Archive for the ‘garden’ Category

Should I give up on my garden?

I have been asking myself this question for a while now. For various reasons, I was unable to work in the garden for most of the summer. And when I was finally able to find the time in September, I could not summon up the fortitude necessary to tackle a garden that had been neglected for 4 months.

It was really bad. Weeds were (are!) everywhere. No really. Some places are so bad, that I would have to go in and pull the really aggressive weeds before I could even start taking out the regular weeds. And there is nothing else growing because I didn’t really have time to plant anything, so all that weeding wouldn’t even pay off in a harvest of some sort. The Czech mate was no help. He suggested we just let the grass take over and be done with it. Three years of gardening looked to be a complete waste of my time. It was so depressing that I didn’t even want to go outside and look at it.

But I finally did go outside and look at it. And I found 2 enormous pumpkins. They didn’t turn orange, but they are HUGE and will make great Jack-o-lanterns. Well, that’s encouraging. And there were a few late strawberries and probably if I pull just a few of these weeds in the strawberry beds, I won’t have to give them up. And our young apple trees only had a few apples, but – oh my gosh – we never tasted better apples! And if I dig a couple of holes out of these weedy spots, I can transplant some rhubarb. And wow it feels nice to be out here in the fresh air, and weeding gives you such a sense of accomplishment – your progress is so visible and gratifying.

It was all like a story I remember reading in school. Someone gave a flower to a sad, old woman. And the flower was so pretty, the woman decided to polish her dusty old vase so it would really look nice. And then she decided to to dust the table where the vase was sitting, and then clean that corner of the room so the table looked nice and before she knew it she had cleaned and polished her whole house and felt happy again.

I have now spent that last 4 days in the garden, weeding and mulching and transplanting and trimming. I feel much better about it and even found a few things to eat. Like the beans I planted and forgot and some Swiss chard and nasturtium flowers.

So, I’ve decided not to give up on my garden, though some things have to change. I put too much energy into repetitive tasks because I haven’t found a way to make my garden more self-sustaining. I can just about keep up with it if nothing goes awry, but I can’t get ahead and make improvements or expand because then I wouldn’t be able to keep up with it.

What I need is a new plan. That’s my task for the winter months. A plan that incorporates more permaculture techniques, more time- and labor-saving solutions and more productivity for less effort. Sounds like a pipe dream, right? But I think it can be done. Permaculture is all about getting the plants to do the work for you, and I am sure better management will help, too. I feel like I have to put the effort in at the right times to save more effort later.

My perennial herb garden is a great example. I only planted it last year and finished it this year. It’s full of hardy perennial herbs and keeps itself relatively weed-free. The lemon balm, tansy and comfrey spread pretty well, cover the soil and prevent the weeds from growing. I’ve added yarrow, salad burnet, thyme, and hyssop. They all seem to thrive and are low-maintenence. I need more of this kind of thing.

There are still lots of weeds in  my garden. But I have rediscovered my passion for the garden and can’t wait to get back out there in the spring!

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L is for Learning

Over the past two years I have learned a lot about gardening and greener living.

Most recently, I have learned that I cannot blog every day! This challenge is killing me! It’s not that I don’t have something to say, it’s just that I’d rather not add crap to the internet, as far as possible, and I know what I have to say is mostly not original and quite often not as eloquent as what is already there somewhere.

I’ve also learned that all this food stuff takes time. Lots and lots of time. It’s hard to do with a full-time job and 2 kids. Even though I think it is ruining our world, I totally get why people grab the plastic bag of pre-washed baby spinach in the store. If I’ve planted some, I have to pick it, wash it, wash it again (spinach is really gritty and dirty)…definitely more time and trouble than opening a bag and dumping it in the bowl. Especially when you’re tired and hungry. Theoretically, it’s joyous – going outside, satisfaction of growing what you eat, knowing you didn’t add to the plastic in the world, etc. But some days, it’s going out in the cold drizzle and freezing your hands in the water while washing it and dinner delayed and kids whining…

Thus, I have also learned that food takes commitment. It’s energy I can usually summon up because I know why I am doing it and believe it’s the right thing to be doing. The blogging, on the other hand…ell, it mostly feels like singing in the shower. Makes me feel good, but no one else really hears it, and do I really what them to? (This is not me fishing for comments and compliments, by the way!)

