Archives for posts with tag: 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 arrived home one night last week and came face-to-face with a platter full of ripe tomatoes and peppers. CRR was out of town, so I knew tomatoes and peppers were the answer to the what’s-for-dinner question.

Then I remembered a recent tweet from @ChefJoseAndres about an attractive tomato & egg concoction. He’s one of my favorite Washington chefs, has a great story. Andres trained as a chef in Spain, came to Washington with little but his knives, and proceeded to build a culinary empire. His debut restaurant, Jaleo, helped put Penn Quarter on the map before the neighborhood was cool. A host of Andres restaurants are within a stone’s throw of my office: Jaleo, Oyamel, Zaytinya and Minibar. All are excellent, with a great vibe.

Just a few blocks from Jaleo is DC Central Kitchen, a food bank that turns leftover food into healthy meals for the needy. Andres got involved with DC Central Kitchen soon after he arrived in Washington, using his celebrity to transform the food bank into a cause. Bravo, Chef.

Now, back to that platter of tomatoes and peppers. His tweet was a photo of a traditional Spanish dish, pisto manchego. It can be served warm or cold, on just about anything, according to the recipes I consulted. I ate mine with a fried egg, as served by Andres.

pisto manchego

pisto manchego

Pisto Manchego for One

2-3 ripe tomatoes, skin removed, chopped

1/2 medium onion, chopped

2 peppers, chopped (I prefer the natural sweetness of red peppers)

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

(optional: zucchini)

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a sauté pan, add the peppers and onion and cook over medium heat until softened. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the tomatoes, then a pinch of sugar to balance the acidity, cover, and cook until almost all the liquid is absorbed. Season with salt and pepper. Remove pisto to a pretty bowl and cover to keep warm. Fry one egg to soft stage, drape over the pisto. When you cut into the egg, the yolk will melt into the pisto. Enjoy.

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

Usually this far into the summer, I’m getting tired of tomatoes. Last year, we were eating tomatoes by mid-June. This year, the long cool spring has really set back the tomato crop. But one of our new tomatoes, the Legend, is finally producing.

The Legend was developed at Oregon State University by James Baggett. As promised by OSU, it is the first of our large tomato varieties to ripen. This particular plant is one of the ‘grafted’ tomatoes that we bought this year. It’s full of fruit, doing much better than some of the other tomato plants that have struggled with recent monsoon-like rains and now a 6-day heat wave.

Baggett developed 45 varieties of vegetables during his long career at OSU, and was named to the Seedsmen Hall of Fame. No, I didn’t make that up. The Seedsmen Hall of Fame, sponsored by Victory Seeds, is dedicated to the horticulturalists who create the thousands of varieties of fruits and veggies that fill the seed catalogs – and entice you in the winter to over-order. “Preserving the past, one seed at a time,” is its slogan.

If you’re interested in history, click on some of the biographies of the Hall of Famers. It’s a Who’s Who of  those seed catalogs. W. Atlee Burpee, who pioneered the mail order seed business. George W. Park, whose company became an empire but eventually fell into bankruptcy. Henry Field, who made his fortune by undercutting Burpee’s prices. Fascinating reading if you’re a gardener.

Legend Tomato

Legend Tomato

Back to the Legend. I can tell you that Baggett developed a tasty tomato. I ate the first one with just a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. It was excellent.

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

Dear readers, I need your advice. For the first time, we are encountering some kind of rot on some of our carrots. Is there a solution?

We went to the garden yesterday to harvest some bounty as a hostess gift for friends who invited us to dinner. I pulled out one carrot that broke off about 2 inches below the crown; the core was mushy. Clearly rotten. The next couple carrots were just fine. Beautiful, in fact.

But I pulled about a dozen carrots, and half of them were rotten. A quick Internet search offered several potential causes.

I took the two seemingly likeliest blights to the website of UC-Davis, which I respect for its agricultural and horticultural expertise.

Nematodes is a word that makes me shudder. Sounds way creepy. Which UC-Davis quickly underscored: “Plant-parasitic nematodes live in soil and plant tissues and feed on plants by puncturing cell walls and sucking the cell contents with a needlelike mouthpart called a stylet.”

That doesn’t seem to be the problem. Plus, I thought nematodes were more of a tomato problem. My tomatoes are fine, however.

Then I wondered if the abundant rain was the root of my root problem. We were joking last night about being in the midst of a monsoon season, an endless cycle of heat and too much rain.

Here’s what UC-Davis offered up.

