Category Archives: Nature

Adventures in container veggie gardening: June update

I’ve mentioned before that in this first year of my garden I was hesitant to install permanent vegetable raised beds before I could better gauge the amount of sunlight I get and have the soil tested for heavy metals.  So far my experimentation with container gardening has been like any other season — hit or miss!

I planted some tomatoes and basil in this hanging grow bag.  They have been growing really well so far — look at that beautiful basil!

The tomatoes shot up while I was gone over Memorial day weekend and now they even have some blossoms.  We’ll see if they turn into tomatoes.  I definitely get a good 5 hours of sun in this spot, but I’m not sure if that is enough to produce fruit.

The good news is though, even if I don’t get enough sun for fruiting vegetables there is definitely enough for the foliage, so things like kale or other greens should work.  The chard I planted in my brick spiral garden is doing well!  I’ve already harvested it a few times so it looks a little sparse in this photo.  The arugula I planted already bolted; I cut it back so maybe it will re-grow some leaves at least once more.  The cilantro is also done.  I did put some sage in there as well that has survived!

I impulsively bought this poor tomato container at a plant sale this spring and have nearly killed it thanks to my failure to make arrangements for watering when I went out of town over a holiday weekend.  I forget how much water these types of containers need!  Nonetheless it is clinging to life still and is actually already producing ripe tomatoes.  Has been since the end of May.  I guess it got an early start in the greenhouse.  I’ve been enjoying the early harvest!

I repurposed an old shelving unit I wasn’t using as a planter for two pepper plants and an eggplant.  Again, the foliage is doing well, and there are blossoms, so fingers crossed for at least a little fruit this year!

My strawberries have survived, even as I am still learning the art of using a grow bag (watering is tricky!), and they are an everbearing variety so I get very little fruit at a time anyway.  But occasionally I am treated to an adorable little berry!

I ordered some more strawberry seedlings to fill out the rest of the container, and as luck would have it the shipment arrived while I was out of town on a holiday weekend.  A few are surviving but they are still so small it is very touch and go.

 

There is a mulberry tree in my yard which is preventing another few hours of sun for my backyard.  On the one hand I think the idea of a mulberry tree is quaint and it provides much-needed shade on these hot summer days.  But on the other hand I HATE that thing and am about to take a chainsaw to it myself.  Those stupid mulberries were everywhere!  In my gutters, littering purple goop all over my yard.  So gross.  Also my dog thought they were a fun snack and upon being let outside would rummage through the yard trying to collect them all.  As you can imagine that made for some rather nasty surprises once back inside.  I am going to see if I can just trim back some branches that hang over the house and which are guilty of blocking the sunlight.  Then maybe my plants will be a little happier.

You will note that all my photos are closely cropped — my yard still looks like a mess and now that it has become overrun by a species of mosquitoes that is not deterred by bug spray it is difficult to get out and work in the garden.  Baby steps!

In addition to my learning curve on the watering, another problem I’ve encountered are insect pests.  I made a simple organic spray that really seems to have helped keep them at bay:

Homemade Organic Pesticide
Steep 5-10 cloves of garlic and 2-3 tablespoons of crushed red pepper in a quart of water overnight.  Strain and pour into a spray bottle and add a few squirts of biodegradable liquid soap that is scented with lavender or peppermint.  Spray on leaves every few days.

Here is a list of additional organic ideas.  It is important that you practice organic pest control techniques on your plants because you want to be able to harness the power of beneficial insects — the pollinators and predators that will naturally keep things in check!

Ah, June, you always hold so much hope for the garden before things start to fall apart :).  How is your garden doing so far?

-R

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Terrariums!

Happy earth day!  It’s a rainy day here where I live, but that hasn’t stopped me from getting my hands dirty with nature :).

Apparently, according to all the home/garden/design blogs I follow, terrariums are the latest new trend.  I’ve been eyeing some wardian cases for some time now, as I have a sunny windowsill in my home that has been crying out for some plants!  When I got one for my birthday, I knew I had the perfect rainy day activity.

