Unexpectedly Happy Ending


Ralph discovered these things in our compost heap. Yikes! There were millions of them, it seemed, busily munching on a head of cabbage that had split and gone bad. We’d dealt with an earwig infestation earlier in the season. Was this a harbinger of future earwigs?

Ralph put a few in a jar and took it to the Master Gardeners at our local college. They scratched their heads and told him they’d get back to us. We got on the Net and decided that the most likely culprit was Black Soldier Flies.

A few days later a Master Gardener showed up and confirmed the diagnosis. Black Soldier Flies are beneficial. They lay their eggs in decaying material. If the heap is too moist to support earthworms, the BSF larvae take over. They eat things (like cabbage leaves) too solid for earthworms to feed on, and poop out earthworm chow. The adults are pretty unusual, too. Most flies eat by barfing stomach acid, then lapping up the resulting slime. (This is why they are disease vectors.) BSFs eliminate this problem by not having mouth parts.

You read that right. Adult BSFs have only one thing on their minds: making more BSFs. They do all their eating  as maggots, and boy, do they eat! A few days after this photo was taken, Ralph emptied a vacuum cleaner bag  full of dust and dog hair into the heap. The maggots (having run out of cabbage, I suppose) rose up through the heap and started eating the dog hair.

But here’s the really neat part. The Master Gardener looked at our garden and said, “I’ve been gardening for 30 years, and this is the nicest garden I’ve ever seen.”



The Founding Father of American Agriculture


Listening to my local NPR station on the way home last night, I was lucky to tune in to in interview with a gentleman from the State Ag Extension Office and Peter Hatch, the Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello. Rather than blather on about Jefferson’s importance, not only in writing the Declaration of Independence, serving as the first Secretary of State and third President, founding the University of Virginia, designing his own house, in addition to his influence on American agriculture, (Did the man ever sleep?) I’ll just refer you here:


Monticello is definitely on my bucket list.

Text Only

Sorry about the late post. Drove up to Delaware on Wednesday. Got my computer talking to the internet, but the iPhone wouldn’t accept the old “Push the button on the modem” trick. So the photos I’m taking will have to wait until I get back to Charlotte. There will be photos: of the beginnings of various projects, of plants, and more plants, and of the amazing field of violets next to the driveway.

It’s been busy, so far. Got hand-me-down cinder blocks for the greenhouse base yesterday, along with a couple of loads of firewood. Some of the wood was rotten, so we got to turn two negatives into a positive: rotten, unburnable wood, plus a strip of permanently shaded yard = mushroom habitat. Have to research sources of mushroom spores on the net.

I helped move it all. Ralph told me about John’ wife refusing to get  job, because it’s his job to support her. Apparently she might qualify for some sort of disability, but she won’t apply for that either. “I told him, “I’ve gotten a lot of prissy wives in trouble.” Along the way we stopped at Felton Hardware, a delightful relic from another age: plant sets out front, seeds in jars for you to scoop out and buy by the ounce or pound, a place where you can walk in, ask for one of those thingamabobs that have the little whoosit that you flip over, and they’ll ask, “You want the 1/4 inch or 3/8?”

Came home, ate, and reorganized my sewing room, which was full of boxes where the movers stacked them last year. Ralph had set up the bookshelf, but on the wrong wall, so we unloaded the shelf, moved it, and reloaded. It reminded me that my body has been toughened by 13 years in a call center.

So we went to Spence’s Bazaar today, which was way cool, but not likely to bring in more than a hundred or so each time he sets up his veggie stand. Cheap prices from the two competitors. We hope to compete by selling stuff that’s a little different. Yellow pear tomatoes, basil, handing out recipes. Still, every bit helps.  Nice place to shop, though, wandering through the sellers of collectables and hand-made soap, veggie starts and designer knock-offs. Bought  tomato, eggplant, and banana pepper sets from Mrs. Peterson, who has a greenhouse and some harlequin marigolds from another fellow, whose name we didn’t catch.

