Winter? Spring? What???!!!

21 Feb

IMG_2689.jpgForget rigidly following the traditional wisdom of when to do what when it comes to gardening. Global warming (yes, deniers, it does exist!) has thrown the playbook out the window. I have learned over the past five years that one needs to look at the calendar and guidance on when to start seeds indoors, when to harden off and when to put seedlings in the ground — with a grain of salt.  Or grain of compost in the gardening vernacular.

On the bright side,  the unpredictability of a gardening season is an opportunity to go a bit with the flow, let go of a little control, get over disappointments of crop fails and move on. And, in the process, learn that hey, doing so is actually not so bad. As a matter of fact, it is kinda liberating and an adventure in accepting and going with the ebbs and flows of nature.

To that end, a few days ago it was freezing. A few days before that we had snow followed by freezing rain and ice. We are talking temperatures in the teens. I decided to be in full denial of the deep winter freeze and planted a few tomato seeds last weekend. A few are already sprouting.


Today?  It is in the 60’s. So, I took the cue, even though I know this is transitory, and planted a few pepper seeds in one of my indoor greenhouses. I know it is a bit early. But hey, so what. Be bold. Peppers actually need a bit more tender loving care and time to sprout than tomato seeds. If this does not work out, I can always start a few more later and see how it goes.

This year I ordered the 2016 Art Pack Boxed Collection of seeds from the Hudson Valley Seed Library. I love this company. I was introduced to it by my sister-in-law who sent a few seed packs to me for Christmas a few years back. I was hooked. I love the beautifully and creatively crafted artwork depicted on each seed pack. In previous years by the time I got around to ordering seeds, the Art Packs were sold out. What is an Art Pack?  It is “15 spectacular varieties packed in artwork by 15 artists, using mediums including: Watercolor, oil painting, pen and ink, stained glass, paper sculpture, and paper-painting. The original works from each year form a traveling exhibit called Art of the Heirloom.” See:

This year I thought ahead and ordered the Art Pack early. Also, as a bonus, since this year I am buried with work and all sorts of commitments, I very much appreciated the Art Pack because it took out the pressure of figuring out what to order. When the box arrived, I was like a child at Christmas time opening up a gift. Not sure (well actually, I am quite sure) that my husband and son were not as enthused as I was but they did the obligatory smile and showed enough encouragement as to not dampen my excitement.

So the 2016 gardening season has officially begun, at least in my house. The few seeds have been planted in the anticipation of a bountiful year.

Gardening Season in Full Swing

7 Sep


It is hard to believe we are already in September and about a month away from the end of the Spring/Summer gardening season. It has been a wonderful gardening season so far. Having an indoor greenhouse set up let me kick off the season in February so I broke out the seeds, set up the greenhouses and started planting the seeds. Hagrid the cat got into the action and decided to plant himself on the shelf of the indoor greenhouse. IMG_4915

IMG_5505IMG_5503 IMG_5587Come March, everything was doing nicely and the greenhouses were full of seedlings including kale, swiss chard, bok choy, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and a variety of herbs. I decided this year to plant catnip, chamomile and anise to use for tea. Hagrid the cat has been loopy a number of times after he got into the catnip while i was drying the leaves for tea. Lovage was also planted although I have not yet decided what to do with it. I gave a seedling a few months ago to my kind neighbor who invited us over for dinner this past weekend for an amazing lovage soup that she had made from the leaves.


Then the two outdoor unheated greenhouses helped the hardening off process proceed smoothly and protected the tender seedlings when the periodic dips of temperature threatened a frost. A few times this year though we had to bring in the seedlings and, like last year, my son’s room was taken over by tomato and peppers plants.

We spent April and May getting everything planted in our community garden plot as well as in large containers we situated around our back yard patio.The herbs and small pots took their place on the shelves against the house.IMG_6406 IMG_6029 IMG_6389

photo-3 IMG_6818IMG_3298

June, July and August kept me busy with harvesting, canning and pickling. Now the freezer is full of pasta sauce, salsa and pesto while we have pickled peppers in the cabinets.  Pickled beets are lined up in the refrigerator.  I estimate that more peppers will joint the others that are pickled as the pepper plants continue to produce prolifically.

