Friday, May 30, 2008

ENEMY # 1: The Starling

OK, so you've heard me rant sporadically about the starling problem I have currently.

Let me start out by saying that, as a vegetarian, I honor an animal's right to live the life it was meant to live. I try not to interfere with nature, even if it makes me a bit crabby in the process.

HOWEVER, in dealing with these birds, I'm starting to think that they are so smart that they've turned things into a big senseless game. I've seen them perched on the railing or on a container, giving me that beady, naughty eye, and then scissoring their beaks through my green treasures. Now if they were actually eating the spoils, or if they were using it for nesting material, I might be able to rationalize the destruction. But no, they just snip and pick foliage and let it fall to the ground. I really do think that they are just bored, and because they have a higher intelligence than most other birds, they come up with "games" to entertain themselves.

In all fairness, I'm sure I wouldn't be quite so upset if starlings were actually nice to look at. They are squatty, oily, dirty, and crass. If I had some plucky wrens or some regal cardinals it wouldn't be nearly as infuriating.

The problem is amplified by the fact that they have nested on our house. Our house is older, and one of the boards underneath the balcony recently ripped off. An enterprising starling must have eyed the hole one day and thought "JACKPOT". I swear it seems like there are about 20 birds living directly under my garden. Since the living situation is so crowded they are forced to just "hang out" on the telephone wires strung from the top of the house - a perfect vantage point for the garden.

Well, I've put up with the nesting and squawking and scolding for over a month, hoping that once the babies got older they would all fly the coop. Not so - I think they're made themselves very comfortable living in OUR house. I finally broke down this week and called the landlord imploring him to nail over the hole. I know, it's insensitive and oh-so-human of me, but dammit, I'm not going to lose my whole garden over some aviary frolicking.

Not only that, but it's in our landlord's best interest to prevent something larger and more destructive from nesting on this say, a squirrel or a raccoon.

So for the time being I'm stuck playing goalie, trying to keep these birds away from the plants. Our landlord has said he'll be out within a few days - he better get moving - I'm not sure how much longer I can hold out.

Updates to follow!


The Tomato.

The world's most perfect food. You can eat it with anything, you can broil it, you can sauce it, you can eat it straight from the garden. My husband always asks me what my favorite food is - my reply - "tomato". I'm told that this doesn't count because it's not a "dish". Whatever. Why would you add anything to perfection?

The absolute best way to enjoy the ambrosia of a fresh homegrown tomato is sandwiched between two slices of freshly baked white bread. Slather on a little mayonnaise and a dash of salt and pepper. Done. This is my definition of comfort food.

When I was little and stayed with my grandparents, I was notorious for requesting "mater-maters" during the summer months. I still get teased about it to this day. I must have some sort of inherent dietary deficiency that makes me crave these juicy fruits. Life (and summer) is not complete without tomatoes.

My first year in the garden I tried growing some standard tomatoes - I think I ended up with a Better Boy and a Roma. Due to size restrictions on the balcony, I don't think they had enough root room, and therefore didn't produce that well.

Last year I branched out - I gave the Roma another try, but I added Grape and Cherry Tomato plants. While the Roma continued to be mediocre, the Grape and Cherry were the stars of the garden. They produced handfuls of sweet, poppable treats all summer long. A peek at last year's bounty:

Definitely wanting to repeat last year's success, I planted three Sweet 100 plants this year. I have never seen such healthy, dark green tomato plants. I've got them caged and they're already chomping at the bit, seeing who can grow over the top first. This past week they've started to send out clusters of starry-yellow blossoms.

I cannot wait until I'm able to amble outside and snack on some 'maters.


Oh, my eggplant. *sigh*

My eggplant was a last-minute unexpected addition to the garden. It seemed like a long-shot, but I couldn't resist it's fuzzy little purpley leaves in the nursery. I brought him home, potted him up, worked in some fertilizer and some love, and was pretty pleased with myself.

Little did I know that my new baby was a carrier - aphids, to be exact. This is where my inexperience comes into play. I should have examined the plant more closely in the greenhouse before I made such a rash decision. To my horror the tiny plant was crawling with the plump green bugs.

