Thursday, September 13, 2012

The case of the missing leaves

Last month, the mystery was solved.  The veggie thief was seen climbing the six foot fence!  There were two eye witnesses.  So now a trap is set near the back of the garden and baited with heirloom varieties of cantaloupe and other garden goodies.  And here we thought we had to worry about the deer jumping the fence. 

Since the very start of the garden installation, we have been battling it out with our neighbor Mr. Groundhog.  Before the fence was built, he munched on lettuce, sunflower seedlings and even some tomato plants and onions.  We thought we outsmarted him by installing a six foot high fence and adding chickenwire at the base.  He wouldn't be able to bury underneath and surely he wouldn't be able to climb that high.    
Somehow he was getting in.  Volunteers checked the perimeter of the fence. No holes were found.  The fall peas and beans planted in August were munched on down to the ground.  And the groundhog is also a suspect in the case of the missing sweet potato leaves. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Connor and Annaliese volunteer for the summer

Volunteers Connor and Annaliese volunteered with their mom this summer.  With their help, hundreds of pounds of fresh organic produce were delivered to pantry.  Here's what they had to say about their experience.

Guess what our mom made us do this summer? Gardening. We were home this summer, and our mom was a volunteer for the North Hills Community Outreach garden. She decided we should be volunteers too and help other people. At first we were a little doubtful, but it was good. We met new people at the garden, like Ben, Ryan, Mark, Stephanie, and Ms. Rosie. Ben was quiet but helpful. Ryan was going to Penn State for college. Mark was nice, and very helpful. Stephanie was kind, and helpful. Ms. Rosie was the boss, funny, and very helpful.

We also harvested many crops. We had dinosaur skin kale and curly kale. We had regular cucumbers and lemon cucumbers. We also had red, green, neon, orange, and yellow Swiss chard. We also had whitish yellow beans, purple beans, red striped beans, purple striped beans, yellow striped beans, and green beans. We also harvested big corn, watermelon, little yellow cherry tomatoes, strange shaped tomatoes, and big regular tomatoes. We also had Patty pan squash, and original squash. We also had herbs like mint, basil, parsley. We also had beets, little wild strawberries, carrots, and cabbages that are not harvested in the summer.

We got a lot out of helping in the garden. We helped others by delivering fresh produce we harvested from the garden to the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry every week. We were happy, sweaty, and dirty. We also got to know people better. We also learned a lot about vegetables. Most importantly, we spent time with our mom!

-          Connor, age 11, and  Annaliese, age 8 (with mom Laura, aka pretty garden boots lady)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thinning out

The days are getting longer, the temperatures are getting warmer. The spring crops are sprouting and we’ve even harvested lettuce. But there's one chore gardeners are dreading this time of year. Thinning out crops like carrots and beets ensures that they have plenty of room. Overcrowding means seedlings compete for water and nutrients resulting in a poor harvest. It is still hard to end a seedling’s fate of becoming what it is trying so hard to do - grow. Not all is lost. Some seedlings like lettuce and swiss chard can be transplanted elsewhere in the garden, if extra care is taken. Root vegetable seedlings do not like to be disturbed and do not transplant well. These young shoots can be enjoyed in a spring salad mix or they will turn into plant food in the compost bin for next year’s crops.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Flying the coop

One of the garden volunteers, Dee, has started a new adventure at home, raising chickens...

Day One:  Today is the day!  I have been dreaming and planning of raising some chickens in the backyard for a couple of years.  Bringing the hubby on board was another matter!  I tried to explain we could have our own fresh, organic eggs and I wanted the manure for amazing compost for my organic garden.  He still wasn't interested.  "Buy the eggs from the store and get the manure from a farm or a bag", he said. "But they can be pets, too," I was trying all I could think of.  Then one day, he came home and said, "Did you know chickens eat ticks and stink bugs?"  Well, yeah, among other things….and that's all it took.  Huh, imagine that!  Who would’ve thought the selling point would be bugs?
I brought the baby chicks home in a box that was much smaller than I imagined I would need, like the size of a shoe box only a little taller.  The breeder said it needs to be that small so that they keep warm on the ride home with their body heat.  I kept the heat on almost full blast the whole way home since it was a cold day and the wind chill said 24F.   I came home with seven chicks in hopes that at least three or four will be hens.  The roosters will be going back to the farm.  I just don't want a wake-up call to all the neighbors at 5 a.m. every morning. 