My son got in the creative mode and made vegetable people out of the bounty from our gardens. The white squash pictured here went crazy. I only planted two seeds yet the plants to date have produced over 30 large squashes! After coming up with various ways of cooking them (stuffed with meat, stuffed with cheese, sliced for vegetable lasagne, eaten with just butter), I started to give them to friends and neighbors. Then a box of them went to the community food kitchen yesterday. We still have about ten  more growing in the garden and more blooms after that!  So all in all, it has been a great season so far.IMG_6832 IMG_6834 IMG_6820 IMG_6830

The Hydroponic Betta Fish Adventure

29 Mar


Hydroponic vegetable gardening has fascinated me ever since I saw a YouTube video of a New Yorker growing lettuce in two-liter soda bottles strung vertically along the living room window of his tiny apartment.  When I was in the market  for a professional-strength grow light for my indoor greenhouse last year, the supply shop had all sorts of tubes and paraphernalia for hydroponic growing.  I couldn’t get my head wrapped around it all and decided it was not yet time for me to delve into the mystery of growing plants indoors, in water with no soil.

As I brought my single grow-light purchase to the shop owner, he pointed over my shoulder to a small-sized box and suggested I take a look.  Wow!  It was a self-cleaning fish tank that promised to also grow food.

IMG_4971It was an “Aqua Farm” with everything needed to dip one’s toe into the hydroponic growing world.  Not only that, but it was also a fish tank!   Since my son and husband were with me, we agreed that this was the answer not only to my desire to hydroponically grow lettuce, but to also finally replace the fish that had sadly died a few months back when our old fish tank, well tanked. So we purchased the kit and took it home. Here is a link to the website that tells more about the Aqua Farm:

Not only did the kit include everything needed, including seeds, it even came with a coupon for a free fish at one of the chain retailer pet stores.   Well, that was a year ago.  The kit sat for a few weeks in the living room, then migrated to the hall, then it — and my plans to delve into hydroponics — ended when the kit landed somewhere in our upstairs storage.  We had been so consumed with setting up the indoor greenhouse and purchasing the multiple types of grow lights, little greenhouse-ettes, seedling heating pads and such that we never seemed to get the mental bandwidth going to set up the Aqua Farm last growing season.

So a few weeks ago, I came across the kit and got inspired to get the job done.  I pulled out the wrinkled free fish coupon only to find it had expired. No matter, we went to our local independently owned and operated fish store to pick out a beautiful Betta fish.

After we selected our new family member — who is also conveniently a nitrogen producer — we walked around the shop, looking at the multi-colored tropical fish and saying hello to the erstwhile desert tortoise who lives in the shop throughout the winter until it can live a leisurely life eating grasses in its owners backyard once the warm weather returns.  Since, at the time, we were in between snow storms, that warm weather was a long way off, and you could tell the giant tortoise was growing impatient by the worn edges of the wooden enclosure, worn smooth by many slow motion escape attempts.  We walked past slumbering cats and intermingled with two small dogs darting in and out of the gaps between aquariums, much like the clown fish above us were doing as they swam in and out of the tentacles of their sea anemone home.  Then we came to the counter to buy our Betta, pick up a little ornament bridge to dress up the tank and choose some fish food.  The owner counseled us to ignore the package’s liberal feeding instructions, as it was just a ploy to get unsuspecting fish owners to buy more food.  The store owner insisted, instead, that we use the much less generous portions of  2-3 pellets a day, thus also avoiding mucking up of the water in the tank.  We left the store happy and content, having done business with a local honest business owner.

IMG_4975Then we got home and set up the tank.  Okay.  I didn’t exactly do anything. I watched. My husband (sherpa, as he labels himself) and son did all the heavy lifting.  But I did select two varieties of lettuce to plant in addition to the basil and wheat grass seeds that came with the kit.  Now our betta, who my son affectionately named, “Madame Bubliea” given her billowing, colorful and elegant tail, was introduced to her new digs. We were all excited to see what hydroponic growing would produce.

