Archive for November, 2009

We listed our friend Greg Ring on the acknowledgments page of our new gardening book, Mike & Roxie’s Vegetable Paradise.

Greg's fence and Mike in his "good" coveralls

Unfortunately, his contribution to our gardening learning curve — a cool rabbit fence made out of plastic plumping parts —  didn’t make the final cut in the editing process. Apparently the editors thought my wooden rabbit fence was plenty.

Whatever the reason, we still think other gardeners might benefit from having the instructions. So here they are in case you have some time on your hands this winter:

PCV pipe rabbit fence

We stole this idea from our friends Greg and Betsy Ring. Greg designed a handsome fence out of plastic plumbing pipe to protect Betsy’s strawberries.

I wouldn’t recommend it for a large space because this fence costs more per foot than wood.

But it is ideal for smaller raised beds, as it’s meant to sit atop landscape ties.


1 inch lengths of white PVC pipe.

Elbows and t-shaped connectors for 1 inch PVC pipe.

Glue for plastic plumbing.

Galvinized poultry fencing, 2-foot tall, with 1-inch mesh.

Broom handle clamps

Roofing nails or drywall screws.


Saw of your choice



Building this fence reminded me of  playing with tinker toys. Simply measure your raised bed and buy a sufficient supply of pipe and connectors to construct the number of sections required.

Sections should be no taller than the height of the poultry mesh. Figure to have a vertical support for every four linear feet of pipe.

Attach pipe elbows at the corners and use t-shaped connectors for center supports when building sections longer than four feet.

Secure pipe to connectors with plastic pipe glue.

Cut to size and attach poultry mesh with wire to the section frames.

Meanwhile, nail or screw broom handle clamps onto the tops of landscape ties every 3 to 4 feet, at least two per side.

Snap sections into place in the broom clamps. Wire sections to each other.

Posted by: Mike


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Now that there’s been a little time to think, (and I’m finally getting my “seed notebook” put away) it’s time for a few thoughts about the 2009 garden.  Here’s a rundown on how things went, and things to consider doing differently for next year.

What worked

This was a banner year for anything that grew by vining. With exception of the pumpkins–which always get the leftover, shadier space at the back of the garden–we had loads of cucumbers and butternut squash. Even the grapes, which are under a fair amount of shade even further back, did well.

Unfortunately, we took a hit from powdery mildew in the late summer. We tried the newest cure, which is a diluted milk spray. Some of the leaves continued to die, but interestingly, there were a few plants that bounced back as if bathed in the Fountain of Youth. Conclusion: Milk works best if you get it out there early–before the mildew has a chance to really set in. The leaves with the worst mildew didn’t respond to the milk, but the younger shoots did.

As to the cucumbers…This was the best crop we’ve seen in years. I credit our cuke trellis, which kept them up off the ground. My pickling variety seems to change every year because, for some reason, seed companies keep changing what they offer. So Pickling Alibi was a new variety for me in ’09.  But I think the seed also deserves some of the credit here. I’ll definitely look for it again.

Garlic was another success story.  We had probably the best garlic since moving to this house and breaking ground for this garden 10 years ago. I can’t claim any credit though. Mike planted it last year about this time. I don’t know if he was able to find any seed garlic or if he just used some from the grocery store. But he did plant it a little deeper than usual. Apparently the deeper planting protected the cloves from the growth-stunting cold of January. Definitely he’ll do it again–hey, isn’t it about time to plant them now?

Sweet potatoes were another crop that had a good year. But then they usually do.

I always feel powerless to the sweet potato. I put the slips in the ground in late May, water them in and they do their thing. Nothing seems to ever bother them. I suppose I could try hilling them up, as some people do but…why mess with a good thing?

Sugary Grape Tomatoes…Haven’t planted a cherry tomato in years. But yum! These things were so good I couldn’t stay away from them. Most of them went from the vine straight into my mouth and never even made it to the kitchen.

What we might change next year

There are certain seed varieties we’ve had good luck with that I keep replanting year after year. Maestro peas, Blue Lake bush beans, Celebrity hybrid tomatoes, Roma paste tomatoes. Are we getting stuck in a rut?

Maybe. Next year I’ll probably keep the beans, the Waltham butternut squash, the Romas. But maybe it’s time to try a new round tomato. There are a lot of good ones out there among disease-resistant hybrids that we haven’t tried yet.

Partly, I’m influenced by the sudden die-off of three or four Celebrities last August. Of course, the whole tomato crop was affected by a mite invasion, but the Celebrities seemed to succumb while the Romas rebounded. But then it all started coming back to me. We had a similar mysterious die off in that same area of the garden 3 or 4 years ago. Maybe it wasn’t the mites, but some virus in the soil.

So first of all, no tomatoes can go in that spot next year. But maybe we should also find a different hybrid, just in case.