Well, a rainy day has finally presented itself after a long dry spell, so here we are.  It was super easy to do and provides so much beauty.  It would be a great activity for kids, too.  Plants are also important for improving your home’s indoor air quality.

Terrariums are a good way to start if you’re new to this whole growing thing — they thrive on neglect and once you’ve set them up, require just a few sprays here and there to keep them happy.

 

The nursery I went to actually had a whole terrarium section, with tons of plants and supplies all sold together.  I followed the instructions on the package I bought, which pretty much was the same as those in the link above:

-Find a suitable bowl/dish/vase/case to plant your terrarium.  In addition to the case I received as a gift, I used an old vase I had leftover from my wedding years ago.

-Choose the plants you want, some taller, some lower, some green, some colorful…i.e. kind of like the container gardening adage, “thrillers, spillers and fillers.”

-Create your terrarium by adding the following layers:

1.  gravel/stone, for drainage
2.  horticultural charcoal, to absorb smells
3.  sand or moss, to prevent soil from seeping down to the bottom
4.  potting soil (if planting succulents, be sure to choose cactus potting soil)
5.  Stick your plants in the soil, creating kind of a mound in the center or back for more height.
6.  More soil around plants as necessary
7.  Decorative elements such as moss, stone, etc

Spray with a water bottle to keep moist.

It’s that easy!

-R

Earth Day 2012

Every day is earth day here in the Bounteous household…but for the rest of the world, Sunday is your opportunity to give back to the planet!  Here are a few ideas to get you started…
Beautify your community.  Take a look at your newspaper, or google around for some ideas and inspiration — many organizations will sponsor tree plantings, beach cleanups, and other volunteer opportunities to get your hands dirty, feet wet and the feeling of having contributed to make your world a better place.  Here in the DC area, the Anacostia Watershed Society will be sponsoring cleanups throughout DC, Montgomery and PG counties.  The Casey Trees Foundation sponsors tree plantings all the time throughout the region.

Commit to learning.  Ever wanted to take a workshop on butterfly gardening?  Composting?  Urban chicken raising?  Earth Day is a great day for your environmental resolutions.

New habits.  Continuing along the new Green Resolution theme…choose one thing for the earth you will start to incorporate into your routine.  Maybe you can commit to meatless Mondays, start recycling, bike to work at least once a week, switch your coffee to shade-grown, fair trade…Rome wasn’t built in a day; choose just one habit to begin with and let it slowly build into a more sustainable lifestyle.

I will be joining some friends this weekend at the Baltimore Eco-fest and hope to check out some of their vendors and activities, such as tree plantings, nature walks and workshops!

How will you be celebrating Earth Day 2012?

-R

Garden magic

This yard looks like it has been neglected for a long time, but there are so many amazing surprises that pop up now that spring has sprung early here in the midatlantic.  I’m discovering new things every day!

The dogwood in my front yard has PINK blossoms!  So cool!  Nevermind that it’s March 31 and the dogwoods are blooming…

Here is a flower still unfurling…

 

Good news:  the lily of the valley is starting to bloom!  Can’t wait to take in its intoxicating fragrance…

Bad news:  there is a LOT of this poisonous plant — more than I want in my front yard — and it’s going to be a pain to remove!

It looks like these azaleas might have white blossoms?

Beautiful iris!

I have no idea what this is.  Any clue?

I’m not sure what this one is either…though there’s my last blooming daffodil in the background!

A line of hostas has popped up along the shed!

Wisteria.  So lovely.

And finally, the last of my forsythia still in bloom.

I HEART spring!

-R

Camping gourmet

It’s been a while since I’ve last updated — the last few weeks have been busy with going out of town, starting a new job, and, oh yeah, that triathlon I think I’ve mentioned before.

