Category Archives: front yard farm

Spring planting in Asheville, and another greens recipe

I’ve got the following growing outside in one of the raised beds.  On February 24th I planted the following cool-weather seeds from Sow True Seed:  Asian greens, buttercrunch lettuce, a lettuce mix, purple carrots, scarlet Nantes carrots, watermelon radish, and bulls’ blood beets.

Here’s what they looked like this morning:

A couple of friends have asked me what else is safe to plant from seed outside right now.   The Farmers’ Almanac has planting dates for Asheville listed in chart form. You can also check out the 2011 Planting Guide from Sow True Seed.

Note white PVC pipe. I spent an hour this morning painting it green to match the hoops over the other beds. Gardening vanity.

Another option is to buy cool-weather starts from a nursery center.  You can find all kinds of things right now, like lettuce, broccoli, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower….if you’d rather not wait for the seeds.  My husband bought some red onion sets, lettuce and broccoli starts at a garden center a few weeks ago so we’ve got those going in another one of the raised beds too.

Last year about this time I planted 8 Mary Washington asparagus crowns that are coming up now (although I won’t harvest any till next year….I was so tempted to harvest some of the early shoots, but Dad said it would weaken the plant).  I also planted seed potatoes last March in the beds, and also in some giant pots (that’s on my to-do list for this weekend).

My tomato, pepper, eggplant, tomatillo and epazote seeds are coming along well inside.  I’ve been transporting them outside on warmer days when the March winds aren’t wild like today.

The seedlings are resting happily on top of the radiator in the southern-facing window in my dining room.  I’ve got the trays sitting on top of old cookie sheets.

It’s cold enough today that the radiators have turned on a few times, warming up the potting soil — I hope it encourages some of the peppers to emerge, as I’ve yet to see any Pasillo, Marconi, or Pobanos coming up.

The pepper seedlings are reminding me of my pepper plants every year — they are always the last plants to produce in the garden.  It has to get really hot for a couple weeks for them to start getting peppers on their branches.



There’s still a fair amount of greens out in the beds, so I tried another recipe from the Natural Health Magazine article my neighbor gave me.  This one was “Warm Mustard Greens Salad”.  I used both the red mustard green leaves (really spicy) and the regular ol’ green ones.  










The dressing was lemon juice, honey, olive oil, salt & pepper, and water.  I used some of the honey I’d harvested recently.  So yum.  The other ingredients were:  fresh ginger, red onion, garbanzo beans, cumin, chili powder, shredded carrot and feta cheese.

What a great salad — it was like eating wasabi in leaf form, with the bite and spice tempered by the garbanzos, carrots and feta.  Some of the heat came from the chili powder (it was just a half teaspoon but it had chipotle peppers in it too), but it was mainly from the mustard greens themselves.

Growing up in the South, my only experience with mustard greens was cooked (and cooked and cooked) along with some kind of fatback.  I love most other greens cooked, especially collards, but I never learned to love cooked mustard greens.  I think it was a combo of a texture issue (soggy) and bitter taste.

After finding this recipe, I’ve made peace with mustards.  Now, if you’re not into spicy, be warned that this salad indeed has a kick, but it sure is good (or as my Mississippi-raised grandmother would have said, “Shuh ’nuff”, although I’m sure she would’ve thought raw mustard greens blasphemous).


Toddler gardeners

I’ve found a redeeming quality to the repulsive-looking, destructive garden pests that live in the soil of my raised beds.  Instead of seeing them as existing only to destroy my plants, I now realize that they can hold the attention of even the most distractible toddler.  Even my younger boy has fantastic bug-hunting skills that can be put to use in our garden.

We found dozens of these while digging in the beds, preparing to plant seeds last week:

I think they are some kind of beetle larvae, and I’ve been told they eat the roots of plants, so I don’t feel too badly that I let my boys make a corral for them and play with them till they expired in the sunlight (these grubs don’t last too long above ground).  I saw a mockingbird having an absolute feast on them later after we’d gone back inside.

My older boy had taken great delight in helping me pick them out of the newly-turned soil, and it definitely made it less of a chore for me as we were working together.

These grubs – and most other garden pests – don’t bother me as badly as slugs, maybe because I’ve never seen them destroy a bunch of seedlings the way a couple of slugs can in one spring night.  My boys love to slug hunt….we also hunt by turning over rocks and asking “Any buggy home?”