OK, no big deal, I'll kill them all, give him a good spray of water, and quarantine him in the corner of the balcony for a while. We'll work through this, little guy, alright? Things were looking up.

Over the next few days I started to notice a few straggling aphids on other plants, such as my basil, jalapeno, and tomato. This is NOT acceptable. My garden was a paragone of bug-less-ness a month ago, and now I'm facing an all-out invasion, all because I was a sucker for a cute plant.

I've done searches for organic aphid repellents, and it seems that they hate garlic. I'm brewing a slurry of chopped garlic and cayenne pepper as we speak. We'll see how this works. For now it looks like I'm going to be on "aphid patrol" for the near future.

On a good note, the eggplant looks happy as a clam. His foliage is a beautiful greeny-purple color and those leaves are as soft and downy as a lamb. I've even noticed some little black spikes poking out of some of the foliage...odd?

I don't have much experience cooking with eggplant (I know, I'm a bad vegetarian). I think it's one of those intimidating vegetables, similar to a squash or an artichoke. Last year I forayed into the world of Eggplant Hoagies, with spectacular results:

I'm determined to make things work with this eggplant, aphids or not.


The last piece of my garden that I'm waiting on are the cucumbers. I've planted several pickling cuc seeds in a pot and have been anxiously keeping watch - I'm hoping it's warm enough for them. My thoughts were that for a container balcony garden the little pickles might have a higher chance of success than the bigger traditional cucs. I'd hate for our neighbors to get clocked in the head with a giant falling cuc one day...

One of my favorite ways to eat cucumbers is in an old-fashioned cucumber salad. My mom and grandma always made this old-timey dish. It's simple:
  • Slice a cuc or two into a bowl
  • French an onion into a bunch of crescents
  • Whisk mayonnaise, cider vinegar, and sugar into a dressing
  • Don't forget to crack some black pepper on top!
If you're like my dad, you'll just grab a salt shaker and a few slices and go to town. He's the biggest snacker I know.

I plan on training it to climb on something - maybe a tomato cage or even the balcony railing. The first step is to get some sprout action, then I'm going to have to be vigilant and make sure the birds don't get a hold of them.
For now, I'm playing the waiting game...

UPDATE! I checked the soil this morning and lo-and-behold we have some peepers! Exciting to know that everything is now sprouted and we're on our way to a summer garden!


Of all the plants in my garden, I find that peppers are the ones I tend to neglect the most, knowing that they're hardy enough to tough-it through the storm. The past several years I've had both jalapeno and sweet banana plants and they are so prolific that I have more peppers than I know what to do with. Last year I had so many extra jalapenos that they ended up turning red on the vine, then drying and freezing during the winter - a spicy christmas tree, if you will. No matter how many salsas, eggs, chilis, or stir-frys that I make, we still have more than we need.

This year the jalapenos are off to a slow start due to those darn starlings, again (sense a recurring theme here?). For some reason it seems to be really fun for the birds to snip off the leaves one by one. I know they're not making a nest with leaves, and I know they can't be good-eats, so what gives? I've read that these birds, while oily, pudgy, and noisy, are actually pretty smart. Maybe this is all just a game of mental acrobatics for them. Are they bored? Maybe I need to install some birdie play-toys on the balcony - something with bright colors and a mirror or a bell. That's got to be more attractive and eye-catching that a humble little pepper plant.

The sweet hungarian wax peppers seem to have been spared from the birds, oddly enough. I currently have three planted, which should be more than enough. I've started to see little flower nibs on the tops, so things should be up and running shortly.

Peppers seem to need less water and less attention than most other garden plants - this works out nicely as the balcony gets full sun from about noon til sunset. By the time I come home from work most days in the summer my little plants are crying out for a drink.

