Monday, August 15, 2011

Good tomato harvest year

Having been delinquent once again about keeping up my blog, with such feeble excuses I won't even name them, I want to finally post a report on this year's very pleasing tomato harvest.

As I reported in a previous post, I have several varieties of family heirloom tomatoes from which I derive my own seeds each year. This year, in addition to these home-propagated beef, peach, and roma tomatoes, whose correct names are lost in history, I also purchased supposedly disease-resistant seeds from a commercial seed company (Sperli's Delizia F1 hybrid), and some bush tomato seeds from an organic seed cooperative ("Balcony Star").

I've been having a good harvest from all 5 varieties, but it has to be said that my self-propagated tomatoes simply taste better - remarkably so. The bush tomatoes have been producing a large number of smallish round salad tomatoes for weeks, pleasant-tasting but bland. The hybrid tomatoes are healthy and meaty, but also not really better-tasting than local tomatoes purchased in season from the green grocer.

None of my tomatoes have been affected badly so far this year by blight, with the exception of the bush tomatoes. This hasn't, however, daunted them in producing prodigious amounts of fruit. Here one of the bush tomatoes, on our fifth floor patio, i.e. without contact to other blight-carrying plants (you would think):

The yellow "peach" heritage tomatoes win hands down as the family's favorite tomato. I am worrying a little, though, that they might be losing their specific characteristics through cross-pollination, and will be doing some research on preventing that for the future. Last year, my peach tomatoes were much "yellower" than they are this year.

Last year's peach tomatoes:

Peach tomatoes from this year's harvest (the bottom two rows in the dish), with more red in them:

Still, they taste fabulous. Runner-up for favorite tomatoes are the roma-style heirloom tomatoes we call "paprika" tomatoes. They cut like butter and are mild with firmer flesh and little juice.

In the photo below from left to right: peach heirloom tomato, paprika heirloom tomato, Delizia F1 hybrid, Balcony Star bush tomato. My heirloom beef tomato has pretty much finished producing fruit this year, and we've eaten them all, sorry.

One new problem has presented itself this year. For the first time, we have a deer(s) in the garden! This is terrible! I've seen them twice when I've gone to the garden early in the morning, and see their tracks and droppings around the things they like to eat most: roses, lettuce, and tomatoes. In fact, they've pretty much ruined some of my roses by constantly biting off the buds and tender leaves and shoots. We've conferred with our neighbors in the allotment colony about this and reported it to the administration. The outer periphery of the allotments is protected by a deer-proof fence, but the gates are open during the day and the garden colony is large enough that once in, they can easily hide during the day.

So we tried various things such as hanging streamers of red and white cordoning at strategic places, etc., to no avail. Finally I resorted to wrapping or covering all the tomato plants in garden fleece, i.e. "bagging" them. This has been very effective, but doesn't look too great. It was fairly easy to do since all my tomatoes are in pots under the eaves to help prevent blight.

It could be that bagging the plants has reduced the harvest somewhat, but it's hard to tell.

Thanks for all your comments on my last posts and happy harvesting to all of you fellow vegetable gardeners.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Slug-resistant plants II: Love-in-a-Mist and Dame's Rocket

Both Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena) and  Dame's Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) are flowers I tried after reading that they are usually left alone by slugs. Into my second summer with them I can confirm that this is true.

These flowers are touted as cottage garden favorites, and have been grown in European gardens for hundreds of years. That and the fact that they are native to Europe appealed to me. Love-in-a-Mist (in German: Jungfer im Grünen) is an annual, and Dame's Rocket (in German: Nachtviole) is usually called a biennial or short-lived perennial. In my garden, Dame's Rocket only survived one of our mild winters, but both plants have self-seeded very generously.

In fact, in the meantime I've learned that Dame's Rocket is regarded in some U.S. states as an invasive species, although in my experience, Love-in-a-Mist deserves this honor much more! I've been battling Love-in-a-Mist all spring, literally ripping out hundreds of offspring from the original 10 or so I planted from seed last year. Here it is crowding out some of my herbs. One place it didn't invade were the rows of winter onions you can see in these photos, so it must not like their company.


The photos above were taken at the end of May, but you can already see the myriads of seed pods being formed.

Love-in-a-Mist seed pod
The flowers and the foliage of this plant are very delicate and lovely, and so are the seed pods for that matter. They make great vase flowers. This makes it hard to rip them out! Another observation I've made is that whereas the original variety I planted was "Miss Jekyll", which has true blue blossoms, all the self-seeded plants bloomed white and I have no more blue at all.

