The Life & Times of Avi the Avocado and the Annual Indoor Orchard Update!

Last week we got our first taste of the 2020 jungle. The first frost warning of the season arrived early in the week with a chilly 37-degree night. Since that is too cold for all the orchard plants that have been happily sunning themselves outdoors on the balcony all summer long, this change in temperature meant a mass migration of all potted plants from the outside in. It was time for the annual interior decision of where to set up wintertime living arrangements and how best to fit everyone in.

I love this yearly transition ritual with the plants. It not only signals a new season but also it’s close to Avi the Avocado’s birthday (he’ll be 4 in November!) which means Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Also, it’s a great time to check the growth process of the fruit trees. The last time I posted a garden update was November 18th, 2019. It was a different world back then. Not only for us humans but for these city plants too. Last year our orchard round-up consisted of potted avocado, lemon, grapefruit and date palm trees, each grown from seed (except the lemon which was a grafted gift several years ago).

Fitting for the times, just like our traumatic 2020 pandemic year, the orchard plants have also experienced their own turbulent events over the past 344 days. I’d like to say that everyone flourished and that the garden bloomed and blossomed under the extra care from all the stay-at-home attention that quarantining invited. But nature is never that predictable. With every success I celebrated in the potted orchard experiment this year, there was an equal amount of setbacks.

The 20th-century British writer, Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941)  once said, “every gardening failure must be used as a stepping stone to something better.” And so we step. The life and times of the indoor orchard continue, for plants and human,  as we learn and grow together into year 4.  Failures and setbacks aside, there is much to report. Let’s look…

Avi The Avocado

We’ll start with Avi first since he’s the one celebrating his fourth birthday three weeks from now. Last year Avi looked like this…

indoor-avocado-plant-1-avi (1)

He had made real strides in the growth department and was busily filling out his canopy of leaves – especially up top. As of last posting in November 2019, he was 4′ 7″ inches tall and destined for a bigger container that would allow him plenty of room to continue his sky-high stretch.

This is what Avi looks like today…

 

The good news is that he’s almost too tall to fit in the whole photograph. Cheers for growth! The bad news is that’s he’s stooped over, weary and a little bedraggled-looking. Unlike the other plants, Avi has remained indoors all year long, preferring this environment much more than the heat, humidity, and direct sunlight on the balcony. This is odd for an avocado tree. Normally they revel in such tropical conditions. But from the very beginning, when he was just a small sprouting pit…

The start of Avi – November 2016.

Avi has lived indoors and decidedly said he preferred that much more (see previous posts about this behavior here). As of late, he’s been looking so unfortunate I’ve deemed him the family H.S.P. (highly sensitive plant) and can’t help but think he’s feeling everyone’s emotions in the world these days.

 

Despite this woebegone appearance, there have been several successes for Avi this year. He now measures 5′ feet tall (a growth spurt of 5″ inches since last November!), he lives in a new larger container to accommodate his larger size, and he’s completely 100% rid of the pesky scale bugs that plagued him for over two years. I suspect that his current beleaguered state might be due to a nutrient deficiency. Even though he receives a regular sprinkle of organic avocado fertilizer, he hasn’t made any new leaves in months – an unusual circumstance for the once gusto grower.  His latest troubles are an issue affecting some of the tips…

This weekend, I’m going to take him to our local garden center for some advice from the experts on how to get those leaves back up in the air instead of drooping down around his trunk. In the meantime, if any avocado enthusiasts out there have some helpful advice, both I and Avi would greatly appreciate it!

Grace the Grapefruit

As if she was trying to make up for Avi’s struggle or at least encourage him to keep growing, Grace, the grapefruit tree, has done nothing but flourish this year. When I last documented her height a year ago, she was 3′ 2″ inches tall.

how-to-grow-a-grapefruit-tree-2019
Grace in November 2019

Like Avi, she is another one insisting on growing outside the frame. This is Grace now …

At first you might say, she doesn’t look that different.  But she’s not done showing off her portrait yet. This is her too, still going…

And then this is her again – still going and growing some more…

All the way up to the ceiling in fact! To give you some perspective… that’s the tip of a ceiling fan paddle in the top left corner. Grace, I am happy and amazed to say, now stands 6′ 2″ inches! In just two and a half years she has grown to the size of a very tall person!

Initially, I attributed this doubling in size to an energetic offshoot that citrus plants sometimes get. It’s where they grow a random branch in a quick minute, one that gets much longer than the others and gives the whole tree a wonky, wild look. But upon closer inspection, that’s not the case with Grace. This long stem waving above her rounder section of leafy greens is the central trunk growing taller. It’s her way of saying she’s ready for a bigger container (her fifth one so far since she first sprouted in March 2018!) As it turns out, Grace is well on her way to fulfilling her ultimate goal of being a few dozen feet tall. Oh my. Bigger pots await!

The mighty evolution of Grace the Grapefruit from seed to tree!

