Category Archives: garden

I Have a Magic Compost Pile

Folks, this is crazy. Some parts of my garden I research to the nth degree. And I fuss over it. And schedule it, and plan it and go bonkers over it. I stake things and weed them and work in the hot summer heat on my hands and knees.

And then there’s my compost pile.

After our trip to Alabama, we came home to discover part of a 10lb bag of potatoes had been left behind and it went a bit bad while we were gone. Not thinking about it, I just tossed the last of those potatoes into the compost pile, just like any other kitchen scrap.

A few months later, plants appeared.

And they grew.

And grew.

And today I went out to check on the plants, and noticed the pile had crumbled away a bit after the last rain — the problem with planting in a compost pile is that it, well, moves. It slowly decomposes and shifts. So some of the plants had exposed roots adn they sort of died a bit, and as I investigated, a handful of little potatoes popped out. So I gathered them up and underneath, there were more!
Until I’d gathered two handfuls.
So I brought them inside, cleaned them up, and cut them into similar-sized pieces.
I sauteed my magic potatoes with some butter, paprika, lemon, and parsley from the window box.

All for basically no work, and maybe $3 of potatoes. And this is only the beginning of the potatoes.

I hope I don’t die of some sort of rare compost cooties…

Garden Update: End of June

Well, I was ready to write an update about the garden and how it was doing… but then some sort of crazy super derecho came through and changed it all. So I’ll do an update and then show before and after pictures.

First, let’s start with drama. The three sisters were doing ok. The corn was getting ready to send out pollen, the squash was starting to give me squash, little tiny beans were beaning. We even managed to keep the groundhog from getting behind the fence for a few days. (We stuffed a bucket and a huge log down her tunnels, and she hasn’t moved them yet.)
Isn’t it beautiful?

Then the derecho came and all the corn fell down. Tops came off, some are ripped up, some folded in half, and to add insult to injury, no watering allowed.


We tried to prop them up by inserting a pole through the fence every foot, but they’re still leaning horribly. Maybe this will save the squash, at least. It was getting crushed under the weight of so much corn.

I used the decapitated male corn to pollenate some tiny female corn silk that was coming out, but I’m not sure these sad, leaning plants will live.

The potatoes are going wild.

The potato tower is more difficult. The smaller plants tend to get covered up when I’m trying to cover the taller plant’s stems in order to encourage more tuber growth. I’ve now had several just go limp and slimy and die. I’m not sure what that’s all about. But the healthy ones are growing insanely fast!

The fennel tastes good and the onions are happy. The cilantro has all gone to seed and the lettuce is mostly gone

The stupid rodent destroyed my remaining snow peas and kale. It made a nest in my mizuna plants out of the string it scrounged up.

Where the nasturtiums covered the onions they growing quite well.


I harvested a handful of beets and gave them away, since I don’t know if I can eat them or not. The lizard got the beet greens.

Then the derecho came and it even uprooted my broccoli and some fennel.

Then the groundhog got stuck behind this fence (I didn’t even know she could climb in anymore!) and fell down repeatedly on the onions, celery, and herbs, crushing them. I think they’ll be okay, though.

The cucumbers are happily growing up the trellis and the basil is huge.

The tomatoes are getting slowly bigger, but the only ripe ones are the tiny ones.

They don’t appear to have even noticed the winds — everything is fine.

Today I harvested 7 cucumbers and 5 tiny tomatoes.

Garden anarchy is filled with very small plants. Any time a bean leaf, a squash leaf, or a flower come out, an animal eats them. This has resulted in a sort of a bonsai vegetable garden.

Three Sisters Update

So far the corn, beans, and squash are growing quite well! And the beans are grabbing each other and the corn. Of course the earlier-maturing beans seem to be grabbing the *tops* of the corn instead of the stalk. I hope that doesn’t make it hard for the corn to grow up. Maybe I need to take care to pick compatible beans and corn, or plant the beans a week or so after the corn. The other variety of beans hasn’t starting shooting tendrils out yet.

Garden Destruction

Whatever it is that is eating my garden got it again. Even after we put in deer block and chicken wire. So we stapled the chicken wire even closer and we’ll just have to hope for the best.

This is what happened to my lettuce and snow peas.


More sad brassicas…

And the stupid thing even eats potato leaves.

Tuesday, even after we stapled the chicken wire on, and draped deer block over it, something still got in! It completely knocked down some large broccoli plants and shredded some lettuce and snowpeas… I started imagining rabbits must be climbing 6 feet of deer block and dropping in from above!

Then I thought to look closer. And I found the hole. Right in the corner. Way, way smaller than a rabbit.


He came in from out here. So we ooched the deer block all the way down in hopes it will stop him.

I guess it’s the same thing, or from the same family of animals, that was gnawing away at all my melons lat year.