Dame's Rocket also self-seeded, but not anywhere near as prolifically as Love-in-a-Mist, although from the one single plant (purchased in a nursery and planted the fall before) I had last summer there were at least 20 offspring - but not 200. However, the new plants this spring were not as lovely as the original pink-violet plant. The blossoms were not as showy and long-lasting, the plant had less stems, and the color was not as intense. I found a photo showing my single plant of Dame's Rocket last summer, and the second photo shows a couple of its offspring this year. I think you can tell the difference.

Dame's Rocket last year from nursery plant
Self-seeded Dame's Rocket this year
I tried digging up a few plants of Love-in-a-Mist and transplanting them or potting them for the balcony - that didn't work. They didn't survive being dug up well at all. Dame's Rocket, on the other hand, was very easy to transplant, although as was the case with all the self-seeded plants, they just weren't as attractive as the original nursery plant.

Transplanted, self-seeded Dame's Rocket
Conclusion: I will definitely continue to have both these flowers in my garden as they are slug-resistant. However, in the case of Love-in-a-Mist I'll be cutting off the seed pods before they can self-seed, and will grow it from purchased seeds again next year in order to get the lovely blue blossoms. And although self-seeded Dame's Rocket is easy to manage,  I think I'll invest in plants from the nursery again next year.

Another observation: bees and butterflies just love the Love-in-a-Mist.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Slug-resistant plants: Columbine (Aquilegia)

This post is part of my series on dealing with the slug problem. In addition to putting up barriers, I'm concentrating on growing plants that slugs avoid.

Collage of columbine currently blooming in my garden

One of my favorite flowers is columbine (Aquilegia). It has perfect timing, blooming right after the tulips and other spring bulbs have started to look seedy, and before many other summer flowers have opened. It is native to all temperate continents of the Northern Hemisphere, and was first mentioned in Germany, for example, by the famous mystic, healer, and gardener Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th century.

Columbine is easy care, self-seeding without being obnoxious, and beautiful in almost any setting. It's traditional in cottage gardens and can be found in almost every garden in Germany. I've hardly had to purchase any, since it keeps reappearing at various places in the garden, sometimes I suspect blown in from neighboring gardens. I've separated clumps and transplanted them, and I've traded with other gardeners. Right now, at the beginning of May, the garden is full of this elegant flower.

AND - slugs don't touch it. Go figure, since it looks so tender and scrumptious.

There are many varieties of Aquilegia. Its many vernacular names reflect just how widespread and anchored in garden lore this flower is. In English I found granny's bonnet, culverwort, rock bell, rock lily, and honeysuckle (Aquilegia canadensis, not to be confused with some varieties of Lonicera also called honeysuckle). We had Aquilegia in our garden where I grew up in Minnesota, and called it honeysuckle. There are sweet drops of nectar in the blossom spurs, certainly the source of this name.

In addition to the most common German name, Akelei, other names used include Elfenschuh (elf shoe), Zigeunerglocke (gypsy bell), and Narrenkappe (fool's cap).

Knowing how hardy columbine is, last year I bought an almost dead-looking plant from the bargain shelf of the garden center, and have been rewarded this spring with this beauty:

This one is low, but I have a similarly-colored variety that gets much taller and has double blossoms.

Columbine comes in colors ranging from white and pale pink to lavender and red through to dark purple. There are even some cultivars in shades of yellow, but I've never seen one. The kinds I have vary in height between about 30cm and 70cm (12 - 30 inches). The blossoms can be single or double, hanging or upright, and grow at the end of slender stems, sometimes widely spaced, sometimes in clusters.

I just love this tall, pale pink one combined with a lower, blue variety and bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis, another lovely slug-resistant flower) in a shady corner of the garden. Aquilegia grows in both shade and sun, but seems to prefer at least partial shade, judging by where it sows itself most copiously.

The tallest columbine I have is white, and truly looks bell-like. I've had to rip some of it out since it was crowding the saxifrage.

The following photos show off the various styles and colors of Aquilegia.

So if you don't have any yet in your garden, go right out and buy some of this versatile perennial. They can be planted or sowed right now.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wild Bees, Bumble Bees, Hedgehogs - Gardeners' sustainable living project

This post is my contribution to Jan's sustainable living project over at Thanks for Today. She has a great thing going, gathering blog posts and other sources on how gardeners all over the world are trying in their own small way to make the earth a more livable place. Be sure to take a look at her project - and not *just* because there are great garden-related prizes to win.

I guess like many gardeners I, too, am trying to inflict as little damage as possible on the other inhabitants of my garden. This means not using pesticides, and trying to provide a friendly environment for creatures that have a hard time in our densely populated, highly industrialized area.

In addition to our birdhouse, which is occupied each spring by a pair of blue tits, I've tried to attract wild bees, bumble bees, and hedgehogs, but so far have only been successful with the wild bees.

