The Greenhouse Diaries Entry #4: Lessons in Highs and Lows, Triumphs and Tragedies

You might not suspect that a lot could occur in a greenhouse over a two-week period, but this time off for the Christmas break equaled quite a bit of unexpected change in our little house of wonder.

We had some pretty dramatic outdoor weather over the holiday with the lowest of lows being 6 degrees one night and the highest of highs being 58 during the day just this past Wednesday. It was a wide swing of weather for certain, but it provided a good fourteen days of observation to draw some enlightening information.

Frozen ground, ice streams and patchy snow covered our landscape during Christmas week.

First off, the few nights of single-digit weather created a bit of havoc. It also shed some new light on an ongoing topic. Do you remember the haybale conversation from The Greenhouse Diaries Entry #3?

Well as it turns out, first-hand experience is an excellent advisor. I can see now how the haybales would have been helpful through the cold snap. Like everybody across the country during Christmas week, we experienced the freezing polar vortex temperatures with daily highs between 9-19 degrees and nightly lows between 6-12 degrees. The indoor temperatures in the greenhouse on these coldest nights, with the heater going full blast, hovered in the high 30s and low 40s, which was pretty good considering the chilly weather. The coldest area of the greenhouse was the pea gravel floor which is where the broccoli, marigolds, aloe, mint, thyme, tarragon, basil, rosemary and geranium pots sit.

Although the sun came out on most of these single-digit days, one night in particular the wind picked up and grabbed hold of a small section of the plastic covering the door frame. It was a strong enough wind to open up a small gap between the plastic and the poly carb door, so that cold air could seep in through the greenhouses’s most vulnerable area. That night the windchill forced the outdoor temperature to sway between 0 and 1 degree. Inside, the greenhouse the temperature fell to 34 degrees – the danger zone. Some problems arose.

While there was never actually any frost inside the greenhouse, there were signs of distress on the leaves of the zinnias, broccoli, mint, thyme, geraniums, aloe, basil, marigolds and tarragon. Withered plants one shelf up from the pea gravel included the tomato, the Santaka pepper seedlings, the rabbit ear cactus, the pincushion flowers, and most unfortunate of all, Liz Lemon, who had made such great strides just the week before. Everything else located the next shelf up (about 2 1/2 feet off the ground) and higher was completely unaffected. Thankfully, heat rises.

The unhappy tomato.

Had the haybales been placed around the outside of the greenhouse, they might have added just enough insulation to protect the plants sitting at ground level. The other thing we could have done was just to put all the ground plants up higher in the air so they would be protected by the rising warmth from the heater. So two lessons were learned…

  1. Add haybales around the exterior during extreme weather dips or…
  2. Move the plants up higher in the greenhouse to capture the rising warmth.

Luckily, the extreme weather only lasted for a few days.

The trickiest part of greenhouse management so far, is that there is so much conflicting information online and so much variation between agricultural zones and particular weather situations each year that there seems to be no definitive right or wrong way to care for your own greenhouse. Except by watching and waiting and recording how your greenhouse acts in your particular environment. What is expert advice on one site is a disaster on another and vice versa. It’s never my intention to “sacrifice ” a plant but this time spent learning is proving to be really valuable in understanding not only how things grow, but also what things grow in a New England greenhouse in the middle of the winter.

In continuation of our year of waiting and watching, the withered plants were left alone to see if they might perk back up again as the weather warmed throughout the week. The severely affected plants on the floor level received a trim, removing all damaged leaves in hopes that they might heal themselves.

On the good news front, most of the plants bounced right back including the withery, weepy, unhappy tomato branch clipping who is now getting ready to offer up more cherry sized tomatoes…

But on the bad news side, three never recovered. We lost the basil, the zinnias and the marigolds, all plants that really crave that warm summer sun. As discouraging as it was to see these carefully tended plants go, not all was completely lost on them. Their stems and stalks were added to the leaf mold piles (another garden experiment started last fall) and will contribute to the joy and beauty of the garden come spring, just in a slightly different, more composted way now.

Layered leaf mold stacks – our soil amendment plan for the spring garden beds.