I chose a variety of chicks and the breeder was very knowledgeable.  I chose a Australorp, a Buckeye, two Easter Eggers, a Silver Laced Wyandotte, a Golden Laced Wyandotte and a Chantecler.   She took her time with me to explain each breed I was interested in and their pros and cons.  I got a tour of her coops and pens as she showed me all the other chicks I might be interested in, which was invaluable to me since tours are not done because of biohazard reasons.  It was great for me because I could see what the whole operation of raising chickens looked like in reality, not just photos in a book.
I keep them in a large, appliance cardboard box in the basement and I tied a sturdy string from a nail in a beam to the clip handle of the light so that they can keep warm.  That way, it is easier to move the box around or the light up or down to regulate the heat.  I also put a thermometer in the box and taped over it with clear duct tape because the chicks tried to peck at it.  I spread really small shredded newspaper for bedding and spread some starter feed around in the bedding.  They just loved scratching around in there for the food!   I also learned that you can use old towels for baby chicks if you have a cage set up instead of a box.  The cage weighs the towel down so that it doesn't get "scratched up" by the chicks. 

At the other end of the box, I put their water dish.  You can buy them at feed stores, but I made my own out of recycled materials.  I used an empty plastic pretzel container with a lid, and the bottom of a plastic round Chinese takeout container.  Here's how I made it.
Step 1: Hot-glued the takeout container to the top of the lid. 

Step 2: Used a sharp knife and carefully made some puncture holes in the pretzel container just below the section where the lid screws on, being careful that all holes were below the top of the height of the takeout container.

Step 3:  Unscrewed the lid from the pretzel container and filled it with water, put the lid back on, turned it upside down, which is right side up for the waterer, and viola!
In hindsight, I would've glued the bottom of the pretzel jar to the bowl instead of the lid so that I can just unscrew the top to refill it if it is not dirty.

I did have to dip each chick's beak into the waterer for them to understand what it was.  Baby chicks are not too bright! After that, they had no problems getting a drink of water whenever they were thirsty.
Whenever it came time for bed, I was concerned that they would stay up all night peeping since the only light I have is a white one, not a red one, but when I snuck downstairs to check on them, they were all sleeping in a row.  I expected them to be in a ball huddled together, but not so.  Some were sleeping in a sitting position with their beaks tucked under their wings, others were laid out on their stomachs with their necks out stretched on the floor of the brooder.  That was a funny sight. And yes, I did check to make sure those were breathing! I think I will add a small dowel rod or twig as a roosting bar and cover the top with chicken wire or left over window screen.  I am happy to say that the chicks did not wake me at all throughout the night.

Day 3: Chicks are starting to come to my side of the box when they see me peak over the edge at them.  The Buckeye seems to be the "Mother Hen" of the bunch.  She is also about two weeks older than the youngest of the bunch.  I have some a few weeks old and some a few days old.  They all seem to be fine together.  I found an animal store that carries organic soy-free chicken feed in Pittsburgh.  It is called Animal Nature on Forbes Avenue in Regent Square. I am very happy to find a place to buy locally and not have to pay almost as much in shipping as in feed like you do when you order online.  The helpful lady I spoke to said they are ordering chicks soon.
The only pain in the neck thing is cleaning out their waterer.  It doesn't take long but you do become aware that chickens may be a little stupid.

They poop in their own water supply.
 I clean it once in the morning when I get up and once at night when I get home.  I check it one more time before bed, but it is usually OK at that point.  I am using finely shredded newspaper for bedding and they sometimes get pieces of it in their waterer when scratching for food.  I have the waterer sitting on two pieces of scrap wood to elevate it more to cut down on this happening.  I pour the water that has poop in it on the compost pile and refill it and it's done.  Then I scrub my hands with soap, use a fingernail brush and that's it. It really is so much more simple than I imagined.  Anybody can do this.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wanted: Garlic Mustard

It looks innocent enough. But a delicate plant that's in bloom right now is silently wreaking HAVOC. Garlic mustard is a bully in the plant world. It was thought to have been brought over from Europe in the 1800's for cooking and medicinal purposes. Yep, it's edible and spreads fast, crowding out our native species. As a result, native insects that depend on native plants and flowers suffer as well.

We have some growing in the back portion of our property in the shade. It's a cool season biennial. The plant produces flowers in the second year of its life and then dies. So those plants flowering this year are in their terrible twos and will produce seeds.

Controlling this invasive plant requires timing and persistence. Year-old plants that will not produce a flower this year should be pulled up by the roots. Lay the pulled plants somewhere they can completely dry out before putting them in the compost bin. Flowers can be picked from the two-year-old plants. They will have to be burned or thrown away as the seeds can survive for quite a while.

