Archives for category: Gardening

I’d been watching for weeks, stalking DeBaggio online. Finally the words I sought were flashing across the nursery’s website: “Basil, tomatoes, peppers now available.” CRR and I were both running Saturday morning errands and I texted him: Time to drive out to Chantilly.

Our friend Anne swore by DeBaggio’s for these garden necessities. She said the nursery wouldn’t put anything out for sale until the overnight temperatures would let them survive and thrive. Indeed the website says, “I can guarantee the quality of our plants because we grow them ourselves.” So weeks earlier we had decided on a road trip for this year’s tender veggies and drove 33 miles out to Chantilly.

DeBaggio’s Herb Garden and Nursery dates to 1975. It was once surrounded by Virginia countryside but exurban growth has encroached to within a block of the nursery. The founder, Thomas DeBaggio, wrote several well-regarded books about gardening – and later, stricken with Alzheimer’s, he wrote about the disease and advocated for research on Oprah and NPR. His family carried on after he died a few years ago.

We browsed the stock, astonished at the variety. 23 kinds of oregano – after tasting several leaves, I settled on Greek Mountain, which the DeBaggio catalog said would “make the tongue tingle.” 27 types of basil – I picked up Napoletano, Genoa Green and a pistou miniature. The catalog said the Genoa Green “is the only variety we use for pesto.” OK then!

DeBaggio’s had 16 varietals of rosemary, an herb described as “shrouded in ancient legends and the smoke from modern barbeque grills.” By chance, I had read an article in the Washington Post last week about the severe winter kill-off of rosemary plants in our region. I lost two. So I chose Hill Hardy rosemary, which DeBaggio’s said was winter hardy below zero. That should defy the winter gods. The catalog had three essays dedicated to rosemary, one on “hardiness of rosemary and growing outdoors,” “growing rosemary in containers,” and “ranking rosemary varieties for use.”



It was a pleasure to shop for herbs at a nursery that obviously cares deeply about its products and relates to gardeners as professional-to-professional, even for us amateurs.

Next week: our tomato selections.

P.S. Since we were so deep into the Virginia suburbs, we drove the extra 10 miles to Arno’s pastry stand at Gilberts Corner for a treat. CRR chose a cream-filled éclair and I picked a tart lemon meringue tart.  As I wrote earlier, delicieux!

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

I should have known better.

I was literally at the checkout of our local nursery, Greenstreet Gardens, when I spied the mandevillas.

They are one of my annual go-to plants. CRR years ago gave me a pair of beautiful tall pillars, and they provide support for gorgeous mandevilla vines every summer. After trying several varietals, I’ve settled on the Alice DuPont, whose prolific pink trumpet-shaped blossoms are a show-stopper.



They typically aren’t available here until mid-May – think Mother’s Day – because they’re tropical plants and don’t tolerate chilly spring nights. But the price was right, so I bought three. Back at the checkout, I asked the Greenstreet worker how much cold it could tolerate. “Cover it or bring it inside if the temperature goes lower than 45,” she said.

It was a beautiful day – sunny, approaching 70 – so I was lulled into thinking our chilly nights were over. Well, three nights already this week I have had to cover the poor vines to shelter them from temps dipping into the low 40s. Tonight there is a threat of 30s, so I’ll just have to cross my fingers. And curse my inability to resist the temptation when I knew it was too early. Rookie gardener mistake!

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

It begins. Another season of gardening is under way. The first tender shoots of vegetables are just starting to peep out of the ground: beets, spinach, rainbow radishes, lettuce and two varietals of carrots.

A new season brings new characters to our community garden. Our neighbor, Bonnie, has retired to Florida. She left behind a giant rosemary bush that managed to survive the awful winter. The new tenant farmer hasn’t shown his/her hand yet.

Debbie, a new gardener last year, built wooden terraces and carefully tended her plot. But she was evicted by the Alexandria city overseers, because she actually lived over the border in neighboring Arlington (along with several others). Too bad, since she actually took care of her plot, which is more than we can say about some of our fellow gardeners. People fall in love with the idea of gardening, and when reality sets in, many abandon their plots and let the weeds take over.

We chatted with our friend Anne, who has gardened at Chinquapin longer than we have. One of her new garden neighbors is a chef from the steakhouse Charlie Palmer. We tittered at the chef who knows so little about the food he cooks. He took a set of onions and planted them in one clump. He’s already put in some tomatoes and peppers, a risky move this early.

Obviously, we community garden veterans have our eye on the chef. Stay tuned. The season is just beginning and the plot thickens…

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

It’s time to shut down the garden and reflect on six lessons learned in 2013.

1. Only buy locally grown tomato plants. The fancy twice-the-price superman plants we imported from Oregon actually underperformed the local yokels. I think they just couldn’t cope with a Washington summer that saw a long drought followed by monsoon rains, interspersed with the usual hot and humid weather. CRR ordered some of the grafted tomatoes for his parents, and their plants thrived in the cooler South Dakota climate. We rather enviously helped his mother harvest the last of her tomatoes in mid-October.

