Delaware Botanic Gardens Unveiling

Walking into the Delaware Botanic Garden on a sizzling hot morning in August, the first thing that I spotted was a a bright orange-painted box turtle scurrying down the pathway into the shelter of a nearby log. Being greeted by wildlife is typical at the soon-to-be-opened  37-acre Botanic Gardens that is located on the shores of Pepper Creek in coastal Delmarva, and is teeming with native flora and fauna.

Following closely the goings-on’s at the new Delaware Botanic Gardens at Peppercreek (DBG) has been my mission for the past four years. Lots of buzz drew me to the Delaware beaches with the founding and formation of a brand new world class botanic garden close to home near where I vacation every year. Go to Taking Root: Delaware Botanic Garden’s Progress and Delaware Botanic Gardens-From the Ground Up to see my previous posts.  The DBG is almost at the long anticipated curtain time and the grand opening is on September 12.

Lots of happenings have led up to this grand opening and one of the most momentous was the selection of a new Deputy Executive Director and Director of Horticulture. Transitioning from building a public garden to operating one, will be the new job of Dr Brian Trader, lately of Longwood Gardens and a Delmarva native. I met Brian when he had only been on the job for a few weeks and he seemed enthusiastic and very knowledgeable about the challenges ahead of him. And welcoming! That doesn’t describe adequately how friendly and accommodating he was in greeting my group and I, who dropped in with very little notice.

Brian Trader and I enjoying the woodland garden on a hot humid day
From left to right, Brent Baker, Communications Director, Brian Trader, new Deputy Executive Director, Raymond Sander,  Board President, and Sheryl Swed, Executive Director of the gardens board of directors
Aerial view of the showpiece meadow garden early in the season designed by Piet Oudolf; image courtesy of the DBG
Cardinal flower in meadow with yellow sulphur butterfly, photo by Amy Sparwasser


Since touring the gardens last year at this time- buildings, gardens, and other visible improvements have sprung up. The Meadow Garden designed by Dutch Plantsman Piet Oudolf was planted in stages with the oldest parts planted three seasons ago and plants have matured and filled in. Some plants didn’t make it like hundreds of ‘Blond Ambition’,  Bouteloua gracilis, and were replaced with ‘Black Mountain Grass’, Andropogon.

Many of the ‘Blond Ambition’ grasses didn’t make it

Also heavy rains damaged part of the meadow, but this has all been repaired. Of course weeding is a constant. But it looked like the weed situation was under control and not as bad as last year with so much Dog Fennel, Eupatorium capillfolium, coming up everywhere. Volunteers are still the driving force behind the gardens, involved in every facet of the plantings, and maintenance.

Don Klima, a volunteer from early days at DBG, weeding in the meadow garden on a brutally hot day in August

Welcome Center

A new cedar Welcome Center has been built with lots of financial support from the local business community, and it has already been open for visitors for special events. At the entrance to the garden, specifically the meadow garden, the Welcome Center greets visitors with a perfectly framed expanse of meadow. The location is designed to usher in visitors with a bang, directly into the showpiece meadow garden.

The Welcome Center drops you directly into the Meadow Garden
Inside the new Welcome Center

Blueberry Bonanza

A major project was the planting of 1,824 low bush blueberry plants by volunteers in May. Planted around the Dogfish Head Brewery Learning Garden, the blueberries are designed to stabilize the dunes and be a wildlife resource.

Blueberries were planted around the Dogfish Head Learning Garden

Meadow Progress
The first change I noticed about the meadow was the stone dust pathways. This grey crushed fine stone was laid down and tamped firmly in place and makes a nice framework for all the meadow beds. I liked it so much I might use it in some of my landscape projects! Edged with a steel edge, the crushed stone will be kept in place from migrating into the meadow beds.

Stone dust pathway

Over 70,000 herbaceous perennials and grasses are represented in the meadow garden and the lists can be seen at The Delaware Botanic Gardens Plant List.

Closed Bottle Gentian was a nice surprise in the meadow
In the meadow, photo by Amy Sparwasser

The meadow garden was designed to support countless pollinators, butterflies, birds, and other insects. Located in the Atlantic Flyway, birds will benefit greatly from these plantings that support so many insects. A bird watching destination, the meadow will draw birds from all over.

A new plant for me, Salvia azurea ‘Nekan’ was glorious in the meadow
Meadow expanse in August
The butterflies were abundant everywhere
Meadow, by Amy Sparwasser
Liatris makes a statement even after finished blooming
Liatris in meadow
Calamintha in meadow spilling over pathway

Folly Garden

Brent & Becky’s Bulbs of Gloucester, VA, donated a large collection of spring-blooming bulbs that were planted  by volunteers in the Folly Garden which had many bulbs already in place. When this garden blooms in the spring, with the addition of these bulbs, it will be a show-stopper in the spring. Go to YouTube to see a video of it this past spring. The original bulbs were from the Philadelphia Flower Show of an award winning exhibit, and include species crocus, anemones, snowdrops, netted iris, squills, and daffodils, both mini and full size.

Crevice Garden

In the center of the Folly is a crevice garden that is planted with many of the bulbs and includes plants that need good drainage like agaves.



The Anderson Holly Collection 

Every major Botanical Gardens has  a concentration of a particular plant variety, and it is appropriate for the DBG to have started with a wonderful holly collection. Donated by Charles Anderson, a long time member of the Holly Society of America, he collected more than 120 cultivars of holly at his property outside of Baltimore, MD. Mr Anderson donated almost a quarter of his collection of both deciduous and evergreen hollies to the DBG  and they are scattered along the pathways where you can easily see them, continuing his educational mission.

One of the Anderson Hollies

The Woodland Garden

The Woodland Garden is unique in being a shoreline coastal garden. an exceptional coastal plain environment for teaching and learning about nature and a place of exceptional beauty.

Nyssa trees line the shoreline and were starting to turn

Featuring plants from the native coastal plain, the garden’s most restful and unique feature is a undisturbed forest that slopes down to the 1,000 foot frontage on Pepper Creek. Forested wetlands showcase mosses, ferns, and wildlife that live here, such as abundant birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Salamanders. frogs, toads, lizards, and snakes thrive in this moist habitat, some of them endangered. Plantings continue in this area with natives that enjoy this unique acidic environment.

Vernal ponds or ephemeral pools, are seasonal pools of water that provide habitat for distinctive plants and animals
An old wooden fishing boat was uncovered and will be left as an artifact
Frontage of Pepper Creek

I was very impressed with the western edge of the Woodland Garden which was planted by Girl Scout Troop 20566 of York, PA, with over 500 plants and 4 Red Bud trees. Co-troop leader Wendy Brister’s girls raised money by selling native plants to buy all these new plantings, and were inspired and learned about the importance of pollinators in the native ecosystem. A great project!

Woodland edge has been planted by Wendy Brister’s Girl Scout troop located in York, PA
Woodland edge

What’s Next?

An adjacent large property has 250+ year old cypresses growing, and seed has been collected from these trees. Mt Cuba is in the process of germinating them for future plantings at DBG. The property is also for sale but beyond the means of funds of the DBG, which will have a major impact on the gardens if they are developed.