It was a good reminder that nothing lasts forever and that there is an ideal season for everything. Sometimes one just isn’t meant to meet the other. The great thing about nature though in times like this, is that it wastes no time moping. With the lost plants now removed from the greenhouse, there was more room for what was growing well to spread out in their vacant spots. As if to add some cheer to the atmosphere, everything that could send out a bloom between Christmas and New Year’s Day did…

Clockwise top to bottom: geranium, broccoli, nasturtium, lemon.

The broccoli infact was so quick to flower, it burst into bloom before I had a chance to harvest it for dinner one night. Exploding into a pom-pom of butter yellow flowers, it became a feast for the eyes instead of the belly. That’s fine by me. Broccoli produces one of the most beautiful, delicate flowers of all the garden vegetables, so it is a joy either way. The nice thing about broccoli also, is that its leaves are edible. We might not have enjoyed the spears but the leaves are next on the menu if the broccoli doesn’t send out any new shoots.

Broccoli leaves!

Also on the harvest list is the bell pepper. Currently, it’s measuring in at just under 4″ inches in length – close to mature size that makes it ready for picking soon. This pepper comes with an added dose of mystery included too. Last summer, we grew two varieties of bell peppers in the garden. Adored by slugs, bunnies and maybe a vole or two, the pepper beds were constantly being reseeded and defended all summer.

Out of time, but not yet fully grown, just before the fall frost I transplanted three of the strongest plants to see if they would continue growing in the greenhouse. Two of the three were hot pepper plants of the jalapeno and chile variety and then the third plant was a bell pepper. I thought I had transplanted an heirloom variety called California Wonder, which if not picked when green will ripen to a deep red shade. But based on its shape right now, it could be the other pepper plant we experimented with – Orange Sun – which will as its name suggests, turn a vibrant orange when ready for harvest. In both cases, the longer the pepper sits on the vine the sweeter it gets. So a surprise is in store as we wait to see what color it turns out to be…

The other green delight that really took off on a growing adventure these past two weeks was the parsley. With no extra help or amendments, it’s doubled in height since the last diary entry. The only way I can really rationalize this growth spurt is to say that we had a little help from the gods. The ancient Greeks believed that parsley was a sign of death and rebirth.

In mythology, it gets caught up in stories surrounding the baby, Archemorus, and the parsley that grew from his blood after he was killed. Later, the Romans believed that Persophone ( the Goddess of Spring, the Underworld, and of Vegetation) was in charge of guiding souls to their final resting place in the underworld. Parsley throughout Roman times adorned gravesites and funerary objects as a gift to Persephone so that she would take good care of those that perished.

Between the demise of the marigolds, zinnias, and basil and the growth of the parsley, the flowers, the bell pepper, and the broccoli, I can’t help but think that Archemorus and Persephone were at work, guiding the greenhouse through these past two weeks of dramatic winter weather. From death springs life. And parsley too.

Bottom right: Parsley full of joy!

Cheers to weather and what it teaches us, to plants that persevere in the face of difficulty, to Persophene and Archemorus, and to this brand new year full of possibilities. Hope your 2023 is off to a beautiful start!

{The Greenhouse Diaries is an ongoing series. if you are new to the blog, catch up here with Week #1, Week #2, and Week #3 here}

The Greenhouse Diaries Entry #2: Surprise and Circulation

The chronicling of the greenhouse is underway. If you are new to the blog this week, catch up with our new gardening series in Entry #1 here. For everyone else who is all caught up let’s carry on to week two of news from the growing greenhouse.

It’s only been seven days since our last post but already there is much to discuss on both the good and bad fronts. First off, we’ll start with the food portion since that was a big reason to build a greenhouse to begin with.

We harvested our first bowl of arugula last Sunday and ever since, it and the nasturtiums have been adorning our plates all week long. Here, they were a part of last Sunday’s brunch of eggs cooked in foccacia bread pockets…

The tomatoes ripened! In just one week they went from a zesty shade of green apple to sunny golden orange. We were curious to see if these indoor growers would taste the same as the ones we enjoyed in the garden all summer, and much to our delight I’m happy to say they tasted equivalent. Which means they tasted fantastic. Sweet, soft yet slightly firm, and just as juicy as their summer counterparts, these two beauties ended the week on a sweet note.