2. Studiously ignore the parsnip section of the seed catalogs. I thought I loved parsnips, but it turns out I like parsnips in small doses. Like buying half a dozen at a time at the farmers market. We had two full rows of parsnips, and simply grew tired of the few preparations we concocted. There is still a bag full of them in the back of the spare refrigerator. I hope they don’t multiply in there.

3. In fact, studiously ignore the seed catalogs altogether until spring is just around the corner. Otherwise, we cave to winter cravings rather than stick to the tried-and-true.

4. Thin the ridiculous mint and horseradish. Let me repeat in harsher terms: Ruthlessly hack back the mint and horseradish, which both grow like the invasive species they are. A flame-thrower might be in order. (Hint: Christmas gift?)

5. Call my brother in Minneapolis for instructions on when to plant the fall crop. He had a huge late October harvest, including a massive haul of green beans, by planting in mid-August. We put our fall seeds into the ground too late. #EpicFail.fall-leaves-autumn-graphy-views_356851

6. Show no mercy to volunteer plants that sprout amid our carefully plotted rows. We wound up with a stupid curved squash whose vines menaced a terrified Brandywine tomato. And a pumpkin vine that crept around two sides of the garden and produced exactly 1.5 pumpkins.

Enough venting. Just remind me to re-read this list when spring rolls around.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

I know fall has arrived when the Episcopalians set out the pumpkins.

The front yard of Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill turns orange with pumpkins every October. The congregation unloads hundreds of pumpkins of all colors and sizes, trucked in from a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Then church members sell the pumpkins (and some other goodies) from morning til night, through Halloween. The profits go to local charities like ALIVE! and Carpenter’s Shelter and international ones like Heifer International. “Buy pumpkins, help the world,” the church sign says.1186252_518431311583381_357164123_n

Like many places in 250-year-old Alexandria, Immanuel has a historical footnote. Gerald R. Ford lived a few blocks away and the Ford family attended Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill for years. He served as an usher and the first lady taught Sunday school (presumably before presidential duties intervened).

The church plays a role in our family history as well. After we moved to this neighborhood, we would roll a red wagon to the pumpkin sale with our sons and they would carefully choose among the pumpkin bounty. One year, Sam insisted that I not discard the pumpkin “guts” when we carved his pumpkin, and make a pie instead. So from that year forward, I have roasted a pumpkin and pureed it for a pie. A little more work than the $3.19 canned pumpkin from the store, but it brings back memories of Halloweens past.

This year, our “mystery” volunteer plant in the garden turned out to be a pumpkin vine that sent runners around two sides of the garden. Though lush with many blossoms, it produced exactly two pumpkins. CRR turned one into a savory pumpkin soup. The other one will be carved at Laurie and Mark’s annual pumpkin salon.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

The days grow ever shorter, meaning our autumn garden crop is racing against the solstice. Every day in October, we lose 2 minutes and 30 seconds of sunlight. Daily sunlight now averages 11.5 hours, a far cry from the luxurious 15 hours of warm sun each day in June.

Remember your elementary school science: Plants need sunlight to grow.

CRR planted lettuce and, in a fit of hopefulness, more beets. And we still have blossoms on some of the tomatoes.

We could simply shut down the garden. After all, if you look around us at the community gardens, some plots resemble a war zone, evidence that their owners long ago gave up.

I know we’ll eat some fresh lettuce this fall. The beets might be a stretch. Maybe some green tomatoes. Time is running short. Or, rather, we’re running out of sunlight.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA. Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.


It was only a matter of time. I have been reading about Joel Salatin for years. First met him in The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Then followed his column in Foodshed, a magazine about food grown in the watershed from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay (and which has been kind enough to reprint my blog posts).

He’s a rebel. Or a visionary. Or a curmudgeon. Or a nut, depending on your viewpoint.

Salatin’s Polyface Farms in Swoope, Va., has been fighting with the USDA for decades, which is what piqued my interest in the first place. A farmer at odds with the federal agency tasked with helping farmers. Why don’t they like him? He was an organic farmer before organic was cool. So he’s fought the government over everything from inspections to what can be labeled organic to slaughtering rules and on-farm sales.

In the process, he’s gained some fame. Enough to draw city slickers by the hundreds to tour his farm and to convince the best Washington chefs to buy his meat at high cost. A menu item labeled Polyface Farms draws approval from diners.

Polyface Chickens (courtesy John Runyan)

Polyface Chickens (courtesy John Runyan)

What’s the big deal? He’s taken 100 acres of farmland – a pretty small chunk of  land, to this Dakota farm girl — and created a little nirvana for animals. While most meat that makes it to your dinner table is mass-produced from animals fattened on grain in crowded feedlots, Salatin’s animals enjoy a free-range “salad bar” of pastureland that is rotated religiously to honor the land and follow the grazing hierarchy habits of the animals, from chickens to pigs to cattle. Even lowly earthworms play a role in the Polyface food chain (“We’re really in the earthworm enhancement business”).