Putting up "wild bee hotels" has been a "wild" success. Almost before we were finished mounting them on our garden cottage, various types of solitary wild bees started to inhabit the hotels, both of which I purchased from workshops which employ the handicapped. Up till now I think I've identified the Osmia bicornis or horned bee (rote Mauerbiene in German). There are some other larger, black species I cannot identify. Within days all the holes in the hotels were occupied and many of them sealed shut. It's a delight to watch the bees and listen to them hum, and they completely ignore us humans. These bees are important pollinators for many native plants and have trouble finding the kind of rotting wood they prefer for nesting in our well-kept parks and forests. The hotels should be mounted facing south, and protected if possible from the rain by a roof.

Of course it's also possible to construct such hotels yourself, simply by drilling holes of various sizes (3-5mm in diameter) into a piece of hardwood about 10 cm thick. You can also bundle up hollow reeds, for example from dried Miscanthus grass. The hotel on the right in the above picture also is intended to attract ladybugs, earwigs and butterflies, but I don't know yet if this will work. The bees certainly went for both hotels.

Bumble bee house: Very early each spring our garden is visited by plenty of bumble bees, and I very much wanted to also offer them a place to live. So I purchased a bumble bee house designed to meet these creatures' needs. So far no luck, though. I've tried putting it in various places, including sunken into the ground up to the opening, at the time of year when the queen bumble bees are looking for an abode. You can just see the house at the back right of this picture, under the blackberries and behind the Lenten roses. I really took the photo to show off the Lenten roses.

Hedgehog shelter: Hoping to attract hedgehogs as natural predators for my slugs and also because they are just so adorable, we built a hedgehog shelter in a quiet corner of the garden. At the base of the shelter is a wicker construction covered first with a tarp to keep it dry, and then with earth, branches and twigs.On the floor we put soft straw and dry leaves.

This was a project that even got my teenage daughter into the garden. Although the shelter is on the border to the nature preserve right outside our garden, to date no hedgehogs have taken up residence. Neighbors have told me that there were more hedgehogs in the allotment colony before the very effective fence was put up around the perimeter in order to keep out rabbits and deer. We're still hoping.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

First spring manoeuvre in the war on slugs - building a raised bed

*see below
Dear readers, Sorry for my long absence. I don't know how some of you garden bloggers manage to produce such frequent and wonderful posts. And I know all of you are just as busy as I am in the spring. Please bear with me!

On to today's topic: I've already reported on my struggle with slugs in a post listing my experiences with plants they eat / do not eat, and in a post reporting on some literature I bought and read on the subject.

So this year, acting on the belief that, based on relative size of brain, I should be able to outwit these creatures without having to slaughter or poison them, I've decided to go all out and launch a strategic multiple offensive. Although my son encouragingly pointed out that they probably outnumber me at a ratio significantly more lopsided than that of our relative brain size, I refused to be daunted and have now completed my first tactical move: installing a raised bed with a slug barrier around it.

For various reasons - not the least being that we don't have electricity for power tools in the garden - I decided to purchase a raised bed kit from the Berlin-based Hogart company rather than build one from scratch. I'm providing the link for any interested readers in Germany because I'm very satisfied with their product and service and can highly recommend the L2 model raised bed we bought.

The raised bed is constructed of larch native to central Europe, a hardy wood resistant to rot. The kit included 6 pre-assembled side walls for a bed measuring approx. 200 cm x 100cm x 80cm; posts, screws and pre-marked drill holes; wire mesh for the floor to prevent voles, rats and moles from making their home in the bed; and heavy-duty plastic lining to protect the wood and help keep the bed moist. It also came with excellent thorough instructions.

raised bed and snail barrier parts
To assemble the bed, 120 screws were needed to connect the side walls to the posts. My husband got into this manly garden hardware task, which was also a good excuse to purchase a new battery-powered drill. Here's a shot of the almost finished bed.

The next task was to prepare a place for it on the lawn. Most advice says to place raised beds in a north-south orientation with lots of sun and easy access from all sides. I also wanted it near a water source, since raised beds need frequent watering. Once the location was chosen, we removed the sod and dug holes to sink the posts into.

After settling the bed into its final position, I painted the outside with organic, non-toxic oil to help maintain its beautiful warm reddish wood tone.

The next steps were to staple on the wire meshing and the lining.

The next task took longer than I thought - filling the bed. Two cubic meters is a LOT of space. We filled about half the space with branches, logs and twigs. After that came finer garden trimmings of all kinds, followed by the sod we had removed, grass side down. Fortunately, our garden colony's giant community compost heap is not far from our allotment, and I was able to fill a few wheelbarrows with branches there.

On top of the sod we emptied the entire contents of one of our bins of half-finished compost, and on top of that three sacks of organic compost I purchased from the city recycling center. I didn't want to use up all my own compost! The final layer was several sacks of purchased garden earth, and the bed was finally ready to plant.