Grown from seed purchased from our favorite seed company (A true review! They are not a blog sponsor.) these tomatoes were determined to grow regardless. Producing fruit the size of large marbles, we grew eight plants of the Sun Gold Cherry varietal this summer. Some reached monster heights of over 10′ feet tall and they produced a couple of big handfuls every other day from August-October. The branch grown in the greenhouse was from a stem cutting. It was our first experiment to see if the cutting would root in water, which it did, and then immediately it went to flower. A little bit of hand-pollinating with a paintbrush, and two weeks later these two tomatoes started forming. They grew so quickly, we never even had a chance to plant the cutting in actual soil. These are just growing and flowering in a jar of water. Isn’t nature amazing?

Next in the ripening department is the Numex Lemon Jalapeno pepper. Because of the timing last spring of when we moved to 1750 House, we started our seeds and our garden beds pretty late in the season. The pepper plants didn’t have a full chance to grow, bloom and then produce mature peppers before the cold autumn weather settled in, so we pulled the three strongest from the ground and potted them for the greenhouse.

This summer, we had a big struggle with slugs in the garden beds so you can see the leaves are quite chewed through, but the plants continued to flower and persevere regardless. In the greenhouse, they look a little raggedy, but they are still growing so we are encouraged. Unintentionally, we may have stunted them a bit when we moved them to the greenhouse during their early post-flower days as they are now producing smaller fruit. But nevertheless, one pepper so far has turned yellow, which means in theory, it is ready for picking even though it’s just a little pip of a pepper. I’m going to leave it on the plant for a few more days to see if it grows any bigger – otherwise, we’ll pull it and see how it tastes.

Our last vegetable of the week that’s really taken off is the broccoli. It sits closest to the door, which is the coldest part of the greenhouse and since broccoli prefers cooler weather, this seems like an ideal location. From last week to this week, the floret has grown taller and wider by about an inch in both directions and has a new companion shoot growing up next to it. Like the peppers, the broccoli also suffered through slug season, but for every leaf that the slugs ate, a new leaf grew in its place. All summer I loved the broccoli’s optimism. In the face of slug defeats, it was the ever-present cheerleader that kept encouraging us to keep going.

On the flower front, the highlight of the week was Liz Lemon. For long-time readers of the blog, you’ll remember Liz from her indoor orchard stories. The last time we checked in with her on the blog was in November of 2020, when she was a Southerner living in the city and looked like this…

A little while after that photo was taken, she showered us in lemons (three!)…

But things took a bleak turn when we moved north. The indoor orchard, cultivated over six years of Southern city living, had many casualties. Avi the Avocado (age 6), Grace the Grapefruit (age 4). Jools the Date Palm (age 2). By the time, we loaded up the truck and moved a thousand miles away from the southern sun, we were down to two plants – Liz Lemon and Pappy the Papaya. Neither were thrilled at leaving the heat and humidity of the South. To put it lightly, Liz especially was NOT a fan of the new 20-degree weather, or the weekly snowfalls or the five months spent in a cottage on a lake in wintertime Pennsylvania. She lost every single leaf but three and was down to two twigs – just a skeleton of a body.

When we finally found the 1750 House in spring and became official New Englanders, I thought a summer spent in the warm air and sunny backyard garden would be Liz’s cureall. But nothing happened there either. All around her pots of daisies bloomed, the okra headed skyward, the tomatoes blushed rosy red and gold. Even Pappy flourished and became so content with New England life that he sported his first flower in August…

But Liz was not following suit. Out of ideas as to how to fix her, a repot and a move to the greenhouse seemed like the final attempt at revival. There, for more than two months, she just sat there on the shelf with nothing changing. And then this week, magic happened. At long last, Liz has come around. She sprouted five new leaves and two sets of flower buds. Just like that. Practically overnight.

Like an early Christmas gift, I was so excited, I took her inside for a portrait. Holiday magic comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes around here. And it is never what I think it might be. Two years ago, we had holiday magic in the form of a lost cookie recipe found thanks to Ken and Cindy. Last year, it was a bevy of snowstorms one right after the other. This year, our holiday magic comes with lemons.