I have learned that I am terrible at growing tomatoes. I just have not had success with them. I put them out too late or too early, they get terrible diseases and I have not yet had the kind of harvest I am looking for.

I have learned that no matter how discouraged I am by the state of my garden, by my tomato and other failures, by lack of energy and time to work, spending a good couple of hours always makes me feel good. The birds singing, the flowers, the worms and other creatures I come across, the soil itself it seems, all revive and invigorate me.


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I’ve written about Kompot before – it’s a local CSA I belong to. If you’re looking for a CSA in Prague, definitely check them out.

One day when I was over at the Kompot garden, I met a young woman who is doing her master’s thesis on CSAs using Kompot as a case study. As part of her research she did a survey and follow-up interviews with some respondents. My interview was last week, and it was really interesting. We talked about food and why it is important to me to be in a CSA. At the end of the interview she asked, “Are you a food activist?”

“Yes,” I answered without hesitation. Not that I ever thought of calling myself that before, but something inside of me said, “Yes! That is what I am.” So, what does it mean?!

I guess at a basic level it means trying to do something to make the food and food systems better. And in my own small way, I think I do that. I try to use my consumer powers for good, buying local seasonal food as much as possible, joining a CSA. I grow some of my own food. I forage some of my own food. I teach my kids and students about food issues. This blog is also part of it, I guess, bringing the joys of all this food awareness to at least a few others!


As yummy as it is funny-looking!

As yummy as it is funny-looking!

Just a memory really…When I was growing up we had a babysitter who lived with her family a couple of doors down from us. And they grew kohlrabis. No one else we knew ever even heard of them, but this family did and grew lots of them.

And now I live in kohlrabi country and realize that family must have been Slavic.

What, you don’t know what a kohlrabi is? Never tasted one? They are yummy and easy to grow. I highly recommend them, if you can find them! They still seem somewhat unknown where I come from.


Today is Easter Monday and the girls have just come back from (kind of) traditional Czech koledovani. I say “kind of” because traditionally only boys did it, but now girls do it, too. And while I am mostly in favor of folk traditions as way to preserve the wisdom of our elders, this one sort of befuddles me.

You see, the tradition is that young men weave a “pomlazka,” basically a whip, from young willow branches. They then go about the village and hit (yes, hit) women with it while singing a little rhyme. The women then give them eggs, treats and shots of homemade plum brandy. It’s supposed to make the women more fertile, but I must confess seems pretty barbaric to me.

My girls don’t actually whip anyone when they do it, but they go door to door and sing the little rhyme and get candy and eggs. Hordes of children all over the village do the same. It’s like Halloween without the costumes, but with actual horrific violence. Ok, they don’t actually beat people up, but I tell you that little willow whip stings! You can read more about Czech Easter traditions here.


Happy Easter!

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H is for Herbs

Of all the things I have attempted to grow in my garden, I have been most successful with herbs. In fact, sometimes it seems like they are the only things doing well. And already this spring, I have chives, mint, lemon balm and parsley ready to use. And the best part is, they seem to thrive on our poor soil and my benign neglect. In time, I may convert to all herbs.

A big project I have been working on for a year now is to turn the slopes of the vegetable garden into a perennial herb garden. I’m about half way done and excited about it. For the past 3-4 years I have tried to grow annual squash and beans on the slopes only to have the weeds invade. It got so I was putting more effort into weeding every year. That’s no way to have a garden! Permaculture, among other things, teaches that you should let the plants do the work for you, so I hit on the idea of planting the slopes with perennials. Less weeding for me – maybe almost none eventually, soil stability, soil improvement, great things to eat and use , a real win-win situation.

