Garden Visit: Cedar Grove

Sunday, April 23, 2017


Today we visited Cedar Grove, one of the historic summer houses of Fairmount Park managed by the Art Museum, for a tour.  The history of the house, first located in Frankford and moved to the current location only last century, was fascinating, but we were there for the demonstration kitchen garden.  Planted out in three raised beds, the kitchen garden was a mostly perennial combination of greens and medicinal plants. 


We were invited to take shoots for our own garden, and dug up some Lovage - a perennial herb that looks and tastes similar to celery.  PHS was also on hand with free seedlings and plenty of spring planting advice.  It was an incredibly interesting and useful peek at a time when a garden might have supplied more than just food.  Our favorite odd plant - Tansy, which was toxic and used to induce nausea in case of a bout of worms, for example.  We left that one behind.


Posted by Donna on 04/23 at 07:09 PM

An Idiot-Proof Guide To Seed Starting

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Depending on the final outcome, I might want to title this post “An Idiot Starts Seeds”, but so far so good. 

We decided last fall we were interested in starting our own seeds indoors.  We had been very happy with the wide variety of seedlings we could get at local farmers’ markets, almost always unusual heirloom varieties as well.  But we did feel like we were losing a few weeks in the spring for those crops we might otherwise have direct sown, not to mention the midsummer plantings we never seemed to make room for but missed by the fall.  If we learned to start seeds indoors, our precious community plot space would be maximized. 

One of our fellow gardeners made starting out incredibly easy, selling us her old grow light box, a 72 cell greenhouse kit and replacement bulbs for less than the price of two seedlings.  The greenhouse kit came with little peat plugs - an enormous space saver when first sprouting seedlings.  So much so, in fact, that we planted a dozen or so cabbage and broccoli seeds and found we had no room for the growing plants.  Here’s the tray full of reconstituted peat pellets:



... and tiny pepper plants sprouting:



I went through our seed packets and pulled anything I could plant by mid May and popped them in.  Germination was incredibly fast for all but the peppers, but I put the tray under the lights anyway and they came along several days later.  And just two weeks later we had plants big enough to begin repotting in nifty little newspaper pots I learned to make on YouTube:



The transplanting was easy, and did away with the slight legginess the tomatoes had acquired since they germinated and started growing so quickly I hadn’t yet put them under the grow lights.  I keep them on overnight for 12-14 hours, and cover the entire table during the day to allow the plants to rest. 

And for those of you for whom space is an issue - the entire light box sits perfectly in our bathtub, which has the added benefit of containing anything messy or wet and keeping out the curious cats.  Next up: fertilizing.

Posted by Donna on 03/14 at 07:42 AM

Our Very Own Dried Beans

Saturday, October 22, 2016


We took a photo just like this a year ago.  Those beans were from Savoie Organic Farm.  These came from our garden, dried right on the vine.  Pole beans are delicious fresh, but my favorite thing about the varieties we planted was that if we missed the window when the beans were slim and tender we could simply wait and harvest them as dried beans.  Hence the sexist but hilarious name of one variety: Lazy Housewife. 

Posted by Donna on 10/22 at 04:55 AM

Some Lessons From A Beach Garden

Tuesday, July 05, 2016


Last week we visited Beach Plum Farm, which in addition to operating a farm stand also supplies several restaurants in Cape May with fresh produce, eggs and pork.  We’ve toured the fields before, but new this year was a large section of raised beds behind the farmstand with all manner of vegetables growing.  The beds were beautiful, but by no means ornamental and already producing a serious amount of vegetables given their size.


We were excited to see tomatoes tied between two stakes with taut twine, as we learned to do years ago at Greensgrow Farm.  The system works beautifully in small plots if you have the time to devote to keeping up with the growth.


These zucchini plants amazed us - when crowded as they are, the leaves just grow upward instead of spreading out. 


We took note of the variety of corn growing here.  These are much smaller plants than those we grew last year but with lots of ears already well formed.