The other happy campers these days are the geraniums, which are growing more and more leaves each day. Here’s the growth spurt from last week to this week…

But for all this growth and joy and magic of this second week in December, there has been a challenge to contend with in the greenhouse too. The sage came down with it first. And then the tarragon. Powdery mildew.

This can happen when there is not enough air circulation in the greenhouse. Along with winterizing the greenhouse, I also should be adding a small fan just to move the air around. When the daytime temperatures are warm enough (above 60 degrees) of which we, surprisingly, have had a few recently, the heater can be shut off and the greenhouse window vent opened, and that usually allows for adequate air circulation.

But now it’s too chilly to open the vent. Ideally, I’m trying to keep the daytime temps in the greenhouse between 70-75 degrees and the nightime temperature between 55-65. There are only three settings on the heater 1, 2 & 3 with 3 being the warmest. Depending on the daytime temperatures outside and the amount of sun on each particular day, there is usually a bit of fiddling around with the heat settings once or twice a day to keep things balanced. The warmer it gets in the greenhouse, the higher the humidity gets which then welcomes pesky problems like powdery mildew, scale bugs and funguses. Just like life in the outside world, life in the greenhouse is a continuous adjustment of care and considerations. I treated the sage and tarragon with an organic garden-friendly fungicide, so hopefully, that will clear things up. More on that next week.

Today there is a possibility of 2-4 inches of snow. Although we have had two nights of flurries already this month, the storm tonight will be our first accumulation of the season. Like sending a baby out into the world for the first time, I’m anxious and excited to see how the greenhouse will manage when enshrouded in a snow blanket. Will it remain warm and cozy and fragrant with the scent of honeyed perfume all season long or will it be too delicate of a creature to stand up to a strong New England winter?

Katharine with her husband E.B White and one of their furry friends.

I looked to the garden writer, Katharine White who inspired this series, for advice. She lived in Maine and was used to snow and winter and caring for flowers and plants in the off-season. “Outdoors, nature is apt to take over and save you from many a stupidity, but indoors you are strictly on your own,” wrote Katharine. It was not exactly the reassurance I was looking for.

When you move into a new (old) house in a new state with a new agriculture zone, there’s a lot of waiting and seeing and observing and guessing all buoyed by optimism. Next year at this time, we’ll know a lot more about the capabilities of the greenhouse in cold weather. But for now, here’s to hoping that the wild and willful nature present inside the greenhouse at the moment will suffice enough to save us from any serious stupidities of our own doing, at least in this first snowstorm. More on that, next week.

In the meantime, cheers to the Christmas magic of Liz Lemon, to the nasturtiums who look like little kids lined up at the window waiting on the first flurries, and to our first impending snowstorm. Hope your week brings some unexpected joys this week too.

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;) 

The Indoor Urban Orchard: What’s Growing Now?

This time of year recipe ideas start floating around the kitchen and vegetables start piling up on the counters. Pie pumpkins and sweet potatoes, herb bouquets and onions, lemons, limes, mushrooms, pomegranates, garlic, apples, cranberries, carrots, celery and what seems like all the nuts in all the world spill out from bowls and plates and baskets as we get ready for Thanksgiving Day. Nestled among all that Autumn bounty is an avocado. Not exactly the first food you think of when talking turkey day fare, but around here the avocado is king of the Kitchen, especially in November, when it comes to a certain someone’s birthday. I’m not talking about the kind of avocado that is small, round and rumply skinned though. Here in the kitchen, the king I’m referring to looks like this…

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

It’s Avi the Avocado! On November 22nd, he’ll celebrate his third birthday.  If you have been reading the blog for a few years, you’ll remember that Avi started out as a seed experiment in November 2016. The kind of experiment where you pierce a regular avocado seed with toothpicks and set it in a glass of water and then wait and watch for it to grow into something green like this…

…which he did with aplomb! Months into the experiment Avi sprouted, gained a name and grew taller as each day passed. Three years into life now, he’s survived a move, a very fretful, almost fatal batch of scale, a fall off the kitchen counter and numerous jockeys around the house as he grew, and then subsequently outgrew, each and every perch. In that time, he’s also developed quite the personality – clearly communicating his loathing for the city patio, the wet blanket heat that is a Southern summer, and the blustery winds off the river that perpetually zip and zoom around the city skyline. Instead, in a very unusual flight of fancy for his kind, Avi decided that he preferred the air conditioning, the bright yet indirect light of the indoors and the resting spots that always seem to be in closest proximity to the hustle and bustle of the kitchen. Perhaps he’s a gourmand at heart:)  Long story short, Avi began and became the inspiration for an indoor orchard of fruit plants all started from seed.