Gardening is hard. 🙁

Growing Potatoes

So this year I decided to plant potatoes. I saw posts and pictures on the internet about the idea of a potato tower. Basically, you plant potatoes in something that allows you to cover over new growth with more dirt, in order to trick the potato into growing more roots and making more potatoes. The lofty goal is to get an entire several-foot tall tower of potatoes from just a few plants, saving space. This sounded like a fun idea to me. “They” even claim that as the plant grows, you can harvest potatoes in the bottom of the bin. And everyone knows how much I like plants that you harvest slowly over time: lettuce, kale, mizuna, celery, herbs, etc…
Sweet potato bin

So, first my husband engineered me a very complicated and wonderful contraption. It has 4 posts that he pre-drilled with holes every whatever inches so that as the plants grow, you can add a new board. This is great because I’m not blocking their light at all with walls around them. On the other hand, it took an afternoon to measure and drill all these crazy little holes, and we still haven’t cut more boards to grow it any taller. Plus, I got had to cover it in chicken wire and plant new plants because The Thing That Eats All My Crops ate most of the leaves off the plants that were there before. (Of course, the plants weren’t that happy anyway, because I had to delay planting them too long…)


We had planned to make a second one of those for the German butterball potatoes, but I needed something faster. So I took one of the compost bins the county gave us last year and filled the bottom with dirt and compost and planted to potatoes. The plus side is it took only about 30 minutes (it would be faster if you’re strong enough to actually lift a bag of dirt…) and it seems pretty well guarded against animals. The cons are that the walls are blocking the potatoes from getting all the light, and the holes are going to leak dirt.

I tried to remedy the dirt leaking problem by lining the walls with more compost and grass. It worked some, but we’ll see if it can handle a big downpour or not. But the potatoes were getting old and I was tired of carpentry, so at least this got them planted.

This shows you how easily potatoes grow. I had a bag of potatoes that got lost in the pantry while we were out of town for a week, so I dumped it out into the compost pile. Well, they decided to just go ahead and grow — I guess my compost is tasty.

I really did nothing other than throw potatoes into compost. That’s it.

And the stupid critter (groundhog? rabbit?) already nibbled on it. I wonder how toxic potato leaves really are….

Back From Alabama!

We had a great visit with family there. I swear, it was like going to summer camp (Nature walks! Fishing! Archery! Caving!) but with air conditioning, fridges, and showers (yay!). It was neat that the kids and I had just read Little House In the Big Woods the week before we went. It gave them a different point of view, both for the trip and for the book!

The Girl got to show off her baking and decorating skills with grandma, making cake pops and cookies and things. Great grandma taught my husband how to gut a fish. The baby ate the fish and begged for more.

I have a bunch of pictures to post, over the next week or so. And I lost 7 pounds!

Thanks to my wonderous in-laws for the use of the “Tiny House” as the baby called it. It was a really wonderful, wonderful trip. And as my husband said, I don’t think we’ll ever get tired of telling The Story of the Time We Took Great Grandma Down Into The Cave And Back Up Again.

Today we tried to let the mantis out again. She started to look comfortable out in the sun and the breeze, but she took the first opportunity she had to jump on my husband’s back and beg for a ride back inside, so she may just be a domesticated mantis now. (Yes, she’s back in the kitchen.)

The overturned plastic cups made great mini-greenhouses for some of the plants in the garden. I managed to save a few of the sick looking romanesco, kale, and mizuna with them. Today I replaced a few dead collards, a dead kale, a missing fennel, and thinned out where I accidentally dropped half a package of bok choi.

We Have a Trained Mantis

We didn’t mean to. Really we didn’t.

My husband was walking at work and happened to see two mantis oothecas. That’s what their little egg sacks are called. He thought it might be nice to show the kids and set them out near the garden to eat all the things that plague my veggies in the summer. He wasn’t sure how cold it would get in the winter (it already snowed before Halloween!) so we left them in the kitchen for a little while.

And then we sort of forgot.

One day, when both my husband and I had some incredibly painful ankle wounds (long story), I hobbled to the kitchen to start the rice cooker and noticed a couple of bugs. Mantises?

 Wait, more. Um, a dozen. Or two. Oh. My. Gosh.

Oothecas have about 100-400 mantises in each one.

Only one of them had begun hatching and we quickly took the oothecas out to put on a branch, and gathered up as many babies as we could to put outside. I’m sure they didn’t last the winter, but I can’t keep 300 mantises. It just wouldn’t work.

But we did keep a couple dozen, in the herb planter in the kitchen window.

We watched them shed. Some got lost. We didn’t have a cage for them, so I was constantly rescuing them from the stove, the sink (oops.. better mist them, they get thirsty!) the ceiling, all sorts of places. Their numbers, sadly, dwindled. By the time they were 3rd or 4th instar (that means they’ve shed that many times) there were only a handful left.

Eventually, there were only two — a boy and a girl. One day I noticed they were missing. And I couldn’t find them any of the usual places. Not near the sink, the oven, the ceiling… then I spotted one running around on the laundry hamper that was waiting to go upstairs (my ankle was still pretty iffy and I couldn’t carry anything that heavy on steps). It was the male. I picked him up and put him back on the plants. Then I looked and saw the girl, running right up to where he had been. So I picked her up and put her in the plants. I smiled to myself at a job well done.