So here is what I am growing and what I do with it:

  • mint – We use it fresh, dried and make syrup from it, mostly for drinks
  • chives – fresh and freeze, for cooking
  • garlic chives – fresh and freeze, for cooking
  • hyssop – dry for tea, supposed to be good for colds
  • yarrow – nothing yet!
  • thyme – fresh and dry, for cooking
  • lemon balm – fresh and dry, syrup for drinks
  • tansy – bug repellent
  • tarragon – fresh for cooking
  • parsley – fresh and freeze, for cooking
  • comfrey – compost, companion plant, poultice for sprains and bruises
  • salad burnet – fresh in salads
  • lavender – dried
  • basil – fresh, freeze in pesto
  • rosemary – fresh and dried, for cooking and hair rinse
  • marjoram – fresh and dried, for cooking
  • oregano – fresh and dried, for cooking
  • summer savory – fresh
  • lovage – fresh and frozen, for cooking
  • betony – dried for teas, headache remedy
  • calendula – fresh on salads, dried, make calendula oil and moisturizer
  • dill – fresh and frozen, for cooking
  • sage – fresh and dried, mostly for tea
  • chamomile – dry for tea

To make syrup, I usually make simple syrup with sugar and add the herbs. I leave the herbs in until the syrup cools and then strain them out. I often freeze the syrup until I’m ready to use it, typically for cold and hot tea.

To dry, I either hand in the pantry or use my dehydrator. Stored in glass jars, the dried herbs keep all winter. I’ve become quite fond of sage tea with honey and lemon.

Herb lore is fascinating and every time I look at an herb book or web site I am quite sure I will never know even a fraction of the things I read about. It’s all so overwhelming. My goal for this year is to make more cosmetics and learn more about the medicinal uses of the herbs I have.

If you’re keeping track, I am way behind on the B-Z blog month! But I’m on spring holiday now, so am hoping to catch up in the coming week. 

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C is for Comfrey

Comfrey, Symphytum genus, is one of those plants that you either love or hate. it is quite aggressive, spreading quickly by underground runners and able to smother less assertive plants. Now that I have it, I am sure I”ll never be rid of it. But if I’m going to have weeds, they might as well be useful! Maybe the comfrey will even smother some of the weeds I don’t want!l

Comfrey draws nutrients from deep in the soil and accumulates them in its tissues. It can be used to enrich compost and to make fertilizer. Permaculture books recommend using it in guilds with fruit trees. My friend and neighbor reports much more vigorous growth of young fruit trees underplanted with comfrey compared with those growing without comfrey.

It has medicinal uses, too. I’ve used it to make poultices to treat sprains and bruises. One of its folk names is boneset.

It also has beautiful flowers and attracts bees and other pollinators.

The goal this spring is to transplant lots of comfrey to some of my problem slopes and also establish it under the rest of the fruit trees. I have realized that I need to work on ways to minimize my energy input and let the plants do the work for me. I am hoping comfrey will be one of my hardest workers!



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December Harvest


Celery root, carrots and red cabbage. Bonus points for spotting the sunchoke!

Yes, you read that right! Very excited to get a few things out of the garden yesterday and even more excited that there is more to come!


Lots of beautiful kale!

Lots of beautiful kale!


A bit of spinach.

A bit of spinach.







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I finally have a plan!

Our house is on a sloped lot. It worked out nicely for the garage…

Garage built into hill, back of house even with ground on that side.

Garage built into hill, back of house even with ground on that side.

But for the garden it is a bit of a problem. We went with terraces, for the most part, but there are still slopes to deal with. The first couple of years, I used them to grow my squash, but with all the weeds blowing in from the abandoned lots next to us, it was just impossible to maintain them for this use.


One year’s growth of weeds!!!!

But now I have a plan.

Of course I could have planted them with some sort of perennial, even grass, but I really wanted them to be productive, not decorative. And when it occurred to me that the most successful and easiest plants to grow are herbs, I realized that what I should do is plant an herb garden on the slopes.