It really is a fascinating story. One has to admire Salatin’s audacity, even if you don’t quite buy the “we produce four times more than our traditional farmer neighbor.” If that’s so, why do they charge $14 a pound for chicken breasts and $21 a pound for flank steaks? To be fair, they sell their animals tail-to-snout – 30 chicken feet for $3, or a beef tongue for $2.50 a pound. Nothing goes to waste.

We toured Polyface Farms on a rainy Saturday, and came away impressed by a farmer who chose the road less traveled. And who can, with a straight face, charge $15 a head to 100 people for a tour fragranced with cow manure. Joel Salatin has figured out how to monetize the romanticism of farming.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

Claude Monet’s art has always struck a chord with me, especially the paintings of his gardens. So when we decided to go to France, a visit to Giverny was tops on my list.

It was in this small village, an hour from Paris, where Monet painted some of his iconic works of art. Smitten by the light, Monet painted his wife with her parasol beside the River Seine and his son toddling through the gardens.

The gardens that inspired him are a work of art in themselves. I consider myself a decent flower gardener (not a master gardener like my friend Ruth, but above-average). But Monet’s gardens are a masterpiece – a cacophony of color in outsize proportions. No tidy English cottage garden for him – these are wild swaths of colorful flowers from the ground reaching high to the arches and trellises. Gravel paths mark the way through the floral tapestry.

Perhaps I’ll just let the flowers speak for themselves.

sunflowerRainbow of color

pink mums

pink mums



We spent hours walking through the gardens and then toured Monet’s house, where hundreds of artworks hang. CRR counted 53 on the walls of Monet’s studio alone. Even the upstairs bedrooms and hallway walls feature paintings by Renoir and Cezanne and Pissarro, fellow advocates of the Impressionist school who often visited Giverny.That evening we ate dinner at ancient Restaurant Baudy, where these master painters hung out in the 19th century. They’ll be my inspiration when I plot my 2014 flower gardens.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening. 


In a pleasant coincidence, we’ll be in France the same time as our friends Neil and Mary. We decided to compare notes about our French itineraries over lunch. Neil grilled all-American burgers; I offered to bring a salad.

I pondered the options. I had a few tomatoes, a few peppers and plenty of herbs. Sounds like a quinoa salad. Quelle bonne idée!

Quinoa: Low-calorie, gluten-free, high-protein, tastes great. It’s my latest food fixation. Assume you know the story line by now. It’s an ancient grain harvested in the upper reaches of the Andes Mountains in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. Latin Americans have been eating it for thousands of years. Vegetarians, of course, were hip to it before the rest of us. Quinoa has become such a raging success that there was even a shortage recently.320px-Red_quinoa

It’s also incredibly versatile. A couple weeks ago, I “borrowed” a quinoa salad recipe first tried at Virtue Feed & Grain, one of Cathal Armstrong’s many restaurants in Alexandria. In addition to the grain, it had diced red beets, paper-thin radish slices, flat-leaf parsley and feta cheese. It was beautiful, and pretty tasty too.

This time I subbed in what I had on hand from the garden. Send me your best ideas for quinoa – I’m in the mood!

Quinoa Salad

1 c. quinoa

2 c. water or veg broth

1 red bell pepper, small dice

1 heirloom tomato, seeded, small dice

Handful of minced chives, basil and mint

Vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, a splash of balsamic

Bring the liquid to a boil. Stir in the quinoa, return to a simmer, cover, then cook until the liquid is absorbed – about 15 minutes. Remove from heat, fluff the quinoa with a fork, and let cool. Meanwhile, dice the pepper, tomato and herbs. When the quinoa is cool, add the veg, the vinaigrette, salt/pepper to taste. Serves 4 as a side dish. Bon appetit!

P.S. My friend Kyle suggests toasting the quinoa for a few minutes before adding the liquid. She says it adds a nutty flavor to the grain.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

It is a sad fact of urban gardening that thieves will sometimes pilfer your produce. Usually the crime is committed just as the fruit or vegetables are turning fully ripe, after you have nurtured the produce along for weeks or months.

We had a crime wave a few weeks ago, and the garden listserve lit up with reports. Blackberry nets sliced open and the berries taken. Ripe tomatoes snatched from the vine. Someone ventured that it might be deer. But deer wouldn’t cut open netting. Others said they saw young men (boys?) hanging around the edge of the garden, though that’s a not uncommon site since our community garden plots are located at the edge of a high school campus. But it was summer recess. Someone else reported seeing a family methodically picking through the plots.

We lost a few beets. Irksome mostly because some of the smaller ones were cast side and left to dry in the sun. A couple tomatoes and peppers. (Notice the thieves never take the zucchini)

I was at a lunch today in DC and community gardeners there reported the same problem. The thieves started with spring flowers, like the peony thieves reported by The Washington Post. (The Post’s selection of local stories to cover can be truly odd) My friend Lynn had a full crop of edamame snipped from the bushes.

The thievery is annoying and exasperating. But we all hold one small hope: that perhaps the garden thieves are truly hungry. In this land of plenty, 21 percent of Virginia kids struggle with hunger. If that’s the case, we’re happy to share.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.