On the topic of watering, I'm wondering if anyone has information on using glazed pots vs. unglazed clay pots. I've been seeing some fungus gnats in some of my pots, and my hunch is that those pots are not getting enough drainage. It makes sense that unglazed pots would get better aeration than glazed, but they just look so darn nice. For now I think I'm just going to closely monitor my watering and maybe put up some of those yellow fly papers.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


I can't tell you how pleased I am with the peas this year. I think I was overzealous when planting them - I know they're crowded, but they still seem to be happy and are starting to produce. I found out the hard way that they cannot be planted too early in the cold - my first round of seeds in early March rotted in the ground. My second round sprouted nicely and have since taken-off, their little tendrils seeking out anything and everything.

I get such a kick out of seeing how quickly they twine themselves around things. I bought a trellis contraption for them to grow on, and in the beginning I was trying to train each feeler to grab onto the wires. I beamed with pride the day I came home from work and saw that they were finally starting to take. I'm sure that my maternal instincts toward these plants are a direct result of my resolution to not have kids.

I have about 5-6 plants in the container, and they started blooming about a week ago - squeals of delight were echoing through our neighborhood. This past weekend I noticed the first little pea poking through the flower's husk. We probably won't have enough to cook actual dishes with but they're best eaten fresh anyways. Woo-hoo!


I don't think that you can overemphasize the importance of herbs as part of any garden. Herbs are such a simple way to add some love to any dish. You will never see me go a summer without some assortment of fresh herbs. My staples are basil, oregano, rosemary, and thyme. My "fun" ones for this year are dill, mint, and lavender.

Something has been chewing a few holes in my basil I just found a few aphids so they're probably the culprits. Needless to say, he's not too happy right now because we haven't hit the really hot part of the year yet. He'll take off once it hits the 80s and 90s consistently.

The past few years I've always grown African Blue Basil with great success (read: basil BUSH). For some reason I decided to go more traditional this year with the Sweet Basil.

You can't beat fresh basil on top of a handmade pizza. My husband has been perfecting the art of the homemade pizza the past year and I have to say, his rivals anything we ever had in NYC (he wouldn't admit it, though).

My thyme, rosemary, dill, and lavender are looking great. The lavender is just going to bloom. I'm hoping it will attract some bees and butterflies to my little oasis.

Those pesky starlings are having a field day with my oregano, for some reason. They just perch on the side of the container and pluck away, leaf by precious leaf. I've even seen them hopping and waddling around on top of it, leaving a fragrant but defeated plant afterwards. Why, I ask you?

I've had a hankering to try some cilantro as well, but have heard that it does not fare as well in our particular climate. Maybe I'll just give it a shot next year. Any tips?


For some odd reason I've developed this rampant craving for red beets over the past couple years. Growing up, my mom, aunts, and grandmas always canned and froze veggies and fruits. One of the treats was pickled red beets. I always thought my mom's pickled beets were pretty good, but it's only been the past couple years that I've actually developed CRAVINGS for them - funny how tastes change as we get older.

Last summer I was able to coerce her into putting up about 25 jars for me. I have a secret stash of beets hidden away in a dark corner of our pantry - does that make me weird? This summer I plan on learning the art of canning with her. This is a part of my heritage - my mom's side of the family is Mennonite - I want to be able to pass this tradition down, even if I don't routinely put up bushels and bushels of produce.

Currently my favorite way to eat beets is in hunks on top of a nice big Greek salad. Here's the simple run-down (you can't beat this after a long day at work):
  • Lettuce (romaine or red work nicely)
  • Cucumber
  • Sweet Pepper (bell or banana)
  • LOTS of Tomatoes (I am a tomato freak)
  • Fresh Mint and Oregano
  • Pickled Beets
  • Crumbled Feta Cheese
  • Dressing - Olive Oil, Red Wine Vinegar, Dried Oregano, Basil, Salt, and Pepper
This whole long discussion about my beet fetish brings me back to the garden. I planted some Cylindra red beets back in March. Like my carrots, they sprouted well and are currently looking beautiful - their floppy thick leaves are a nice dark green with purpley veins, but I'm not seeing much of a root peeping through the soil. There are small knots, but nothing that actually looks like a BEET yet. Again, my concern may be due to impatience - or to the fact that I'm a worry-er by nature. I'm determined to be optimistic about everything I plant this year. And if it turns out that half of the crops are a flop, well, at least I learned something, right?