A few hours later, I was admiring the two little buggies, and suddenly… the female ran over to the male and jumped on him, and they both tumbled off the parsley onto the dirt. Oh! I think she is trying to eat him! Oh gosh, that’s why he was running away… I wonder if that’s where the other brothers and sisters went…? Oops.

So then there was one.

And she grew…

And grew….

And grew…

And then, just a few days ago, the oothecas outside hatched again. Tiny baby mantises went everywhere.

My husband checks on them every night and noticed one hatch right before another freeze night.

New baby

So we brought it in.

Both mantises in the window

Now, I’m pretty sure he’s too small for her to bother with. She eats crickets 2-3 times his size.

New skin

And she just shed again.

When she gets hungry, we can tell. She climbs the wall and hangs above the cricket cage. If you put a cricket in her big rubbermaid feeding arena, she’ll climb down, go in, eat, and leave. If she wants food, she hovers around near it.

Wait. Maybe she trained us!

Update on the Pupae

So, like I said in the last post about our little pupae friends, we sent some pictures to Bug Guide to help identify them: squash vine borer. As you can see, the official word is to put them in a box and see what comes out. So, here I am, against my will, having to raise what may be the evil little guys who killed my zucchini and got away.

But hey, it’s all in the name of science, right?

Currently, in my kitchen, there is one mealworm, a dozen or two crickets, 2 unknown pupae, some black flies, aphids, and a very large and impressive praying mantis. I really sort of which we had another room for this…

Squash Vine Borer Moth Pupae

Despite being ill, we decided to out for a bit today to get some sun. The Boy wanted to play with his new beach ball octopus and water balloons, and I decided to get one of the raised beds ready for planting. We already tilled it, but I needed to fill it up with some more dirt and stuff like that.
While I was turning the dirt over, I saw them. Two large, reddish-brown pupae. Hmm. Right where the zucchini plants were last year. I dug them out and set them aside. I actually forgot about them until I went out to put the kitchen scraps in the compost a few hours later. The compost is looking quite wonderful, too. It’s nice and brown and quite warm to the touch. Last year at this time it was just frozen and useless.
Anyway, we brought the pupae inside and the kids played with them a bit while we looked them up online to try to identify them. My 5 year old enjoyed making them little “houses” and the rest of us were happy to watch them wriggle around.

As far as I can tell, they are, in fact, the pupae of my sworn enemy, the squash vine borer moth.

Last year they destroyed my zucchini and yellow squash plants. What happens is the moth lays infinitesimally tiny eggs on your innocent squash vines right at the base. When the caterpillars hatch, they bore down into the vine and stay in there. They eat it out from inside, slowly growing and scooting up the middle. The squash plant slowly dies, and one day you notice this really foul, orange, cheese-like substance coming out of your vines.

I didn’t know what it was until it was too late. I actually did surgery on my vines, making a 2-3 inch incision in each one to pry out the caterpillar and destroy it, much to my son’s dismay. He loves anything worm-like. The plants got better for a few weeks, then succumbed to the humidity by developing a fatal fungus that they couldn’t fight off.

I do not like squash vine borer worm moths.

My husband sent the pictures off to, (here is the page for the squash vine borer worm) for confirmation of the species and so they would have a picture.

Right now they are sitting in a container on the dining room table. We’re trying to figure out if we should keep them around and see what comes out and make it more nature study, or if we should just feed them to the lizard. It’s the food web, right?

Here are two movies of our little friends:

2012 Garden Schedule

Spring is springing nice and early this year. It already feels like May — highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s. We’re starting to turn over the dirt in the raised beds, and even move them a little bit. They were too far in the shade last year and a bush has grown tall enough this year to shade them even more.

A really handy thing to do (especially if you’re a little crazy about calendars like I am) is to make a nice detailed chart of when you need to start seeds, transplant, plant seeds directly, and expect your harvest.

Better Hen’s and Gardens blog posted theirs, including a nice template you could easily adjust to use on your own.

My planting schedule is still being somewhat developed, but it’s shared in Google Docs for anyone to peek at anytime they want to. I still need to plant this week’s seeds, but it shouldn’t take too long. The bulk of the early seeds were planted the past couple of weeks.

The seeds from last year are all still germinating quite well, which makes me happy. I’m using some of the things I liked best from last year, like the lettuce, celery, and thai basil. I’m trying all different tomatoes and squash and beans, since I wasn’t so thrilled with ours. I’m also giving up on melons — it uses up a lot of space and they mostly got end rot and gnawed by rodents.

Some new plants this year are corn (planted Three Sisters style with all new squash and beans), an extensive supply of herbs (last year I left them in the sunroom and they all burnt to a crisp), two types of beets, potatoes and sweet potatoes, and fennel. I love fennel. I’m hoping it will grow as well as the celery did last year. I’m still planting broccoli and kale and collard greens, hoping we’ll have enough spring this year for them to do well.