Shoreline at DBG


The educational mission is paramount for the gardens and outreach continues with all ages welcome. Partnerships with local businesses continues with community colleges and universities partnerships being explored. Promoting horticulture as a career with students from preschool up is part of the mission with emphasis on the learning garden, and outdoor educational classes. Art in the landscape, bird watching, special events, and weddings in the gardens are all things that people will be able to enjoy at DBG. To continue this mission, go to Delaware Botanic Gardens and make a donation or volunteer.

One of the inland dunes at DBG
Meadow, by Amy Sparwasser



Coffee Ground Science for Plants

If you start the day with a steaming hot cup of java, you’re not alone. Americans drink 700 million cups of coffee per day, and we create tons of coffee grounds in the process. Instead of throwing coffee grounds in the trash, why not put them to use in the garden? While there are plenty of uses for coffee grounds, they’re a secret weapon to help grow a beautiful garden. However, some of the advice you’ve read about using them may be wrong. Let’s dive into the research about the best (and worst) way to use coffee grounds to help plants grow.

I save all my coffee grounds
I save all my coffee grounds

Are coffee grounds good for plants?
Coffee grounds provide phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and copper to growing plants. Moreover, as grounds biodegrade they release nitrogen, a vital element essential for plant growth. (A cubic yard of coffee grounds contains 10.31 pounds of nitrogen, according to an analysis done by Sunset Magazine.)

However, many people misunderstand how to recycle coffee grounds in the garden. Some blogs and articles advise gardeners to work coffee grounds into garden soil to feed plants, but research suggests this practice may inhibit the growth of many plants.

In one study, coffee grounds were mixed with urban agricultural soil in different concentrations. Every concentration level decreased the growth of five plants: broccoli, leek, radish, viola, and sunflower. Coffee grounds have also inhibited the growth of Chinese mustard, geranium, and other plants.

London botanist James Wong conducted his own experiment by planting two identical gardens of tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, and flowers. He used coffee as fertilizer in one bed and the results were disastrous. “The crop yield and growth of pretty much everything in the coffee bed became noticeably worse within about two weeks of application,” he writes. “Plant growth slowed, some developed leaf yellowing, others defoliated and died.” It may be the caffeine or phytotoxins in coffee grounds that stunt plant growth.

Hydrangeas benefit from coffee grounds
Hydrangeas benefit from coffee grounds

But to confuse the matter, a few plants may get a boost from coffee grounds. Coffee grounds may aid the germination of sugar beet seeds and the growth of soybeans and cabbage, according to Linda Chalker-Scott, a certified Master Gardener and professor at Washington State University.

What’s a gardener to do with this conflicting information? Many horticulture experts advise against working coffee grounds directly into garden soil. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use them. There are two effective ways to use spent coffee grounds to grow beautiful plants.

Click to Enlarge Image


Perk Up a Compost Pile
Coffee grounds add nutrients to a compost pile. Moreover, they help a compost pile sustain the high temperatures needed to kill weed seeds and pathogens. Informal research conducted by the Oregon State University Extension Service suggests coffee grounds can keep compost temperatures between 135°F and 155°F for two weeks. That’s long enough to kill significant amounts of weed seeds and pathogens. Moreover, coffee grounds compost sustained more heat than animal manure in the trials.

Ready to transform coffee grounds into a nutritious soil amendment? It’s easy! (If you’ve never composted, choose a compost bin, and get started.) The basic concept of composting is to layer nitrogen-rich materials—including coffee grounds, grass clippings, and fruit and veggie scraps—with carbon-rich materials, such as dry leaves, straw, twigs, and sawdust.

Compost bins come in all sizes and shapes
Compost bins come in all sizes and shapes

Here’s how to:

Start a pile by laying a generous layer of carbon-rich materials on the bottom.
Add a thin layer of cooled coffee grounds on top. If desired, mix coffee grounds with other nitrogen-rich materials, such as fruit and veggie scraps or grass clippings.
Cover the nitrogen-rich layer with a generous layer of carbon-rich materials.
Repeat the process, aiming for a ratio of one part nitrogen-rich materials to three parts carbon-rich materials.
Repeat the process, aiming for a ratio of one part nitrogen-rich materials to three parts carbon-rich materials.
Coffee grounds should make up between 10 and 25 percent of the total volume of compost. Composting usually takes a few months, but it may take longer depending on the mix of materials, moisture content, and other factors. You’ll know it’s done when it’s dark brown and smells like earth. Work the finished compost into the top three to four inches of garden soil to add organic matter and nutrients, and improve the soil structure.

Benefits of composting
Benefits of composting

Mulch Acid-Loving Plants
Perhaps you’ve heard coffee grounds acidify soil for plants that prefer a low pH. It’s true; coffee grounds can be acidic, and many plants prefer acidic soil. Those include:


Blueberries benefit from acid soil
Blueberries benefit from acid soil

There’s one problem though: It’s hard to know the pH of coffee grounds without testing them because acidity leeches out of coffee beans during the brewing process. In experiments, some spent coffee grounds are highly acidic, some are neutral, and some are even alkaline. Thus, coffee grounds may help acidify soil, but they won’t predictably do so.

Coffee grounds may offer other benefits though. As mentioned, they supply nitrogen and other nutrients to soil. Moreover, they may deter the growth of weeds. In one study, a mulch made of coffee grounds completely controlled weed growth around blueberry plants when used in combination with a weed mat (a barrier material that blocks weeds).

Bottom line? Experience is the best teacher in the garden. It won’t hurt to try using coffee grounds as a mulch around acid-loving plants, and it may benefit the plants. Follow these steps:

Apply mulch in the spring after the soil warms up, and then again in the fall.
Sprinkle a half inch or less of coffee grounds onto the top of the soil around the plants, keeping grounds away from the roots.
Cover the coffee grounds with a generous layer of dry leaves or bark mulch.
Drink Up!
The waste from your favorite morning beverage can help grow healthy plants in the garden. Be cautious about working coffee grounds directly into garden soil as a fertilizer. Instead, add them to a compost pile or use them as a mulch around acid-loving plants.

Shoveling out my rich compost and adding it to the garden
Shoveling out my rich compost and adding it to the garden

Spinning Honey

Setting up the extractor which looks like a large metal trashcan in my potting shed

Big Event

It happens every August – honey extraction! After babying the bees, feeding, monitoring, re-queening, splitting, and just plain worrying about them, now is the moment of truth.  How much honey did they deposit in the combs for me to rob from them? I won’t leave you in suspense – I extracted 50 pounds from one of my three hives. Two were Nucs and one was a package. Go to A Bee Nuc or Package to see the difference and advantages. The other hives didn’t have enough to extract as the bees need collected honey to survive the winter.

Bee package which includes a queen and 12,000 to 15, 000 bees as a starter
Bee package which includes a queen and 12,000 to 15, 000 bees as a starter

My two nucs and one package were humming along with our wet weather bringing on a consistent supply of nectar. It is always an anti-climax when we finally remove and extract – kind of like Christmas – lots of build up and anticipation, and then it is over very quickly and we are mopping up the mess.

Installing a Nuc involves transferring frames from a working mini hive into a larger hive body home
A Nuc is a miniature working hive


After removing the bees, see Robbing the Bees-A Honey of a Day to see how to do this tricky part, we are ready to spin out the honey.

