Archives for posts with tag: 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.

It started out innocently. On the weekend of our son’s graduation from Penn State two years ago, we moseyed around a native plant sale on the outskirts of the university. I picked up a 4-inch pot of horseradish and waved it at CRR. “Sure, let’s get one,” he said.

Horseradish is a great accompaniment to a gorgeous steak. In small doses, it can liven up everything from tuna salad to mashed potatoes. Or put a little zing into mayo for almost any use.

Early Greeks used it as a rub for lower back pain. Jews still use it in in Passover Seders as a bitter herb. According to the website, the Delphic oracle told Apollo, “The radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet its weight in silver, the horseradish its weight in gold.”

Six million gallons of the stuff are produced in the U.S. every year, clearing sinuses from coast to coast.

Back to my garden. It muscled its way through one corner of the garden in Year One, and we fought off Mexican beetles that chewed its leaves into tatters. In Year Two, CRR divided it and now it conquers two corners of our garden. This year I am determined to contain its voracious root, and not let it overshadow the beets and carrots. The fight is on.



It turns out that horseradish is invasive, which I suppose I should’ve known given its aggressive punch.

If you want a root, let me know. We just sent some to my sister in Alaska, and I’m betting the horseradish will withstand even Arctic winters.

To prepare: Take a chunk of root, peel and cut into one-inch pieces. Whirl in food processor until desired consistency (do NOT inhale the fumes rising from the   food processor, they’re dangerous). Add a little white vinegar as a preservative. Will keep refrigerated for several weeks.

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

My brother JJJ threw down the gauntlet first. He claimed to have fresh spinach in his garden last April, when the rest of us were just putting in seed. Plus he lives in Minnesota, so we were even more skeptical than normal of his tendency toward braggadocio. Fresh spinach harvested in early spring? In Minnesota??

Then two things happened.

  1. Under interrogation during our summer family reunion, JJJ refused to break.
  2. We picked up two packets of free spinach seed.

So what the heck. Despite our wretched record growing spinach (we’re 0-3), we decided to put in a fall crop. And even if that fails, we’ll put in a winter crop too.



The fall crop went in yesterday. One varietal is spinach Medania, which Thompson & Morgan promises is “easy to grow” and “reliable.” The other is Palco F-1 Hybrid, which promises a long season if we can get it past the bugs and the deer.

JJJ says he plants his winter spinach around Thanksgiving, then patiently waits for it to sprout when the snows finally melt in Minneapolis. We’ll aim for Christmas, since we rarely get a hard frost here.

I’m crazy about spinach. As Popeye knew, it’s rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, beta-carotene, iron and fiber. I am already dreaming of a bumper crop in late November, in time for the Thanksgiving groaning board.

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 have the perfect recipe for pesto. It came, quite insistently, from my friend Don. We were friends for 29 years: two generations of journalists working for The Associated Press in Washington.

After a chance collaboration when the Soviets shot down a civilian Korean airliner in 1983, Don pretty much adopted me as the newbie in the office. Boy, was I fortunate. I was a wide-eyed 26-year-old and he knew everything about Washington, having covered Congress, politics, investigations and eventually diplomacy.

But forget about work – we became fast friends and bonded over lunches that lasted until last spring. Family, politics, hiking, theater, music, diplomacy, food, travel, more politics, you name it, we talked about it. Gardening was one mutual passion. And it didn’t matter how many basil plants I grew, Don had Better, Bigger, Newer. It became a running joke, was Napolitano basil better than Genovese? I’d throw in Thai basil just to get him rolling on a tantrum. Or there was the year I advocated for baby basil, to his scorn. His passion was epic, no matter the topic.

Since he can no longer reprimand me, I offer up my version of:

Don’s Perfect Pesto


Basil leaves, lightly packed, to fill the container of a small food processor

1 tsp kosher salt

2-3 garlic cloves

(Whirl these 3 ingredients to grind them)

Add 2 Tablespoons of pine nuts, 2-3 Tablespoons of parmesan cheese, and enough olive oil to moisten. Pulse for 5-10 seconds at a time, and add enough olive oil to make a loose paste, then pulse to the consistency you like.  You can freeze at this point and it will keep for many months.

Our ongoing debate: Don added a Tablespoon of butter to his pesto; I insisted it was extraneous.

For this season, Don, I will cede to you.

Editor’s note: Donald M. Rothberg died last week after a brief illness.

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

At the corner of Ocean and Arizona streets, as waves from the Pacific crashed to the shore below us, my sister Sara and I turned to our left. We stopped dead in our tracks and fell uncharacteristically silent. Behold, the magnificence of the Santa Monica Farmers Market.

We slowly walked its length, our heads swiveling left, then right, agog at the rainbow-colored bounty. Neither of us had ever seen a farmers market of such breadth and depth. And she’s seen a lot of farm-fresh food, having adopted California as her home two decades ago. My own neighborhood farmers market, in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Va., suddenly seemed … inadequate.