Liz Lemon- The Lemon Tree

While Grace and Avi were determined to grow higher, Liz in 2020 was determined to grow wider. As of last November, Liz looked like this…

 

Liz showing off a bright yellow lemon in November 2019.
She measured 2′ 4″ inches tall and was being pruned into a nice round shape. This year, Liz sustained some wind damage when we went through the terrible tornado in March. Unfortunately, the night the tornado happened, it was also the first night of the season that Liz was moved out to the balcony.  The storm blew through town and loped off all her top leaves like an unwanted haircut. Because of that shock to her system, I didn’t want to prune her at all this year. She needed time to recover from the storm damage, which left her, not only with missing foliage but also with a loose main branch at the base of the trunk. Before the storm, this branch was very strong and firmly rooted. After the storm, it was barely attached at the soil line.  She was ragged and wind-beaten (two things lemon trees do no like at all). But with great aplomb, and a summer of steady heat and sun, Liz went about repairing herself. She now looks like this…

Despite the traumatic storm and the unfortunate haircut, Liz managed to grow an extra inch in height, making her 29″ inches tall now. What she lacks vertically she more than makes up for horizontally. She is twice as wide as last year. I wish I had measured her width back then – but you can see in the photos from last year to this year, in relation to the tabletop, that there is a definite dramatic increase. Her width as of yesterday was 3′ feet across branch tip to branch tip. She is also sporting three almost ripe lemons…

 

 

and a brand new cluster of flowers…

It will be fun to see if these flowers make it all the way to the adult lemon stage over the winter. Typically that is her dormant time, where she hibernates her way through the cold months, so we’ll see what happens. Fingers crossed!

Jools – The Medjool Date Palm

Jools, last November 2019.

Jools was a real grower all winter, but sadly, we lost her in the spring. I don’t know what happened to her. One week she was doing fine outdoors in the sun, fanning out her leaves, growing tall, and long, and then mysteriously, the next week she just shriveled up and dried out. Poor thing. I tried to revive her with all sorts of attention, but nothing brought her back. In a final last-ditch effort, I cut off all her palm shoots above the soil line hoping that would refresh her roots and encourage new growth, but that didn’t work either. So it’s back to the drawing board on the date palm front. This winter I’ll try seed starting again and hopefully, I’ll have a new Jools in the orchard to write about next year.

And introducing our newest arrival…

Even though it was disappointing to lose Jools, I am excited to announce that there is a new plant in the orchard to fill her spot. Meet Pappy…

the papaya who was grown from the seeds of a grocery store specimen. 

Pappy was in there somewhere just waiting to grow!

In April 2020, Pappy poked his head above the ground along with a couple of his brothers and sisters…

In May, Pappy proudly declared that he was embarking on this journey of life accompanied by not two, not four, but eight siblings…

And by June, the family portrait looked like this…

Four months later, here’s Pappy now…

Too big to be grown together, at the end of June each of the papayas were separated and transplanted into bigger containers. As you can see Pappy didn’t mind the move at all. Some papayas can be temperamental about transplant, but I’m happy to say that the whole gang – all nine of them did great with the move. 

There are three more members of Pappy’s family tucked inside this photo. Can you spot each one?

As of this weekend, Pappy has leaves as big as my hand, a trunk as thick as a sausage and a stature of impressive height. Measuring exactly 3′ feet tall, he’s already about  1/5 of his natural height. I’m not anticipating that Pappy will get over 15′ feet tall due to container restraints, but I am hoping for at least 10 feet. That multiplied by his eight brothers and sisters and the inclusion of  Liz, Grace and Avi will make a full jungle out of the indoor orchard this winter if everyone keeps growing like they have been.

The pencil is here to illustrate how thick Pappy’s trunk is already! He’s such a hearty grower:)

Even though it will be tricky trying to figure out where everyone will fit, I have my eye on one more little project to complete the green dream team. Over the summer, I discovered a very inspiring book…

that is fueling my next experiment this winter. Indoor tomatoes! The volunteer tomato seed planted by the birds (or maybe the breeze) on the balcony this summer…

continues to grow and bloom even though the typical tomato season is over now. I’m excited to see if I can keep some re-rooted sprouts going indoors for the next five months. It requires no special equipment except for a sunny windowsill and a little extra love and attention. It’s an attempt that Elizabeth, in her book, said was a bit difficult but was definitely do-able, so the challenge is officially on. We’ll see what happens! 

In the meantime, while we wait and watch the orchard and see what sort of tomato tales will spring from this latest garden experiment, if you’d like to read more about the past growing adventures of Avi, Liz, Grace, and Jools visit this post, this post and this post. If you’d like to grow your own Pappy, all you need to do is scoop out the seeds from a grocery store papaya, rinse them in cold water and let them dry on a paper towel for up to a week until they resemble whole dried peppercorns. Then plant them in some potting soil, keep them evenly moist with warm water and watch them sprout sometime between a week to a month later. Keep them in the warmest sunniest place you can find and watch them grow grow grow. And then send me a photo so we can marvel at Pappy’s relatives too.

Last year, blog reader Gloria, shared a photo of her avocado tree that she planted in her Florida garden about the same time that Avi sprouted. As of November 2019, her avocado was  7′ feet tall…

Now it’s up to 8′ feet and just got a recent trim…

It is not bearing avocados yet, but maybe there will be some for her in 2021!

That’s the lovely thing about gardening, isn’t it? You just never know what might happen exactly or even when, but you always have your fingers crossed that it’s all going to work out for the best.  Audrey Hepburn said it most eloquently… “to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” I love that. These plants don’t always make life look easy or foolproof but they do always make it look rewarding and hopeful.  

Cheers to gardens big and small, indoors and out. And cheers to Audrey and Elizabeth and the indoor orchard gang for the continual motivation and inspiration.