A perfect capped frame of honey
A perfect capped frame of honey

To remove the wax cappings, a heated knife is used to melt away the wax and a fork that looks like a hair pick is used to further open up the cells so that the honey can be flung out.

Using an uncapping fork to remove wax covering
Using an uncapping fork to remove wax covering
A perfectly capped frame of honey

Think of a large metal trash can with wire shelves inside that spin around and you have an honey extractor.   A motor attached will turn on the merry-go-round inside, flinging the honey deposited in the cells onto the side of the trash can, dripping down to the bottom where it will exit through a gate valve into a mesh sieve for bee parts and then into a collection bucket.

The wax cappings are very tasty and we dive right in and start snacking.  Grabbing a dollop of warm fresh honey comb that is dripping with honey  is luscious!

Wax cappings full of honey
Wax cappings full of honey


After extracting the bees are very active

Once the honey is all extracted, I take the frames and set them up in front of the hives so the bees can wring every last drop of honey from them. The bees, once they discover the free honey, go crazy and buzz around the yard.  I am sure to not have guests over when this happens as it can be quite unnerving if you are afraid of bees!


We set up the extractor and all the tools in front of the hives also so the bees can finish cleaning. The wax cappings are set out along with everything else for the bees to clean, and then I take the wax in to process in preparation for making beeswax soap and candles. Go to Beeswax-Honeybee Gift to see how I process and use beeswax.

Weighing my wax harvest

Giving the honey a few days to settle, I start bottling the honey when the weather is still warm, over 75 degrees. If honey gets too cold, it won’t flow properly into my jars.

Bottled honey
Bottled honey



The Great Sunflower Project – The Backyard Bee Count

Lemon Queen Sunflowers in my backyard

The Great Bee Count

Within the past couple of years, you might have heard that bees are in trouble, growing scarcer, and suffering from a mysterious ailment called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. A variety of culprits have been fingered in causing this syndrome, including pesticide use, parasites, loss of habitat, and diseases. To study bees, both native and the non-native honeybee, scientists decided that they needed a method to determine the numbers and spread of different pollinators. To accomplish this, in 2008 a survey was launched enlisting and empowering local citizens in reporting observations about bees in their own backyard or deck called The Great Bee Count.

Citizen Science



The Great Bee Count, recruits citizens across the United States and Canada to plant sunflowers and observe all types of bees visiting the flower in a 15 minute time period daily for a week and record their findings on-line.  The first Great Bee Count took place about 7 years ago and countless volunteers recorded their findings to help scientists to check on the prevalence of our tiny pollinators in North America.

Sunflowers are bee magnets
Sunflowers are bee magnets

By creating a map of bee visits, scientists will be able to direct conservation efforts exactly where they are needed.

bee (2)

The data is called ‘trend data’ and showed that in some parts of the country the bees are doing very well, but in other parts like Florida where pesticide use is widespread, the bees are not nearly as numerous. I participated last year and counted at least a dozen bees on my sunflowers in a 15 minute period daily in my backyard in Maryland which shows that this part of the country is above average ‘bee friendly’!

Aug 2010 047
Each of the many seeds of a sunflower has been pollinated


For an interactive map of the country go to

Now is the time to order those seeds and get your garden ready to plant your sunflowers. Lemon Queen is the preferred variety of sunflower seeds. It is important to check to make sure that the seeds did not receive a neonicotinoid seed treatment or even better, are organic.  The Great Sunflower Project recommends that people look for Renee’s Garden Seeds because they have partnered with Renee for a number of years and she has offered to pass along 25% of her proceeds from seeds bought at her website to the Great Sunflower Project.

Lemon Queen are the best ones for this project because they have visible pollen
Lemon Queen are the best ones for this project because they have visible pollen

The typical observer saw 2.6 bees every 15 minutes on their sunflowers. Up to 20% of the volunteers observed no bees at all which is very disheartening. Sunflowers were chosen as the standardized plant because they are ‘bee magnets’ and are easy to grow in every state. ‘Lemon Queen’ is the preferred variety because some sunflowers have been developed that have no pollen, but ‘Lemon Queen’ has visible pollen. Even if the grower did not observe bees during the 15 minute interval, that information is valuable also in informing scientists. Keeping tabs on our bees has become an important tool in studying this essential aid to our food supply. Up to one-third of our food supply relies exclusively on bee pollination.

Sunflowers attract many pollinators besides bees
Sunflowers attract many pollinators besides bees

Anyone in North America can participate in The Great Bee Count even if you just have a single container planted outside on a balcony or deck. To find out how to sign up, go to, register, and plant your sunflower seeds so you can start counting this summer! This is a great project for an ordinary person to have help out the scientific community to study our local bee populations.


I would love to hear from people who are not in North America to see if there are any similar projects in their country.  Please let me know if you have heard of any or participated.

Go to
Go to

Don’t forget that there are many plants that you can plant to encourage bee visits. Go to Plant For the Bees post to see more suggestions.


Robbing the Bees- A Honey of a Day

Honey coming out of the extractor into a bucket lined with a mesh paint strainer to remove all bee parts

It happens every August – honey extraction! After babying the bees, feeding, monitoring, re-queening, splitting, and just plain worrying about them, now is the moment of truth.  How much honey did they deposit in the combs for me to rob from them? I won’t leave you in suspense – I extracted 55 pounds from my one remaining hive.

I started out with 2 hives this season, one tanked and the other one hummed along – not boiling over with bees but – steady, eddy. So, it is always an anti-climax when we finally remove and extract – kind of like Christmas – lots of build up and anticipation, and then it is over very quickly and we are mopping up the mess.

Yes, it was 92 degrees when we extracted, a requirement so that the honey flows quickly and smoothly

Removal of the Supers, Sans Bees of Course!

First job is removal of the top boxes or supers with the excess honey that I want. I open them up and smoke the bees to get them to head down into the hive and put on a lid covered with Fisher-Bee-Quick. No, I didn’t make that up. It is a liquid in a spray bottle that smells like almond oil that you spray on the lid with a cardboard insert to saturate with this fragrant oil.  Evidently, bees hate the smell and will try to put as much space as they can from the odor.

Firing up the smoker with a propane torch, an essential tool in beekeeping
Tools at the ready – A lid lined with cardboard saturated with Fisher-Bee-Quick, bee brush, smoker, frame puller, torch, and hive tool. I am ready to go!

I remove the outer and inner cover of the hive and place the lid with the Fisher-Bee-Quick insert on top, and start using my propane torch on top to heat the entire lid to a high temp that will dissipate the almond odor throughout the entire hive. Note that the lid is covered on the outside with tin which will not burn. The whole point of this exercise is to get the  bees off the supers so I can steal their honey.  I have tried a blower (they get mad), brushing them off with a bee brush (too slow), and a special escape board which once the bees go out, they can’t come back in (way too slow). The spray works like a charm.  It just takes about 10 minutes for the bees to react and leave.

Smoking the hive
Using the propane torch on top to heat up the hive

After heating the lid thoroughly, I remove the lid and peak in.  Bees have scampered! There are a few stragglers, but that is good enough for me and I load the entire super box into a wheelbarrow nearby.  It easily weighs at least 50 pounds which is a good sign – lots of honey! I cover the super up with a piece of canvas as I don’t want any stray bees to come and investigate. After taking the super to the honey staging area and off loading it on a tarp, I go back for the second box.  After both boxes are sitting on the tarp, we are ready to remove each frame and place in the extractor to spin.