They love it — we find slugs, roly-polys, crickets, ants and the occasional big hairy spider.  (One afternoon last month, they were supremely entertained when I went to pick up a cricket for them, but instead, when I opened up my hand for them to see, there was a large spider. I screamed and tossed it somewhere, then started thrashing about thinking I’d flung it up in my hair — ewww, shiver — I’m glad at least they thought it was funny).

I do feel kind of badly about squishing the slugs in front of the boys, and they’re not quite old enough to understand WHY exactly they’re bad for the garden, so usually I toss the slugs out in the road while the guys aren’t looking and let the heat of the asphalt and/or passing cars do the job for me.

Another great addition to our garden this spring is the low treehouse my husband and brother built right next to the raised beds.  It’s in an old magnolia tree, and it’s not too high up, so they can get up and down fairly easily without us worrying about them tumbling out.

I also enlisted my older boy in planting some seeds indoors with me this afternoon.  I tried using the little peat pellets, as they looked like something inviting for a 4-year old.  Add water and watch them grow instantly!

Watering peat pellets

How perfect….sure enough, he loved watering them and watching me plant seeds (the tomato, pepper, and especially the epazote seeds were too small for his fingers to handle — the beet and radish seeds are more his size, and later in the season he’ll be able to plant bigger seeds like squash, beans, and sunflowers).

Tiny epazote seeds


Mid March, Blue Ridge

Friday morning, just 3 days ago, it was snowing and really windy.  There wasn’t much accumulation but there were a few cars driving around with an inch or so piled up on the windshield wipers.  And the wind….whew!  It made all the bee equipment drying on the back porch go skittering and tumbling.

For the garden, it meant battening down the plastic on my new hoophouse (top right in photo). Three of the beds are already covered with clear vinyl over the pvc hoop frames, and that vinyl is secured to the hoops with zip ties.

One problem with the zip ties is that if I want to undo them I have to cut them.  In a sense, they’re permanent.  It’s worked fine for winter when I didn’t really need to do any uncovering, but now that I’ve got this new covered bed with recently-planted seeds, I need something more temporary with spring coming on.

Here’s where the internet comes in handy when gardening.  I googled “clips for pvc hoops raised beds”. Sure enough, I found a great idea from Dropstone Farm (way out in Washington State).  Jumbo binder clips!  Then I found some by digging through the junk drawer and a pile of my husband’s office stuff, and got him to bring a few more home.

After such a blustery cold day, we were skeptical that Saturday would be up in the 60s as forecasted, but sure enough, it was a most glorious day, and I was able to easily take the binder clips off and let the new seedlings get some rays.

I also got my first sunburn of the season sitting on the front porch planting seeds in trays:

Sow True Seed, off to a sunny start today

I found my favorite tomatoes in the whole world — Amish Paste — in the Sow True Seed rack at the North Asheville Ace Hardware.  I got those started, along with some Mortgage Lifters, and some cherry tomatoes.  I got jalapenos and a couple sweet pepper varieties going and an heirloom Asian eggplant variety (I got into making baba ganouj last summer….)

A note on seed starting: with my kids being so little, I’d skipped the seed starting part of gardening the past few years in an effort to make it simpler because my time was limited.

During that time, I had also forgotten that potting soil mix has a *very* annoying water-repellent quality. And, obviously, wet soil is important for seed starting….

Since I’d thrown out all my old plastic cells in a basement purge, I needed some containers and opted to buy trays that were pre-filled with potting mix.  Ugh.  The water floated on top and it was impossible to stir it around, so I ended up dumping the soil out and mixing it by hand in a bowl, then putting it back in the trays, then planting the seeds.

I’ve not ever tried those peat pellets — I’m curious as to whether they work, might try them on the next round of seed starting.

The rest of this sunny warm weekend included a pasta dinner. James made the sauce from our spinach, some of last summer’s frozen peppers, and stewed tomatoes (we’re down to the last couple quarts in the freezer).  Yummmmm….

I also picked some chives and cilantro to mix in with a tuna salad for lunch yesterday:


And to ward off weeds growing up around the raised beds, I went to the recycling drop-off center and picked up a bunch of cardboard boxes, laid them out flat and covered them with straw.  That worked so well last summer — it not only kept the weeds down but helped keep the paths from getting mud bogged.