Now… onto those tomatoes;) 

A Year and 91 Days: The Life and Times of Avi the Avocado

Two days before Thanksgiving, not last year, but the year before, a sandwich was made and a seed was started. The sandwich was a smashed collaboration of avocado and sauteed kale, ricotta cheese and caramelized onions which turned out great and became a repeat recipe for awhile, but the real star of the show was the seed. On that day, November 22nd, 2016 a little life began.

Reminiscent of elementary school science classes, the avocado pit (actually called a berry) from the sandwich-making endeavor got cleaned up and pierced with toothpicks. Resting on the rim of a glass while partially submerged in water, it sat there half-hovering for days and then weeks and then months.  Absolutely nothing happened.  The holiday season came and went. We celebrated New Year’s and middle month birthdays and our first snow in the ending week of January.  But in the land of the avocado, nothing was changing except regular refills of water in the glass. It was such uneventful gardening I didn’t even take photographs.

Heading into the first week of February (week 9), I thought perhaps my avocado seed was a dud and was ready to abandon the project altogether. But magically, almost as if the little seed had read my thoughts, a crack in the pit opened up one morning. Something was happening, at long last! Days later a tap root started reaching out like a diver heading towards the bottom of the sea. And then things really escalated. Every day, it grew longer and longer until little root tentacles started filling the bottom of the glass.  Satisfied with itself, it turned its attention skyward and from the center of the pit, a long slender green shoot started reaching for the stars.

Drinking about a 1/4 cup of water a day, it grew almost a 1/2″ inch every morning. When it passed 12 inches” in height and grew its first set of leaves, I named this little guy growing with such gusto, Avi, and welcomed him into the family. For most of the Spring, Avi enjoyed his glass of water while taking in the river view from his perch in the window.

As the days grew longer and the temperatures warmed, I introduced to him to the outdoors for a little bit each day. When the hot, humid temperatures of summer in the South took over, he was transferred to a new garden pot filled with potting soil and joined the summer flowers on the balcony. You might remember seeing him from last summer’s post about how to make a mini-compost bin.

There’s Avi on the bottom right corner behind the nasturtiums!

In the lazy summer sun, Avi grew and grew and grew. Towering over the other plants, he looked like a king ruling over his court.

All summer he played a long-standing game with the nasturtiums to see who could climb the furthest.

Avi was the winner! When the seasons changed and the cool rains of Autumn scattered leaves on the balcony garden, Avi welcomed the wet weather.

But when we moved in mid-Fall trouble began. His first few nights went okay. He and Indie liked to watch the city lights come on from his new spot on the new balcony…

but during the day, when the sun was warm and bright, and the birds were floating overhead, Avi started doing peculiar things. Instead of carrying on with his growth spurt, he got limpy and lethargic. A week into his new surroundings, he developed brown spots and then white spots and then crinkly skin. Thinking he was not getting enough water, I doubled up. But soon after, he looked more like a loose umbrella than a young tree. His leaves turned from a colorful shade of lime to a dull blackish green. Tragedy was looming, we both knew it. A week before his first birthday I feared Avi might be on his last legs.

Signals from a troubling time of growing pains.

I brought him inside for a few days, consulted the internet and determined that he either had too much salt built up in his roots, ( a common side-effect of using regular tap water for daily watering) or he was getting too much sun on the new patio. I rinsed his roots in distilled water and gave him a new home in a bigger pot with fresh potting soil. Then he got a new vantage point – a sunny windowsill on top of a low bookshelf.

Avi’s second perch nestled in with pig and pineapple and Hedy Hatstand.

But for two weeks he still looked terrible. So he moved again, this time to a bright corner between two big windows – a spot that gets no direct sunlight but reflects light because of the white wall paint. It also happens to be right next to the kitchen, where I could keep a close eye on him.  To my happiness, Avi flourished once again!  Day by day, his leaves moved higher and higher until they went from vertical back to horizontal. And he started growing again.

Now he’s taller than dear Hudson and happy as a clam. As it turns out, all Avi ever wanted was to be close to the kitchen and out of the sun. Who can blame him?

Back to pretty green leaves and a happy disposition once again!

Today he measures 3′ feet 2″  inches tall and he’s just achieved his longest set of leaves at 12.5″ inches in length. Some gardening experts say that Avi will never produce avocados to eat, but that doesn’t matter, I like him just for the handsome plant that he is. And it’s fun to watch him grow. I hope to see him reach a height of 8-9 feet (maybe taller!), a little indoor arboretum in the making.

If you’d like to grow your own Avi, it’s really simple. Find step by step instructions here. You just need an extra dose of patience in the beginning until the berry cracks open and growing gets underway. Other than regular watering every couple days and eventual transplanting as it grows, avocado plants are easy to care for. Many garden sites say that avocados LOVE sun, but as we learned with Avi’s growing pains, too much sun is indeed, too much, so watch closely as your plant’s personality develops and see what he or she likes best.

On November 22nd, when Avi celebrates his second birthday, we’ll check back in to see how much he has grown in the nine months between now and then.  Maybe he’ll be up to the ceiling!

In the meantime, cheers to Avi and his ability to weather the rigors of adolescence. And cheers to indoor gardening – an activity that’s in-season all year round!

The Pineapple, The Sea Captain and How A Legend Began…

Sailors are known for their stories. You’d be hard-pressed to go to any ocean-enthusiasts house and not hear a tale of the extraordinary fish caught, or the summer storm turned sour or the port city that lured like a siren song.  But did you ever hear the story about the pineapple? The one that tells how it became one of the most iconic symbols in the world? Today in the Vintage Kitchen, we’ve got a legend on the table.