In today’s post we are checking up on the state of the garden and the four inhabitants that now comprise the indoor orchard. It’s been 15 months, since I last posted about their progress and because Avi turns 3 on November 22nd, this seemed like a perfect time to check-in and check up to see how this indoor garden experiment is faring. Let’s take a peek…

Avi the Avocado:

The last time we checked up on Avi’s growth here on the blog it was mid-summer 2018. Outside the temperatures were hot and humid, but indoors everything was as cool as a cucumber. At that point, Avi measured 3′ 5″ inches tall and had just turned a hopeful corner of recovery from the terrible scale outbreak. When this photo was taken, Avi was just returning to his more handsome, happy, healthy state…

July 31, 2018

Today, I’m happy to share that Avi is still at it. Growing by leaps and bounds, he now measures 4′ 7″ inches tall and his leaves are widening out into a broad canopy…

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

In just 15 months he grew 1′ 3″ inches. That’s an impressive inch a month! You can see the dramatic difference in this side by side picture if you use the black framed wall art on the left as a reference point…

avocado-tree-growing-stages

If he keeps growing at this rate, by next Thanksgiving Avi will be as tall as me:) Most thankfully, the scale is almost all gone. Soon he’ll transfer to a bigger pot where he’ll stay for a couple of years while he fills out leaf -wise. One thing I learned recently about transplanting flowers and plants is that you should only go to a slightly bigger pot than what you are already using – otherwise the plant spends all its energy below expanding its roots instead of growing taller above the soil line. The next pot size for Avi will be 12″ inches in diameter which should give him enough room to grow up and out for at least the next year and a half. Like a little kid graduating from crib to bed, Avi will be a true floor plant at that point, not longer able to be carried from perch to perch, an exciting milestone!

Grace the Grapefruit:

Not be outdone by Avi, a little friendly competition ensued between fruit trees. In this past year, Grace also also hit a spectacular growth spurt. She went from this in March 2018…

Grace the grapefruit almost 1″ inch tall in March 2018

to this in July 2018…

Five months later ( July 30th, 2018)

to this in November 2019…

how-to-grow-a-grapefruit-tree-2019

Just over 3′ 2″ inches tall now, Grace grew so fast that she’s been re-potted four times already. I’d like to say that all this robust enthusiasm caused her to literally break out of her planter,  but her current abode was a cracked-then-repaired pot meant as a temporary holder for her. But she’s so happy in her blue space, there she’ll stay until she outgrows it. Meanwhile she’s very busy growing extra everything – skyscraper limbs, big green leaves and sharp thorns, especially on her trunk…

grapefruit-tree-thorns

This is lovely to see, because just like Avi, Grace also succumbed to scale when I was away for a month taking care of my sick dad last January. When I got home, she had lost 70% of her leaves and had so much scale that the local garden center (where I took her for emergency help) declared it the worst case of scale outbreak that they’d ever seen. They also gave her a doomed prognosis, saying she probably wouldn’t make it. If you’ve never experienced scale before, this is what it looks like…(on overdrive as in Grace’s case)…

A series of flesh or clear sticky, jelly-like insects, scale wind up sucking the life out of plants. They are pretty gross looking and can be difficult to both see and eradicate but determined, I loaded up on Neem oil and bottles of rubbing alcohol (a trick I learned at the garden center) and then got to work every few days wiping down each of the leaves and the trunk. The rubbing alcohol kills the scale, and the Neem oil protects the plant from re-infestation. As it turns out, that was exactly what she needed and thankfully, Grace made a full recovery in just a few weeks. Now she’s racing to catch up with Avi!