But thanks to Irene my plans this weekend vanished and I’ve been holed up inside, watching movies, sipping tea, knitting and making a pot of soup.  So before the power goes out, I better get a few blog entries in!

I think this dreary day is also an apt time to reminisce about my recent camping trip in the Sierra Nevada, where the weather was just about perfect and the scenery beyond words.  Mr. R and I camp several times a year, mostly staying locally though every couple years traveling somewhere distant.

And while there is no experience quite like waking up under the stars, I will say I’m not the most hardcore outdoorswoman I know.  There are just certain amenities I’m not willing to give up — for example, running water.  And of course:  FOOD!

Nope, you will never find anything freeze-dried in my camping pantry.  One of the most satisfying things to me in life is returning to my campsite after a day of hiking, cycling, kayaking, or whatever, to cook a huge meal over the fire.  There’s a certain rewarding feeling of authenticity to know you took some raw ingredients and concocted something delicious without the aid of electricity.  I LOVE it!

Perhaps our most ambitious meal was the time we steamed lobster over our camping stove while in Acadia National Park:

But that was an exceptional example :).  Usually we stick to simple veggie dishes that can be easily assembled and prepared.  Here are a few recent ideas:

Prepare ahead

If you are going away for a weekend, one thing I like to do is make a couple easily transportable dishes that can be made ahead.  My favorite thing to bring is tamales.  These are the perfect camping food.  I mean, they are designed to be portable!  They keep well and can be thrown into your pack for a snack or lunch on the trails.  And they are delicious.

I know I need to devote an entire post to this, but for now, I’ll just point you in the direction of Alton Brown’s episode dedicated to tamales.  He doesn’t have a recipe for a vegetarian filling, but in short, I make a simple mixture of black beans, peppers, onions, chili seasoning, and cheese, all sort of mashed up together.  You can leave out the cheese if you don’t want to worry about refrigeration, but I’ll admit I’m personally not super anal about that.

Simple salads, pasta dishes, and other sides can also be made ahead.  Another idea would be to bring a frozen meal — soup, for example –which serves double duty as an icepack for your cooler as well as lunch or dinner.  Great way to clean out your freezer!

Essential tools

Really all you need is some firewood, foil, and some sort of implement to lift your food out of the hot coals to cook a great meal at your campsite.  But too many times I have arrived to find rainy conditions, wet or unseasoned wood, or otherwise been able to properly start a fire that is good enough to cook on.  Also, boiling water over the fire takes freaking forever, which is not acceptable to me when I wake up and need my coffee!  So it’s good to have a backup:  we have this stove and this one.  The first is a good all-purpose stove for car camping, the second is super easy to use and awesome for trips where you want to pack lighter, or for boiling water for coffee, soup, etc.

I also have this set of cookware and it is awesome, if a little pricey.  If you have the space, a small cast iron skillet is also great to bring along for cooking directly over the fire.  A small spatula, knife, and serving dishes are also necessary.

Basic method

I’m sure my fellow former girl scouts are familiar with the foil cooking method.  You can cook just about anything in this way.  Mr. R will usually prepare some chicken in a foil packet, whereas I cook myself some veggies.  It really couldn’t be easier!

Start your fire and while it is burning down, chop your ingredients and prepare the foil packets.

Pull out a piece of foil and coat generously with a stick of butter.  Layer on your ingredients, season and roll up the edges to seal.

Make sure your fire has some nice hot, but not flaming, coals.  Lay your foil packets directly on the coals.  If your fire ring has a nice grate, it might be easier to use that instead.

Meal ideas

Use both this method and your camp stove to pull together an entire meal!  For breakfast, I will scramble some eggs in a pan on the stove, and in a packet cook some potatoes.  For dinner, make an easy pasta primavera by combining your fire-roasted veggies with some pasta, seasonings, cheese and a splash of wine or vinegar.  A veggie burger or a can of legumes adds some easy protein — wrap the beans with the veggies up in a tortilla and you have a burrito!  Throw that filled tortilla over the grill for a moment and you’ve got a quesadilla. The possibilities are endless!