Supers on the tarp – Removing one frame at a time to go into the extractor


After removing each frame from the hive, my helper (husband), takes a heated electric knife and slices off the wax cappings to reveal the honey deposited into each cell.

Helper who is afraid of bees!
Slicing off the wax cappings on a funky frame

The wax cappings are very tasty and we dive right in and start snacking.  We grab a dollop of honey comb that is dripping with honey and start chewing.  We suck out all the honey and spit out the wax. Luscious!

Honey extractor with motor attached
Honey extractor
Honey extractor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After uncapping, each frame is placed into the extractor on a rack and we turn on the motor and it starts to spin.  The extractor is kind of like a washer machine.  If everything is balanced and even, the extractor runs fine.   If one frame has lots of honey, and one doesn’t, then the whole extractor wobbles and I have to lean on it to steady it up so it spins evenly. After spinning for about 10 minutes, I stop the extractor and we turn all the frames over.  Each side has to be extracted fully to get as much honey as we can possibly get out of each frame. The extractor, as it spins, flings the warm honey to the sides of the extractor and it slides down to the bottom and accumulates.

I lifted up the flap of the extractor to peak in at the spinning frames

While we are extracting and grabbing gobs of dripping honeycomb, the bees are flying like crazy around us.  There is no way to get rid of all of them before extracting, and they drive my husband wacky, and he keeps swatting at them.  I just tell him to take it easy, that the bees aren’t aggressive and are just looking for a way to get back to their hive. But he is on edge.

Honey in honeycombs
Honey in honeycombs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once the honey is all extracted, I take the frames and set them up in front of the hives so the bees can wring every last drop of honey from them. The bees once they discover the free honey go crazy and zing around the yard.  Good thing that my dog is oblivious and I have no friends over! We set up the extractor and all the tools in front of the hives also so the bees can finish cleaning. The wax cappings are set out along with everything else for the bees to clean, and then I take the wax in to process in preparation for making beeswax soap and candles.

English: Honey bees cleaning the last of the h...
English: Honey bees cleaning the last of the honey off of a comb which has been processed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Aftermath

Everything is left outside for the bees to clean, and they take any honey that we missed back to their hive.  The bees have to have enough honey stores to last them through the winter, so I made sure that there were frames of honey left in the hive that we didn’t tap.  Plus, the bees have some time before it gets chilly to store some more honey, and I will start to feed them in late October for insurance that they do make it through the winter.

Bottled honey


The next step, after the honey has settled in the large food grade bucket for a day or two, is to bottle.  I sterilize my containers in the dishwasher, an assortment that I have collected over the years, and start filling them up. I have small 12 ounce plastic bee skep ones and 16 ounce plastic ones that I fill for selling and gifts.  For home use, I just use large glass jars and fill them up with 5 pounds of honey. We can go through about 30 to 35 pounds of honey during the year. We are a honey loving group!  Bottling can take me a week as I don’t do it all in one sitting.

We finished the extracting thoroughly sticky and tired but no one got stung!  I looked at the honey color, and since the bees forage from a variety of flowers, I call it wildflower honey and some years it is darker than others.  I would say this year it is darker than usual.

5 Lb jar of honey

I clean the wax by boiling it in my crock pot with water in preparation for making soap and candles.  But that is another post……… Stay tuned.

Cleaned and melted beeswax from my hives

Related Articles

Too Many Tomatoes ! – Canning and Drying the Harvest

Grape tomatoes.
Grape tomatoes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

August is always tomato harvest time in Maryland, and even if you have just a few plants, you are inundated with a flood of vine ripened monsters with no room to put them! I think that Maryland is the perfect climate for growing the best tomatoes, hot and humid, plus a long growing season.There is nothing like the taste of a sliced  tomato fresh from the garden on a sandwich! But once you have used tomatoes on sandwiches or stir fried them into vegetable dishes and made spaghetti sauce, I want to preserve them for winter eating.

Freshly canned tomatoes of different colors ready to store for the winter

I have frozen tomatoes in the past because it is easier, but don’t like the texture or the condition of the finished product. Canned tomatoes are much preferable to use in the winter months rather than the frozen product. So I learned how to can some years ago and have canned sauce, chopped tomatoes, whole tomatoes, and salsa.

Various heirloom tomato cultivars
Various heirloom tomato cultivars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I mention canning to people, the most common response is that it is too much work. But if you are used to freezing tomatoes, canning just needs one more step –  processing in a hot water bath or pressurized canner. For the improvement in taste and texture, I think it is worth it. A hot water canner is very inexpensive and will last forever. Botulism is also a concern for many, but if you follow the proper canning procedure and add lemon juice to increase the acidity, you will be fine.

Food dehydrator

On the other end of the spectrum of preserving tomatoes is drying, and I love sun-dried tomatoes! And they are quite expensive, so it is worth while and incredibly simple. I bought a simple food dryer at Cabela’s and it is easy and efficient to use, and I usually have it on for several weeks during August drying all my Roma tomatoes. Roma tomatoes work better than regular heirloom or beefsteak tomatoes because the water content is much lower. Once the tomatoes are dried, I place them in Tupperware containers in the freezer.  I tried storing them in olive oil in jars in the frig one year but they got moldy. When I need some dried tomatoes for cooking, I grab a handful out of the freezer and place them in a bowl of water in the microwave and heat them up. They will reconstitute very quickly in the hot water and are ready to use in recipes.

Piles of dried Roma tomato slices in a tupperware container


Here are simple instructions for canning your harvest:


Sterilize your jars in the dish washer at the highest heat along with the rings.  Or if you prefer, put the jars in the hot water canner and boil them.  You have to boil this water anyway to can the tomatoes, so this might be the easiest and most efficient way. Place the lids and rings in a small saucepan of boiling water.  Keep the jars and lids in the water until ready to use.


In a saucepan, boil some water to fill the jars of tomatoes to the top.


  • Weigh tomatoes
Weigh tomatoes – I find that 12 to 13 pounds of Roma and mixed larger varieties makes 6 quarts – enough for a full water bath canner
  • Wash tomatoes
  • Core
  • Cut an X on the bottom for easy removal of skins
Core and X mark the bottom with a sharp knife
  • Place the tomatoes in a large pot of boiling water for 2 minutes
Placing tomatoes in boiling water
  • Dip the tomatoes out into ice water to stop cooking
Tomatoes in ice water to stop cooking
  • Drain tomatoes and remove the skin
Peeled, cored tomatoes ready to place into canning jars
  • In the empty sterilized jars, place 2 Tablespoons of lemon juice
I buy Minute Maid pure lemon juice for this
  • Fill the sterilized jars with tomatoes. Make sure that you fill them completely.  I press down lightly so as not to crush the tomatoes, but you want to fill them as completely as possible.  Use a wooden skewer to get rid of air bubbles and gaps.
  • Filling jars with tomatoes and using a wooden skewer for air bubbles
  • Fill the jars of tomatoes with the boiling water until the jars are full with a 1/2 inch head space.  Use the wooden skewer to get rid of any air bubbles.
  • Screw on the jar lids with rings, making sure that the rims are clean and the rings are ‘finger tight’.
  • Place into the water bath canner
Put the full jars into the rack of the canner
  • Process for 45 minutes.  That means wait until you get a full boil and then start timing for a full 45 minutes.
  • Lift the jars out and let cool.  The jars should seal with a ‘pop’! A vacuum is formed when the jars are processed. If you can press down on the lid and there is movement, the jar has not sealed.  Let the jar sit for 12 to 24 hours and if it doesn’t seal, you must use it immediately or store in the refrigerator until use.


