is it weird of me to hate getting rid of the seedlings? I struggle with this always.)

To help keep the lettuce warm at night, we placed bricks along the edge of the bed and down the middle between the two rows of lettuce. On those nights when there was danger of frost, we covered the lettuce with clear plastic.

I did forget to cover the lettuce one night when there was frost–and it didn’t cause any damage.

We had lettuce all winter long. My friends and neighbors had lettuce all winter long, too, thanks to us! We still have lettuce. I can’t give the stuff away fast enough because it won’t stop growing.

It’s my own fault because I didn’t thin the seedlings enough. I feel like the sorceror’s apprentice. Or The Octomom of Lettuce.

Enough lettuce for the entire neighborhood

Alas, today I went out to harvest some lettuce for dinner and discovered two things: 1) the caterpillars are back and have done a number on some of the lettuce in one day, and 2) the lettuce has reached its end of life and is starting to bolt.

I’ve started pulling the tallest lettuce plants out of the ground, harvesting the leaves, and cutting up the stalks for the compost. When I’ve gone through all the lettuce plants I’ll sow some more seeds to start a spring crop.

The caterpillars were a problem at the beginning of winter. It’s amazing how quickly they can eat through a head of lettuce.

While washing some lettuce for dinner, I discovered a cocoon on one of the leaves. Feeling sad about the possibility of inadvertently destroying a future butterfly, knowing the leaf will wilt and decompose before the butterfly emerges from the cocoon, I put the leaf outside on the patio table and thought about ways to save the cocoon. When I taught kindergarten years ago we had a butterfly garden, so I knew it could be done.

An hour later, when I told Michael about the cocoon, it had disappeared from the table. I’m pretty sure a bird couldn’t resist dragging it off to their nest.

The cycle of life continues.

My very own very hungry caterpillar cocoon

If you’ve never grown loose leaf lettuce before, I can’t recommend it enough. It takes no finesse or skill whatsoever, and you’ll save lots of money growing your own. Best of all, it’s tender and delicious.

Mystery Seedlings

21 Mar

Yesterday I did some weeding in the garden. With all the warm weather and rain we’ve been having, the weeds have already started to take over some of the beds. I knew I better jump on this quickly before it gets out of hand. While I was working I discovered some mystery seedlings.

I also decided to reseed more okra since I disappointingly had only one seed germinate. I replanted a few more green bean seeds, too, to replace the ones that were essentially decapitated by an unknown foe.

The lonely okra seedling

While I was hoeing in a different part of the garden, I discovered two okra seedlings far from where they were sown. Huh? At least I think they’re okra plants. They could also be zucchini, or possibly cucumber. Or maybe the original okra plant isn’t really okra . . .

Mystery Seedling #1

Mystery Seedling #2

Very confusing. I looked at photos online and they do indeed all look very similar. I need to let them grow a little to discern their true identity.

I transplanted the mystery seedlings over to the okra row. Can’t wait to find out what they turn out to be.

It could be that the two mystery seedlings are from seeds in the compost, or from last year’s garden. I have four heads of lettuce and arugula that appeared out of nowhere this winter, all in places I definitely didn’t plant them.

Lettuce and arugula far from home

I guess that’s what happens when you create a really great garden environment. Things just want to grow, even in places you didn’t plant anything.

The Compost Bin That Thought It Was a Snake Cage

17 Mar

Last year Michael made a compost bin. Before he made the bin we used to pile up our organic material in a corner of the backyard, which worked okay but we eventually realized things were mysteriously disappearing from the pile.



We see them all the time in our neighborhood, and they are nice and fat. We have possums as well, and coyotes, even though we live only about a mile from downtown. We don’t have a  fence in our backyard either, so we make it pretty easy for things to get in.

The city has been doing work in our alley, and one afternoon this past winter I was in the garden harvesting lettuce when two water utilities workers walked up. One of them wrinkled up her nose, and with a disgusted look on her face and tone in her voice said, “Excuse me. What is THAT?” and pointed to the compost bin.

I told her it was a compost bin. Her blank stare told me she didn’t speak garden, so I explained how we put our organic table scraps and other materials in the compost and use it to enhance the garden soil, kind of like fertilizer. She looked at me at me in disbelief and retorted, “I thought you had a SNAKE in there.”


This time it was my turn to give her a blank stare.

I guess she doesn’t know much about snakes, either, since I’m pretty sure if I was keeping one as a pet I probably wouldn’t leave it outside in the winter.

Her lack of knowledge about composting made me sad. I bet her grandparents had a garden, and they would have known about composting. Mine did.

It’s hard to believe that so many families have forgotten about gardening and healthy eating. Granted, we live in a large city, but I bet people used to garden here in the city not that long ago, especially in the poorer parts of town.

Last weekend we drove to a small town in Oklahoma for a niece’s wedding shower. Outside of working at the local lumber mill or chicken processing plant, there are very few jobs. Most people struggle to get by, and the phrase “leading lives of quiet desperation” played through my head the entire time we visited.

There is one grocery store in the entire town.

When I was a little girl my grandmother and my cousins’ grandmother had gardens and canned vegetables each summer. My grandmother’s garden is where I discovered the incredibly rich, savory goodness of homegrown tomatoes.

I didn’t see any gardens this year, and I haven’t seen any for a very long time. I haven’t even seen any of the local farmers selling their produce on the sides of the roads like I used to.

We’ve given up so much for convenience.

Having said all that about the decline of gardening in general, I do see a resurgence, especially here in the city. Several friends have started their own backyard gardens, and a few even have chickens.

Maybe I’ll paint snake images on the sides of the compost bin in honor of the water utility worker. I think it would look kind of cool, and would harken back to the ancient image of the snake as symbolic of rebirth and transformation.

A fitting symbol, indeed, for a compost bin.

Here is our compost bin:

Except for the two by fours on top, all the wood used was recycled. Michael also installed a drip line on top to keep the compost moist (since we get so little rain). Two simple latches on the side keep the front door closed.

Being able to open the front door makes it easy to access the compost material when it’s ready to be used in the garden.

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