At the recycling place, I kind of felt like I was reverting to post-college dumpster-diving days (I was a minor-leaguer, only got magazines from the recycling bins). I was feeling conspicuous, felt like I was a little too old and not hipster enough to be doing that anymore.

I’m also a little self-conscious about getting stuff out of the recycling as my mom likes to find and “save” stuff (on a large scale — she found and got somebody to fish a stove out of a dumpster once — long story).


Sadie and Buster thought I’d put the straw out especially for them.  They found new napping spots within minutes of my scattering the straw over the cardboard.  The boys were also drawn to it, scooting the straw around with their tonka tractors.

And of course, cardboard boxes are the best toys…they ended up putting one long one over the rock steps in the backyard and turning it into a slide.


The end of the overwintered dinosaur kale

I love dinosaur kale.  I really love it when I don’t have to pick off the cabbage worms that like to live on it when the temps are a little warmer.  It also looks so nice before they eat holes in it. (Dang cabbage worms).

James suggested I pick a few leaves of it out of the garden for something he was cooking a couple nights ago.

When I came back in with two whole plants he wondered why I’d pulled them up.  Well, it’s getting just warm enough that they’re starting to bolt, so I figured we should just go on and eat them before they get bitter.

He said (more than once) that was way too much dinosaur kale for what he was making, but he was just forgetting how leafy greens cook down from mountain to cupful in a matter of minutes.

Anyway, here’s what he created with the kale, some of our frozen stewed tomatoes and a dried cayenne pepper from last summer, diced chicken breast, a couple heads of garlic and an onion….

So good!!

Here are some pics of what’s happening with the other overwintered greens….I’ll be pulling them up in the next few days, making room for more early spring seeds…..

Arugula is flowering. Mizuna getting big with a *major* bite.

Tatsoi bolted and flowering

Spinach is really going strong now (on left)


Honey harvest

One thing about taking pictures for my blog is that my camera phone gets a little dirty.  I’m writing about gardening and composting, so when I take photos to put in a post, my hands have usually been in the dirt or I’ve been wrangling a muddy toddler.

Yesterday I took my first venture into the world of beekeeping: I harvested 10 racks of honey from my brother’s hive in his yard. Now that was a challenge — trying to take pictures while working with honey. Not to mention that was my first time doing this, and by myself too. My 4 year old was keenly interested, but mainly in eating the honey. (Fortunately for my beginner-beekeeping self, there were no live bees involved — it was just a box of racks full of honey.)

Consequently, my phone got pretty sticky as I was trying to capture some images of the whole process. And the honey can be found in various places in our house, from the front porch to my 4 year old’s forehead.

My brother showed me the basics of how to get the honey from the rack, then left me to figure it out by myself.   So, from here on, remember that I’m no expert, and that there might have been easier (and more correct) ways to do what I did:

First, I used an electric hot knife to remove (“de-cap”) the wax covering the honeycomb cells:

The left side of the rack shows the cells that still have the wax caps.  The right side is where I just made a swath through with the hot knife and honey is exposed.  (You can also see where the honey kind of “cooked” on the blade and turned brown.   I don’t know if it was supposed to do this, like maybe I should have been wiping the honey from the blade while working —  it didn’t affect the outcome but it will be a pain to clean I’m sure.)

**Note — the above tool is a hot. knife.  My thumb will attest to that.  A burn/cut combo. Ow.  It was a scary enough tool that even my boys wouldn’t get near it, and they’re usually attracted to anything electric, sharp, and/or poisonous.

Spinning honey on front porch

Two uncapped racks went into the extractor at a time.  I turned the handle and it spun the racks (they were in a cage-like contraption inside).  It took about 10-15 minutes of spinning per set to get the honey out.

Something I’ve learned about gardening in the front yard is that it’s much more social than back-yard gardening:

When I had the extractor on the front porch, my neighbor’s landscaper, Shylock, came over to check it out. Shylock is from Zimbabwe, and he told me how he and his brothers get honey from hives in the woods there.  Getting honey from a wild hive is a whole ‘nother ball of wax (couldn’t resist)….I like the idea of bee boxes and protective bee suits myself, but it was truly fascinating to hear him tell about it.