Came home, and I napped, while Ralph went to haul 4 x 4s and pavers. Woke up after a bit, and tackled the rest of the boxes, stacking them neatly along the wall next to the sewing machine table. Then set up the sewing machine.

Then I tried to plug it in. Um, there are now eight boxes in the way. Sigh. Heavy boxes, most of them.

Ralph returned and I helped him move the lumber and pavers. I couldn’t lift the pavers. They’re 18″ x 18″ of 2 inch thick concrete. So he loaded them into the wheelbarrow, I move them and he unloaded and stacked. So we now have a greenhouse floor. In a stack next to the fence.

I planned to move those damn boxes again after dinner, but found getting out of a chair kind of about as good as it got. So we played Mr Wizard with our Luster Leaf soil test kit. I’ve got pictures of the difference a year of compost application makes on garden soil. My boys visit tomorrow, and the honeydew list is growing. Moving those boxes is on the top of it. Then maybe I can get some sewing done. If I can stay awake.

Grandpa Jake

I never met my grandfather. He died a year or so before I was born, but I grew up listening to stories about him. His name was John Jacob Hoehing, and he went by Jake. He had three outstanding characteristics: He could fix anything. He could make anything grow. Everywhere he went, he ran into a friend.

My grandparents married in 1911. They were both factory workers. Elizabeth, my grandmother, had been orphaned at age 13. The relatives who took her in never allowed her to forget to be thankful that they let her finish eighth grade before sending her out to earn her keep. She never talked about what she did in the factory, but her wages helped her younger sister attend secretarial school and get a leg up in life. Jake was her knight in shining armor. After ten years in the factory, she was now a housewife.

They worked and saved and eventually bought an eight-unit apartment house. They lived in one of the second floor units. Lizzy kept the hallways spotless, and scrubbed the marble front steps each day. Jake kept the light bulbs on and the plumbing running. In his spare time, he turned the tiny back yard into a miniature Garden of Eden. Cabbages. Tomatoes. Espaliered fruit trees.

Good thing, too. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the jewelry factory closed and he lost his job as a stone setter. By that time, my mother had followed her aunt’s footsteps and gone to secretarial school. She’d already been working as a legal secretary in the Essex County Courthouse in Newark, NJ for 2 years. Each week she gave $10 of the $15 she earned  to her mother. When my uncle turned nine, in 1931, he got an evening job as a pinsetter at the local bowling alley. I don’t know how much he made, but it cost him part of his hearing. They made it through.

My parents married later in life than most. World War II intervened before I came along, and so they were about ten to twenty years older than most of my friends’ parents. For their parents, the Great Depression was some vague, fuzzy memory that happened when they were little, and mostly to other people. For my parents, it was the defining event of their lives, and a frequent topic of dinner table conversation. My father spent the entire decades of the Fifties’ and Sixties’ prosperity fully convinced that it would all end tomorrow.

They didn’t garden, though. Mom had survived tuberculosis and been declared semi-invalid. Dad came from lace curtain Irish stock, people who concealed their manual incompetence behind a screen of distain for anyone who “worked with their hands.” My uncle gardened. He’d married the daughter of Italian immigrants, and growing tomatoes and canning them was part of their family tradition. My father’s cousin and his wife gardened, and turned me on to Rodale and yoga. (Aunt Rita, a devout Catholic, and in all other ways a totally conventional middle-class American housewife, was a fan of Lillias, on PBS.)

So the gardening bug skipped a generation in my family, but it came roaring back with me.

Starting a Suburban Garden

Your playing children and cavorting dogs will thank you for planting your garden at the edge of the yard.

Backyard Border Garden

First off, start small. The #1 mistake beginning gardeners make is grabbing a garden catalog and deciding they need a vast tract of land so they can grow a row of everything. Arugula! Merveille de Quatre Saisons lettuce! Celtus! Salsify! Twenty-seven varieties of heirloom tomatoes! Did I say, “Start small?” I’ll keep saying it.

Everything in the seed catalog is absolutely the best. Their writers taught Dan Draper the art of persuasion. (Remember, he grew up on a farm, reading this stuff.) Stay strong. Do not give in. Start small. One tomato plant, one bush cucumber or bush squash, and one leafy green of your choice. Seriously, folks, that’s enough for starters. A pepper plant, maybe. The hot ones are easier to grow than the sweets, or at least that’s what I’ve found. Once you’ve successfully grown an 8’ x 4’ space, which is about what the above list of plants would take up, you can make the garden a little bigger next year. Plant what you like to eat: tomatoes, cukes, and lettuce for a salad garden, or tomatoes, hot peppers and cilantro for a salsa garden. Like Southern cooking? Collards and sweet potatoes are both easy to grow and prolific, although the sweet potato vines will want to spread.

Second, buy plants rather than starting seeds, especially for warm-season crops like tomatoes and squash. Some things you have to direct seed: corn, peas, and beans, for example, but buy tomatoes, cukes, peppers, and squash as sets, not seeds.

Third, put your tiny garden in an out-of-the-way spot. I know the conventional image of “vegetable garden” is a square or rectangle occupying the middle of the yard, but that image comes from farms, where they have lots of land and tractors to plow it. Find a nice sunny spot somewhere in the border. Your playing children and cavorting dogs will thank you.

Fourth, soil improvements will pay off ten-fold over increases in garden size. Fortunately, soil improvements are easy, cheap, and readily available in a suburban setting. They are called “grass clippings.” In the Fall, they are called “leaves and grass clippings.”

Labor-saving hint #1: Don’t rake your leaves. Suck them up with the lawn mower. This chops the carbon-containing leaves and mixes them with the nitrogen-containing fresh grass for optimal composting action.

There are a lot of things you can buy at your local hardware palace to add to your soil. Some of them even have “organic” on the label. Other than the stuff that comes out of your grass catcher, you’ll only need two: dolomite limestone (if you don’t have a woodstove or fireplace) and Epsom salts.

Labor saving hint #2: Don’t get the brilliant idea to “wait until all the leaves fall off the trees.” You will curse yourself. The drifts of leaves will clog the mower and you’ll have to lift it up every few feet to clear it, plus you’ll have to empty the bag every twenty feet or so and the carbon/nitrogen ratio will be off. Just mow once a week, more often if you have a sudden leaf drop. Putting whole leaves on the garden or in a compost bin creates an impenetrable layer that can take years to break down. (Yes, I know that this advice is out of season. Just sayin’)

Take the time and effort to dig deeply and break up the soil well. If you have compost, add it. If not, you can add bagged topsoil, compost, or even potting soil. If your soil is heavy clay, consider mixing in some sand. Sprinkle a little Epsom salts and lime or wood ash over your garden plot and mix well.

Labor saving hint #3: choose a pleasant time of day to garden. One of my worst garden experiences was working with people who insisted on waiting until 10am to start. After lunch, it was right back out into the 90°+ heat until about 5 pm, at which time, it having become pleasant outside, we would quit for the day and go into the house. Fortunately, the average suburbanite has something called a “day job” that pretty much demands that you restrict your garden activity to those long summer evenings. Looks like a win-win to me.

Fifth, grow up! This is not a personal judgment on you. I mean garden vertically wherever you can. A five foot row of pole beans will out-yield a ten-foot row of bush beans, and require less weeding, watering, and bending over. Squash, melon, and cucumber vines will yield just as much on a trellis that occupies three feet of garden as they will sprawling across the vast domain they are programmed to conquer. (Warning, do not try this with watermelons, unless you grow the mini-icebox kind.)

Sixth, just add water. Every day that it doesn’t rain, spend a little time outside and give your garden a spritz. Soak the ground so that it takes about 60 seconds to lose the shiny you get from spraying it with water.

Seventh, get the weeds while they’re small. If you’re militant about this, you won’t find gardening a chore at all. If you let the weeds get big, they will fight back, so when you see a new weed, nail it. Get yourself a Dutch (also called “scuffle”) hoe. You push it back and forth just below the soil surface and it cuts the tender roots off the tiny little weeds. (And your plants, if you’re not paying attention.) After the weeds are cut off, put a thick layer of grass clippings around your plants. That will keep the soil moist and new weeds from sprouting. Show no mercy to your weeds and your plants will reward you with more food than you know what to do with.

Easy to Grow                     More Advanced                       Not For Beginners

Beans                                    Peas*                               Eggplant**

Zucchini                               Broccoli                              Cauliflower

Hot peppers                       Bell Peppers                           Red Bell Peppers

Collards                              Lettuce*                               Celery

Kale                                     Melons**                            Endive

Swiss chard                        Onions

Tomatoes                           Carrots

Summer Squash               Radishes*

Garlic                                     Corn

*Prefer cool weather. Try planting them in a spot with some shade.

**Long-season. You may need to protect them with plastic as Fall closes in.

Eighth, and last: Start small.

Tuscan Kale

Tuscan Kale, photo from The Slow Cook

Tuscan Kale, photo from The Slow Cook

Tuscan Kale (aka Nero di Tuscana, Lacinato, Tuscan cabbage, Italian kale, cavolo nero, flat back cabbage, black Italian palm, and Dinosaur Kale, and, of course, the scientific name Brassica oleracea) may hold the record for Vegetable with the Most Names. Whatever you call it, unlike most Things that are Good for You, it is delicious.
According Dr. Simon Weil’s website, “a cup provides more than 100 percent of the daily value (DV) of vitamins K and A, and 88 percent of the DV for vitamin C. Like other members of the brassica family such as cabbage, collards and Brussels sprouts, kale is a rich source of organosulfur compounds that have been linked to cancer prevention.”
Don’t let that scare you off. Unlike many of its brassica cousins, Tuscan kale has a mild flavor and succulent texture: less chewy than Scotch or Red Russian Kale, more tooth than (the visually similar, but unrelated) flimsy Swiss Chard.
You can use it in salad, in stir-fry, dried as chips, or steamed. My favorite is lightly steamed and sprinkled with a half and half mixture of vinegar and soy sauce with just a dot of sweetener: not enough for a sweet and sour taste, just enough sugar, honey, or agave syrup to take the edge off the vinegar.
It’s also easy to grow: start it in early Spring or Fall in rich garden soil. Water well and hose off any aphids that stop by to feast. Harvest by cutting off the bottom leaves and come back a few days later for more. You’ll soon see where the “Palm Tree Kale” name comes from. The “Black Kale” name becomes evident in Winter, when the leaves turn such a dark green as to almost look black. If your winters are severe, mulch your plants deeply with straw or use a plastic cover.
Lance Leaf, Lacinato, and flat back make sense: they come from the long, narrow leaf shape. Nero di Tuscana, Italian kale, and Tuscan come from the area of origin. Anybody have any idea where the name “Dinosaur Kale” comes from?

Containing Compost

Finished Bin
We’ve always composted, and continued to do so after our recent move. We continued our conserving ways for several months before a neighbor showed up, glanced at the back yard, and cheerfully informed us that the city has fines for people with unsightly properties. Given that everyone else had been complimenting us on how much better the yard looked since we’d moved in, we pretty quickly narrowed down the object of our neighbor’s concern to the pile of dead leaves and grass clippings concealing the potato peels and egg shells.

On a trip to the local hardware palace for yet more perennials, I noticed a plastic compost bin for sale. “51 gallon capacity,” the sign said. That sounds a lot more impressive than “six point eight cubic feet” which also happens to be true. While it might be enough to hold kitchen waste, that’s nowhere near enough capacity for a lawn’s-worth of grass clippings plus  two shade trees worth of leaves. Plus, it looked like Dark Helmet’s hat from Spaceballs. We can do better, I thought.