Drying is my next favorite way to preserve the harvest. Once I have a good quantity of Roma paste tomatoes, I slice the top off and start slicing the tomato lengthwise.  One tomato will produce 3 to 4 slices to dry.  Place into a tray of a food dehydrator and plug it in. The slices will dry in about 12 to 15 hours.  Make sure that they are completely dry and kind of crispy before storing into a Tupperware container. Place in the freezer until ready to use.

Slice lengthwise
Stack the slices into the trays of the food dehydrator

Suburban Homesteading – Raising and Preserving Sustainable Food

Putting up tomatoes

Sustainable is the new catch word for gardening. I hear it everywhere and I think it is overused without anyone really understanding exactly what it means.  By definition it means –  Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. And by working gardens, keeping chickens for meat and eggs, preserving food, adding solar panels, etc., we are all sustainable consumers in some fashion. Not fully sustainable by any stretch of the imagination but plugging away at bits and pieces of sustainability.

Portable chicken coop on wheels that my neighbor moves around on her front lawn

Most of us are still on “the grid”. I have read the magazine Mother Earth News for years and I am always surprised at the number of people who are off the grid and flourishing. I am not ambitious and energetic enough to be off “the grid”, but I would love to reduce my dependence on it and have chipped away at it.

I saw this wind power system that you can put up at your home to generate power at the Mother Earth fair

Now that it is fashionable and smart to try to live sustainably, I have observed many of my neighbors have added homesteading in some way, shape, and form to their lifestyle. Even with a full-time job and lots of family responsibilities, many have added gardens, preserving food, and are raising chickens for healthier eating.

Repurposing old drainpipes to grow veggies

When we get together as a neighborhood, we often talk about how sustainable our neighborhood is, and how we would work together and pull on each other strengths if there were a natural disaster. Some people are good at raising and putting up food, while others are trained as nurses or can hunt and fish. Everyone has their own unique talents to add to the mix. We even have pumps that could pump water from streams and mechanics that could make them work.

Suburban chicken coop at Mother Earth fair

According to the blog Eat Drink Better – Sustainable Food for a Healthy Lifestyle, the author of Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies, Owen Dell, says that “there is only a three-day supply of food in any given city: what happens on the fourth day when there is a natural disaster or some kind of disruption that stops the food supply chain? Most of us don’t realize how dependent we are on the unseen “food system”  for our daily meals. He says that cities are like a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, aka, a feed lot) for human beings: we are separated, dependent, and caged.”

A neighbor took an old wooden shed and created a chicken habitat with minimal cost

The author, among other useful suggestions to grow food sustainably, also suggests having neighborhood food swaps every so often to trade what you have lots of, for things that you aren’t growing. I have a gardening neighbor who planted zucchini plants at the edge of her lawn and puts out a sign for anyone to pick them when ripe. When I had bumper crops of  cucumbers and had preserved all I wanted as pickles, I took the excess cucumbers around to my neighbors and gave them out. Small things, but these all add up, plus it brings the neighborhood together instead of everyone keeping to themself.

Slicing cucumbers for pickles

With natural disasters and severe weather becoming the new normal, we really need to think about a self-sustaining lifestyle, and start getting serious about reducing our dependence on food that is trucked in from thousands of miles away. So, I have highlighted some areas in this post where my friends and neighbors are making a difference with suburban homesteading.

Beekeeping Makes a Difference

Setting up beehives in my back yard

I love beekeeping but it isn’t for everyone.  Managing bees is not easy, can be rewarding at times but also very frustrating when things go wrong, and they can go wrong quickly! I call beekeeping my expensive hobby as you can sink a lot of money into equipment, sugar for feeding, and supplies.  But the payback can be spectacular when you see all that honey flowing out of the extractor. I don’t want to discourage anyone from setting up bees because it is extremely interesting and has given me lots to talk about over the years, but it is a committment of time and energy.

Doing things right and getting lots of honey!

Bartering Food

Adorable goat face

Honey is also a commodity that others love to barter for.  I have a friend who raises 28 goats for cheese making.  She has several varieties including LaManch’s, Alpines, and Nigerian Dwarfs, and milks them everyday which is a huge committment. She produces chevre, goat cheese cheesecakes, crotin – a 14 day aged soft goat cheese, cajeta – a goat milk caramel sauce, and goat milk ricotta. We have traded in the past –  honey for cheese, and the cheese is delicious!  When I extract my honey, I will be calling her to trade again. There is nothing like freshly made goat cheese!

I have made mozzarella cheese myself but it was a lot of work and you need a lot of unprocessed milk to make it worthwhile.  I really didn’t enjoy it and it made my kitchen a mess. So I would much prefer to barter than make cheese.

English: Goat's milk cheese
English: Goat’s milk cheese (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Goats having fun in a feeding trough

Growing Food

Having a vegetable garden in a container or in the ground is simply the easiest way to reduce your dependence on the food supply chain and one of my neighbors has gone about it in a big way. In her front yard, she has created an intensively planted vegetable garden, using raised beds, square foot gardening, and lots of vertical structures to make the best use of space.

Looking into the garden
Making use of black plastic
Synthetic bag garden

Because deer can be a problem, she has fenced things in which also creates space to grow vines up using the fence for support.  Grass was left in the pathways so that you don’t walk on the soil and compact it. There are several types of raised beds used, to pack as much stuff into limited space –  traditional wooden, woven willow, and a synthetic material that looks like heavy black plastic.

Natural willow raised bed with broccoli
Raised bed with beans

A lot of vegetables are very handsome and look good in containers or incorporated into a home landscape.  I had a good friend who had this container built below out of redwood, and it has casters so that you can roll it around where you want it to go. The bottom is hardware cloth (very strong wire fencing) so that it drains properly.  You could roll this around to catch the most sun. A large container planted with herbs, cucumbers, beans, and lettuceGrowing in containers isn’t going to set the world on fire with lots of produce but with intensive and successive planting, it is very worthwhile.

Even if you don’t want the trouble of maintaining a large tilled vegetable garden, you can do like one of my neighbors does – just gardens in tilled rows – I call it trench gardening. I like this method because your pathways don’t have to be mulched as your turf acts as a natural mulch. Again, having these permanent pathways means that you won’t compact your soil.

Gardening in the trenches

Cooking Food

I have always been intrigued with cooking outdoors.  I did it on campfires when I went camping and still grill on charcoal frequently.  But I would love a wood fired oven for baking pizzas and breads. When I went to the Mother Earth News fair, they had a brick oven that you could make for your back yard on display.  I would  love to have that when my power goes out, which it does pretty frequently. Even with power, I would love to make wood fired pizzas. This is definitely on my list to make in the future.

Brick oven at Mother Earth News fair

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

 One of my favorite books is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, and details how her family for one year, bought food raised in their own neighborhood, grew it themselves, or learned to live without it. You are what you eat!