Here are some pictures:


Of all the things I've planted this spring, the carrots are one of the veggies I'm most looking forward to tasting fresh from the ground. I don't ever remember having eaten fresh carrots from my grandparent's garden - I'm not even sure if they grew them at all. Reading about the taste and sugar content of a freshly pulled carrot vs. an old grocery store carrot makes me pretty confident that the taste will blow me away. One thing's for sure, if it's anything like the difference between homegrown tomatoes vs. store-bought tomatoes, there WILL BE no comparison.

I've been worried, though - or maybe it's just impatient. While the seeds sprouted beautifully back in March, and the greenery looks ferny and healthy to date, I have yet to see a rounded top peeking through the ground. I've nosed around near the base of each plant and it just doesn't look like there is a large root forming. It's been a good two months now, and I'm wondering if this is normal for carrots to take so long. Maybe I missed getting some of the bigger chunks of bark out of my soil and that's impeding the root growth.

My biggest worry is that I will have some killer foliage but no tasty orange crunchers to show for my efforts. Any guidance? Am I just being impatient?

Here are some pictures:

Green Onions

Being the novice that I am, I made more work for myself by planting green onion seeds instead of sets. While I've had a little luck getting plants to sprout and grow, it seems like it's only a 50% grow rate. Next year I'm going to have to use sets - from what I've heard and read this seems to be the easier way to go.

I planted the seeds back in March and I currently have 5 or 6 plants that look like they'll make it to harvest. I tend to baby these guys because they limp along and the starlings have taken to nipping off the tops of the stalks.

Here's a peek (I've sandwiched them in the middle of my lettuce):


My bibb lettuce is currently producing nicely - we pick a handful of leaves every day or so for salads or sandwiches. The container has about 5-6 plants which produce continually as long as I keep things cut. I planted these back in March and they've been producing for the past few weeks.

While the flavor is nice, I can't say that I'm crazy about the texture. I'd like a lettuce that stands-up a little more, something with a little more body, something not so namby-pamby. It just seems rather flat and flimsy sometimes. Any recommendations for next year?

Here are a few pictures:


To date, I can say that I have had more success than failure with my new veggies.
Our first yield from the garden were the radish. The crop of French Breakfast were amazing - crisp and spicy but still managing to have some sweetness (not to mention they look kind of cute and funky).

I planted the seeds back in early March, and we harvested them in late April/early May. I have since planted a second wave of radish seeds, which sprouted beautifully, however, their little lives were cut short due to the previously mentioned starlings. I'm working on a solution to this problem.
Here are some pictures of the first crop's progression:

Final verdict: I would definitely plant this variety again. It does well in containers and I had no problems with bugs or disease. I was blown away by the short grow span (less that 2 months from seed to harvest)!

Catching Up

OK, so I'm going to admit that this blog was created about 2-3 months behind schedule when it comes to my garden. I started planting seeds back in March, so I have a lot of catching up to do in terms of blogging. It's taken me this amount of time to talk myself into committing to a blog.

To start out, let me paint a picture of my growing space.

My husband and I currently live in the 2nd floor apartment of an old house built in 1928. We're located in Oakley, an older beautiful "suburb" of Cincinnati. Our apartment has a balcony at the front of the house - it gives me about 6' x 25' of space to work with. Naturally, anything green is going to have to be situated in pots. The way I see it, when you're 20 feet off the ground there are going to be far fewer bugs and animals to wrassle with. Kudos for that. The down-side to being higher up in the air? Birds. Specifically, starlings. I'm going to have to vent those frustrations in a separate posting.

Anyways, we have lived at this location for the past three years, and each year I have become progressively more bonkers about growing a vegetable garden on the balcony.
The first year saw a few tomato plants, some bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, sweet banana peppers, and a healthy shock of herbs. The second year saw much of the same, minus the bell peppers, who were not very happy (smallish peppers with black patches). This third year promises great things.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I have felt increasingly drawn to the soil and back to my farming roots. While I have always had a passion for fresh, homegrown, local produce, I can only guess that this year's lofty aspirations have something to do with my grandfather passing away last fall. He was a farmer and a preacher in rural central Ohio. Every summer the Jantzi Strawberry Farm was the source of a juicy ruby deluge of strawberries for the local community. Their pick-ur-own patch was legendary and beloved, and I am sorely missing it now that my grandfather is gone.