Liz Lemon – The Lemon Tree

If we were giving out awards for the least amount of drama this year, the award would definitely go to Liz Lemon. By far the most low maintenance plant of the bunch, she just carried on over the past year the way all good lemon trees should – growing flowers, making lemons, filling out. Here she was in July 2018, a sprig of sharp angles…

Now she’s a more stately, shapely tree thanks to some careful pruning and lots of sunshine…

Not as fast a grower as Grace or Avi in the height department, Liz spent her past 15 months growing out instead of up. Coming in at 2′ 4″ inches tall she is the smallest of the household orchard trees but she supplied the most color of the bunch with her bright yellow lemons and her pretty perfume-scented flowers.

Just the other day, she started growing a new batch of tiny little lemons so I’m hoping our yield this year will be greater than last year’s, which produced a total of two lemons. Fingers crossed:)

Jools – The Medjool Date Palm

Finally, the baby of the group, born from seed in July 2018, was the Medjool date palm, who was so tiny it didn’t even have a name yet…

The spike is the date palm!

Four hundred and fifty six days later, the date palm looks like this. Meet Jools…

Standing at just over 16″ inches tall, Jools put forth a new leaf every few months last year. She lost a couple  of green shoots to wind damage over the summer, but apparently that’s not really fazing her, as she just grows another one in its place. Low maintenance like Liz, Jools just requires a sunny window sill and a good dose of water every few days.  When I look at her I can’t help but imagine those grand date palms that grow in India and Egypt – the ones that are big and lush and beautiful and radiate notions of exotic locales and foreign flavors. It will be exciting to see how big she grows over the winter now that she has taken up residence indoors and is out of the wind tunnel on the patio altogether.

Of all the orchard plants, Jools is the one I’ve researched least. There is an air of spontaneity in just watching her grow and imagining what might happen next. The container of dates that she came from was purchased at a fantastic international shop in the farmers market that unfortunately is no longer there. So not only is this date palm named Jools a fun growing experiment, but she’s also a good little memory of a place I loved, but can no longer visit. That’s the cool thing about plants isn’t it? How active they are in our lives… as decoration, as curious living creatures, and as memory holders. Each one is like a quirky little (or in some cases big!) character sharing our space, making it feel natural and welcoming, just like home.

Not every experiment I try turns out to be a successful one. This year I attempted apples (success up to month 5!) and papayas but neither lasted long enough to see the sprouts that start the story. Gardening is a game of chance after all. Somehow that makes the ones that do grow into a Grace or an Avi or a Jools all the more significant. While you are peeling and chopping and cutting stuff up this holiday season in your kitchen, keep your eye out for the seeds, and all the potential and possibility that is contained in those small packages tucked inside your favorite fruits and vegetables.  Worlds of adventure stir inside our kitchens everyday, none more dramatic or miraculous than the lives that feed our lives.

If anyone has started their indoor gardens from seed, please comment on this post and share with us what you are growing and how it is going. One of our blog readers, Gloria, recently shared photos of her avocado tree in Florida, which she started from seed around the same time as Avi began. She planted hers outside, a smart decision thanks to Florida’s ideal growing climate. Three years in, her avocado seed now looks like this…

Wow! An absolute beauty towering over the garden at a majestic 7″ feet tall! Well on its way to being a proper shade tree in her yard, Gloria is hoping that by next year, she’ll be able to eliminate avocados from her market shopping list and instead just pick them right off her own tree. What an exciting thought! Our fingers are crossed that she is flush with avocado by this time next year:)

If you need a little more inspiration when it comes to building your own plant paradise, consider these colorful and beautifully illustrated  mid-century books in the shop. They are packed full of helpful advice regarding citrus trees, orchards, edible plantings and indoor gardening…

They make fun gifts for yourself or your fellow garden lover, and unlike the internet, lay everything out before you all at once, instead of hunting and pecking your way through endless garden sites plant by plant.

If you missed the previous posts about the start of the indoor orchard, catch up here.