Related articles

Blueberry Bonanza

The Invasion of the Blues

I have been growing blueberries for years and this has been a banner year for picking them.  We have had plenty of rain and the weather has been perfect for growing.  I have only 5 shrubs but that is enough to keep us in berries, as well as providing the birds all they want to eat. I used to cover them with nets, but they are so prolific, I let the birds have at them.

Blueberry flowers
Blueberry flowers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Blueberries are so unbelievably easy to grow, I am surprised that not everyone has at least one of these shrubs planted on their property.  They don’t get very large and have beautiful scarlet fall foliage that makes them worthwhile to grow just for that feature alone.

Wild Blueberry (Vaccinium) in autumn foliage t...

I have several varieties to extend my picking season and there are more than 100 varieties to pick from.  There are even dwarf ones suitable for container growing.

My blueberry bushes

Acid Soil

Blueberries require an acidic soil, 4.5 – 5.5 pH, much like rhododendrons and azaleas.  If you can grow rhodies and azaleas successfully, then you are golden.  But my soil tends to be more like 6.5 to 7 on the pH scale, so I add plenty of peat moss when planting. I continue to add it every year around the plants.  I also mulch with pine needles and add an acidifier in liquid form periodically to keep the soil on the acid side.  If you are unsure of your pH, you can always get a soil test done at a local garden center or the agricultural extension service.  Add some cottonseed meal or blood meal as a high-nitrogen organic fertilizer twice in the spring.  Coffee grounds rich in nitrogen, magnesium, and potassium are an inexpensive organic fertilizer to add some further nutrients to the soil.

pH Test of Soil in Flowerbeds
pH Test of Soil in Flowerbeds (Photo credit: Chiot’s Run)

Pests are never a problem except for the birds, and aren’t an issue if you have prolific bearers.

My blueberries are in partial shade and do fine with that light.  They will also perform well in full sun.


There is really no secret to pollination other than planting several varieties close to each other.  For healthier, more productive blueberries, regardless of type or variety, you should plant different varieties so that bees can travel and cross-pollinate the plants. My bees are all over the shrubs when they are blooming.


Consistent watering of blueberries is important because they have a shallow, fibrous root system.  But I rarely water my shrubs as they are pretty distant from the hose reach. To avoid watering I layer on tons of mulch around the whole area. Once in a while when we have had some long periods of drought, I run the hose out to the plants for a good soak.

Picking the Harvest

The only thing that I don’t enjoy about growing blueberries is I hate to pick them! They are small and tedious to pick and take up time. The berries ripen over a couple of weeks, so you need to pick the ripe ones every couple of days. I have tried different methods, like placing a sheet underneath and shaking and pulling off the ripe ones, but I have gone back to my normal picking one by one into a Tupperware container.  The shaking method pulls off too many immature berries and wastes them.  I enlist help and ask people who want some berries to pick them and leave me some too.


English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pruning the shrubs to make them more compact, and to get rid of older branches that bear less fruit, is a matter of a few minutes in the late winter.  This annual pruning forces the shrub to produce new wood that will bear larger, more abundant berries.

Simple Seasonal Care 

Winter – prune

Early spring – fertilize

Late spring – fertilize again

Summer –  harvest fruit and enjoy!

Fall – mulch

Healthy Eating

Blueberries are the perfect health food. They are nutritious, have anti-oxidants, and require little preparation. Freezing easily and going well with so many foods and desserts are among their many attributes.

Blueberry Temptation
Blueberry Temptation (Photo credit: kitsunebabe)

Everyone has recipes for muffins, pies, and cakes using blueberries so I wanted to pass along a great recipe that I use for meat! This is a great sauce and you can use either fresh or frozen blueberries.

Savory Blueberry Steak Sauce

3 T unsalted butter

2 small shallots, finely chopped

2 T flour

1/4 C sherry vinegar

1/4 C ketchup

3 T dijon mustard

1/4 C orange juice

1/4 C molasses

1/2 Tsp dried thyme

1/4 Tsp dried sage

2 C fresh or frozen blueberries

Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in large skillet and saute shallots for 3 to 4 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour, blending and stirring until mixture begins to bubble. Add vinegar, ketchup, mustard, orange juice, molasses, thyme, and sage, and stir until combined.  Add blueberries and raise heat to medium-high to bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cool, stirring often for about 15 minutes until the mixture is thickened and glossy.  Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm over steak.

English: A pack of blueberries from a organic ...
English: A pack of blueberries from a organic farm co-op program. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

High Line – Container in the Sky

View of the railroad rails incorporated into the garden

I just came back from a day trip to NYC where I went to experience the ‘High Line‘. I have heard so much buzz from the media and friends on this new park in NY that I made a special trip to see it and was totally unprepared for the scope and genius of this project in deep urban America. I took with me my artsy daughter and boy friend who are not really into gardening but once they saw what I was babbling about, they were all over it! My daughter was interested in it from an artistic and photographic standpoint, and the boy friend was interested in the High Line because he was into trains and architecture.  Also, we are all into the food scene and Chelsea Market and food carts are located nearby and on the High Line.  So, it was a win win for me and them.

Chelsea Market entrance


First of all, a little history about the High Line. I am going to quote the  Friends of the High Line website at

“The High Line was built in the 1930s, as part of a massive public-private infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement. It lifted freight traffic 30 feet in the air, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s largest industrial district. No trains have run on the High Line since 1980. Friends of the High Line, a community-based non-profit group, formed in 1999 when the historic structure was under threat of demolition. Friends of the High Line work in partnership with the City of New York to preserve and maintain the structure as an elevated public park.”

With both public and private investment, the Friends of the High Line, which was founded by community residents, works to make sure that the High Line is maintained for all visitors to enjoy. They oversee maintenance, operations, and public programming for the park. They offer free and low-cost public programs, including talks, films, performances, tours, and family activities. I checked the posted calendar that was displayed at the end of the park in an informational exhibit and there were loads of activities on tap including weekly stargazing nights.

Foxtail Lilies at their peak- I was very surprised to see these growing as I thought that they were diificult and tempermental to grow! They were everywhere on the High Line.
Foxtail Lily with an orange Echinacea


So, you see the planning and evolution of this park was over a number of years and has come to fruition just within the past couple of years.  The first part was started in 2006, completed in 2009, and the second section opened early June 2011, and a third phase was just approved and is in the planning stages. In addition, at the southern end of the High Line, a new Whitney Museum of American Art is underway. Approximately 1.5 mile in length, the High Line varies in width throughout from 30 to 50 feet but seems much wider because of the profusion of plantings.  Walking the entire length as it meanders through three dynamic New York City neighborhoods of the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen went by quickly with lots of plant gawking and people watching. Sculpture installations and several photo shoots with high fashion models were happening with hardly a second look from onlookers. I guess it just happens there every day!

A sculpture assemblage with modular bird houses was being set up


The entire bridge structure had to be stripped of the gravel ballast, rails, soil, debris, and a layer of concrete.  Then the outside had to be sandblasted in a containment tent to remove the original lead paint. The Art Deco railings had to be repaired and fabricated to restore everything to original condition. In many locations, original train rails were restored to their former locations and you can see the rails integrated seamlessly as part of the planting landscape. Ingenious! The walkway is a series of long ‘planks’ forming a smooth, linear, walkway surface with viewing platforms, sun decks, and gathering areas. There is even a lawn area where people are free to play and picnic. It was roped off when we were there for rejuvenation.  I guess too many people trampled it down!