One part will be a sort of rock/herb garden using left over pavers from a neighbor’s project (very grateful thanks to JD!), one part a perennial herb garden, and another part left “wild.” I’ve been busily collecting seeds from my favorite wild flowers to sow in the wild part, call it wild but managed!

Heat loving herbs. The stone tiles will block weeds and absorb heat.

Heat loving herbs. The stone tiles will block weeds and absorb heat.


Perennial herbs. I've worked about half way down the slope, with hyssop, chives, lemon balm and purple cone flower.

Perennial herbs. I’ve worked about half way down the slope, with hyssop, chives, lemon balm and purple cone flower.


Set of stairs my husband made. He will use cloth liner underneath to keep the weeds down and secure both cloth and steps to the soil.

Set of stairs my husband made. He will use cloth liner underneath to keep the weeds down and secure both cloth and steps to the soil.

I’m pleased so far and hopeful that I can get most of it planted by this fall to hold back the onslaught of weeds in the spring. And in 5-10 years, it should be mostly weed-free!

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Four Apricots


Four apricots may not seem like much to you, but to us, it is a dream. You see, these are our FIRST four apricots from the tree we planted last year. It’s a small start, but it’s a start.


And they were delicious!

And, apparently four is the magic number, because we also have 4 apples ripening on our little apple trees. The girls can’t be more excited about it and I am thrilled that the trees are thriving and that we all an appreciate the little things.


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Shoveling Horse S@*#

One of my goals for several years now has been to find a local, preferably free, source of horse manure. There are lots of  horse stables locally, but the problem is how to transport the manure. You can’t just toss it in the trunk.

Or so I thought! Friend and neighbor Andrea knows the owner of one of the stables and we went to ask him about delivering some manure to us. Take as much as you want, he told us, but he didn’t seem interested in delivering.

Horses at our benefactor's stable.

Horses at our benefactor’s stable.

He told us he had piles and piles of it, some fresh and some already composted.


So we had a look. And a think. And it turns out that well-composted horse manure is not smelly or dirty and you can load it into containers and transport it in your car almost as cleanly as buying it in bags at the garden center.

So, we did. Last week on holiday I brought a load over almost every day…rich, beautiful compost. My shoulders ached bit from the shoveling and lifting, but it was actually lots of fun. The weather was great and I had adorable companions.








The horse stable is in a lovely little part of our village, about 3km from the center of town in a little cluster of old farms arranged around a central pond. Time was when all of  the villages Bohemia looked something like this…It’s charming and I’m glad it isn’t all gone.




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When last I wrote about worms, I was trying to separate the worms from the beautiful black vermicompost they had made for me. I wasn’t having much luck…

Why go to all this trouble? Many people have suggested simply putting the compost out in the garden worms and all. But my worms are California red wrigglers, and this isn’t California. These worms don’t belong here in this environment, out in the wild, as it were. Invasive and exotic species are a huge problem in lots of places, and I’d hate to be responsible for some horrible soil organism catastrophe in the Czech Republic, all traced to the release of California red wrigglers by a well-meaning but misguided gardener.So, I am determined to keep my worms in the worm bin, but desperate to get that wonderful compost.

But at last, I think I have found what works….hungry worms, horizontal migration and lots of patience.

Last time, I tried to make them move up or down in the bin, but this time, I piled all the worms and their castings on the left side of the bin, and lots of fresh yummy scraps on the right side. I didn’t think it would work because I was afraid only the worms right next to the scraps would be close enough to know there was fresh food nearby. But I was wrong…it was migration on a massive scale.

Of course, it helped that the worms were hungry…I accidentally hadn’t fed them for a little while. In fact, I think this was key. They didn’t all move over in a few hours like the worm guy said they would, but within a day or two…I was amazed by how empty the compost was and how full of worms the scraps were.

Worth it's weight in gold!

Worth it’s weight in gold!

I scooped the good stuff out into a bucket and as I spread the remaining scraps out across the bottom of the bin, I was amazed to find the worm nest! Kind of gross, but kind of cool.







Now that I am a bit more experienced with worm wrangling, I hope to step up production…I sure do have enough worms!

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