For more info, check out the USDA's National Invasive Species Information Center at

Friday, March 30, 2012

Try coloring eggs naturally

Use about a handfull of dye materials of your choice. Cover dye materials with water in a pan. Bring to boil and then let simmer for 15 minutes to up to an hour. Remove from heat and strain the liquid. Add 2 to 3 teaspoons of white vinegar for each cup of liquid. Let the eggs soak. The longer the eggs soak, the deeper the color. Try overnight soaking in the fridge for even darker colors. In the morning, you'll have a colorful breakfast.

Items To Dye With

Canned Blueberries

Red Cabbage Leaves (boiled)

Purple Grape Juice
Brown or Beige

Strong Coffee

Instant Coffee

Black Walnut Shells (boiled)

Black Tea
Brown Gold

Dill Seeds
Brown Orange

Chili Powder


Spinach Leaves (boiled)

Liquid Chlorophyll
Greenish Yellow

Yellow Delicious Apple Peels (boiled)

Purple or red grape juice or beet juice

Small Quantity of Purple Grape Juice

Violet Blossoms plus 2 tsp Lemon Juice

Red Zinger Tea

Yellow Onion Skins (boiled)




Cranberries or Juice


Red Grape Juice

Juice from Pickled Beets

Pomegranate juice
Canned Cherries (with syrup)
Lots of Red Onions Skins (boiled)
Violet or Purple

Violet Blossoms

Hibiscus tea

Small Quantity of Red Onions Skins (boiled)

Red Wine

Orange or Lemon Peels (boiled)

Carrot Tops (boiled)

Chamomile Tea

Celery Seed (boiled)

Green tea

Ground Cumin (boiled)

Ground Turmeric (boiled) or Saffron

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Keeping our cool

Happy St. Patty's Day!!!

Peas were soaked overnight to help speed up germination

Often, Memorial Day weekend is thought of as the time to start planting veggies outside.  That's true for some crops.  Heat-loving plants like tomatoes, peppers, squash and eggplants thrive in the summer heat and hate the cold. There is still the fear of frost in the Pittsburgh area until mid-to-late May.  The weather is unusually warm this year, but don't be tempted to plant heat-loving crops.  The frost will kill those seedlings.  

Instead, cool season crops are the perfect choice for planting this time of year. St. Patrick’s Day is a good time to plant greens, peas, carrots, beets and radishes.  These plants tolerate the cooler weather and taste sweeter after a frost.  We planted seven lucky varieties of peas, even a yellow variety called "Golden Sweet." 

Pea ready to be planted

Just a reminder, it  snowed last year on March 31, the same day as the public garden kick-off meeting. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Wormy workers

We have started preparing the beds for spring crops.  The in-ground beds and garden paths between the rows need a bit of re-grading.  Thanks to the earthworms, the soil is loose, even on the paths which were walked on over and over last year.  The soil temperature is getting warmer and the earthworms are making their appearance above ground.  This guy was found next to some of the lettuce that overwintered.  Earthworms are quite the workers and a delight to see in the garden.  They aerate the soil, breaking down organic matter and help make nutrients and minerals available to plants.  Our harvests of summer crops, like tomatoes, are months away, but our earthworms are hard at work already. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Delicious delicata

It's a new year and we are nearly a month into winter.  The first year of the garden produced 3000 pounds of food including zucchini, pumpkins, cucumbers, string beans, radishes, carrots, cabbage, kale, potatoes, lettuce, onions, stem and cherry tomatoes, peppers, swiss chard, basil, parsley and delicata squash, pictured above. 

Delicata squash is a winter squash.  Winter squashes are called so because they keep til winter without any special requirements.  We picked the mature delicatas in September and offered them at pantry.  Some pantry clients were hesitant to take one.  But these small striped fruits are delicious and sometimes called the sweet potoato squash.  Plus they can be left on the kitchen counter for several months without spoiling.  The hard outer skin is a natural preservation.  Summer squash, like zucchinis,  are picked while the skin is still soft and the fruit is immature.  Summer squash should be eaten within a week of picking and often served raw while winter squash are usually cooked.  Other varieties of winter squash include acorn, spaghetti and butternut.   

The planting beds were put to bed last month, but we are already preparing for the 2012 growing season.  Winter is an exciting time for gardeners, planning for warmer months and ordering seeds and seedlings during these cold days of winter.  The first day of spring is only 2 months away!