High Line (New York City)
High Line (New York City) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Long view of the High Line

Energy efficient LED lights were installed for night time, and stairs and elevators were installed at intervals for access. Pigeon-proofing, a drainage system, and a layer of waterproofing on the underlying concrete were the final steps in preparing the structure for planting.

A neat water feature with water recirculating out of vents washing across the pavement. A nice place to put your bare feet on a hot day!

Designing the Container

The inspiration for the planting design was the actual self-seeded landscape that sprang up after the abandonment of the rail tracks. Tough plants seeded in the gravel ballast and made a home there in the tracks and thrived without any attention. Sustainability, which is the latest buzzword among gardeners and landscapers, was the keyword when picking out the plants.  This just meant choosing native and hardy species that were interesting in color and textural qualities.  Many of the original plant species that thrived on the tracks were incorporated into the final plan.

A tough species of Stachys

Piet Oudolf, who was the planting designer, is known for his embrace of the New Perennials Landscape movement. In a nutshell, this movement stresses shape and texture more than color of the plant.  The life cycle of nature is important with a four season interest, not just spring and summer.  Mr Oudolf, who is Dutch, actually thinks that a garden is more interesting in winter and that as gardeners we should be more accepting of death and decay.


In practical terms, Mr Oudolf designs with a preponderance of grasses because they are easy to use and have appeal in larger public landscapes rather than the smaller ones at our homes. I have to say this really struck home when my daughter exclaimed over the swaths of Mexican Feather Grass that were used in many places on the High Line. When I told her that I had some clumps of it at home she said she had never noticed!

Mexican Feather Grass – Stipa tenuissima

Evergreens are used sparingly according to Mr Oudolf’s vision to add depth in the winter when a landscape should be browns, tans, and sienna hues rather than a green landscape. There are “cracks” in the pavement created for the plants to grow where the path bleeds into garden and vice versus. The little mulch that is used is gravel to resemble the ballast rather than the more familiar decomposeable organic mulch.

More of the Mexican Feather Grass planted in “cracks” of the paving surface
Cracks with plants

The Plantings

The conditions for plantings of the High Line is hot, hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. To experience extremes of temperatures is stressful for many plants but the selected plants were used to these harsh conditions such as native North American prairie perennials.  Annuals are not used as they would have to be replaced and are not a sustainable plant.  When I was walking, there was a stiff breeze blowing probably because of the height of the plantings. Out of 210 plant species used, 161 of them are native to the New York area.

Breeze blowing the petals of a Echinacea
Dalea purpurea, a prairie native
Astilbe ‘Visions in Pink’ is the light pink and the orange is Butterfly weed. Who knew that Astilbe would grow like this in full sun?
The soil depth of the High Line is around 15 inches! This fact absolutely amazed me.  The depth does increase somewhat where there are raised areas but only to about 36 inches at the most.  There are lots and lots of trees – Birches, Magnolias, Service Berries, Sassafras, Hornbeams, Crabapples, Red Buds, Dogwoods, Smoke Trees, Black Gums, Pines, Maples, and Witch Hazels. Sassafras is used frequently. The use of so many Sassafras surprised me as I never use it in a home landscape setting.  It is a native and is everywhere in our woods and it does have magnificent scarlet fall coloring. Sassafras is an important bird food source and is the host to the Swallowtail butterfly. 
Sassafras leaves with Swallowtails
Smoke Tree in its glory

The list of species goes on and on and I can’t believe that they are thriving in such a thin layer of soil. The small amount of soil makes the entire High Line an elevated container that dries out quickly with the beating sun and the relentless wind. The first part of the High Line has irrigation and additional irrigation is being installed soon in the other second part. Hose outlets were installed at periodic areas for easy hand watering. Because of the intensely planted beds, the plants must always be thirsty. One advantage of the wall to wall plantings is that it is harder for weeds to take root but nothing eliminates weeds growing and that chore still has to be done.

An allium

Art and Vendor Installations

This is an urban landscape and you can’t escape the commercial outlets. There were several vendors, art and food, that you encounter along the way.  When we were there, a group exhibition called “Lilliput” inspired by  Swift’s Gullivers Travels, brings together nine sculptures of reduced scale by six international artists. The sculptures are installed along the High Line in unexpected locations and it became a game for us to find them all. Go to to view them.

Sun Tzu Janus by artist Oliver Laric, found at the beginning of the High Line
Another sculpture inspired by Gulliver’s Travels

Lots of apartments looked directly onto the level of the High Line and we were amused with residents art installations.

“High Line Zoo”, Someone having fun with their artwork!
A balcony overlooking the High Line

We went down the stairs to street level Chelsea Market and picked up some goodies and shopped the interesting stores. Then we headed back up to the High Line and picked up more food from Bark and The Taco Truck on the High Line passage. There were tables and chairs set up in the shade on the passage which is just a large tunnel to enjoy the food. The tables were pretty full on a Monday so I think that on the weekend it could be a mad house.

High Line passage

Enjoying the Park

As in any park, you need places to sit and relax and unwind.  There were plenty of innovative seating areas to take a load off and we didn’t have to fight anyone to get a spot.  They were scattered everywhere.  The most ingenious seat was the wooden lounge chair that made use of old train wheels that were placed in the track.

Enjoying the sunny day
Train wheels on the lounge chairs

Amplitheater type seating with a projector

Enjoying the sunny day on the High Line


Along with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, the Friends of the High Line employs 6 to 8 gardeners or horticulturists to maintain the 6.7 acre park.

Talking to the gardeners who were working diligently weeding, cutting back, and planting, they were really excited about gardening in downtown Manhattan. I asked how they disposed of their organic debris and they said that they collect it in a central location on the High Line and then it is picked up and taken to Fresh Kills landfill. It seems like there should be a composting area located on the High Line so that they can compost it on site and use it to enrich the plantings. If they set up a working composting area with informational signs and demos, I think that it would send an important public message for sustainability.

Talking to a gardener who is hand watering transplants

The High Line is not the first converted elevated rail line.  Paris started it all in 1993 with one called Promenade Planteé which is almost 3 miles long. Also, St Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Chicago, and Rotterdam has them in the works. Next stop, Paris!

The Paris Promenade Planteé from Wikipedia

If you want more information about the history, architecture, grasses and plants, there is a book out titled On the High Line:Exploring America’s Most Original Urban Park by Annik Lafarge and contributor Rick  Darke

On the High Line book available on Amazon

American Grown – The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America


The Read

I just finished reading ‘American Grown’ by Michelle Obama and it is a fascinating account of the garden and landscape evolution at the White House. From the very first vegetable garden installed by John Adams, our second president, the book mentions a variety of plantings and gardens until it ended up being a hodgepodge of styles and designs in the 1930’s.  At that point, President Franklin Roosevelt asked the renowned Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., a landscape artist who designed Central Park in New York City, to draw up a master plan. Olmstead created the vistas and features that we are familiar with today – notably the South Lawn with rolling lawns and groupings of trees. The landscape that he created is what basically remains today.

