Archives for posts with tag: gardens

I was weeding the garden (a never-ending task) when I heard the little critter: the unmistakable high-pitched whine of a mosquito. It was early morning and mosquitos are notorious at that hour in our garden plot. I looked at my exposed skin but didn’t see any skeeters settling in for breakfast. So back to work, silently cursing that I hadn’t spritzed myself with bug spray.

The buzz was insistent, and I kept looking for mosquitos to no avail. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something aloft about 50 yards away. It was a small drone, being flown by remote control by a man while his delighted young daughter chased it around.

Curious, I walked over and asked him a few questions. It had a wing span of 38 inches, he said, and could hold a 5-pound camera. He bought it online, and uses it to take video for television ads. He was practicing with a new remote control.Gadget Show

I found the drone online – it sells for $1,300. Amazing. I know drones are an exciting prospect for law enforcement and for commerce. The FAA has projected as many as 7,500 commercial drones may be in use by 2018, and the drone industry hypes that more than 100,000 drone-related jobs will be created in the next decade.

What began as a weapon of war, costing taxpayers $90 million for each of the most sophisticated killer drones, has morphed into an airborne videocam with unlimited domestic potential. I suppose we should be grateful to the military industrial complex for its ingenuity. But I can’t help but worry that if a guy can buzz my garden plot with such ease, what could a criminal or terrorist pull off?

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. 


America prides itself on being a melting pot, and my community garden is a tiny subset of that diversity. You can see it in the gardeners, and in what they grow.

Jose grows tomatoes, peppers and cilantro…and last year, some papaya. Bonnie, an Army officer, plants okra, a reflection of her southern roots. Brad, the “mayor” of our corner of the garden, has netted his berry bushes to keep the birds away from the precious fruit. Then there are the Jamaican women who weed their patch – planted wall to wall with fiery scotch bonnet peppers – with machetes. I kid you not.

Some gardeners tend their small square of earth with the devotion to detail that you find in English cottage gardens. Sally has rimmed her garden with rocks and planted flowers in the four corners. Her vegetables were sown straight and true with the help of bright red yarn stretched across the rows. A few plots over, Debbie has stationed a tall arch covered with flowering vines and placed raised beds at artful angles. Another gardener has placed a piece of iron sculpture amid the vegetables. (Attention Chris: add this to the list of focal points needed)

We have shared herbs and garlic and zucchini with our fellow gardeners, traded tips for keeping the evil Mexican beetles at bay, and bemoaned the lack of rain, or too much rain.

flagTo borrow a phrase from the Declaration of Independence, all gardeners are created equal — at least in our little corner of Chinquapin. Happy Fourth of July!

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


Who let Monsanto into the tomato patch?

There are millions of Americans who do not know what a real tomato tastes like. They think it’s the crunchy, flavorless rock-hard orb that appears in the supermarket – and your expensive restaurant salad or sandwich — for nine months of the year.

We’re savoring the last tomatoes of the gardening season, just as the Wall Street Journal published a whole section on “Innovations in Agriculture.” Which, because their primary market is Wall Street, means chemicals and genetic engineering.

WSJ’s history of tomatoes

I grew up on a farm, so I know the agricultural industrial complex has helped multiply yields on crops from soybeans to wheat – and helped feed the world. I draw the line at fresh vegetables for human consumption. Big Ag has created monster vegetables and fruits to withstand the trek from field to market. And we’re all the poorer for it.

Journalist Barry Estabrook blew the whistle on the tomato killers with his book, “Tomatoland: How modern industrial agriculture destroyed our most alluring fruit.”

He describes how tomato growers essentially bred the flavor out of tomatoes as a sacrifice to getting the tender fruit to market. That’s why you can buy tomatoes year-round. They may be hard as baseballs and utterly tasteless, but their red beauty draws consumers like Snow White to the poisoned apple. At least you won’t die from it.

Draw the line at the end of the season. Swear off tomatoes until the next season brings around locally grown tomatoes that taste like…well…tomatoes. LIke these last offerings from our garden we’re slicing into: juicy, sweet, glorious. Not for nothing are they called love apples.

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 gardener next door, Jose, mostly sticks to tomatoes, peppers and cilantro. This year he threw in a surprise. Tree-like plants with thick stalks that now stand as tall as me. We pondered the 4-5 inch light green things that grew from the stem. Mini-bananas? Nah, they never turned color. Plaintains? Didn’t seem right either.