There are a few versions surrounding the pineapple and how it became known as the universal symbol of hospitality. Some stories claim it was a gift of peace offered to foreign explorers by local Caribbean tribes.  Other stories state it was a sought-after souvenir traded around South America until it eventually was welcomed in Europe for experimental gardening. Another explains that it was a status symbol of the very rich and the very royal who used it as a party decoration to signify the extent of their wealth, visually reinforcing the fact that they could indeed offer the best of everything to their guests, no matter what the cost. But our favorite version in the Vintage Kitchen, of how the pineapple came to be a hospitality icon, is the one that dates to the 1700’s in the time of the sea captains.

That legend states that merchant trading ships like this…

A Chesapeake Bay style sloop was a common merchant ship traveling between the West Indies and the Eastern Atlantic coast.

carried cargo (mainly sugar, tobacco, rum, and molasses) back from the Caribbean islands to various ports in New England. Included in their bounty was the exotic tropical pineapple, a fruit so unusual in its beauty, so incredible in its sweetness and so valuable in its price, it was treated delicately just like its most precious counterpart, sugar.

When the ship was back in port and safely unpacked, the captain would return home to his New England house with a pineapple in hand.  He would spear this fruit on the front garden gate to signify to friends and neighbors that he had returned from his ocean voyage and was ready to entertain visitors with good stories and good food.

The centuries-old houses of Kennebunkport, Maine where many a sea captain lived.

With just the right amount of whimsy and practicality, it is not hard to see how such a story and such an action could have spread throughout the village, and then the state, and then the coastline, so that within time, hundreds of garden gates across many states were bearing pineapples – a symbol of friendly invitation, warm welcome and kind generosity.

Pineapple gates in Odessa, DE

No one yet has accurately been able to authenticate the first-time connection between pineapples and hospitality, but this sea captain story may help explain why you’ll find pineapples incorporated into outdoor architectural details all over the East Coast from Maine to Florida.

Appearing in gardens both ancient and new…

Permanent pineapples in the garden.

…history tells of America’s long-standing love affair with this hospitable fruit.  You’ll see it on the front doors of old houses like this one…

The historic Hunter House in Newport, Rhode Island built in 1748.

 

There’s the pineapple above the door, welcoming all who enter.

and this one…

Virginia’s Shirley Plantation, completed in 1738, which boasts a three-foot tall pineapple in the middle of the roofline…

and in the decorative details of brand new, modern days houses…

Pineapple themed door knockers, welcome signs, doorbells, and house number plaques announce an age-old symbol on brand-new exteriors.

You’ll also find them indoors…

Most often as finials front entry staircases…

blending classic and traditional elements from past centuries to the present century…

Pineapples in all modern ways useful… ice bucket, lamp,bookends, flower vase.

Last week we added a new vintage pineapple to the shop…

This one was neither a finial nor an exterior facade detail but instead at one point in its life had adorned the top of a fountain.  The fountain wasn’t as big as Charleston’s famous Waterfront Park pineapple…

Waterfront Park, Charleston SC

but she is an ideal size for many design possibilities including lighting, decoration, and display.  And she carries forth the sea captain’s theme of good stories and good food in a most beautiful way.

Even though we might never be able to uncover where and how the pineapple became involved with the convivial idea of good hospitality, we still love the idea of one fruit bringing together three centuries worth of parties and people. Critics would say that the sea captain story is flawed because pineapples were expensive and traders wouldn’t put a small fortune out in plain view for anyone to steal. But hospitality is about extending and offering, not squandering and hiding, so clearly, the argument could go either way.

If you a were a sailor in the 1700’s, at sea for long stretches of time, with life and death equally close at hand, perhaps you needed a little frivolity upon returning home to family and friends and the pineapple provided just that. A simple yet beautiful billboard. One that symbolized rich with life lived instead of rich with monetary wealth.

Cheers to the legends that stick around and to the fruits that travel through time!

Channel your own inner sea captain and set the stage for your next nights of entertainment. Find the vintage fountain topper pineapple piece in the shop here!

 

 

Compost! An Update on the Mini Bin for the Mini Balcony

Mini Compost Bin

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl

Can you guess where my most unlikely place of  magical secrets was found this week?  In the dirt at the bottom of a plastic bin!

Lady Nature continues to impress and inspire. It’s been 28 days since the birth of the mini compost container and I’m happy to report that a tiny miracle has occurred. When I last wrote of this project it was the beginning… two bowls of kitchen scraps, two bowls of yard materials and one leftover 3lb. plastic container.

A few shakes, 1/4 cup of water and four weeks later we now have compost…

Well… almost! Since it has been up and down spring weather this past month with lots of rain and cooler temperatures, our compost needs maybe about another week or two of good hot sunny weather to fully break down and then it will be ready to feed the potted plants on the patio. Right now my compost looks like this…dark, moist but still a little chunky…

You’ll know when your compost is ready because you won’t be able to identify the original elements in the mixture. I can still see a little bit of egg shells and sticks in my mix, so there is still a some cooking left to be done.

If you remember from the previous post, I cut down all the elements that originally went into the compost in fairly small pieces, which helps break things down faster. I did leave some of the sticks in bigger chunks however for a little aeration but I think in my next batch they’ll get broken up into tiny pieces too.  The smaller the better in this case!

