Hooked on Brassicas: Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi, in season due to climate change

story by Char VandermeerBy now there have likely been a few casualties in your garden. But like the Boss says: “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.” It would be a shame to let those containers gather dust until next spring, though, so clean them out, find some fresh, fertile, nitrogen-rich dirt, and get your brassica veggies growing.

Thanks to climate change, Philadelphia was recently promoted to a new zone on the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Chart. The chart is the standard gardeners and growers follow to decide which plants are most likely to thrive in their geographic area. One of the benefits (if you can call it that) of this climate-change-spurred promotion is that Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage and other members of the brassica family aren’t restricted to early spring plantings anymore. In fact, they’re good candidates for fall replacement plantings, if you don’t mind a little gambling.

Read More

Shoots & Ladders: Bottle of Rain

story by Char VandermeerHeat can beat even the most conscientious of gardeners. All it takes is consecutive 100-degree days to reduce cucumbers and tomatoes to sad piles of shriveled leaves and cracked fruits. But even though the best way to avoid heat damage is to keep roots cool, and the best way to keep roots cool is to water regularly, watering during the heat of the day—especially delicate, hairy-leafed plants like tomatoes and cucumbers—can be problematic. In the heat of the day, those dewy water drops become magnifying glasses that burn tender leaves. And let’s be honest: There aren’t many folks who can dote on their container garden three times a day like midsummer demands.
Read More

Mood Indigo: Growing blueberries is easy as pie

story by Char VandermeerI once took great pleasure in planning my flowering container garden. My imagination brimmed with bright annuals as I sketched plans and gathered supplies. I spent countless hours paging through seed catalogs, agonizing over varieties and colors, flowering times, watering requirements, height, greenery, grasses, vines and heaven knows what else. Although I’m still a sucker for a clump of bright cosmos, these days I’m all about eating what I grow. And if I only have to plant it once, even better.
Read More

Shoots & Ladders: Cooler Crops

It’s hard to believe that in a city where August is punctuated by air quality alerts and the heat index routinely hits the century mark, cool salads, after taking a short hiatus in July and August, are back in rotation by September. So, smog be damned, late August is a great time to plant another round of lettuce, bitter greens and radishes.
Read More

Shoots & Ladders: That's a wrap

October’s waning days and crisp evenings provide welcome relief from the summer’s brutal heat, but it’s a bittersweet reward: The summer’s bounty is already nothing more than a bright delicious memory, and your garden is largely in hibernation. If your recall is anything like mine, though, it’s a great time to document your gardening triumphs and your brown thumb travails before March hits and you think, “Now, what was it that I was going to do to keep my tomatoes alive? Dance naked in the moonlight while chanting the lyrics to ‘Eye of the Tiger’? Or was it something about marigolds?” So, pull out that frilly journal from Aunt Sally and take a few notes. Your neighbors will appreciate it.
Read More

Battle of the Bugs: It's critter warfare out there

Beetles, worms, ants and aphids, oh my! I’m convinced that because my Pennsport deck is home to the only vegetables within, oh, most of the neighborhood, every pest in the ’hood sees my garden as an oasis of tastiness. Last year’s battles included all the garden-variety bugs you’d expect, plus whiteflies, cabbage loopers and brown marmorated stink bugs
Read More

Shoots & Ladders: Pestilence! There are big meanies out to destroy your precious little plants. There are ways to fight back.

One of the upsides to container gardening is that crops are less likely to succumb to soil-borne illnesses. Unlike traditional farmers and gardeners, container gardeners have the option of starting with fresh, sterile soil each year. If last year’s crops lost the battle against blights, wilts or mildews, then it’s smart to ditch the dirt, sterilize some containers, and start anew. Sadly, that’s rarely enough to keep a garden hale and hearty—every year, it seems as though my garden gets hit with one affliction or another, despite the clean dirt. Prevention is paramount, but when that doesn’t work, witches’ brews and sacrifices to the garden gods are in order.

Read More

Science Friction: When your heart says heirloom, but your brain says hybrid.

I confess. I judge books by their covers. I’ll happily lay down an extra couple of dollars for the bottle of wine with the well-designed label. And yes, this unfortunate tendency extends to my little garden. For the past several years, containers sprouting heirlooms with awesome names (Mr. Stripey, Dragon’s Egg, Boothby’s Blonde, Painted Lady) and gorgeous packaging have taken up every available inch of dirt. Alas, the packaging often seems to be better than the yield.

Read More

Shoots & Ladders: Going to Seed

My garden usually begins in December, when the first batch of seductive seed catalogs slip through the mail slot. I hide them in a special stack far from my husband’s rolling eyes. Once five or six varieties of direct-mailed garden goodness have been collected, I tear through them in one delightful binge.
Read More

Shoots & Ladders: Be the Bee

A guide to helping cucumbers and melons get their groove on
by Char Vandermeer

If summer were a taste, it would surely be cucumber—or maybe muskmelon. They’re both little bursts of sunshine on the vine. While your planting space may be limited to a few pots or a tiny patch in a community garden, that doesn’t mean your taste buds should go unfulfilled. Philly may prove to be a tough habitat for these fussy vines, but that just means they’ll require some extra attention.

Read More

Gardening: Shoots & Ladders

Happy together: Companion planting can increase the yield and the health of your urban garden
by Char Vandermeer

It’s time to dust off those planters, rinse out the watering cans and get some dirt under your nails. If your garden looks anything like mine—a sea of containers atop a South Philly roof—then you’re constantly struggling to maximize your growing potential without strangling your plants in their pots.

Read More