When they were all done, I brought the extractor inside to sit on the radiator.  The warmth of the radiator made the honey less viscous so it flowed better when it was time to strain it.

It also made our house smell deliciously of honey.



Our resident Pooh bear was right by my side once the honey started flowing:  He eats a peanut butter and honey sandwich *every* day for lunch.  He’d love to be able to live on honey alone.

After all the honey went through the strainer and into the 5-gallon bucket, then it was time to put it into jars.



My brother’s amazing sense of timing brought him back to the house right when I was starting this part — or as he described it, “the fun part”.  Knowing that I have a touch of adult ADD and am a little klutzy (both amplified when toddlers are around) he kindly reminded me that it was *really* important to keep an eye on the honey filling the jar — not fun when it overflows.

I am proud to say that I had no spills — amazing for me!  Here’s the beginnings of what we got: 

Its flavor is just perfect…it is flowery and light.  I have been eating straight spoonfuls of it and can’t stop.

I used random left-over jars so there were 3 different sizes, but we ended up with 10 pints, 3 half-pints, and 4 4-oz. jars.  If my math is correct that’s over a gallon of honey….

And one very happy resident Pooh bear.


Appalachian Spring

It’s here!

And it’s so tempting to think that the snows and hard freezes are over till next winter.  There’s no reason not to be excited though, it’s just the reality of springtime in the Blue Ridge.  I’ve been especially happy seeing all the new things popping up around the yard, in the raised beds, and around town.

I planted my first asparagus plants last year.   I planted about 20 crowns and they produced great-big, feathery plants by the end of summer.  They’re not in my raised beds but instead in a bed right next to our front porch, sharing space with herbs.   Here’s what started breaking through last week:

Mary Washington asparagus

When they first start to emerge just above the soil line, they are really white.  My older son was worried the first time I pointed one out to him:  he was sure it was one of the white grubs that keep turning up in his shovelfuls of dirt when he’s playing in the garden.  (Funny, he loves slugs but is repulsed by the grubs).

Here are some of my Sow True seeds that I planted a week ago in one of the raised beds –woo-hoo!

Asian Greens

The cabbages are just about done, so I picked two heads……

and they were the starring ingredient in this stir-fry tonight.









It was nice to get them out of the garden — there’s all kinds of space that opened up for some new seeds and plants.   A note about growing cabbages (and collards, broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts):  they take up alot of room in raised beds, even when you plant them fairly close together.  The ones above each had a “footprint” about 2 feet around.  I like cabbage but there are other plants I like better that take up less room.  Will have to think about that when I plant my fall garden…..

Here’s a spectacular tree that my boys and I saw on our late-afternoon walk today.


Trading greens for gold

……*black* gold, that is.  Our compost piles have needed manure.  My dad still marvels at the heat produced by the compost pile in our backyard when I was a child. He says it’s the horse manure he used to mix in there.

He’d put a couple cardboard boxes in the back of mom’s station wagon, drive to the horse stables near our house, and shovel them full of horse poop.  I only went with him once because I saw a girl there from my school riding her gorgeous Arabian around the ring;  I was riding along in the 1978 Chrysler station wagon picking up horse manure.

I can do stuff like that now with my boys because they’re toddlers and their parental embarrassment gene hasn’t switched on yet.

I felt like I was repeating family history today.  Toddlers in tow,  I drove to my friend Anne’s house a few blocks away in our Honda Odyssey (can’t bring myself to say “van”) and picked up a couple big bags of chicken manure:

As thanks,  I gave her a bag of greens and spinach I’d picked this morning.


Anne has four Rhode Island Reds in her Asheville yard, a block or so from the university.  The hens have a cool pyramid-shaped coop built by her son-in-law (who also happens to be my MyGyver-esque, engineer next-door neighbor.)



Anne raised these girls from chicks.  They are so healthy and happy, averaging an egg a day each: 

Here’s my younger boy feeding the hens some grapes.

Thanks for the eggs, Anne!!

I can tell Anne loves these hens, and also loves teaching kids about them (her grandkids love them too!)