Here is the pasta primavera and grilled corn I enjoyed while watching the sunset over the San Joaquin Valley while camping in Sequoia National Park:

Cooking over the fire is a labor of love, but that is truly what makes it more worthwhile.  These dishes are simple, but enjoyed en plein air, they are just strangely more satisfying than anything I’ve ever cooked in my kitchen.  I hope to get out and camp again this fall to enjoy the colors.  Until then, I’m stuck indoors, waiting out the hurricane, but in my mind, I’m enjoying the great outdoors!

-R

Winter gardening

Winter.  Did I really just write that in the post title?  Are we seriously approaching that time of year yet again?  Yikes.  It seems November has ushered in a new level of cold.  With the threat of the season’s first frost looming, I finally admitted to myself that it was time to dismantle my beloved vegetable garden and prepare for the oncoming  weather.

It was really not looking so well anyway.  The tomato and pole bean vines had become mostly brown and droopy, with little fruit:

There were still a number of unripe vegetables, so I picked them all in the hope that they would ripen off the vine:

It also killed me to tear out my basil plants — there was so much left!  By this time of year, however, the allelochemicals produced by plants like basil — which make them so delicious to us, but unappetizing to particular insects — have really built up in the leaves.  This can cause them to taste tough and bitter.  I thought it was a crapshoot as to whether or not this batch of basil would be edible, but I hated to throw it all away.  So I made a paste by pureeing in olive oil (see this entry for herb preservation) and stuck it in my freezer.  Hopefully I’ll not forget about it and make some pesto down the road…

When my garden was cleared, I finally transplanted the kale seedlings I started in late summer.  I am kind of far behind on this.  Starting from seed was much harder than I anticipated! Oh how naïve I was.  A number of fiascos required me to replant them, including a moment when my dog, in reckless pursuit of a squirrel, plowed through an entire group of little seedlings I had set outside.

Nonetheless, I have five plants that seem to be hanging on to dear life. I finally planted them in the space formerly occupied by those overgrown tomatoes, beans and peppers pictured above.

And hopefully they continue to hang on throughout the fall and winter.  Only time will tell!

-R

Backyard wildlife sighting: eastern box turtle

On my hike in the woods last week I came across an abandoned box turtle carapace…but yesterday I happily found a live turtle wandering through my garden.

She was not at all shy when I approached her to take her photograph!

Eastern box turtles are the most common species of turtles on the east coast, a fact which belies their fascinating biology.  They are an extremely long-lived species, and can reach ages of up to 50 years in the wild.  You can approximate their age by counting the number of rings on the scutes, or scales, of their plastron, which is the underside of their shell.

The rings wear off over time so it can be hard to tell, but I would guess that this one is about 10-15 years old.

They will eat just about anything, including mushrooms poisonous to other species, rendering their flesh inedible.  Because of this, the box turtle held a special status in Native American mythology and beliefs.

The box turtle has a unique feature among other species in this region:  its plastron is hinged.  The turtle can retract inside its shell and completely close itself off to predators.  This one is partially shut:

Although box turtles are a common species, their populations are in decline due to habitat fragmentation.  Box turtles have a very strong homing instinct, and, using the earth’s magnetic fields to navigate, will attempt to return to the general area of their birth if they are moved.  This can be dangerous when their territory is bisected or destroyed by roads or other development. If you find a turtle in the wild, it is okay to gently and briefly pick it up — but always put it back exactly where you found it.  If a turtle is crossing a road, do not move it back in the direction it came from, as it will probably just head right back into the street! (Also note that if you do touch a turtle, please be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterward as they can transmit salmonella).

It is sometimes easy to take common wildlife sightings for granted — but taking a closer look is always worthwhile.  The box turtle is no exception!

-R