Broccoli–meh. I planted Packman this year. Not crazy about this variety. It seemed very quick to turn yellow. And…worst of all…it kept on turning yellow even in the refrigerator. There was no little grace period between picking and freezing.

Cauliflower Amazing. This is the longest-maturing cauliflower. Ever. I think I picked my last head sometime in October (planted in April). But the seed catalogue is right. It does have beautifully smooth, closed florets that stay a dazzling white.

So maybe…a compromise. Maybe next year, I’ll have another cauliflower for early summer and also plant some Amazing to pick in the fall. Because you never can get enough cauliflower.

Posted by: Roxie

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This is (not) the end

It’s nice to have closure.

This weekend, we officially ended the garden season (yeah, yeah, I know. We still have Brussels Sprouts and strawberries out there, and we still need to get some manure and put in some over-wintering garlic. But it’s over enough.) Every year, weather and soccer schedule permitting, we make a little campfire in the middle of the garden and invite a few people over for an evening potluck out of doors. The first time, it was just a fun way to get rid of some limbs that came down in the previous winter’s ice. Since then it’s grown into a season-ending tradition.

I’m beginning to understand the seemingly universal need for some kind of harvest festival. It’s a way to clearly mark the moment when you can quit obsessing so much on growing the food and just take a minute to enjoy it.

Just about every culture on earth has some kind of autumn festival. Besides our own Thanksgiving, there’s the Jewish Sukkot, China’s Autumn Moon festival and  the Rice Festival in India, just to name a few. One of my favorites is the Loy Krathong festival in Thailand. To celebrate the end of rice planting and the rainy season in October and November, the people float lights in the waterways in beautiful leaf cups. This site says the farmers are celebrating the end of the heavy work and about a month of little to do.

Celebrating some time off. Yeah, that sounds about right.


If you ever get the chance to go down to the Crossroads area on a Friday night, check out the BAD SEED market at 19th and McGee. Mike and I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening there last Friday with copies of our book.

Despite impending winter, there were still plenty of vendors with goods to sell, including kale, pumpkins and gourds, strawberries (someone else had some late season luck, too) nuts, coffee, hedge apples and other natural bug controls among other things. I bought some terrific sheep’s milk cheese with lovage from a vendor from Green Dirt Farms in Weston. And even though it wasn’t a First Friday, there was a steady stream of people through the doors.

The people at the BAD SEED have been at the forefront of the urban gardening movement in Kansas City. Check out their web site here.

Posted by: Roxie


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All that's left

Not much is left of the garden at this point. Mike took down the rabbit fence last weekend and tilled up everything but the perennial scallions, a little dill and cilantro, and the three purple Brussels sprouts I put in with high hopes for Thanksgiving.


Even so, it’s been a nice day and I needed a break. So I went out to take one of my last inspection tours before we light the bonfire that marks the official end of the season. After that, all that’s left is to cart away the ashes, plant some over-wintering garlic and perhaps spread some manure and/or compost.

Despite some low temps in October, the dill and herbs in the perennial herb bed are pretty green. We’ll have fresh sage in our Thanksgiving turkey, barring a sudden plunge into the teens.

On my way over to the Brussels sprouts, I glanced at the separate strawberry bed by the fence. Our asparagus–so good a couple of years ago–has failed completely. But there in the strawberries next door, perversely, is a small feathery green asparagus shoot. What are you going to do?

There’s some red in the strawberry patch but that’s just the leaves turning. We should get some straw over them…wait a minute. Is that what I think it is?novberry

Yes. A little red strawberry, peeking impishly from under the red strawberry and maple leaves. And there’s another!

Forgetting all about the sprouts, I waded into the unkempt bed–which I admit having forgotten all about for the past month or so. There are more ripe strawberries. Six in all. In November! And a closer look shows several more green and partially red ones on the way. Is this unusual or have I just missed them year after year because I assumed such a thing cannot happen?

In any case, maybe we’ll have some for our cereal on Thanksgiving morning. Now that would be something to be thankful for.



November berries!



Brussel Sprouts

Wish I could say the Brussels sprouts were as big a delight. It’s been several years since I planted these little cabbages, and I have forgotten how to grow them. I remembered, for example, that you’re supposed to twist off the topknot at some point in the summer to force the little sprouts to form along the plant’s stem. But instead of checking, I just guesstimated and did it in late July.

(Sources say you can do this when the plants are 24 inches tall. It forces energy into the growth of the sprouts, rather than shooting the plant higher. My plants were considerably higher than this when I topped them.)




I ended up with puny, spindly looking sprouts. Maybe it was the topping. Or maybe it was the weather. Or the new variety. Sigh. I guess there’s not much to do but try again next year.

Posted by: Roxie

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Remember back last spring, when First Lady Michelle Obama made the news for turning part of the White House grounds into an organic vegetable garden? Time to check back in on how things went.