A bit of history. The Santa Monica Farmers Market was established in 1981 and now boasts 700 vendors, all certified as California growers. Their booths sprawl across a dozen city blocks. The market draws local chefs as well as hungry visitors like us, sampling a little of this, a little of that.

Avocados grown in nearby Morro Bay. Pistachios from just up the road, flavored with lemon chives or habaneros. Almonds with a hint of orange rind or rosemary. A cornucopia of peppers, from serranos to pablanos and hatch.

Santa Monica Farmers Market

Asian pears, bosc pears, seckel pears. Dates still on the stem – I didn’t even know they grow in clusters, like brussel sprouts (also available, of course). A dozen types of peaches. Apples too. Mounds of squash blossoms. Fresh-picked pomegranates, $1 each.  Three kinds of juicy clementines, each with a distinctive flavor. Melons, dragon fruit (!), giant grapefruit, oh my.

We bought bags full of food, and feasted for lunch. You leave this market inspired, whether you’re a restaurant chef or an amateur.

We had briefly cruised the small Sunday market for some fruit to nosh during our visit, and our son told us then: Wait, the Wednesday market is world-renowned, for good reason. He’s a smart kid, that one.

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 was drawn by her name. Juliet. A flirty name for a tomato, especially compared with he-man varietals like German Johnson or Beefmaster or Big Boy.

I had grown tired of straight-up grape tomatoes and didn’t want a cherry (so 1980s) so I took a chance. And swooned for Juliet.

A cluster of Juliets

Is it a mini-Roma or a sturdy grape tomato? Or is it a Roma grape? It doesn’t matter, really, it was the hit of 2012 in our garden. It started bearing fruit in late June … and has never quit.

A little background. We have had an abnormally hot, abnormally dry year. Many of our tomatoes yielded abundant fruit early, and then pooped out. (In their defense, they are now forming new fruit as the temps cool and the sun remains strong.)

Ah, but the Juliet. She never let us down. This one plant has been a faithful mother to hundreds of small, sweet, sturdy tomatoes. By chance, we planted Juliet in the middle of our nine tomato plants, and her branches have vined their way through all of the other tomato supports and even into other plants. We find clusters of Juliets hidden in the thyme, in the rosemary, the peppers, the horseradish and squash. It’s like a treasure hunt.

As one of the tomato purveyors put it: “The wonderfully sweet fruit are crack resistant and remain in good condition on the vine longer than most cherry tomatoes. The fruit are as soft and juicy as cherry tomatoes, they hold up well in salads, even leftovers, and they have a longer shelf life so you can keep them on hand without picking every day. The vigorous vines set lots of fruit on long trusses and keep setting fruit throughout the summer. Quite heat tolerant. Vines are long and vigorous, so give the plant room to tumble over its cage. Tolerant to late blight. Resistant to early blight. One of the longest-lasting tomatoes in the garden.”

Bravo Juliet!  You rock! You can bet there will always be a Juliet in our garden.

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

My mother was the original master gardener. She may not have the formal certificate but she’s got street cred. Her vast garden fed a hungry family of eight year-round, and inspired a love of gardening in all six of her children.

Oh, we whined when we were sent out to weed, a never-ending task, and bickered among ourselves about who was slacking. Weeding eventually gave way to picking the day’s bounty. There’s nothing like eating a carrot just pulled from the soil, or splitting open the first peas and gobbling them on the spot. But shucking enough peas or stringing enough beans for our big family was hard work.  There were occasional benefits to having six children – and assigning the garden work to the child labor force was one of them.

Mom had a green thumb, and her bounty graced practically every meal put on the Johnson table. We ate fresh produce all summer and into the fall. She also ‘canned’ fruit and vegetables, a lost art. Her gorgeous produce lined the shelves of her basement pantry – hundreds of Mason jars that gleamed like jewels.  Ruby red beets, emerald beans and pickles, carrots, tomatoes.  Peaches, cherries, pears bought by the crate, patiently peeled, pitted, blanched and sealed into glass jars.

Mom’s garden was ringed with apple trees, so she canned and froze apples that provided an apple pie every Sunday until the next season rolled around. (Her flaky piecrust secret?  Pork lard. She would smile to know that lard and lardo are on every chic restaurant menu today.)

Mavis Johnson picking cherry tomatoes. Credit: Sara MacGregor

Once we settled down, the Johnson children eventually drifted back to their gardening roots. My brother in Minneapolis starts his seeds under grow lights when snow still covers the ground, lovingly tends his veg in terraced beds, and then gives away the harvest. Another brother is in pursuit of the hottest peppers on Earth, astonishing his sibs by chewing on pickled habaneros. Sis in Alaska gets “biggest veg” bragging rights, taking advantage of Alaska’s endless summer sun. San Diego sister has citrus trees of every color. And Oregon sister harvests “U-Pick” cherries and berries.

Dearest Mom: Thank you for giving us the lifelong gift of gardening.

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