South lawn of the White House showing the great expanse of lawn and tree groupings – Wikipedia

The book also includes how-to tips for starting your own kitchen garden, involving children in the process, and several accounts of how schools across the county are changing their students eating habits and getting them to be more active. Recipes from the White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford using the produce were my favorite part as well as dozens of black and white historic photos.

First Lady Michelle Obama works with kids from...
First Lady Michelle Obama works with kids from Washington’s Bancroft Elementary School to break ground for a White House garden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 1100 square foot L-shaped vegetable kitchen garden is on the White House south lawn in raised beds with slate plant tags, and has a path winding through for easy access.  Michelle Obama wanted the location of the garden to be easily seen from outside the White House gate because she wanted it to be the people’s garden, just as the White House is the “people’s house”. Peas, spinach, lettuce, broccoli, raspberries, blueberries, carrots, tomatoes, figs, mushrooms, and peppers are just a few of the over 55 varieties of vegetable and herb crops that are planted and harvested for use in the White House kitchen. Mushrooms were even grown on logs that were placed under trees! All produce is used for family meals and state dinners and is also donated to Miriam’s Kitchen, a local soup kitchen. The garden is grown organically with edible and companion flowers planted along the path and numerous herbs, and has produced thousands of pounds of produce.

The garden was started in 2009, early in the Obama’s term, and was instrumental in the First Lady starting her ‘Let’s Move!’ campaign which focused on healthy eating and exercise. The First Lady along with White House horticulturist Dale Haney and the enthusiastic help of 23 5th graders from  Bancroft Elementary in D.C., plant the garden every spring and takes care of the garden as well as learning about eating healthy.

First Lady Michelle Obama and White House Chef...
First Lady Michelle Obama and White House Chef Sam Kass show students from the Bancroft Elementary how to plant a garden. The White House Vegetable Garden was officially planted today. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

White House Chef Sam Kass, who personally harvests many of the herbs and vegetables for the meals he cooks, was inspired after a visit to Monticello to include an area devoted to Thomas Jefferson where the vegetable favorite’s of the third president are planted. Monticello sells a special seed collection that Jefferson grew at his home that includes Tennis Ball Lettuce, Prickly Seeded Spinach, Red Calico Lima Beans, Sesame, Globe Artichokes, and Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage. Offered by Monticello’s online store at, you can order this seed mixture yourself for $18.


Three Sisters

Another area of the garden is called ‘The Three Sisters’ which is corn, beans, and squash planted together. The Native Americans used this planting scheme extensively and called the three plants ‘The Three Sisters’ because they grow and thrive together.  The beans grow up the corn plants for support and the squash acts as a living mulch and shades the base of the plantings.

Three Sisters shown on the reverse of the Native American 2009 dollar coin.

In June of 2011, Cherokee White Eagle corn, Rattlesnake pole beans, and Seminole squash seeds donated by the National Museum of the American Indian were planted in the White House garden preceded by a special ceremony and blessing by Native Americans.

‘Three Sisters’ planting with beans growing up corn and squash shading the base

How – To

There is a great section on basic how-to knowledge to jump-start your own vegetable garden, from making compost up of ‘browns and greens’ to container gardening.  I thought the most important point was to grow what you like to eat. The importance of sunlight is stressed with the statement ‘sun equals success’ which is a factor that so many people forget. Americans have a long tradition of vegetable gardening and it is time to reconnect with that heritage. The book is a great starter for any newbie.

Wide variety of heirloom tomatoes, courtesy of Landreth Seeds, a seed company that sold seeds to every President from George Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Cooking Class

Thinking that kids are more willing to try healthy food choices if they are involved in growing their own food, Michelle Obama started the vegetable garden at the right time for America.  Many people are concerned with organic food choices, eating a better diet and buying locally. The Bancroft Elementary School not only plants and harvests the vegetables, but also prepares and tastes the food with the White House Chef. Lucky kids!

I tried two of the recipes –  the mac and cheese with cauliflower, and the white bean salad, and got thumbs up from my family. Go to to see more recipes that sound delicious.

First Year Lessons

I really was interested in Michelle Obama’s essay on lessons learned in the first season.  One problem was that they grew perfectly round cantaloupes that were totally tasteless!  I have had that problem also and stopped growing them.  Another situation was the blackberry bushes took up too much room for the few pieces of fruit harvested.  To combat this problem, I train them on a trellis. They also found that even with netting, birds ate every blueberry.  I chalk that up to the plants were immature and weren’t old enough to be loaded with berries so that the birds could eat their fill.

Freshly harvested blueberries from my garden

Cutworms became a problem in the White House garden and the gardeners combated that by enclosing new plants in bottomless paper cups, an old organic gardener trick.  Another lesson learned was to mulch with a thin layer of straw to keep the soil moist and the weeds down. These were pretty basic common situations that many gardeners face and the White House gardeners learned through experience. This book is an inspiration for people to start their own garden and the knowledge is very basic but helpful.

The garden has become a very popular tour for school kids and if you are a teacher you can tour the kitchen garden on a first-come, first-served basis by going to and fill out an application.  The tour is free which includes the garden only, not the house, and is held every Tuesday and Thursday at 11:30 AM, weather permitting.

Honey and Bees at the White House

Adjacent to the kitchen garden, is the first ever beehive at the White House that is tended by White House carpenter Charlie Brandts. This part was my favorite because it really showed how ignorant people are about honeybees.  Bees will only sting unless provoked and are more interested in finding nectar than bothering someone. In all the years that I have had hives at my house (10), I have never had anyone stung except for me! And that was trying to remove the honey!

The President initially was “less than enthusiastic” especially since the hive would be near the basketball court and he was concerned about the dog and the girls being stung. The hive was set up high to keep the entrance well above kids who visit the garden and the flight path was placed so it would be in the opposite direction of the basketball court. Also, the hive was strapped securely so that winds from the presidential helicopter wouldn’t tip it over during landings!

The beehive has over 70,000 bees and honey is harvested from the hives and used in the White House kitchen. Go to  and watch the video ‘The Secret Life of White House Bees’ for a fascinating account of setting up the hive and harvesting the honey.  To harvest the honey, Charlie Brandts smokes the bees to calm them and then blows the bees off the frames with a leaf blower!

One interesting story about the White House bees is that there was an apple tree on the South Lawn for 25 years that had never produced an apple.  Once the bees were installed, the apple tree produced baskets of delicious apples. That just proves how important bees are to pollination.

Blossoms, fruit, and foliage of an apple tree.

The honey is extracted right in the White House kitchen which really impressed me.  When I extract honey, every surface around gets sticky and covered with bees and I don’t do it in the kitchen! Just the one hive at the White House has produced 140 pounds the first year, 183 pounds the second, and 225 pounds the third – an impressive total! Honey is donated to Miriam’s Kitchen, used in the White House kitchen, and given as gifts to dignitaries and heads of state. A pound of honey was used to brew the first White House honey ale! I wonder how it tasted?

Extracting honey

Michelle Obama is trend setting with her vegetable garden initiative and lots of families are taking note and starting their own vegetable garden. Even the Queen of England copied what our First Lady did and has started her own palace vegetable garden with school children. Now is the time to dust off those kitchen garden plans and start sowing!