For the first year, books and websites advise planting vegetables and flowers that need lots of nutrients, since raised beds are basically nutrient-rich compost heaps. I found somewhat conflicting lists on which plants these are, and ended up choosing bell peppers, leeks, kohlrabi, white radishes and red beets. The bell peppers and kohlrabi I had already propagated at home; all other seeds I planted directly into the bed. Raised beds can support more plants per square meter than normal garden earth due to their warmth - up to 8 degrees warmer than garden earth because of the fermenting going on below - and their nutrients. Because of the warmth I assumed it was alright to begin in late March, but at night I'm still covering the bed with fleece just in case.

Although a raised bed reportedly discourages slugs, I don't really believe it and decided to place a snail fence around the perimeter. I purchased the snail barrier from the company Metalltechnik Dermbach, and am also very satisfied with it, so much so that I've already purchased two more. Two square meters cost me about 40 Euros. Since this photo was taken we've sunk the fence about 10 cm into the ground, installed the corner pieces and screwed everything firmly to the raised bed.

Before putting up the fence around the raised bed, I tested a smaller 1 square meter version in one of the most slug-infested parts of the garden. I figured the ultimate test would be violas and zinnias, since these two flowers were devoured to the ground last year in this area. After almost a week they still haven't been touched.

Granted, it's been a dry spring so far, but I know that the principle these snail fences work on is effective, because last year I used snail collars that work the same way. They just cannot overcome the sharp angle. I watched a slug try unsuccessfully to surmount the snail collar on one of my sunflowers last year. Here are some of the collars protecting my sorrel.

While we were working this curious little guy watched from above!

That's all for today - happy gardening.

*Slug image at top of post courtesy of I am not endorsing their book, because I'm not familiar with it, but figured they wouldn't object to me using the image if I provided the link.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I have a new camera (Sony cyber-shot DCS-HX1)

After envying the photography of other garden bloggers - especially of birds and animals - and studying other blogs on the subject of camera selection for garden photography, I decided the best thing for me would be a so-called superzoom "bridge" camera, i.e. a camera in between a DSLR (digital single lens reflex camera) and a point-and-shoot compact digital camera.

I've been very happy with my Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W120, a digital compact point-and-shoot camera with 7.2 megapixels and 4x optical zoom. This camera has served me well and I recommend it highly. It's easy to use, small and light, and takes wonderful landscape photos, for example for vacation photography. Up till now, all my blog photos were taken with this camera.

Old camera: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W120

What it doesn't offer is a large zoom. Since I've been so happy with Sony up till now, I had a slight preference for also purchasing a Sony bridge camera. After reading lots of reviews, it didn't seem to me that there were significant differences in quality or price between Sony and its main competitors (Panasonic, Canon, Olympus) in this category of camera, so I went for the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 digital camera with 9.1 megapixels and 20x optical zoom.

New camera: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

Compared to my little compact Cyber-shot, this is a large, heavy camera, even though many reviewers praise how light it is in comparison to others. When the zoom lens is extended to full length, it's somewhat unwieldy to hold, so I took the advice of many websites and purchased a tripod as well (a Cullmann Alpha 2500 lightweight tripod).

So far it's paid off that I got another Sony, since the handling is very similar to my small compact camera and I could start right in. Something some people object to about Sony digital cameras is that they require proprietary memory cards and batteries. The included memory card is so small that you pretty much have to buy a large one right away (I purchased one with 4gb). This didn't bother me, since I figure it's a one-time investment, and my experience with the Sony accessories for my other camera have been good.

This camera is chock-full of features and options! Up till now, I've mostly experimented with zoom photos of birds, and macro photos of plants. I set up the tripod, hid behind a bush and trained the fully zoomed out lens onto the bird-feeding area in my garden. Here's the kind of results I've gotten so far. The first taken with tripod, the others without. You can see the difference, I think.

Great tit (Parus major) - Kohlmeise
Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) - Schwanzmeise (I think)

European robin (Erithacus rubecula) - Rotkehlchen
Great tit and long-tailed tits
I'm going to have to keep working on this. Above all, I need a good place to sit and wait, at least partially out of sight, allowing me to get a little closer to the birds.

The other thing I've tried so far are close-ups, i.e. macro photos. However, I don't think the new camera is a significant improvement over my small camera.

As an example, here's a photo of a  **slug** - yes, slug in February, chewing away at the sorrel. Apparently, these creatures are active at 10 degrees C (50 degrees F). Looks like I'm going to have to cross sorrel off my list.

slug on sorrel

So far, I've mostly used the "intelligent automatic" setting on my camera. But I'm looking forward to learning how to use all the manual options as well. Still, even then I doubt I'll ever achieve the kind of fantastic bird photography to be found, for example, on Sisah's, Diana's, and Carol's blogs, among others.