The passing of my grandpa coincided with my first experience with debilitating anxiety. Now that I am functional and learning to live again, part of me feels that sowing this garden is a way of saying goodbye - both to my grandfather and to my anxiety. In my mind, I'm planting my worries and anxieties into the soil, waiting for them to be transformed into something more beautiful and useful (and not to mention, DELICIOUS).

It also bears mentioning that my husband and I are both vegetarians - loud and proud for the past six years. So you can imagine the amount of salivation going on when we even think about a sugary handful of cherry tomatoes or the kick-in-the-pants crunch of a freshly-pulled radish.

So back to my line-up for this year's garden. I'm shooting for the closest thing I can manage to an organic garden. I bought organic seeds and organic fertilizer. I'm not planning on using any pesticides other than organic concoctions.
    • Sweet 100 Tomatoes, 3 plants
    • Eggplant, 1 plant (not sure of the variety)
    • Jalapeno Pepper, 2 plants
    • Sweet Hungarian Wax Pepper, 3 plants
    • Strawberry, 1 plant (not sure of the variety)
    • Basil, Sweet
    • Oregano, Greek Mountain
    • Thyme, French
    • Rosemary
    • Dill
    • Lavender
    • Mint, Kentucky Colonel
    • Red Beets "Cylindra" (organic)
    • Radish "French Breakfast" (organic)
    • Carrots "Chantenay Red Core" (organic)
    • Cucumbers "Sumter" (organic, small pickling)
    • Lettuce "Bibb" (organic)
    • Bunching Green Onion "Evergreen" (organic)
    • Green Peas "Progress #9" (organic)
The seedlings were purchased from various sources, to include Findlay Market in downtown Over-the-Rhine and H.J. Benken's Greenhouse in Silverton. The organic seeds were all purchased online from Garden Harvest Supply. I purchased Espoma Plant-Tone fertilizer from Garden Harvest Supply as well.

As you can see, I'm taking lots of chances this year, considering that most of these veggies I've never grown before and don't know how well they'll do in containers. I will admit, as well, to being a very novice gardener - I don't claim to know a whole lot about the finer details of urban container gardening, but I'm learning!

One of the most important factors for me is that having a garden to tend gives me a purpose and a joy in life. I find that a great way to combat anxiety about the future is to have things to anticipate in a positive way. I view this project as my "worry garden".

Well, that is the basic run-down of my lil' green nook in the city. I'm looking forward to getting down to details and pictures in future posts.


Hello and welcome.

This blog has been created to address two facets of my life: the first, a struggle, and the second, a passion. Both subjects stem from my blood - both subjects are as genetic as they are learned.

My struggle comes in the form of anxiety. I have been learning to live with generalized anxiety disorder for the past nine months of my life. It can easily be said that this has been the most gut-wrenching and terrifying period in my 25 years of life. Anxiety touches many of my relatives, so I should have known it would catch up to me eventually. My intention is to let this blog be both a chronicle and a tool as I continue to learn how to walk side-by-side with this condition, instead of succumbing to it.

My passion for gardening has stemmed from my struggles with stress and anxiety, as well as my upbringing. Farmer's blood runs in my family's veins almost as rampantly as anxiety. As a child I have the fondest memories of running barefoot through the fields at my grandparent's house. Now in my mid-20s, I am starting to feel a "pull", a pre-mid-life crisis, if you will. My biological clock is ticking, and it's telling me to roll up my sleeves, run my hands through some soil, and start planting.

It's been since college that I've attempted to maintain a blog. My aim this time around is to not end up sounding like such a pathetic, gothic, snobby mess. I primarily plan to document the growth of my small urban garden, while peppering-in any illuminations that I may have concerning my life.

I'm working on this whole "growing" thing - both personally and botanically. We'll see how things go...