You can see the size difference in the bulk of the contents from Day 1 to Day 28 to understand just how much material was magically broken down…

The bin went from being 3/4 full to now being about 1/4 full – all entirely tended to by nature. Isn’t that amazing? The only help I offered in this month long experiment was to turn the mixture with an old camping spoon once a week which took about five seconds total. Lady Nature and her team of helpers did all the rest.

One of these helpers was a healthy batch of fruit flies (aka vinegar flies). These guys were naturally attracted to the compost bin through the air holes in the lid and made themselves at home within the first week. Tiny and fast flyers, they are tricky to photograph but the arrows point  to a few here…

Like anyone finding out about a cool new place to hang out, the fruit flies called all their friends, threw a bunch of parties and settled in for the month, which was very wonderful of them because they helped break down material too.  As the bin keeps cooking they will eventually leave when it gets too hot – a signal that the compost is ready at last. But for now they are conscientious little cleaner uppers, quiet merrymakers and very good neighbors. You’d never even know they were there. I’d take a fruit fly over a snake ANY day!

Smelling like the forest after a good, clean rain the compost mixture is earthy and rich and lies somewhere along the aromatic scale between a damp basement and a dusty book (which is what you want) not like old food or strong ammonia (which is what you don’t want).  If a particular odor smells too persistent or too strong than your bin is out of balance. But if you stick with the 50/50 method suggested in the original post then everything should be nicely evened out and pleasantly scented when it comes to kitchen and yard waste.

The forecast is scheduled to be hot and dry over the holiday weekend so that should give the bin some extra energy to breakdown the last of the chunkies. Then our compost will be ready to spread.  I’ll check back in next week with an update on the final consistency. Then it is onto batch two  and batch three and batch four and a regular routine of composting by bin and balcony.

If you missed the post on instagram, the nasturtiums started blooming this week in pretty shades of yellow and red. It’s beginning to feel a lot like like summer around here!

Cheers to finding hidden magic!

 

 

 

Cooking Up A Compost Container: A Mini Bin for A Mini Balcony

Nasturtiums, basil, parsley, succulents, impatiens, rosemary, mint, aloe, avocado – that’s the start to the summer balcony garden. It is a petite space so there is not much room for tall dramas or extravagant experiments which means this summer should be pretty tame in the greenspace department. Since I live so close to the farmers market the vegetable growing is going to be left up to the farmers this year giving me the opportunity to grow herbs to augment summer cooking and flowers to add a little fancy.

I have my heart set on three things in particular this season- a citrus tree, a trail of climbing roses and pots bubbling over with greenery. The first two will be available shortly at our market garden store and the third will be accomplished with a homemade compost container, mighty but mini.

Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947)

We have Sir Albert Howard to thank for our modern day love of organic gardening and make-no-waste composting methods. Of course people have been using compost since the dawn of time but in the early part of the 20th century when chemical fertilizers became all the interest,  Albert was the guy to remind everyone of the common-sense simplicity of nature.

A British botanist born during the last quarter of the 19th century, Albert was a forever student of agricultural science. During a 30 year stay in India, he studied soil effects on garden outcomes and determined that natural compost was the ideal and most beneficial way to create healthy, happy plants in a supportive environment. Healthy people, healthy animals and healthy food all benefited from the effects of recycling earth based materials.

Documenting his research and his observations Albert wrote several books published between the 1920’s and 1940’s helping to draw attention away from manufactured soil amendments and back to the logical evolution of the land. A big fan of the forest floor, Albert marveled at how forests were like one giant compost heap in and of themselves. Materials fell from the trees, layered themselves in seasons and decomposed through the aid of bugs, worms and microorganisms in the dirt. Essentially when we build our modern day compost bins we do the same thing. We act as the trees providing material and shelter and the natural decomposition process contained in our incubated environment breaks down as it normally would.

Compost bins to me have always been a little intimidating. When I lived in the country they meant snakes and red ants, weird bugs and an occasional long-tailed critter.  The  always giant, always garbage can style bin either got too much water or not enough water. Half the time I’d forget to turn it with any sort of regular routine. This year though I’m on a different trajectory.  I’m starting small with kitchen scraps, traditional yard waste and a 3lb container. This snack- size bin will give the balcony plants a little extra nutrition boost mid-season and hopefully, if all goes well,  will be in continual use throughout the fall and winter.

Making a mini compost bin is easy. The trick is finding something that is a good size for your space, so creativity is king here. I used a  leftover  plastic container that once held 3lbs of trail mix and the lid of a plastic takeout soup container.

After poking 4 holes in the bottom for drainage and about 8 holes in the lid for air, I gathered all the compost materials needed for a 50/50 mix between kitchen scraps and yard waste.

Materials on the yard side included: sticks, dead leaves, a paper egg carton, pine straw, a brown paper bag, dead-headed flowers and pine cones. On the kitchen scrap side I used limp spinach, garlic skins, coffee grounds, a month’s worth of crushed up egg shells, lime rind,  some old blueberries and a small bag of pistachio shells. Because my bin is petite, I chopped everything up pretty fine with kitchen scissors so that it would not only fit more easily in the container but also break down faster.

To make sure I had enough of a balance of both sets of materials I filled the same bowl twice with each mixture. I added each bowl to the bin and mixed it up using an old camping spoon (no shovel needed for this little project!). Once it was all stirred the last element to go in was a little bit of water so that the overall consistency was moist but not drippy.

At last, the mighty, mini compost bin was ready and done! With a weekly turn of the ingredients and a little extra water now and then, this compost batch should be ready in about one month.