In a few minutes of wandering the aisles, we located 2” x 4” x 8’ landscape timbers at $3.54 each for the corner posts and 6-foot cedar dog-eared fence planks at $1.17 each that would serve as rot-resistant sides. That, plus a bunch of deck screws and a few metal fence stakes, gave us a two-bin, 3’ x 3’ x 4’ compost heap for $55.05. We used scrap lumber for the boards to hold the front slats in place, and recycled the inner cores from dog poop bag rolls for spacers. Buying a 1” x 6” x 12’ and a foot of aquarium hose to replace the recycled items would bring the cost up to just a little over that of the pint-sized commercial model.

However we get a lot more bang for our buck: 36 cubic-foot capacity in each of the two compartments, to be precise, enough for grass clippings and leaves as well as kitchen waste. That works out to 11 cents per gallon of storage capacity, and, other than the recycled plastic spacers, it uses no petroleum products. Compare that to the $1.14/gallon of Mr. Helmet’s hat. May the Schwartz be with you!

Materials list:

3 – 2” x 4” x 8’ landscape timbers

28 – 6-foot cedar fence planks

9 – ¾” length pieces of plastic or metal tubing, ¼” to ½” diameter

144—2” decking screws, 9 – 3 ½” decking screws

4 – 5’ metal fence stakes


Saw, measuring tape, marker, drill, screwdriver, level, sledge hammer


Cut the landscape timbers into 4-foot lengths.

Cut 12 of the cedar planks into 3-foot lengths for the sides of the bins.

The planks may split if you run screws directly into them, so it’s a good idea to pre-drill 2 holes on the end of each plank plus two more 2” from the centers of the 6-foot planks.  You can expedite this by stacking the planks and drilling them 4 or 5 at a time. Carefully measure the first plank and put it on top of each carefully stacked pile of planks as a template.

Lay three of the posts on the ground, spaced so that they line up with the holes in the 6-foot planks. Space the planks a finger’s-width apart for better air circulation.  Screw the planks to the posts using the 2” decking screws. The top piece will extend above the end of the post. You now have the back of your bin.

Stand the back up in the place you want the finished bin to stand and attach the bottom plank to the end, using one screw. Attach the front post to the plank with one screw. Use the level to insure that the posts are vertical and screw the front and back ends of the plank to the uprights. Attach the remaining planks the same way, again, a fingers-width apart. Repeat this procedure for the opposite wall and the middle wall.

You have a bin! Reinforce the walls by driving a metal fence post on the outside of each side wall and on both sides of the center wall, near the front posts. (Rooftop gardeners might want to place a cinderblock on either side of the front posts for support, instead.)


Attach a 4’ length of board to the center post at top, middle, and bottom, running the 3 1/2” screws through the spacers. Leave a little play between the spacers and the post, rather than running the risk of splitting them by screwing them on too tightly. They’re just there as guidelines. Do the same with the side posts.

Measure the distance between the spacers, subtract ½”, and cut the front planks to that length. Slide the boards into the slots as needed as your bin fills. Remove them when it’s time to move the compost out.

If you have the space and wish to double your capacity, you’ll need to get 12 more cedar slats and four additional fence stakes. Leave your side and center pieces 6 feet long and reinforce the middle of the side and center walls with the stakes.


Nice t’Meetcha

Nice t’Meetcha

A neighbor stopped by today. Looked at the fence Ralph and his friend Hugh had built six months ago, right after we moved in. Knocked on the door.
“You have to have a permit to build a fence.”
“Yes,” Ralph replied. Why bother telling the guy that we not only got the permit for the fence, and the shed and took the permit out of the living room window after the inspector approved them four months ago?
“I don’t see it posted anywhere,” announced Mr. Eagle Eye.
“We got one.”
“Hmph,” Mr. Eagle Eye harrumphed. “Well, I may just have to call Zoning.”
“Knock yourself out,” Ralph replied, shutting the door. “Nice to meet you, too.”
I can’t wait to get chickens.