Anne is currently re-doing her chicken “run” so they can get out and roam and scratch safely. Even with that, a small flock like hers doesn’t require a whole lot of yard room, and they do just fine living among us in the city limits.  There’s a fair amount of Asheville city chickens around– check out Asheville City Chickens on Facebook: or

Oh, and the chicken manure is now in my compost tumbler….thanks Anne!



Bee burial

Don't worry, they're not alive!

My dad and brother started keeping bees in our backyard when I was about 14 years old.  Beehives and the associated tending were not high on my priority list at the time.   The bees were mainly a source of entertainment to me at that age — not of the “oh that’s so cool” kind, but of the “Oh Hey!  Check it out — I think the bees are chasing Dad!”   Oh teen humor.

Well, my dad and brother are still keeping bees in their respective back yards, 20 some-odd years later.  Today my brother suggested it’s high time for me to have my own hive.  He has a couple hives in his backyard, about a half-mile from downtown Asheville, said he could help me get set up and even offered to do the tending.  Wow!

Now, with two toddlers who are always in the yard, I’m a little hesitant, but I think we’re going to give it a try, make the hive far enough off the ground that the bees’ flight path is out of range of my little fellas. Maybe on a platform.  We’ll see…

Anyway, through the years I’ve always noticed that to my brother, father, and beekeeper friends, the bees are not just a mass of stinging insects that happen to produce one of the most divine substances ever, but they’re also something else to them, I can’t quite place it.  They love bees, their tenacity and amazing productivity despite being robbed occasionally by humans of their hard-earned honey. They are indeed amazing creatures.

Listen to a beekeeper talk about their bees and you’ll pick up on it.  It subtle, not exactly like a person talks affectionately about a pet, but it’s a little like that.  A friend of ours went to a beekeeper’s meeting years ago, and he asked the group a question about a hive of his that had died after some particularly wet weather.  One of the old-timers spoke up indignantly, almost accusingly, as if Jack had failed as a bee parent:  “You drowned them bees!!”


Dearly departed

Today my brother brought the remnants of a failed hive to my house.   He wanted to put the dead bees in my compost pile.   He wasn’t sure what was their ultimate demise, but he was definitely somber and a little quiet about it.   It was almost funereal as he unloaded the white square box containing the hives from his truck, pulled out the racks and held handfuls of the dead creatures in his hands.  He looked at them as he held them in his hands and said “they were really good workers…..”.  I sensed that he was feeling some guilt, like he could have saved them.

My almost-4 year old and our almost-5 year old neighbor were intrigued.  My son picked up a few of the light, fuzzy little bees and checked them out.  The neighbor girl was wary, not sure if they were indeed incapable of stinging, so she observed.  Intently.


Shaking the bees off the honeycomb

Next we took the hive  to the compost pile and started shaking the bees off the racks.  I swear, I felt like it was a burial.  My brother kept saying that dead bees in compost were really good fertilizer, but I wonder if he was also thinking that they were going to continue working, feeding the dirt as they faded away.  A proper burial of sorts.  At least I was thinking that.  Busy bees, working on into their apiarian afterlives via the compost pile.

Then the party started.  I found a small area of honeycomb, still full of honey.  It was some of the best honey I’ve ever tasted.  My son dug right in, beeswax and all.  He’s got some Pooh Bear in him.  Never met a PB&Honey sandwich he didn’t devour.


Continuing with the celebration of the bees’ life, the neighbor girl said, “We should thank the dead bees for the honey.”  Not in a sentimental way, just using good manners, reminding us why were were all gathered in the garden right then….

I called Dad tonight and told him we put the bees in the compost pile.  His first comment was, “Did you notice how they’d all died facing the queen?”  I told him we didn’t see the queen….but I realized he was trying to impart some of that beekeeper sense to me that I’m still trying to understand. “Didn’t you see how they were in the exact same spot on each rack, the exact pattern?”

It’s beyond anthropomorphizing, what beekeepers do when they talk about their bees.  It’s big respect for these tiny creatures who, despite being — well, insects — behave as though they know an awful lot.










Rough winter. No worries, it’s all green!

Winter blues don’t stand a chance on days I harvest hardy greens to go with dinner. Here are the starring ingredients in our winter salads, clockwise from top left:

Mizuna: textured like frissee, not too bitter, mustardy and a little spicy

Spinach (Bloomsdale):  thick leaves but tender and mellow

Arugula:  rich and spicy

Cilantro:  no wonder these guys always go to seed mid-May…they were happy as clams through the winter and are going strong in the covered beds right now.  I love to toss a few sprigs in with my salads, adds a nice contrast.