This size bin will produce a few cupfuls of compost. Just the right amount to replenish soil in the tops of all my pots. Unlike compost bins of the past, this one fits neat and tidy on my mid-century rolling cart and will wait out the month among it’s potted pals.

I’m happy to say that I do not have to worry about snake sightings with this bin. That might just be the very best thing about balcony gardening, no surprise sightings of the slithering kind! Cheers to that! And cheers to Albert, his simple solutions and the important reminder that mother nature knows how to best take care of herself!

More to come on the gardening front all summer long. Interested in learning more about other gardening crusaders like Albert? Read about Hilda Leyel here and Edgar T. Wherry here.

On This Day in 1948: Flowers Bloomed in a Book

wildflower1

On this day 68 years ago, Edgar T. Wherry, a well renowned mineralogist was celebrating an accomplishment with a certain bouquet of flowers that had just come into bloom. March 11th, 1948 was publication day for his springtime book…

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At the time of publication, Edgar was living in Philadelphia and teaching botany at UPenn. The weather that day was cloudy and cool, with temperatures only reaching the mid 40’s. Not rainy but not sunny either, it was another grey day in a long stretch of grey days that would mark March the cloudiest month of the entire year in Philadelphia. Daylight savings time wouldn’t arrive until April 25th, 1948; which means the light was weak, the landscape was heavy and the overall climate was dreary. Edgar, like his contemporaries today, was tired of the winter snow, the freezing rains, the ice covered sidewalks. Spring couldn’t come soon enough.

Photo courtesy of American Mineralogist
Edgar at work. Photo courtesy of American Mineralogist

But finally a mental break came for all Northerners on March 11th, when this gem of a treasure hit bookshelves for the first time. Bright and beautiful, it lightened spirits everywhere in the form of color plates and caring words. Flowers were blooming if not in the garden at least on the page.

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In his book, Wild Flower Guide: Northeastern and Midland United States, Edgar compiled hundreds of different types of wild flowers native to these two regions in an effort to highlight their importance in the natural landscape. Mixed in with descriptions of each flower were both color plates and black and white illustrations describing shape and size and color. Edgar wanted to make it as easy as possible to help identify, propagate and encourage long-lasting growth of species facing possible extinction.

As an ecologist and a nature lover, Edgar like many mid-century conservationists, was concerned that urbanization and lack of attention to natural green space was going to eradicate many of the flowers that make the varied North American landscape one of the most beautiful and diverse in the world.

His dedication in the opening pages of the book praises efforts made on behalf of the flowers …

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Considered a visionary for his forward thinking about protecting what some people considered “weeds,” Wherry was determined to educate people about the importance of incorporating native plants into garden design. 1948 was the perfect time to launch his book. Victory gardens established during the war years introduced a whole new wave of home horticulture enthusiasts.  Excitement revolving around the concept of building backyard vegetable gardens was proud patriotism at its best and captured the hearts of all ages from the young to the old.

Victory Garden. Photo via pinterest
Victory gardeners. Photo via pinterest

Edgar rode the wave of people’s interest in making even the smallest garden a productive one. Benefits for people and plants abounded. Edgar teamed up with illustrator Tabea Hofmann to show readers just how pretty a weed could be and how useful it was to the big garden picture.  Edgar’s book is chock-full of interesting fun facts about plants including special notes that inform and entertain. Here he explains how the touch-me-not flower helps soothe poison ivy.

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Edgar managed to combine both practicality and dreaminess in one volume. With names like Golden Alexander, Star Violet, Queen of the Prairie, Fairyslipper, and Rosybells, he seduced people in 1948. This book of botany was, and still is, pretty scintillating stuff for anyone who has just come through the freezing month of February. It doesn’t matter if it was 60 years ago or six minutes ago, Edgar still has the ability to soothes us, to inspire us, to teach us.  Spring will come. The cold air will warm. The flowers will bloom. And what a sight it will be.

The fanciful fairyslipper!
The fanciful fairyslipper!

This post is dedicated to all of Ms. Jeannie’s friends and family in the colder climates who just can’t bear one more day of winter. Hang tight! Spring is coming! The flowers are stirring! Edgar said so.

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Seedlings and Snakes: Let the Season Begin!

It was exactly two weeks ago today that Ms. Jeannie got going on her spring garden with the official planting of the seeds. And now here we are just 14 days later with sprouts that look like dancers…

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The cucumbers and the snow peas are winning the race towards bloom day…

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And the okra is not far behind…

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Even the lone zinnia in the rescued and re-purposed pitcher has come to surface. Not doubt happy to have such an exotic home!

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It is always fun to watch how each kind of seed unfurls…

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The dill is dainty…

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…while wax beans look downright pre-historic…

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And then there was the sighting of an actual pre-historic…

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“Just a baby,” said Mr. Jeannie Ology. This “baby” indeed, was three feet long, which was plenty long for the likes of Ms. Jeannie. Hopefully this little one will be gracious enough to stay out of the greenhouse!

The Surprise of the Season!

The last time Ms. Jeannie posted on the blog it was snowing. And now it’s Spring!

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Vintage Metal Marquee Sign – The Month of April

Goodness gracious where do the days go?! All throughout February and March Ms. Jeannie has been navigating the book club and her organizational systems for it.

February book club packages ready for the post office!
80 February book club packages ready for the post office!

It has taken her away from blogging and all you lovely readers which she hates, but it has also introduced her to an assortment of wonderful authors and stories from new subscribers which she loves, so it’s been an exciting journey from concept to creation.