Posted by Donna on 07/05 at 05:37 PM

A Garlic Harvest

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Last October, we popped a couple of bulbs’ worth of garlic cloves in the ground pointy side up and about 6 inches apart.  Two weeks ago, we pulled about 15 beautiful heads of garlic out of the ground.  There really was nothing else to it, save cutting the garlic scapes (long, sometimes curly stems with tiny buds on the end which appear in late spring) to help the plants concentrate on bulb growth.  We waited for the leaves to start to brown - and a little push from our neighboring gardener - to pull them.  As you can see above, most had developed the papery skin necessary for curing.  Don’t let the sound of the word curing scare you off, as with garlic this simply means hanging them in a well ventilated pantry or shaded spot for a few months, at which point they should be usable for several more.  We did have to cut most of our leaves away due to our cats’ obsession with anything they can chew on, but ideally leaving the leaves and much of the roots on aids drying.  The garlic is good for immediate use as well, which means you can easily set yourself up with your entire year’s garlic with one harvest so long as you don’t mind braids of bulbs hanging atmospherically around your porch or pantry. 

Posted by Donna on 07/22 at 06:08 PM

First Spring Planting

Sunday, April 26, 2015

It felt like it would never come, but a few weeks ago we were finally able to plant the first of our spring crops.  For the last few years, before we put a single seed or seedling in the ground, we prepare each plot by digging a trench, loosening the soil with a claw, sprinkling in compost, and filling up the trench with the soil from the next. 


The whole process doesn’t take long, given our tiny plots, and leaves the soil so beautifully aerated that we have to be careful not to step too heavily on them.



After the particularly hard winters, in our garden planted atop an old elementary school parking lot, we always dig up lots of debris.  This was the biggest yet.



Our strawberry patch came with the plot five years ago, so it was time for new plants.  We gave these plenty of room for runners, and planted lemongrass in between.



Fava beans, by far the most satisfying spring plant for its early germination, are popping up all over the garden.



Our wintered over spinach was ready for picking, and our garlic is growing nicely.

We finished the planting with carrots, lettuce, beets and tatsoi.  By next week it should be safe to plant the tomatoes, just in time for the opening of Headhouse Farmers’ Market on Sunday.

Posted by Donna on 04/26 at 06:42 PM

A Bad Dye Job

Sunday, April 20, 2014

So I decided that I was going to dye Easter eggs naturally, making dyes from the likes of onion skins, turmeric and frozen blueberries.  We had a dozen eggs from last week’s food swap I wanted to break into and heaps of onion skins from yesterday’s early Easter dinner.  I opened the carton and found ..... the eggs were not white.  Why this didn’t occur to me before I have no idea, as we’ve been delighted by the various shades of brown and blue the eggs we buy from local purveyors come in.  While there was no way the delicate color of a natural dye was going to show up on brown or blue eggs, these were lovely just as they were.   


I did come across a nearly foolproof method of hard boiling eggs that minimizes the risk of cracking and results in vibrant orange yolks with no green cast or chalky texture.  The resulting egg salad was delicious.


Happy Easter.

Posted by Donna on 04/20 at 02:06 PM

A Little Gardening Today?

Monday, March 03, 2014

Last summer, I made a mess of a first attempt at winter sowing seeds - a seed starting method involving creating mini greenhouses out of recyclables, planting with seeds and setting outside to sprout in the early spring.  I loved this idea when I first read about it - no need to set up tables and grow lights in the room we didn’t have and no need to buy anything new to try it out.  I went a little crazy - saving every disposable container that came through the house, madly slashing drainage holes in the bottoms, filling them with soil and seeds, soaking them and setting them outside to wait out the remaining winter days.  By spring I had sodden containers, and although many sprouted anyway, others did not.  Here’s what I did right - and wrong:

1.  My containers - plastic milk jugs are the ideal container for winter sowing.  Their height allows for room for the seedlings to grow, and their lids can be removed for extra ventilation and moisture come spring when it is still too cool at night to remove the seedlings completely.  I’d imagine 2 liter bottles would be good for similar reasons.

2.  My method of creating drainage holes - I used a knife, which made a slit in the plastic that didn’t really allow for drainage as it should have.  This year I used a screwdriver.

3.  My preparation of the seeds and soil - I took the directions to “moisten” the soil a bit too far, and my little greenhouses remained soaked throughout the early spring, obviously compounded by my poor drainage holes.