In the meantime, cheers and happy birthday to Avi, to all the seedlings out there who grow big with just a little extra dose of love and attention, and to Gloria for sharing her own personal gardening adventure with us:)

Turning Servers into Succulents: A Vintage Re-Invention

 

Eight. That’s how many days there are to go. It’s almost here! Then one thing turns into another. We end and we begin. We change and we grow.  This year, the day falls on a Monday. The exact date – September 23rd.  Then it’s official. The first day of Autumn arrives. How exciting! To celebrate the season, I have a fun new gardening project for all you do-it-yourself-ers out there who like to keep your hands busy in the dirt in the off-season when summer turns to fall and fall turns to winter and the outdoor garden is at rest. It doesn’t require much effort, time or expense but it does call for a little imagination. It will last forever if you want it to and it will make you look at things in your cupboards in a whole new way. Most importantly, it gives new purpose to old items that sometimes get left behind on a shelf or forgotten about in storage.

I’m so excited to introduce the succulent set…

vintage-serving-dish-succulent-planters

…real plants growing out of old china serving pieces. If you’ve inherited pieces of your family’s china and are not quite sure what to do with them or how to incorporate them into your daily life, or if you just want a planter with a little bit of one-of a-kind personality then designating a vintage sugar bowl or a creamer or a serving dish as your new garden vessel is a fun way to go. Let’s look…

This Japanese Majolica creamer is from the 1940’s. Due to some cracks on the bottom it no longer holds water (or cream!) so it makes an ideal container for varieties of succulents that prefer well draining soil. All it needs is a little water once a week and it’s ready to grow. Keep it in the sink for a few minutes and the water drips out through the cracks, then it is good to go until its next watering seven days later.

Vintage sugar bowls like this one above, made in England, fit perfectly into shelves or small spaces. Your very own unexpected mini garden greenspace place!

This vintage coffeepot from the 1940s lost its lid somewhere along its 75 years of travels. That makes it no longer the most suitable vessel for hot coffee but it certainly makes a pretty container for eye-catching flower power in the form of a petal shaped succulent.

With their long shape and roomy width, gravy boats make great table centerpieces. They can usually accommodate more than a couple of mini plants depending on size. For wedding reception decorations, they offer the symbolism and sentimentality of “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”

Ideal plants for this type of pairing project, many succulents don’t require a lot of watering and come in a variety of sizes, colors and shapes. As they grow, the plants can be transferred to larger and larger containers like this one – a two-handled vegetable dish from Salem Pottery’s Commodore pattern which debuted in the 1940’s. Because of its larger size it can accommodate up to seven 2.5″ inch succulents or just a few bigger individuals that have outgrown their smaller holders…

vintage-mini-succulent-garden

Authentic crazing, staining and chippy details add interesting, quirky personality to your space that you can’t find in modern day planters. They also easily fit on window sills, ledges, mantles and counter top nooks. Choose one that matches your interior aesthetic, or the colors of your kitchen, or reminds you of a good memory and you’ll instantly add a bit of happy energy to your space. Old dishes love to remain useful helpers. Matching the old with the new creates balance and harmony and reminds us that imperfections are the stuff of life. Beautiful! This antique gravy boat below is over 100 years old but still looks as fresh and pretty as ever thanks to its classic shape.

The trio below have no cracks to worry about so they are ideal holders for succulents and cactus that prefer to be spritzed with water, rather than doused, every now and again. Add some some pea gravel to the bottom of each vessel before adding dirt and certain succulents will be happy with just a tiny bit of water every now and again.

Another possibility is to gather them all up and make a hanging wall display with the help of a crate…

vintage-serving-dish-succulent-planters

That makes an instant collection and an engaging garden that you can cultivate and tend to all year round. Usually all that is required for succulents is bright natural light, a sunny alcove or close proximity to a window.

With all their color choices which range from light gray to soft pink, bright green to dusty blue there is great fun in matching plant to planter and then watching them grow and sprout new additions.

If you need a vintage serving piece to start your garden you can find the ones above in the garden section of the shop. Succulents are available at most garden centers, nurseries, farmers markets or sometimes even the floral section of the grocery store. I recommend getting your planter first, then your succulent second, so that you can determine the appropriate drainage condition, color and shape for plant and planter.

Hope this brings a little fun your way on our second to last Sunday of summer. Cheers to new gardens, old dishes and the joy they both provide:)

 

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!