With a total of 88 subscribers as of this post, the book club is a constant bustle of activity. To date, which is now at the 7th month mark, Ms. Jeannie has wrapped 307 books, written 307 author’s bios and 307 book bios, been kicked out of the post office once (too many packages please come back tomorrow), gone through 15 packages of tape, finished 8 rolls of twine,  folded 356 pieces of tissue paper, cut 560 lengths of ribbon and been reprimanded by the post master twice (only 10 packages at a time in line please!). Needless to say it’s been a spectacular adventure!

And while Ms. Jeannie’s days are now full of books, and research, and writing, and schedules , she managed to carve in a little gardening time over the weekend thanks to one of the most wonderful surprises ever…

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A greenhouse on loan!

Ms. Jeannie’s neighbor has lent her the use of her greenhouse for the rest of the year! How exciting – a whole greenhouse all her own! It’s located just down at the end of the drive, so it’s a quick walk from the house, and ideally set with plenty of sun water spigots, and old rickety potting tables. After a quick yet thorough snake check by Mr. Jeannie (none thank goodness!) Ms. Jeannie got to work right away planting seeds…

The first seeds of the season!
The first seeds of the season!

So far, in just a day she managed to prepare and pot almost her entire vegetable garden…

Cantaloupe, Brussels sprouts and spinach!
Dill, cucumbers, spinach, hot peppers, and tomatoes.

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It was the first sunny, dry and 70 degree weather in days and Ms. Jeannie was so glad to be enjoying it in her new horticulture house. She even collected sand from the creek bed for her spinach seedlings – these are going to be some pampered plants this year.

Creek sand!
Creek sand!

Next week Ms. Jeannie will get to work on the flower seed aspect of the garden so stay tuned for some regular garden updates all season.

With each passing month, the book club gets better and better situated, so Ms. Jeannie looks forward to sharing a bevy  of spring and summer blog posts.

Until next time, happy April and happy Spring!

 

 

 

Crunch, Crunch, Crunch…

…crunch…crunch…crunch…

What’s that in the garden, Ms. Jeannie hears?

someone's been enjoying the garden greens...
someone’s been enjoying the garden greens…

It appears as if someone’s dived into the salad bar in the garden! The feasting is happening in the parsley plant that Ms. Jeannie just blogged about the other day. Do you remember this…

Parsley, spinach and gerbers!

That was the parsley plant just 9 days ago. And now this is what it looks like today…

it's a stem garden!
it’s a stem garden!

Oh dear! What happened you ask? Well, my darlings, it seems Ms. Jeannie’s been invaded by these little characters…

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The culprits!

The swallowtail butterflies. Or, to be more exact, the infants of  swallowtail butterflies.

Upon first spotting them, Ms. Jeannie had to make an immediate decision – save the parsley or propagate the butterflies. Apparently in nature you cannot have both! This turned out to be an easy decision for Ms. Jeannie. After all,  parsley is not nearly as exciting as a butterfly (sorry green leafy friends), even though her herb did look beautiful and bountiful next to the gerber daisies and spinach.

Once she became pro butterfly, Ms. Jeannie began to thoroughly enjoy her new dinner guests. They are quite cute in that young baby way, with their fat bellies and their energetic ways.

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This is the last stage of babyhood for these guys. They are ferociously devouring the parsley (oh the eating habits of teenagers!) so that they can build enough strength, stamina and sustenance to cocoon themselves for the nest few weeks while they grow into butterflies.

Ms. Jeannie is seriously hoping that they cocoon  in the pot, but she’s not sure what the game plan is for that stage. Research says they like long grasses or house foundations, somewhere away from the birds. Ms. Jeannie has both of those nearby but how would she ever find them in the long grasses?

Ms. Jeannie looks forward to seeing the butterflies emerge and hopefully spend a little time in her garden once they’ve winged out.

Once they are at that stage, they’ll look like this…

Swallowtail Butterfly photograph by Michelle Reynolds
Swallowtail Butterfly photograph by Michelle Reynolds. Click for info.

Butterflies in mythology have long symbolized renewal. Perhaps Ms. Jeannie is cultivating some new changes in her life, or perhaps it’s just nature taking its course. Every summer it seems like there is some magical event that occurs over and over again in Ms. Jeannie’s life, a theme if you will, or a special situation that heralds that specific year with a specific reference. Last year it was the summer of the cows, the year before that, it was the summer of the fireworks. Ms. Jeannie would be thrilled if this was the summer of the butterflies:)

If all goes well with her brood, she’ll have just under a dozen butterflies, floating on the mid-summer breeze. Keep your fingers crossed! Adult butterflies impact the environment most actively by pollinating plants and flowers which is why they are beneficial to have in your garden. Even though they have short life spans, most just a few weeks, they can bring endless joy to a garden for seasons and spirits long after they are gone.

Ms. Jeannie never fails to be amazed and surprised by the sight of a butterfly. For such a fragile creature to last for weeks, let alone minutes in our environment astounds her. Perhaps that’s why they are so magical. They start out camouflaged en masse, creeping and crawling, but one by one they turn inward, wrapping themselves in their own comforter, stewing in their own protection, before emerging a changed creature, light and independent.  They are the best case scenarios, the happy endings, the freedoms of ability that is at the root of all human yearnings.

Ms. Jeannie is glad to have a little part in the continuation of such symbolism and hope in her little corner of the world.

