This time of year always has a way of making us ready for the warm days of spring and summer, especially after the warm weather preview we got last week. And of course with those thoughts of warm months come dreams of our spring and summer vegetable garden! For the last few years, we've really made an effort to put in a substantial vegetable garden in our backyard. The children love to help pick out the seeds, plant them, water the plants, and pick the vegetables (and eat them, too), so it's a fun, educational, and tasty experience for them. We also like the fact that we get to eat our own organically grown veggies!
Our first task of the season is to go get our seeds. We try to go the heirloom route—they're so much more fun than your plain old (ahem) garden variety vegetables—and we always buy our seeds at the Petaluma Seed Bank, the West Coast outpost of the fantastic Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri. They stock a vast array of seeds for a wide variety of vegetables, many of which you probably didn't know existed!
I know some people who say that pizza is one of those dishes that's always better when you dine out. I respectfully disagree! While that might be true for topping-laden old-school American pizza, we've been successfully making some pretty wonderful Italian-style pizzas right here at home. Unfortunately, we lack a wood-burning pizza oven in the backyard (someday…), but we get some good results in a regular home oven with a little preparation and a few tricks.
This fun and easy craft is a perfect Earth Day activity. My kids had a blast creating their own miniature gardens. It's fun to create your own world in a recycled glass container and decorate it with found materials. This project is great for all ages, with adult supervision, of course.
The creative possibilities for this project are endless—make a fairy garden, a prehistoric forest, a jungle, or just let your imagination run wild. You can pick up plants suitable for a terrarium at your local garden store. Mosses, succulents, and air plants are all great candidates for a terrarium.
Decorate your terrarium with interesting rocks and plastic animals, dinosaurs, or figures—whatever you have on hand. Keep it moist with spray bottle filled with water. You can put a cover on your terrarium if you want, but make sure to poke holes in the lid first to let air circulate.
What's a butterfly garden? It's a welcoming spot filled with plants and other features attractive to butterflies. If you do things right, butterflies will eventually find your little oasis and decide to stick around and both beautify and pollinate your garden. That's the idea, anyhow. Creating this sounded like a fun and educational project, and truthfully, our backyard needed a little sprucing up for the summer, so we decided to get to work!
The first step in creating a butterfly garden is select plants that butterflies find beneficial. There are two kinds of plants: nectar plants and host plants. Nectar plants are flowering plants that provide a food source for butterflies. Host plants provide a place for butterflies to lay their eggs, which means they'll be back for another season.
When we last wrote about our adventures in vegetable gardening this season, we were just seeing some tomato and pepper seedlings emerge. Now that we're firmly in the midst of summer, the garden is taking off. It seems that it was just yesterday when all the plants were little seedlings, but now they're well on their way to producing some veggies. We transplanted the tomatoes and peppers, all of which are doing pretty well, and direct-sowed two varieties of heirloom summer squash, Ronde de Nice and Zucchino Rampicante, and purple podded pole beans.
In order to save some space, this year, we're going vertical! At first I contemplated creating a sturdy trellis structure to support everything, but after examing the garden, I realized things didn't have to be so complicated. I ended up lining the back of the fence with some nylon trellis netting and the beans and vining Zucchino Rampicante squash started doing their thing and climbed away. This way, we were able to plant a lot more in the garden space that we have, and we definitely have a lot more growing in our garden than we did last year.
The beans, which are supposed to get to around six feet tall, have actually grown past that over the top of the fence. The kids are totally fascinated with the growth of the beans, and I am, too. Shades of Jack and the Beanstalk, I guess. Some of the bean plants have wrapped themselves around our neighbors' tree; I've assured them they can have any beans that hang down on their side of the fence.
This Saturday we finally got a chance to stop by the new Farm Girl Nursery in Novato's Indian Valley neighborhood. This charming little nursery and farm is the perfect place to visit with the kids. You can meet some animals, including pigs, chickens, rabbits, horses, and a baby goat; shop for heirloom seeds and seedlings, produce, and gardening tools; and see exactly where your food comes from.
A trip to Farm Girl Nursery is a fun outing. The kids had a great time meeing the animals, seeing all the different types of vegetables, fruits, and flowers growing, and even got to snack on carrots pulled right out of the ground.
Owner Lisa Marvier is delightful and takes pleasure in showing visitors around the small farm. She introduced us her heritage chickens and pot-bellied pigs, and even dug some carrots out of the ground that she gave to our kids to eat. She also has numerous educational activities for kids planned at the nursery, including upcoming classes and a summer day camp that sounds like it's going to be a blast (for updates, sign up for their email list at the nursery or follow Farm Girl Nursery on Facebook).
A few weeks ago, we visited the Petaluma Seed Bank to pick out our seeds for this year's vegetable garden. After last year's experience with really slow-growing seedlings, we decided to be a little smarter about how we did things this season.
Last year's garden was hit-and-miss, mainly due to the cooler-than-usual weather we experienced here in Northern California. The hits were our tomatoes—we had tons of them, and the vines kept producing well into December! Sadly, our squash plants never really got going, and only produced a few fruits. What we had was good, but there wasn't very much. The peppers that didn't get destroyed by cutworms early on didn't produce that well, either. Hopefully this season will be a little warmer and we'll have better results.
Our first task was to start the tomato and pepper seeds indoors. Last year we used egg cartons. They worked OK, but our seedlings took a long time to grow, and apparently the egg carton cups aren't deep enough to allow for proper root development. This time we picked up a reusable and recyclable plastic seed-starting container from the Seed Bank. It has 72 cups, so we have room for plenty of seedlings, and the whole thing fits into a neat drip tray to keep things neat.
One lesson we've all learned is that growing a vegetable garden requires patience—and lots of it. While you can wish and hope and plead for plants to grow and fruit to ripen, it's all going to happen on its own time. Case in point: tomatoes. We spend pretty most of July and August staring at the same hard green tomatoes, waiting for some sign that they would ripen. "Any day now" we told ourselves.
Patience, however, is rewarded. First the cherry tomatoes started to turn red, or in the case of the Black Cherry variety, purple. About a week later some color started appearing on the big boys—the Royal Hillbilly and Paul Robeson heirlooms. Now, it's a full-on tomatomania. The plants are churning out more tomatoes than we can eat, so we're giving quite a few away (which are never refused, of course), and finding creative ways to use our late-summer bounty.
Everyone's favorite variety of tomato seems to be the Black Cherry. They're sweet, but with an acidic edge. They're really really good and definitely on the list to grow next year. The Riesentraube cherry tomatoes are very tasty, too, which is a good thing since there are tons of them.
Finally! The Dragon's Tongue heirloom snap beans have been growing like crazy, and many of them are finally big enough to pick. The kids searched through the rows for specimens that looked like they were just about right to harvest. My daughter referred to them as "green beans", but as you can see by the accompanying photo, they aren't really all that green—they're a pale yellow-green with deep purple streaks.
Not only do Dragon's Tongue beans look neat and have a cool name (they sound like something they'd serve up in the dining hall at Hogwarts), but they're absolutely delicious as well. Needless to say, these went into the steamer moments after they were picked from our garden. No real recipe here—I just steamed them until they were crisp-tender and then tossed them with a little butter, sea salt, and fresh ground pepper. We grew some more traditional green bush beans, another heirloom variety called Bountiful, and while they're good too, we all agreed that Dragon's Tongue were by far the tastier of the two. The Dragon's Tongue bushes still have plenty of little beans and beautiful little purple-and-white flowers on them, so it looks like we'll be enjoying them for some time yet.