Then we ran into Jose for the first time in weeks and pounced with our question: What the heck is that?



That made us laugh out loud. Papaya! Growing in Northern Virginia! Jose is from Central America and that’s what he likes, so that’s what he grew.

We’ve learned over the years that the gardeners of Chinquapin grow an infinite variety of plants. Figs. Okra. Kaboka squash.

Another mystery was solved earlier this summer. Year after year, one plot was planted entirely with habaneros. We wondered who could use so many of the scorching hot orange peppers? Did they sell them to restaurants? Then one evening we saw a woman weeding the peppers, with a 2-foot-long machete. Whack – take that, weed! We asked her what she did with all those habaneros. Cook with them, she said. That’s a spicy cook!

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 usually rely on our local farmers market for tomato plants. Vendors from Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah Valley offer scores of varietals, from hardy hybrids like Big Boy to heirlooms like German Johnson.

Then Greenstreet Gardens came to my neighborhood with a selection of the 175 (!) tomatoes grown on 55 acres in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. I felt like a kid in a candy store. So many choices, and just a little slice of community garden plot to plant.Our first year, CRR and I planted 13 different tomato varietals -– our friends and colleagues were deliriously happy with our excess but we vowed never again to over-plant. Now we’re at a manageable nine. But which nine?

We chose two Brandywines, as sturdy as the Pennsylvania Amish credited with its creation in the late 1800s. One is a traditional Brandywine; the other is Sudduth’s, a varietal traced to a Tennessee tomato lover. Then there’s the Old German (no, not a nickname for CRR), a Mennonite heirloom, yellow with red streaks, that produces fruit that range from one to two pounds. Each.

Tomato plants for sale

Tomato plants for sale

Another heirloom draws rapturous descriptions that would befit a fine Cabernet: rich, complex, almost smoky. That’s the Carbon, a nearly black tomato. For color contrast, we’ve got Orange Blossom, which is a baseball-sized orange globe.  Violet Jasper is red with purple and green streaks.

Juliet, a cherry tomato, will be the first to ripen. I can safely predict we will gobble down the first Juliets right there in the garden bed. It produces bright red fruit on grape-like clusters. Sixty days to tomato bliss, followed by several months of tomato nirvana, thanks to the fruit traced to the Peruvian desert and spread round the world by the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez.

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 love history and I love gardening. Which makes Virginia an absolutely wonderful place to live. You can get your garden inspiration from the Founding Fathers. I have one of George Washington’s favorite flowers gracing my patio, and a winterberry from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in our yard. Many of the historic estates have native plant sales, and April is prime time (see list below).

The lobelia cardinalis was one of Washington’s favorite plants, a brilliant red flower of the herbaceous family. After he returned from the Revolutionary War, Washington agonized over the plantings at Mount Vernon. The meticulously laid-out kitchen garden was, of course, essential to feeding the hundreds who lived at the estate. Washington rode horse across his 8,000-acre property every day, and noted plants and trees that he then transplanted around the mansion. He wrote to friends and relatives across the colonies and asked them to send native plants to diversify Mount Vernon, seeking what he called the “curious” and “exotic.”

Jefferson kept a lifelong Garden Book, meticulously listing vegetables, herbs, fruit trees and ornamental flowers. While serving as ambassador to France, Jefferson visited England and toured the great gardens of that country. Agog at the beauty of the British gardens, Jefferson scribbled lengthy lists and drawings. These ideas he brought home to design flowers and fauna for the 10,000 acres of Monticello. We have a winterberry from the estate, also known as a serviceberry, treasured for its red berried branches in cold months.

Go admire the gardens of these historic estates, and then plant a few flowers that remind you of the covenant between gardeners today and the Founding Fathers.

Mark your calendar:

  • Mount Vernon’s spring garden sale runs April 21 through May 20. It’s at the shop just outside the grounds, so you needn’t pay admission. It features flowers, herbs and vegetables grown at the estate.
  • Monticello has plants and heritage seeds at the gift shop.  There is also a special two-hour guided tour of the gardens that includes planting and sampling of spring vegetables. April 21 and 23, fee.
  • Another of Washington’s farms, River Farm in Alexandria, has a spring garden market April 13-14.
  • Many communities sponsor native plant sales. In Alexandria, the Parkfairfax neighborhood association brings in 14 vendors from Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. The sale is April 28.