The Lamb and the Butterfly via pinterest
The Lamb and the Butterfly via pinterest

More on the butterflies  (hopefully) coming soon!

Garden Update! Notes from an Experimentalist…

Oh, dear readers, the great big fig tree experiment has just gotten a little more interesting. It’s been a little over two months since Ms. Jeannie last reported on the status of the fig tree that she’s trying to grow from a clipping.

To refresh, this is where we left off…

Fig clipping sprouts as they looked on March 9, 2013.
After 2 months in plastic bag hibernation, the  fig clipping sprouts! Here is how it looked on March 9, 2013.

Clipping then incorporated into a potting soil, peanut shell mixture.
The clipping was then incorporated that same day into a potting soil/peanut shell mixture.

Since early March, Ms. Jeannie has been watering it and keeping her eye on the progress. Only it’s been difficult to see what’s going on in there, even though the cup is clear.  The peanut shells have little threads on them which can look like roots if you are an optimist like Ms. Jeannie! So yesterday, Ms. Jeannie decided to dump out (carefully) the contents of the cup to check on the status of her little sprouts.

This is what she found…

Before the dump.
Before the dump.

And after the dump…

Hmmm...
Hmmm…

Not a sprout in sight! Where oh where have they all gone? Now the only thing in their place is a mysterious white powdery fungus, and shriveled, wrinkly bark.

what happened?
what happened?

The little sprouts had been doing so good in the newspaper and plastic bag leg of the journey. But once they made the big leap to the cup, it seems things went awry. Hmmm…

After some discussion with Mr. Jeannie Ology, it was discovered that the peanut shells may have been the culprit. They were whole roasted peanut shells, lightly salted. Ohhh. Ms. Jeannie hadn’t even considered that aspect before she added the shells into her soil mixture. Oops. Essentially, she “salt cured” her fig clipping. Which evidently, newly formed sprouts do not favor.

Too much salt in soil causes water to move outside of plant cells, so even though Ms. Jeannie was watering her clipping occasionally – the plant cells weren’t getting the proper amount of hydration causing the sprouts to shrivel up and fall off. This also explains why the stem looks dry and wrinkly.

As for the fungus, Ms. Jeannie could have removed it with a little toothbrush cleaning – but she felt awful about the salting, and the clipping looked pretty much done in, so off it went to the great garbage can graveyard. Sorry clipping – we’ll do better next time.

But funny enough, do you remember the other fig experiment? The one where she was trying to root the clipping in water? In March this is how it looked…

Method 2: Rooting a fig twig in a container of water.
Method 2: Rooting a fig twig in a container of water.

And now in May…this is how it looks…

On top it still looks exactly the same but...
On top it still looks exactly the same but…

Look at the underwater view…

Roots!
Roots!

And not just one or two - but many many roots!
And not just one or two – but many, many roots!

So many roots and so little effort!

This is by far the easiest way to grow a fig clipping. No maintenance involved here – just clip and store in water for about three months. Now all Ms. Jeannie has to do is figure out how to handle these sprouts best. Should she pull it out of the jar and plant it in plain potting soil? Or should she leave it to linger in the water longer?

She could also dig up a few scoopfuls of dirt from underneath her well established big fig bushes in the yard. Clearly they are happy with that type of soil, so that could be the base for her potting soil mixture.  Common sense tells her that in the wild, these fig bushes would not have been coddled so much! It’s not rocket science after all, but Ms. Jeannie would hate to lose two fig clippings to carelessness. Such decisions!

While she decides what to do about the figs, let’s look and see how the homemade newspaper seed pots are holding up. Six weeks ago, they looked like this in all their brand new beauty…

Aerial view!
Aerial view!

Side view!
Side view!

And here they are now, after surviving out of doors, for 40+ days including 7 days of continuous rain…

Aerial view!
Aerial view!

Side view!
Side view!

Close-up with spinach sprouts.
Close-up with spinach sprouts.

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A little more crinkly, but other than that practically as good as new! Ms. Jeannie really thought that after that week-long rain event last week that they were going to be a soggy mess! But they weren’t at all. These newspaper pots held up beautifully. Ms. Jeannie speculates it is because she double wrapped them using two sections of newspaper instead of one. If you’d like  simple step by step instruction on how to make these budget friendly seed pots, click here.

Now all we have to do is wait for the spinach to grow, grow, grow. Ms. Jeannie planted some seeds directly in two of her flower pots as well. The pots were supposed to be spinach, parsley and basil but, the Gerber daisies from last year over-wintered and now decided they were ready for round two!

Parsley, spinach and gerbers!
Parsley, spinach and gerbers!

Ms. Jeannie’s hoping that there is room underneath the soil for all three! The parsley is taking off like wildfire and the gerber daisies are an inch taller every time Ms. Jeannie looks at them! To encourage her vegetable – Ms. Jeannie painted a sign and stuck it in the pot. Maybe it will help inspire the seedlings:)

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So there you have it, two garden experiments  both turning out differently then expected.  That is sort of the thrill of gardening though, isn’t it?

When you are playing games with Mother Nature, you just never know exactly what could happen.  You may have a general idea, or a general course of action, but Mother Nature  likes to play her own hand from time to time as well. She’s quite a card shark that one. And talk about a poker face? She’ll bluff with the best of them:)

Vintage Floral playing cards from 2BlueDogsDesign
Vintage Floral Playing Cards from 2BlueDogsDesign

Are you experimenting with (or gambling on!) anything in your garden this year? If so, please share your adventure in the comments section!