IMG_5588Now fast forward to four weeks later, and thankfully Madame Bubliea is still alive.  The wheat grass is doing magnificently, albeit a bit flattened thanks to Hagrid the cat, who has developed quite the knack for jumping on the tank and pulling out the newly sprouted grass strands with his teeth.  IMG_5598

The basil and lettuce are barely sprouting but coming along, still safely out of reach of Hagrid’s pruning teeth.

So the hydroponic experiment is going well.  Who knows, if the tank can produce some usable lettuce and basil, maybe next season I’ll expand the operation.  Maybe.

Spring to Fall: Gardening Across the Seasons

4 Oct

Aunt Ruby’s Green Tomatoes

The changing angle of the sun, shorter days and cooler temperatures signal that Fall is sneaking up. It also tells me it is time to reflect over the past six months and the gardening adventures. This year, starting in March, I went all in with starting seeds indoors and setting up a series of indoor greenhouses outfitted with grow lights. As discussed in my previous post, it was quite the production, including multiple trips to various stores, to get it all set up.


Hardening off the tomato and pepper plants

It then got tricky. The seedlings had grown into solid leafy plants but the fluctuating weather meant that I had to wait until after Mother’s Day in mid-May before I could safely plant outside in the community garden plot and at home in my patio container garden. So we spent the good part of a month “hardening off” all the plants to get them ready to go outside. This hardening off process was a feat in and of itself because although I was able to use our two outdoor unheated greenhouses, there were many a night where the temperatures would dip too low for tomato and pepper plants.


Outdoor unheated greenhouses

The challenge was these plants were getting quite big and had already outgrown the indoor greenhouses. So I had to find another home for them when they needed to be shuttled from the outdoor greenhouses where they resided during the day back to the safety of the house at nights.


Hardening off process. Using a bedroom for overnight protection with unpredictable temperatures in April and May.

I ended up taking over my son’s bedroom where the door could be shut to prevent Hagrid the cat from digging up and destroying the plants. (Previous years’ experience told me he could take on five plants and eviserate them in 15 minutes flat.) The benefit of my son’s room is that I could open up the window out to the patio and hand the plants to my husband who then carried them to the greenhouses. Then we reversed the process the next morning. Tedious? Yes. But necessary.


Compost. Ready for use.

We then got the community garden plot and the containers at home ready. We used our own compost and compost tea that we had pulled from our Envirocycle composter and collected in empty cat liter plastic tubs. I’m a fervent composting booster. We compost everything we can. It’s very easy because we have a colorful ceramic canister on the kitchen counter and just drop in appropriate food waste in it.


Rotating the compost from holding bin to Envirocycle composted.


Compost tea.

Then my husband takes it out to an old scuba box that he had buried in the backyard. It has two compartments so we can rotate. Then when one side is full, we scoop it into the Environcycle composter, add dry leaves that we had collected from our yard and give it a spin periodically. Then when the compost is ready, we store it in the cat liter tubs. The tea is made from the droppings and is collected in a bin under the rolling part of the composter.


Community Garden Plot.


Taking an iPhone break in the Community Garden Plot.

Over a series of weeks, we began setting out the plants in the community garden plot and in our home patio garden containers.

This year’s harvest was bountiful to say the least. I am a huge fan of the Hudson Valley Seed Library. From now on, that is the only place I will get my seeds from. Not only are the seeds of high quality, the packaging is fun. There are “art packs” with vibrant colored artwork that differs from pack to pack. I just LOVE these seeds and the art. Here is the link to their website:


Baby Bok Choi.

We planted baby bok choi seeds indoors. In previous years, I tried to direct sow the seeds but did not have success. This year, the seeds loved being started indoors and when I transplanted them, given they tend to bolt when the heat starts, I put them in containers on my patio so I could move them out of the direct sun when needed. Also, since they also do not like really cold weather, I rolled them into the outdoor greenhouse and put a row cover over them when the nights got too cold.


Brilliant Beets.

My family loves beets. So we planted seeds indoors from the Brilliant Beet Blend. I had read conflicting reports on whether it was a good idea to plant beet seeds indoors since they can easily be direct sowed into the ground once the soil is ready to be worked. But I was on a planting frenzy and decided to give it a go. I am so happy I did. My beets got a great head start and were ready early. In addition, I went ahead and direct sowed beets later around the existing beets. I had beets all summer and still do. We had beet salads, pickled beets and I froze many for use in the winter.


Two varieties of Kale.

I also went ahead and started indoors two varieties of kale: Vates Blue Curled Kale and Dino Kale. In the past I would direct sow the seeds but with the varying weather and heat, it was a mixed bag. I also planted Silverado Chard. The key to getting healthy chard is to keep on top of the bug problem. There is a beatle that comes around fairly early in the season and will damage the leaves. But if you frequently check under the leaves for the eggs and scrape them off, then all is well. There is also a beatle that likes Kale and later in the season they can nearly swarm the plant. But these all can be picked off too. The key is to be vigilant and check leaves and pick off the pesky bugs.


Donation bin: “Produce for the Community”

This year I had more kale and chard than I could keep up with. So I gave away some of my plants to fellow community gardeners. After I had frozen enough to get us through the winter, and the harvest was nearly overwhelming, I brought in bags for my colleagues at work and also donated bags to our local food kitchen. My husband built a bin at the community garden for folks to donate extra produce and every morning after dropping me off at the Metro to catch the train to work, he stopped by and picked up the donations and took them to the food kitchen. In past years I often felt overwhelmed with the combined produce that we grew ourselves and the weekly community supported agriculture share from our local farmer. But having the food kitchen donation was perfect.

IMG_3298The tomatoes were amazingly hardy and productive. In past years, the blight, being a common problem in our region, was a constant battle. But this year it was not so bad because we had a surprisingly mild summer and the humidity was not as oppressive. I grew Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Goldie, New Yorker and Mama Leone. I had an abundance of fresh tomatoes throughout the season (and still going even now).

photo-3The peppers were just as successful. I grew King of the North bell peppers and Gatherer’s Gold Sweet Peppers from seed. I also picked up a sweet banana pepper plant at our local nursery. With the harvest, I was able to fill up my freezer with homemade pasta sauce and salsa as well as can whole tomatoes for the winter.

IMG_0529Of course I had lots of basil and have lots of pesto cubes in the freezer. Finally, as in past years, I had two shelves of herbs, strawberry plants, spinach and lettuce on the patio. In the community garden plot, I grew a few cucumber plants to ensure a supply for pickling.

The community garden plot and my home container garden is starting to slow down but still producing. I figure we have another four weeks or so before it will be time to call it a day and clean up for the winter. I had planned to do some Fall planting but frankly am worn out. It has been six very active months, my freezer is absolutely full, I still have some pickled cucumbers left from last year and I have canned enough tomatoes to get us through the winter.


Pulled from the composter: a few vegetables that sprouted and looked like little compost creatures 🙂

So all that I planted is some lettuce. I am going to conduct an experiment to see how they do in the indoor greenhouse and then the outdoor greenhouse when the weather dips. So with that, I am bringing this gardening season to an end.


Hagrid jumped in the little greenhouse as soon as I had removed the seedlings.

Snow? An Indoor Greenhouse to the Rescue

17 Mar

IMG_2288 Snow. It snowed today. We even set a few records for the level of snow this late in the year. But no worries at my end.  I have an entire greenhouse operation going on inside my house.  Over the past few years I started indoors a few things from seed, including tomatoes and peppers. But lack of space and my cat made the endeavor very challenging. After Hagrid (the cat) ravaged my tender seedlings a few years ago, I ended up setting up my system in a small area in my living room using a big cage with clip on grow lights and warming pads.  It did the trick but greatly limited me in the amount of seedlings I could grow.  It was also difficult to regulate the temperature and the peppers had a hard time, resulting in a meager yield of survivors. But this year is different. Thanks to my husband who did some renovation in our upstairs half floor attic, I have more space and with it, more ambitions for the growing season.  I ordered a multi-shelf covered greenhouse from Lowe’s that I had coveted over the past few years.


Seeding tray and my seed packets.

Then I got my seeding supplies ready and began planting.

Patrick and Hagrid building the little greenhouses from IKEA

Patrick and Hagrid building the little greenhouses from IKEA

During a trip to IKEA, we came upon little greenhouse units and picked up a few of them.  Then over a  few weekends, we collected an assortment of grow lights. One professional grow light was picked up at a local hydroponics store and the owner gave us a great discount on a super cool unit in addition to some excellent growing advice.  I learned that the key is to get florescent lights that are “daytime” intensity.   I also learned that LED lights are the best but also the most expensive.  The other grow lights I purchased from local hardware stores included a collection of  inexpensive under the cabinet style plug in florescent units and small clamp on shop lights.

What happens when you spend too much time looking for grow lights. Loved these clamp on lights.

What happens when you spend too much time looking for grow lights. Loved these clamp on lights.

My son.  Worn out by the grow light shopping marathon.

My son. Worn out by the grow light shopping marathon.

Then I rounded out my purchases with a few new seedling heat mats since I only had two and needed a few more.


IKEA Greenhouses with tomatoes and peppers (3 weeks after planting seeds)


Just over one week after planting seeds.

Ta da!   Three weeks later I got four varieties of tomatoes, two varieties of sweet peppers, beets, baby bok choi, lettuce, kale, swiss chard and basil growing strong. As soon as the snow clears, I will get the kale, swiss chard, beets and baby bok choi into the ground under the hoop cold frame in my community garden.   Then I look forward to moving the tomatoes, peppers and basil into the outdoor greenhouse to begin the hardening off process before the last frost date (estimated to be May 1). Now back to today.  Snow.  Lots of snow.  Hard to believe that in just a few weeks, we will see the buds of Spring.

Today’s snow. The outdoor greenhouse and the “add on” greenhouse started over the warm weekend, waiting for another warm day to be completed.

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To Everything There is a Season

10 Nov


It’s that time of year again. The winding down of the vegetable garden. I always feel a mix of emotions including relief, sadness, satisfaction and exhaustion. The cycles of nature are tracked through the work of a gardener. The fall brings a sense of transition with hot weather plants browning and struggling to eek out a few more red tomatoes and healthy peppers.  It also brings out the gardener’s lowering energy levels that come with shorter days and the preceding six months seemingly non-stop activity of planting, harvesting, canning and freezing. Then the cool weather plants of swiss chard and kale are growing at a moderate pace calling the gardener to keep moving. For reasons that are beyond my understanding, my fall lettuce planting was a big bust. Two times up planting seeds, two times I struck out. A few beets are keeping up but the rest of the seeds that I planted are a no show.

So all in all, my fall planting crop is a mixed bag. But I am too tired to worry about it. I’m in that space between memories of spring/summer energy that gets me through cleaning up the garden to visions of winter hibernation on the horizon. As my own leaves turn a lovely hue of orange, I’m being called to curl up with a good book, and well, read about gardening instead of doing it.


The Community Garden plot before the grand clean up


The Community Garden Plot cleaned up. Getting ready for the cold frame installation.


Calvin returning from the Community Garden Plot on his bicycle


A straggler eggplant


Calvin and me outside the Community Garden


The final tomato harvest. Now what to do with all the green tomatoes…….

Awkward: Explaining Dialogue in Libya Amid U.S. Government Shutdown

29 Oct

Graffiti art along a wall in Tripoli

I am cross-posting a blog that I wrote with a colleague on our recent trip to Libya.  The blog appeared on the United States Institute of Peace website as part of their “Olive Branch” blog series.

Here is the original link

Monday, October 28, 2013
By: Colette Rausch and Christina Murtaugh
It was Oct. 1, and we were midway through an 11-day visit to Libya. Our intent was to nurture the development of rule of law by guiding civic and business leaders, government officials, militia fighters, police, judges, young people and even artists through Justice and Security Dialogues. The process empowers communities to create a forum where they can bridge differences and make progress establishing security and justice among all those involved.

And then the U.S. government shut down.

In Libya, representing the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent, nonpartisan organization funded by Congress, we couldn’t – and wouldn’t – take sides. But the questions started coming: how can the United States government, often seen as a template for democracy, shut down and stop its work? Even with all the chaos, violence, and lack of full central government control, we were told, the Libyan government had not ceased its work.

We were also faced with explaining the premise of the dialogues — that communities need to meet and discuss issues to build a peaceful, democratic society — all while our own government appeared to be taking the opposite route. Negotiations in the U.S. Congress, one of the most-admired deliberative institutions in the world, had broken down so severely that federal budget authority lapsed, forcing many government offices to shut their doors and furlough some 800,000 workers.

With the implicit hit to our credibility as facilitators and supportive partners, we felt we had to take a step back and reinvest in building trust.

First, some background. USIP and its Rule of Law program have been engaged in Libya since soon after the ouster of Libya’s longtime dictator, Muammar Gadhafi, in 2011. The program engages in a variety of work, including research, workshops, and the dialogues, to help Libya address the many security issues that hamper its emergence from violent revolution and its transition to an entirely new system based on the rule of law.

USIP specialists have criss-crossed much of Libya traveling to the cities hit hardest by the revolution, to remote corners ignored for decades by Gaddafi, and to the various borders with Libya’s neighbors, assessing the country’s prisons, researching intricate challenges of justice and security and offering other expertise wherever we are welcome.  Our colleagues have braved firefights and a car bombing and we put ourselves at risk for the cause of peace as a matter of necessity.  Developing contacts, trust and engagement in such an unstable environment is a long, arduous and sometimes dangerous process that requires no small measure of finesse, diplomacy, risk-taking and determination on both sides.

So it’s not hard to imagine the puzzlement and frustration of our Libyan colleagues when they learned that other USIP counterparts who had been furloughed back in Washington were prohibited by law from replying to e-mail or otherwise engaging in an official capacity while our government was shut down.  The two of us had been exempted for the work we were doing in the field. By being there, we were able to explain the unanswered e-mails and maintain the constant contact and relationship-building required to make peacebuilding work.

In perhaps a reverse irony, our own government’s challenges ultimately provided us a valuable point of entry for our discussions around Justice and Security Dialogues in Libya.

In one dialogue, a town elder walked us through a document that he and others in his shura council had developed with considerable thought and deliberation.  But as he presented it, others in the room began to fidget and show signs of unease.  The confidence displayed by the presenter was in sharp contrast to some of the others around the table.  So we asked the speaker to pause as we asked the others about their discomfort.

“We have not seen this document before,” said one of the youths at the table.  The elder insisted everyone had been consulted and that he had addressed everybody’s needs. But then another participant said that he also had not been consulted.

What we were experiencing was a microcosm of difficulties facing societies and countries the world over.  No matter how well-drafted a law or even a constitution may be, at the end of the day, whether people will follow it often depends on whether they feel “ownership.”   Until then, it is just words on paper.  We have seen many occasions where groups criticize their country’s existing constitution, but what they are really saying is they don’t feel it reflects their own ideas and aspirations.

In this group, while everyone agreed that the document was thorough and well thought-out, the process used to develop it was not fully transparent, nor did the process involve all different groups in the community. The elders, meanwhile, felt it was their traditional role to provide such guidance. Moreover, many in the room felt they had been waiting for security for over two years, and opening up the process would delay any potential progress. In the end, people saw the need to include the other elements of their society to ensure buy-in and ownership. They would need to find a way to balance this without having to start anew.

Through dialogue, this small group of elders, youth, police, artists, business professionals and others experienced the challenges and benefits of the kind of inclusive process that makes a democracy work. We couldn’t help but think it was a lesson far too often overlooked back home.

Colette Rausch is USIP’s associate vice president for governance, law and society. Christina Murtaugh is a USIP program officer for rule of law.

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