“Pectobacterium carotovora is a common soilborne bacterium that attacks a wide range of fruits and vegetables. The bacterium enters carrots through various kinds of wounds. In the field, soft rot is most often associated with warm temperatures and standing water resulting from poor drainage, low areas, or leaky irrigation pipes.”

This seems like the most likely culprit. Does it mean I should harvest the entire carrot crop, discard what’s rotten, and try to salvage the rest? Will it only worsen if I don’t pull up the crop? It doesn’t seem to be affecting the neighboring parsnips at all.

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

Chris and I joked last night about how wonderful it is to have house-husbands. We come home from work each day to a freshly mowed lawn and dinner on the table. Our husbands recently took buyouts from USA Today after long, distinguished careers, and are enjoying a well-deserved summer of leisure. Chris and I are the beneficiaries.

One night last week, dinner included members of our church stewardship committee. CRR brined a turkey breast and grilled it in the ceramic roaster contraption that one of the boys gave him. It was moist and wonderful. But the star of the show was the first beets of the season.

chioggia beets

chioggia beets

CRR harvested half a dozen of the Detroit Red Supreme beets and the Chioggia striped beets. He boiled them til tender, let them cool to room temp, then thinly sliced the beets. Then he fanned the dark red beets on the outside of a white platter, and carefully arranged an inner circle of the striped beets. In the very center of the plate, he placed a cloud of crumbled goat cheese. With a sprinkle of salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil, the dish was complete. And it was gorgeous. Yes, I should have taken a photo to post with this blog item, but the church committee was arriving and I ran out of time.

I can tell you the beautiful beets were oohed and aahed over, and then devoured. Compliments to CRR, whose domestic god talents are in full roar this summer.

Happy Father’s Day to the father of our two sons.

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


Here is the mystery plant. If you can guess what it is, we’ll share whatever…”it”…produces this summer!

mystery veg

mystery veg


I hadn’t visited the garden in about 10 days. CRR was there every day, so it seemed redundant to make a site visit when he gave me a 5-minute report each evening –along with a nice salad as evidence.

Ten days turned out to be an eternity in vegetable years. Apparently, 90-degree heat and abundant rain was all our little vegetables needed to muscle their way toward puberty. Two tomato plants – Indigo Rose and Brandywine – sport little fruits about the size of a small egg. One pepper plant brandishes a 2-inch-long jalapeno. We’ll be eating the first beets this week – some of the red ones are already 2-3 inches across.

Our only cherry tomato seems to be in need of some TLC but with we are left scratching our heads because rain and sun have both been plentiful. The peas have pooped out, victim to some rust or blight that afflicts us every year. The lettuce and spinach seem to be surviving on the rain, heat be damned.

And we have two “mystery” guests – volunteers that every year we swear we will eradicate upon sight. But CRR, of the tender heart, is nursing these two lucky orphans along. In our haste to get to the baseball game today (Go Nats!), we neglected to take a photo. I’ll post one soon so you can play the guessing game with us.

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

When Thomas Jefferson first visited England, a British nobleman sniffed that TJ looked like “a tall large-boned farmer.”

Which is exactly what he was.

As a young man, Jefferson carved Monticello out of a mountainside high above Charlottesville. After his presidency, he planted beautifully laid-out ornamental gardens, designed on the drawings he sketched into notebooks during his European travels.

But Jefferson was, at heart, a farmer. He grew 125 varieties of fruit trees, half of which were peach trees. He planted gooseberries and currants that Lewis and Clark discovered along the Missouri River. He tried to grow grapes for wine, but the French cultivars failed to thrive – and likely would not have pleased the palate for fine wine he developed in Paris anyway.

His kitchen garden was 1,000 feet long – more than three football fields. Overseeing the garden was Jefferson’s favorite pastime in his retirement. He considered it a horticultural lab. He meticulously kept a Garden Book, noting planting and harvest dates, names of plants, number of seeds planted. He sorted “fruits” from “leaves” and “roots.”

What did TJ sow? Many varieties of English beans, pumpkin from Africa, French lettuces, Roman broccoli, kale from Malta, New York corn, Swedish turnips, Prussian peas. He planted 40 varieties of kidney beans over the years, before finally settling on two favorites.

Monticello gardens

Monticello gardens

And of course he kept the seeds sorted in a special cupboard.

In the twilight of his life, Jefferson relished his agrarian roots at Monticello. “Tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener,” he wrote.

For more about TJ’s gardens, check out these videos from Monticello. And you can buy seeds and plants descended from his gardens online.

I think a visit to the estate of my favorite president may be in order as his gardens awaken from the earth.

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