So yesterday I tried again.  Right now is the perfect time to sow tender crops such as tomatoes and peppers, so I got my collected milk jugs out, sawed them in half, poked drainage and ventilation holes, filled with potting soil and seeds, moistened with a spray bottle and set them outside. 


And then it snowed again.



Posted by Donna on 03/03 at 11:33 AM

Stop and Smell the Flowers

Friday, May 10, 2013

April showers bring May flowers..


I enjoy the change of the seasons (could do without allergies), but I look forward to the beauty of nature as the weather jumps into spring.  Colorful flowers start to bloom and people crawl out of hibernation. Spring is the perfect time of year to clean your mind, body, and soul.

Benefits of flowers:
-Improve your mood.  The scent of lavender can be calming and reduce your stress levels.  Breathe and relax.
-Take a moment and appreciate beauty.
-Brighten a room to bring you energy as well as peace.
-Show appreciation and bring a smile to others (ladies love flowers, not just on Valentine’s Day).
-Planting flowers such as scented germaniums, sage, and marigold can deter pests from your produce farm.

Consume flowers:
-Use flowers that are grown without pesticides.
-Some flowers are toxic.  Eat flowers only when you know they are edible.
-Flavor dishes: add to soups, salads, sauces, stir fry, cakes.
-Garnish meals and desserts.
-Drink as a tea.
-Freeze small flowers (rose buds, orchid, pansy, snapdragon, germanium) into ice cubes to add to beverages.
-Herb flowers: basil, oregano, cilantro, ginger, mint, lavender, rosemary, thyme, sage
-Vegetable flowers: broccoli florets, arugula, cauliflower, artichokes.
-Potential health benefits: antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, digestion, and immune system boosting.

Tips to bring your day into nature:
-Take a fitness class outside.
-Depending on the length of your lunch break, allow 5-10 minutes for a quick walk.  Stepping away from your work will clear your mind and refocus when you return.
-Find local parks and gardens to enjoy a scenic view.  Pack a healthy picnic or bring a nice book to relax.
-See if there is a local community garden or farm near you to learn to grow flowers and produce.

Find some flowers to give a loved one or friend to bring a smile and brighten up the day.. Mother’s Day is approaching!


Posted by Renee on 05/10 at 02:22 AM

The Perfect Tomato, The Perfect Summer

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Before I get into my post, I wanted to let all of our Manhattan friends of this blog know that I will be doing a book talk for my urban farming novel Seeds of Discent at Bluestocking Books on the lower east side on July 6th at 7 PM, and I’ll be over at Word Up Books on West 175th St. on July 7th at 7 PM. I hope to see some of you there. For more info, check out

Now, for my thoughts on tomatoes:
At the beginning of this farming season I made two vows to myself. The first was that this was to be the year of horticulture. Aside from landing a great job doing community integrated garden design in public parks for the summer, I’ve also created my dream garden. Surrounding the beds on the street side of our urban farm are a row of sunflowers that are just about to pop and greet every passerby on the way to the EL train. On the other side, separating our yard from the community herb bed in the farm are a mixed planting of perennial shrubs, annual flowers and berry bushes. All of this has created a space that is both beautiful and vibrant for a whole host of pollinators.

The second vow I made to myself was that this would be the year that I grow the perfect tomato. Although I’ve always managed to cultivate a proper harvest of produce since I started growing food, I’ll admit that I’ve never grown those types of tomatoes that change lives and reawaken taste buds. My yields have been too low, my fruit too small, and bottom end rot was always a problem. I attribute this to most years spending more time on the community building side of urban farming than focusing my attention on this wonderful plant. But this year, if my vow serves me well, I hope to build more community by sharing the bounty of the perfect tomato. And here are a few tips on how I’m doing that.

The first was good soil prep. We made sure to cover crop our beds with nitrogen rich clover and also amended our soil with a store bought bag of crushed sea shells rich in calcium and other nutrients. The second part of the process was all in the transplanting. We made sure that our transplants were tall enough and hardened off enough to be hardy, but not too tall and leggy. But even if they were leggy, it wouldn’t matter because the most important part of the process that I have found is in the planting. I’ve learned from some great growers in Philly that the best way to plant a tomato is to dig a whole deep enough where almost the entire transplant can fit in the hole, leaving only a few stems sticking above the soil. The cool thing about tomatoes is that those leaves under ground will actually turn into roots and establish themselves in the soil. By doing this, a much stronger stem is created. My plants were already about 3 feet tall before I even had to think about trellising them and they are still nice and hardy. 