Picking goes on throughout the summer, but last week was the White House’s official Fall Harvest, complete with a visit by elementary school kids and remarks from Mrs. Obama. firstlady_harvest_SA-0233

Before the kids set to picking peppers and digging sweet potatoes, there was a Q and A. The White House figured all that gardening yielded over 740 pounds of food, for a startup cost of around $180. Of that $180, roughly $120 went for getting the ground ready. The rest was for seeds. So next year, presumably, the startup cost will be even less, since the ground has already been measured and tilled.

Not too shabby. Of course, that  probably doesn’t include the staff time for weeding and upkeep (unless I’m mistaken and volunteers did all the work). But even so, it proves just how much you can get out of a home garden, barring natural disasters.

The second bit of news from the White House garden is that it will be featured on the Food Network show Iron Chef America January 3. Michelle Obama will unveil the special ingredient, which must play a central role in all the dishes the chefs prepare (It’s a timed competition between chefs, for those who have never seen it.) The special ingredient, whatever it is, will be something that grew in the White House garden this year (my money is on sweet potatoes, because Mrs. Obama exclaimed over them to the children at the harvesting event).

And what news of the garden at the Missouri Governor’s Mansion? Well, M&RVP has not been able to get any data on how much was harvested, but Press Secretary Scott Holste did send along a few pics. Looks like the chard, in particular, did well.  Here’s what things looked like a couple of weeks back this fall:






Posted by: Roxie

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The Walnuts!


We didn't have quite this many.

Ok. Maybe it wasn’t as much fun as  the famous “Walnuts” episode of the old Dick Van Dyke show.  But getting our own black walnuts (free, picked up off the street) out of the shell proved to be a plesant enough way to spend an hour or so on a warm Sunday afternoon.

Not that I didn’t try to find a way out of it. Ever since picking up the green balls from under our tree (and some others) a month ago, I’ve been putting off the inevitable day of shell cracking. Partly this is because I remember how messy and laborious it was to pound off the green pulp. And partly because I’m lazy.

But this weekend I ran out of excuses. The soccer games were over. The laundry was done. The day was nice. And those walnuts were taking up too much room with the squash and sweet potatoes on the basement table.

“You know, the reason I don’t do these walnuts is because I don’t have anything to carry them upstairs in,” I told Mike in one last, feeble attempt to procrastinate.

“Yes you do. I put a bucket over there for you the last time you said that,” he responded.

Sigh. On with the chore.

Black walnuts–which  grow just about everywhere in the Midwest–have a reputation. Their shells are some of the toughest to crack. (In fact, the shells are so tough, they’re used as abrasives in industrial cleaning, oil drilling and as filler for dynamite. Check here for other walnut uses).

So I wasn’t looking forward to cracking those things, then digging out the nutmeats–even with the special walnut cracker my brother gave me for Christmas a decade ago.

But after getting everything out on the front porch, it turned out to be…not that bad. Tedious. But not that bad.

For one thing, the walnut cracker really works. It’s a contraption of heavy metal gears and a long lever arm fastened to a piece of wood. You put the nut in place and press the lever just far enough to crack the shell without pulverising the nut inside. In fact,  cracking the shell is the fun part, because you can put your imagination to work . (Let’s see…This nut symbolizes…You get the idea.)

But alas, then you have to pick out the nutmeat. And this can be quite frustrating because some of those nuts have dried a little and have a brown outside about the same color as the shell. (Note to self: Next time don’t put this off so long.)


Mike took over when my hands got tired.

By the time we got tired of nut cracking, we had a nice little bag for the freezer and only a couple dozen more left over.

Was it worth it? Well, I love the flavor of black walnuts. They have so much more character than English walnuts. But they are expensive. Nuts Online, for instance, asks close to $14 a pound for black walnuts (a bit less if you buy in bulk).

To get my roughly $6 worth of nuts, I picked up about one tall kitchen garbage bag of green nuts from my yard and a few public places, donned an apron, old clothes and rubber gloves and whacked off the juicy, stainy green part, let them dry, then used my nutcracker and picks to get the goods. So yeah, that was a lot of labor. (Look to Iowa State University for complete instructions.)


We couldn't keep Einstein away from the nuts--or even the shells.

But on the other hand, no one would have been paying me for my time off on a Sunday afternoon. And it was–somewhat–enjoyable. So yes, it was worth it. Next year, though, I’ll plan a little better. Maybe I could organize a nut whacking bee with my neighbors. (Or maybe I’m just out of my mind.)

Following is one of my favorite uses for black walnuts. This uses expensive ingredients from better days. But it’s still cheaper than going to a restaurant.

Grape salad

A bunch or two of seedless red grapes, washed and picked off the stem

One apple, peeled, cored and chopped

2-3 tablespoons medium soft cheese (I like stilton with mango)

1/4 cup black walnuts, chopped

fruit salad dressing to taste (Cindy’s Kitchen blueberry is my personal favorite)

Combine everything and mix with dressing to taste. Serve immediately.

Posted by: Roxie

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