Cress:  whoo-wee, spicy  — but so good!  And one of the loveliest rows in my raised beds.

Toss them all together with just about any kind of salad dressing….YUM!   These salads can stand even the most outrageously bold dressing (a la roquefort or something really garlicky) and still hold their own flavor-wise.  But I personally like them with a balsamic vinaigrette.

While I’m crunching away, I can’t help but think of the super vitamins I’m getting from such dark leafy veggies, especially when the toddlers are toting in all kinds of icky viruses this time of year.

I’m sad thinking about these greens going to seed in a couple months, but I’m encouraged by the thought of late-spring salads coming in.  In that spirit, I planted about 20 romaine starts a few days ago.  This is the earliest I’ve ever tried putting them out, but it’s also the first time I’ve had covered raised beds, so we’ll see if they make it through the inevitable final hurrahs of winter:



Raised bed covers=mini greenhouses

I googled “raised bed covers” and “hoop houses”  at the first hint of cold last fall.  There were lots of great ideas online, but my biggest help was my McGyver-esque neighbor (who’s also an engineer/carpenter).

“McGyver” took one look at my raised beds and replicated them perfectly – from scratch.  I, on the other hand, had ordered mine online…having two kids under 3 plus cavewoman-like carpentry skills and a dear husband who’s about as talented in that department as I am…well, you get the picture.  Then McG built a PVC frame and covered it with chicken wire to keep critters out of their plants.  (We have two Jack Russell terriers who are very effective at keeping those kinds of pests out, so I really just wanted a frame for a cold-weather cover.)


Clamp (next to some kind of plumbing thing that broke, wrong kind)

So, materials and technique as I learned from dear neighbor:  1/2 inch PVC pipe;  plumbing pipe clamps (both the plastic and the copper kinds…they didn’t have enough plastic in stock at Lowe’s so I got the copper too).  The clamps screwed right into the interior wall of the beds.  I used a random hand saw to cut the pipe down to 6 ft. (the beds are 4ft. wide).

I really didn’t measure the distance between each pvc-length (now “hoop”)….I just kind of eyeballed it and used the good-ol measuring-by-footstep technique (the one I use when I don’t want to go back inside the house and scrounge for the tape measure for fear of waking up sleeping tots).

It took me a few afternoons to cut, bend, and attach the PVC pipes, turning them into the skeleton of my mini-greenhouses.  After I’d finished, I stood back and looked at my work, and I was reminded of a big whale skeleton, or dinosaur bones.  All that white pipe, couldn’t stand it.  (OK OK I’m particular).

I remembered that can of green fence paint in the basement from a birdhouse-pole project of my husband’s (don’t ask).  Anyway, I spent the next afternoon or two painting all the pipes, all 15 of them.  Total pain, but now my garden doesn’t look like an outdoor paleontology exhibit.

With the structure in place, I was determined to find the clearest plastic I could find.  I really wanted something clear so I could see my plants (yes, I wanted it to look good too).  I went to all the big home improvement stores, hardware stores, garden centers and even a paint store to find this elusive clear plastic.  None to be found.  More googling and I found VINYL.  Sweet.  

You can’t buy vinyl at any of the above venues, but I found some at our local Foam & Fabric store.  I bought a whole roll of the mid-weight (8 mil maybe?) and it was just enough to cover my 4ftx4ft bed, and two of the 12ftx4ft beds.  I used zip ties to attach it to the frames, and they have held up surprisingly well throughout the winter and its temps and winds.

In order to make the beds accessible, I divided the lengths of vinyl in half and nailed the bottom part (with old roofing nails) to scrap pieces of wood:  that makes it easier to lift up the vinyl in one piece, especially when it’s really cold.


Vinyl is tough to deal with when it’s colder than 45f or so.  It becomes less pliable the colder the temp, and therefore it’s more of a pain to open and close the “windows” on the frames.  But hey, beauty has its price.


And vinyl sheeting met the criteria:  functional + not ugly, and most importantly, we’ve been loving all kinds of greens all winter!

My best helper covering the small bed for the night


Checking out the cabbages





%d bloggers like this: