Archive for May, 2012

The Cowpea Project

Making the transition from Kentucky gardening to Florida gardening has presented a number of challenges for me, but has introduced some opportunities as well. In some cases, situations bring both challenge and opportunity. One such example is known simply as “summer.”

In my memory of growing up around gardens in Kentucky, the most critical dates to be concerned with were the last frost date in the spring and the first frost date in the fall. There were certain vegetables that could be planted before the last frost, and others that had to wait. Some could take a light frost, whereas others couldn’t withstand any frost at all. The entire spring planting sequence could be planned out around these basic facts. As for the first frost date in the fall, the key thing to keep in mind was that certain crops had to be in the ground early enough to allow them to mature and be harvested before a killing frost would wipe them out. In either case, whether spring or fall, cold weather was the thing that had to be scheduled around.

When I first started gardening in Florida, I thought I could take what I knew about the seasons and simply extend the planting dates in either direction from the hottest time of the year. That is, I thought I could simply plant things a few weeks earlier in the spring, and I could expect things to continue growing a few weeks longer in the fall. Since the hottest days here are about the same as the hottest days in Kentucky, I didn’t give much thought to having to make major adjustments in my summer gardening routines. Granted, it stays hot much, much longer here than it does in Kentucky, but it very rarely breaks 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so what could possibly go wrong?

I know, I know. Famous last words.

The thought that never occurred to me was that there is a point each spring when it becomes too late to plant summer vegetables. That point in time also coincides with a period in which it is still too early to plant late-season vegetables. That leaves a significant stretch of time from about the middle of May to the end of August during which you simply don’t bother planting any of the things I always thought of as summer vegetables.

So, what do you do with all that down time? Many gardeners here simply take the summer off, much as gardeners in Kentucky take the winters off. However, since I’m still having so much fun getting back into gardening, I decided to see what options were available to me. For the summer of 2012, I decided to embark upon a new adventure, growing one of the few things able to thrive here if planted this time of year. As it turns out, I have never grown this crop before, so it will be a learning experience for me. I have dubbed this adventure “The Cowpea Project.”

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Until recently, I had never even heard the term “cowpea.” I had, however, heard of black eyed peas, which happen to be the most well known type of cowpea. The terms “southern pea” and “field pea” are interchangeable with the term “cowpea,” and seem to be preferred in some regions, but I was not familiar with these terms either. To be precise, cowpeas are beans that just happen to resemble peas when growing in their pods, and if harvested dry, the correct term is “pulse” instead of “vegetable,” but this is a blog, not a term paper, so I will dispense with formalities. In researching them over the past few weeks, I have encountered the word “cowpea” more often than southern or field peas, especially in academic literature and in seed catalogs, so I have adopted that name and will stick with it in my writing.

The little bit of research I have done has really opened my eyes to a world of vegetables I never knew existed. Oddly enough, it is one of the oldest vegetables known to man, having been domesticated about the same time as pearl millet and sorghum, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 or 6 thousand years ago. It is generally agreed that it was domesticated in Africa, most likely in the area now known as Niger, so it should be no surprise that it grows well in hot weather, and is even able to withstand some drought conditions.

Each variety of cowpea belongs to one of four subspecies of a single species, Vigna unguiculata. I have not been able to determine how many varieties there are, but I can say that so far I have run across a few dozen, a least. These varieties differ in a number of characteristics, including taste, texture, bean color, eye color, pod color, plant size, and days to harvest. To provide a reasonable cross-section, I have settled on five varieties to try this summer:

  • California Blackeye 46 — This variety is said to produce a heavy yield of light green pods with creamy-white beans sporting black eyes. This is the variety shown growing in the picture above.
  • Pinkeye Purplehull — As the name suggests, the beans in this variety have pink eyes and grow in distinctive purple hulls. Some have suggested that this variety is among the tastiest of cowpeas. I planted these about a week behind the blackeyes. You can see their progress in the next picture below.
  • Mississippi Silver — This is a relatively new variety, developed by Mississippi State University in 1965 to be resistant to a couple of plant diseases common in the south (fusarium wilt and root knot nematode). It is one of many varieties known as “crowder” peas, so called because they are literally crowded together in the pod. The hulls of this variety are silver, hence the name.
  • Red Ripper — The Red Ripper is a much older variety, believed to have originated in the 1850s in North Carolina. This variety is reported to provide heavy yields, even in hot and dry summer conditions. It is often planted as a forage crop, but is also reported to be good to eat. Unlike the others I selected, this variety grows as a vine and will do best if I provide it with some support.
  • SaDandy — This is an old heirloom variety of cream pea developed for the south. The beans are white and said to have a smoother, creamier taste than blackeyed peas.

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I planted the first two varieties above in small sections of one of my raised beds over the past couple weeks. I planted the other three varieties directly in the ground this past weekend. Even though they are planted in-ground, I still used intensive planting techniques. The Mississippi Silver and Red Ripper are planted in short, wide rows, using the available space in the same way I would if planting in a raised bed. That is, instead of planting a single row strung out in a line across the garden, I planted a triple row of Mississippi Silver and a quad row of Red Ripper. The difference between the two is simply a matter of the space I had to work with.

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The space I had available for the SaDandy was more square shaped, so I planted those in a block configuration.

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The final step in planting anything in my garden is a sprinkle with cayenne pepper. Without this step, I run the risk of coming back to find freshly dug holes where my seeds were once planted. Squirrels allegedly have a strong dislike for capsaicin, the ingredient that makes hot peppers so hot. By sprinkling it on freshly planted areas, the hope is that the squirrels will go elsewhere to do their digging, mischief-making, or whatever it is squirrels do to entertain themselves.

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There is one more hot-climate legume that I’m lumping in with this project, although it is not a cowpea: pigeon peas. Unlike the cowpea, pigeon peas were domesticated in India. Their ability to thrive in hot weather is one of the few traits they actually share with cowpeas. They take considerably longer to mature (the variety I bought takes “only” 120 to 140 days), they grow as a shrub instead of a vine, they need considerably more spacing, and in frost-free areas, they actually live for four or five years. I am hoping to get mine planted this weekend. I’ll be reporting on the progress of my pigeon peas along with the cowpeas.

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A Nightmare on Vine Street

The day started out like any other in Gardenville. As the sun peeked through the hedges, the dew on the squash vines glistened, just as it did on the beans and tomatoes planted nearby. The bright yellow squash blossoms caught the sun in that certain way that gave them a “come hither” look sure to be irresistible to any passing pollinator. The young fruits were already beginning to swell and take shape, promising the yellow crooknecks a head-start of several days in front of their rivals, the nearby zucchinis, in the race to the dinner table. From all outward appearances, it was starting out to be yet another wonderful day in paradise for growing veggies.

Alas, outward appearances can be deceiving. By the time the gardener strolled out for his customary midday garden check, it was apparent that a nightmare had come to visit Gardenville. The evidence was right there in the middle of Vine Street. Rather than find the usual assortment of minor garden-tending tasks, such as tying something here, snipping something there, or providing a welcome drink of water to a thirsty plant, the gardener found himself standing face-to-face with something much more sinister: the dreaded Melittia cucurbitae, otherwise known by its more descriptive term, [cue the ominous music] the squash vine borer.

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The symptoms were clear. Several vines had simply drooped to the ground, still attached, but totally limp, withered, and hopeless looking. No amount of watering would revive them from this kind of wilt. Upon closer examination, the telltale signs of squash vine borer were there — the translucent appearance to the affected stalks, the occasional small hole near the base, accompanied by an accumulation of gooey looking frass. A few snips and a slit later, and the offending organism was found. There it was — that inch long mass of writhing, wriggling larval protoplasm that spelled gloom and doom for any infected squash plant. The gardener’s heart sank.

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Epilogue

Despite my best efforts to deal with this pest, I eventually had to concede defeat. Melittia cucurbitae had won this round. My next planting opportunity for these varieties will be in September. I have until then to plan my strategy for dealing with this garden version of Freddy Krueger.

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In the meantime, the space previously occupied by by yellow crookneck and zucchini will be planted in cowpeas, since they are not susceptible to this parasite and do well in Florida’s hot summer weather. As for any cravings for garden-fresh summer squash, my best bet will be one of the nearby farmer’s markets.

Simple Pleasures

Up to this point, I have blogged exclusively about vegetable gardening, but that’s not the only kind of gardening I enjoy. In fact, the spark that rekindled my love of gardening was my butterfly garden, which I started a little over a year ago.

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This evening, after returning from a few days out of town, I was struck by the simple beauty of some of the flowers I have here and there around my house. My iPhone, which has a remarkably good camera, was conveniently located in my pocket, so I decided to turn my walk-around into a photo shoot. I liked some of the results so much, I was inspired to write a blog post so I could share them with you.

Because my butterfly garden is in a way responsible for all this, I will give a selection of those flowers top billing here. The first two pictures to share are milkweed. Milkweed flowers will attract just about any nectar-feeding insects, including multiple species of butterfly. What makes milkweed a central component of any butterfly garden, though, is that it is the only plant that can serve as the host plant for Monarch caterpillars. As such, Monarch butterflies are particularly drawn to them.

The picture above is a scarlet milkweed, asclepias curassavica, also known as a tropical milkweed. This is the typical color pattern for that species. The one below is somewhat of an enigma. About a year ago, I purchased a butterfly milkweed, asclepias tuberosa, and planted it in this spot. It promptly died. What you see is the plant that grew up in its place. A typical butterfly milkweed flower looks similar to the scarlet, with red and yellow, giving it an orange appearance from a distance. The easiest way to distinguish the two species is by the leaves, as the butterfly milkweed leaves have a somewhat crinkly appearance, whereas the scarlet leaves are smooth. All-yellow flowers like you see below are a known variation of butterfly milkweed, but the leaves on this one look like those of a scarlet milkweed. I suspect this is actually a yellow butterfly milkweed, and if the leaves become crinkled as the season progresses, I’ll know for sure. For now there is that element of doubt.

(Those of you with keen eyes may notice the crinkles in the top picture and think that I have the descriptions backwards. No, that once simply needed watering when I took the picture.)

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The two pictures of daisy-like flowers below are strictly nectar sources in my butterfly garden. That is, they do not serve as larval hosts; they merely help attract and feed adult butterflies. The first picture shows some of Florida’s state wildflower, the coreopsis. If you can remember the common name, coreopsis, it’s easy to remember the scientific name of the genus, coreopsis. This particular species is the C. lanceolata, so named because of its lance-shaped leaves. The second picture shows a couple of Rudbekia hirta, better known as Black-eyed Susan.

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The next few pictures show flowers located elsewhere in my yard. First is a double hibiscus. Nearly all the hibiscus I have growing are the scarlet variety; I just happen to like this one because it’s so unusual. I don’t even know the name of the color. The second and third pictures are of different flowers on a bottlebrush tree. We only get hummingbirds here for a few months during the winter, so if I’m lucky enough to have it in bloom then, I’m hoping it will attract some.

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The next picture below is of a relative newcomer to our yard. We planted several of these to fill in the space along the entranceway to our front door. They should spread nicely to fill in the space over the next few months. What you can’t tell from this picture is that the underside of each leaf is actually black. It gives the plant a rather striking appearance. This plant is known as a Plectranthus Mona Lavender.

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Lastly, since this is the beginning of the three-day Memorial Day weekend here in the United States, which marks the traditional psychological start of summer, I’ll leave you with a sampler assortment from the container garden found around our pool. I wish everyone a safe and enjoyable holiday, but most of all, please take some time to remember why we have this holiday in the first place. It is because of the sacrifices of those whom we honor that we are able to enjoy our simple pleasures.

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Dem Beans, Dem Beans …

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The traditional African American spiritual, “Dem Bones, Dem Bones,” recalls the writings of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel. In the 37th chapter of the book named after him, Ezekiel describes his vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones, in which the bones rise up and come alive again on God’s command. Interpretations of what this passage symbolizes vary widely, but one thing that is certain is that in Ezekiel’s time, about 2600 years ago, beans were a well-established part of the diet in that part of the world.

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In all likelihood, Ezekiel would have eaten varieties of what we now call fava beans (or broad beans), lentils, chickpeas, and peas. However, Ezekiel most certainly would not have eaten any green beans, kidney beans, black beans, cranberry beans, pinto beans, or navy beans, even though varieties of these had already been domesticated for well over a thousand years. Those beans were domesticated in the Americas, and it would still be a couple millenia before the first contact between Middle Eastern and American civilizations. On the other hand, it is possible, though far from certain, that Ezekiel would have eaten cowpeas (such as black eyed peas), which grew predominantly in Africa at the time and eventually made their way to the Americas with the slaves, whose descendants would end up singing that spiritual song.

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As I stand in my garden and plant beans, I can’t help but find it humbling to think about the connectedness of it all. Each little bean that I hold in my hand is largely unchanged since the days when they were planted by Mayans. It is not too far-fetched to think that the lima beans I have growing in my backyard right now could be descended from lima beans grown by the ancestors of the Incans. In the same way, the green beans I ate with dinner this evening could conceivably be traced to seed sown in three-sisters fashion by the tribes of North America.

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Among the more recent additions to my garden are some of the oldest types of bean on the planet: cowpeas, whose DNA could very well have crossed the Atlantic in slave ships. By the time I finish my summer plantings, I will have at least one variety that originated in Asia, as I have some pigeon peas on order.

This ancient food, the lowly bean, is every bit as intertwined with the broad scope of human civilization as the vines in my garden are with the poles, strings, and trellises I use to keep them up off the ground. Moreover, the varieties of beans available in global genetic banks (approximately 40,000) reflect the breadth and scope of diversity that makes up the human mosaic.

Of those 40,000 varieties, I’m currently growing nine:

  • Green Beans
    • Kentucky Wonder
    • White Half Runner
  • Dried Beans
    • Lina Sisco’s Bird Egg
    • Pinto
  • Lima Beans
    • Dixie Speckled Butterpea
    • Fordhook 242
    • Henderson
  • Cowpeas
    • California #46 Blackeyed
    • Pinkeyed Purple Hull

Of these nine varieties, it is the White Half Runner that stands out most in my memory. I had grandparents on both sides who grew this bean, and I remember growing it in my own garden. It is also the only one of these that has yielded food for me thus far this gardening season. I will report more on the others as the season progresses.

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There’s something about tomatoes

I‘m sure it’s safe to say that no one has ever mistaken a tomato for Cameron Diaz. Nevertheless, it seems that gardeners are drawn to tomatoes the way all the male characters in the movie were drawn to Mary when Ms. Diaz starred in the title role. So, what is it about tomatoes, anyway?

Perhaps it’s the endless selection of tomato varieties available to the home gardener. Just thumb through any seed catalog, and you’ll see an assortment of reds, pinks, oranges, yellows, greens, and purples, not to mention the multi-color varieties. You will also find varieties that produce fruits ranging from grape-sized to softball-sized, with everything in between, and you will see that they come in different shapes — round, oblong, squat, irregular, plum shaped, tear-drop, and so on. Or perhaps it’s the taste we all recognize, but that none of us can quite describe. What is it, after all, that makes one tomato taste more “tomatoey” than the next? Or perhaps it’s the way tomatoes from the garden always seem to have more of that whatever-it-is than tomatoes from the store. Or perhaps it’s the myriad ways they can be consumed. They can be eaten raw — as slices, wedges, or whole. They can be made into a salsa, a sauce, or a paste. They can be stewed, roasted, or sautéed. They can be put in a salad, on a salad, or under a salad, or they can even be the salad. They can also be a key ingredient in soup, chili, stew, gumbo, cioppino, paella, bread, bruschetta, sandwiches, pasta dishes, and of course, tomato aspic.

But what is it about tomatoes that compels us to grow them? They are not the most challenging plants to grow, but they’re not particularly easy, either. They can be killed by a light frost, and if it gets too hot, they quit producing. They don’t like to be overwatered, but don’t do well in a drought, either. They can also be heavy feeders, as long as you don’t over-fertilize them. On the other hand, they are relatively easy to start from seed. They also transplant rather easily. And for those of us who like to save seeds, that part is pretty easy, too. In fact, it is the ease of seed saving that has helped people develop so many varieties over the years.

Whatever it is about tomatoes, like so many other gardeners, I too, have been drawn to them. In my small patch of earth, I am currently growing six varieties. I also have three more varieties on hand as seeds, ready to grow when it comes time to start my fall garden. Here is what I have:

  • Red Beefsteak – this is a type of tomato that I remember from my childhood. It fairly reliably produces a steady stream of large, round, red fruit with a little bit of ribbing here and there to give them a slightly irregular shape. I bought one plant last summer at one of the big box store garden centers, transplanted it right away, and then nursed it all the way through the winter. I also have one of these that I started from a cutting a few weeks ago.
  • Super Sioux – this is a relatively new heirloom variety developed as a strain of Sioux tomatoes. It is a very prolific producer of red, round fruits, but they vary widely in size, ranging from cherry-sized up to about 3-1/2 inches across. My stepson has been growing these for a few years. Last year, he gave us some tomatoes from his garden, and I decided to save some of the seeds. I have several Super Sioux vines, all of which originated from those seeds. One of the plants survived the winter and is still producing.
  • Better Bush – this is the only hybrid I have, and I only have one specimen. I bought it when I bought the red beefsteak, largely because it is supposed to do okay in Florida’s hot weather. As with the two varieties above, the Better Bush that I have survived the winter. It has produced some fruits, but there’s really nothing remarkable about them. The taste is mediocre, and they’re of rather ordinary size and appearance. I am not trying to propagate it, and I won’t be getting another whenever this one dies off.
  • Brandywine, a.k.a. Red Brandywine – this is my first time growing the Brandywine, which is said to be one of the best tasting tomatoes around. The variety was commercialized in 1889 and was named for the Brandywine Creek in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The fruits are red and should average 8 to 12 ounces.
  • Brandywine (Suddath’s Strain), a.k.a. Pink Brandywine – another first for me, this variety was commercialized in 1980 after being grown by a family named Suddath for about 100 years. The fruits for this one are pink and weigh in at a hefty 2 pounds each.
  • Riesentraube – yet another first for me, this is a variety of grape tomatoes imported from Germany. In fact, the name translates as something like “giant bunches of grapes.” The variety was first introduced commercially in 1994.

For my fall garden, I will be adding three more new (to me) varieties for which I already have the seeds: Amish Paste, Large Red Cherry, and Lemon Drop. You can probably guess which one is yellow. Well, actually, it is described as “translucent yellow-green.” Well, enough about those; all I have so far are the seed packets.

I obtained the seeds for each of these new varieties (as well as the background information on each one) from a non-profit organization by the name of Seed Savers Exchange. This is a really great organization dedicated to preserving the genetic diversity of heirloom and open pollinated seeds. They are involved in seed production and sales, research, and education, and they coordinate a very large seed exchange network among members. At latest count, there are about 13,000 different varieties available through this network! As for the ones I obtained, they were purchased through their retail catalog, and all the seeds had good germination rates. Here’s hoping the plants produce just as well!

How does my garden grow?

ImageMaybe I have more ambition than sense. Or perhaps I just like variety. Then again, it could be related to the way I often order sampler platters or combination dinners when we eat out. Whatever the reason, I have a lot of things growing in my garden. And I do mean a lot. Forty different varieties, in fact, in my vegetable garden alone. And that doesn’t count what I have in my butterfly garden, my flower bed, my rose bed, or in any of the little nooks and crannies around my yard into which I have tucked a plant or two. Okay, I’ll admit that three of these are varieties of marigold and five are actually herbs, so that leaves thirty-two kinds of veggies. I guess that sounds more reasonable.

What I call my “vegetable garden” is actually a set of five separate areas connected more by theme than by geometry. Four of these areas are enclosed in raised bed structures, leaving only one traditional garden plot planted as rows and hills, with open space in between, from which the goal is to evict all weeds. Together, these five areas add up to a total of 126 square feet, which is about the size of a typical bedroom.

Putting it that way, it doesn’t sound like much of a garden. However, within that small space, here’s what I have growing:

  • Beans (3 varieties)
  • Beets (3 varieties)
  • Blueberries (2 varieties)
  • Collards
  • Cowpeas (2 varieties)
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Herbs (5 different kinds)
  • Lettuce (I had two varieties but the squirrels got one)
  • Lima Beans (2 varieties)
  • Marigolds (3 varieties)
  • Okra
  • Onion
  • Peas (snow peas, actually)
  • Pepper (2 varieties)
  • Spinach
  • Squash (2 varieties)
  • Swiss Chard (2 varieties)
  • Tomatoes (6 varieties)

Believe it or not, I still have a few open spaces!

So, how do I manage to squeeze so much variety into such a small area? The use of raised beds is a big part of it, as the beds lend themselves quite naturally to intensive gardening techniques such as “square foot gardening” (known simply as SFG by its proponents). A closely related technique is vertical gardening, which takes advantage of many vegetables’ capacity for growing up, as in “vertically”. I will discuss these techniques more in subsequent posts.

I haven’t decided yet whether to add more space overall or even what to do with the spaces that currently remain open. For the time being, my focus needs to be on tending to what I have planted. A few plants were only recently planted have yet to peek up over the soil. At the other end of the spectrum, a few plants are currently producing foods. In particular, three of my tomato plants made it through the winter and are still producing tomatoes now and then. I also have some beans which I planted in the middle of March; they have contributed to our dinner menu once so far. Most everything else is in that in-between state, which strikes me as a metaphor for so much else in life, this blog included.

Memories and Aspirations

20120510-013140.jpgMy earliest gardening memories are from about the age of four or five, following my grandfather around his backyard garden in the Bluegrass region of Central Kentucky. He would always grow a wide assortment of vegetables, almost all of which were heirlooms, most of which were quite common, more than a few not so well known. He always seemed to know what to plant, when to plant it, and where to plant it to get the best combination of water, sunshine, and synergy from other varieties planted nearby.

From whenever the ground would first thaw in the spring until a heavy frost would take down the last of the crops as winter moved in, he would work his garden day after day, bringing in all sorts of delicious delights that would make their way to the dinner table. I remember radishes, beets, and peas always being first in the ground and first on the table. Potatoes would be planted about the same time, but wouldn’t be harvested until much later. By midsummer, we would have tomatoes galore, corn and green beans every day, yellow squash running out our ears, and more okra than anyone could ever eat. Each fall, one of the last of the foods to be brought in was an enormous type of winter squash called a cushaw.

Granddaddy wasn’t just a vegetable gardener. I remember him having several ornamental plants as well as blooming perennials in various places around the yard, and I vividly recall the bright colors that would adorn his bed of annual flowers each spring and well into the summer. I can call to mind the texture and scent of a fresh mint sprig as it slipped into a glass of iced tea, and if I close my eyes, I can still feel the peach fuzz on my tongue and the peach juice dripping down my chin on a hot summer day. He could name every butterfly that wandered by and every weed that sprang up. He knew which insects would help him out and which would cause harm. He grew worms in a chest in his basement. He made bird houses by hand, and kept bird baths and bird feeders around, fully stocked and ready for the next wave of avian visitors. He would announce with uncanny accuracy when the hummingbirds would show up to feed on the nectar from his four o’clocks.

My grandfather has been gone for more than a quarter century now, and I have grandchildren of my own. I took up gardening again a little over a year ago. In that time, I have had a few gardening successes, and quite a few failures. What I wouldn’t give now to be able to roll back the clock long enough to reclaim some of the wealth of knowledge that he so willingly tried to impart to me! And oh, how I wish I had some seeds that he passed down!!

Instead, I’m left with a few imperfect fragments of memory, some pointers he gave me to help with my own gardens decades ago, and the boundless set of resources now available literally at my fingertips. To complicate matters, I now live in Central Florida, yet my gardening memories are from Kentucky. Though much is the same, even more is different. The seasons are completely different. The pests are different. The soil is different. Some things grow here that could never grow there, and others from my past stand little chance of making it here. I could go on. Suffice it to say, I’m learning, and will probably be in learning mode for some time yet to come.

With this blog, I hope to share my gardening adventures with you. I look forward to sharing what I have learned, to celebrating the excitement of each new harvest, and to learning whatever lessons my garden decides to dish out for me. This blog itself is a salad. I don’t have a recipe for it, but I do have a vision. In my mind’s eye, it is chock full of fresh ideas, with an assortment of tastes, colors, and textures. It is light, but filling, and very nutritious, with no two bites the same. There’s more than enough to go around, so pull up a chair and join me!