As for trellising, we are using the french style where strings are hung from an wooden pole that runs over head the length of the tomato row. The pole is attached to stakes on either end of the bed and one in the middle. This is an ideal system for a small garden. Also, by lightly tying the string to the plants and training them to grow up the string, you allow the plant to maintain its natural growth habit, which keeps the plant healthy and happy.

Aside from deeply watering the soil everyday, I may have to add a little fish emulsion to the water for extra nutrients. But I’ll find that out once the first tomato ripens, which should be any day. All that’s left to do now is make sure the kids don’t jump the fence and use may tomatoes as artillery in their favorite pastime game of “peg each other as the run down the street.” But like the weather so far this summer, they have been cooperative. So here’s hoping that this perfect summer continues. And I’m looking forward to that perfect tomato.

Posted by Nic on 06/28 at 06:14 PM

Sustainable Saturdays in University City

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Foraging! Wine and Cheese! Local Honey! Farmers’ Market! Seed Bombs! Get in this great series of events this coming Saturday! Farm to Table in West Philadelphia.

Posted by Erin on 07/12 at 12:07 AM

PHS and Philly Homegrown Pop-Up Garden

Monday, July 11, 2011

2011-07-07 12.25.21

In partnership with Philly Homegrown, PHS created a beautiful pop-up garden in the formerly empty lot at 20th and Market. Just look at all the beauty next to those boring skyscrapers! You’re welcome to pop-in on Wednesdays and Thursdays and spend some time in the garden. The garden will stay up until October, then come down for the winter and pop-up in a new location next Spring! I stopped by for a short workshop on vegetable growing. These Wednesday workshops are free and easy to squeeze in over your lunch hour:

• August 4: Gardening Odds and Ends — Fabulous Containers
• September 1: Edible Landscapes — Growing Beautiful Food
• September 22: Edible Landscape — Planting and Harvesting

And, if you’re feeling like a special lunch afterwards, you can visit one of six local hot spots – R2L, Square 1682, Table 31, Sampan, Barbuzzo, and Paradiso —who have agreed to use ingredients from the pop-up garden in special dishes whose proceeds benefit City Harvest, PHS’s program that provides fresh produce for underserved Philadelphia residents.

2011-07-07 12.24.37

Posted by Erin on 07/11 at 11:57 PM

Time to Harvest: Garlic!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


If you forgot that garlic was due on Summer Solstice (like I did) it’s time to run out to your garden and pull-up your garlic! Some of my bulbs this year were huge, and they smell great. I braided them and hung them in my kitchen for immediate use, but if you’d like to keep yours for decoration (which means that you must have A LOT to part with any of it!) you can hang the stalks, bulbs attached, in a dark room for 6 weeks to “cure.”

Posted by Erin on 06/29 at 07:41 PM

Time to Harvest: Lettuces!

Monday, May 23, 2011


Have you already harvested your first lettuce of the season? I have cut some mixed red and green lettuce, but just take a look at this beautiful head of red butter lettuce I enjoyed last weekend. A boiled egg, some sea salt, a touch of olive oil, vinegar and dijon mustard - it was perfect! Remember that one you start cutting your lettuce to keep planting every week or so, and you’ll have a steady supply through the Spring.

Posted by Erin on 05/23 at 07:53 PM

Easy and Cheap Pallet Garden for small spaces

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I LOVE this DIY tutorial from Fern at Life on the Balcony. With just a simple wooden pallet (available free, on the side-of-the-road, almost anywhere in Philadelphia), a staple gun, some landscape fabric, potting soil and plants you can make and incredibly cute hanging garden for your balcony, front porch, back “yard” or any little urban spot. I’m going to try this soon, and I’d love to see your versions!

Follow the directions HERE.


Posted by Erin on 04/12 at 04:33 PM

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