My Ugly Veggie Garden

Maybe it is just me, but the other day when some new friends came by and started talking about gardening, I was reluctant to bring them back around the house to show them my vegetable garden. This picture says it all:

Not exactly a veggie gardener's pride and joy -- the transitional ugly garden

We are harvesting and cleaning up summer veggies that were done and transitioning to our fall garden. In other words, I had a very unimpressive, pathetic-looking, veg garden. If you pick the right angle in the height of the summer, I am sure parts of my garden could make Horticulture Magazine or maybe even Gardening How-To Magazine from the National Home Gardening Club. But as plants die back and we taper off watering the melons to get them to sweeten, there is nothing pretty about our garden.

Melon patch in mid-July vs. late Aug.

Our melon patch in mid-July on the left vs. late Aug. on the right

It is an Ugly Veg Garden … that only a gardener could love πŸ™‚

Bush Beans in mid-July vs. late Aug.

Bush Beans in mid-July to the left vs. late Aug. to the right

Once I realized my new friends were true gardeners, we all went back and visited my ugly garden. He confessed that his garden was ugly, too! And think about it. Is an ugly vegetable garden all that bad? Not when you’re harvesting the fruits of your summer labors!

Share your pics and a story about your ugly veg garden and we will add them to our Wall of Ugly Gardens!


Just ran across this topical children’s book called The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin. We haven’t read it yet, but it’s got several 5-star reviews on Amazon.


Now that we’ve moved to a hot, dry climate, we couldn’t wait to grow melons – watermelons and canteloupes. We even bought a popsicle-making kit to handle the harvest overflow (Gigi loves watermelon popsicles). All our melon seeds were purchased at the Seed Bank in Petaluma.

Alas, not all the melons we planted produced sweet, juicy fruit we had anticipated. And despite the incredible vigor of these plants, we did not get as much fruit as we had hoped (so much for those popsicles). Here’s our Plangarden raised bed layout that shows what we planted.

Honeydew Orange Flesh and Charentais were winners!

Honeydew Orange Flesh and Charentais were winners!

“Far North”, suggests that it can be grown in higher latitudes that have shorter growing seasons. Our patch first produced fruit in early July. They looked beautiful. Perhaps we harvested them too late (early- to mid-August), but the puny, starchy canteloupes were like a hybrid of styrofoam and an Idaho potato. We’d probably try them again next year and see what happens if we harvest them earlier. But these melons are so small, less than single serving, and not really worth the effort.

Far North canteloupe harvest

Puny Far North canteloupes were a disappointment. Did we harvest too late?

“Golden Midget” got us all excited. They are beautiful 4-5 lb. watermelons that start out green and then turn deep yellow once they’re ripe. While they were certainly juicy, they lacked any kind of sweetness you’d expect from a home-grown melon. We were sad to admit that the supermarket melons were far superior.

“Honeydew Orange Flesh” was the winner. Biting into the firm, honeydew-type orange flesh feels so sinful – it’s like candy, but not sickeningly sweet. And a close second is “Charentais”, a much smaller fruit with the lighter flesh of a canteloupe.

Honeydew Orange Flesh were firm, like honeydew melons, but sweet like canteloupes!

Honeydew Orange Flesh were firm, like honeydew melons, but sweet like canteloupes!

Chanterais canteloupes in the early morning

And the first runner up is ... the Charentais canteloupe!

We had problems trying to start “Sugar Lee” from seed, and unlike the other melons, it took 2-3 attempts to finally get a plant to grow. We have one fruit (just one!) which looks like it’ll be about 8 lbs. The jury’s still out but I doubt this can outdo our winners.

What could we have done wrong with the other melons? Did we overwater them? Perhaps. But how does this account for the success with the other melons? We did start the plants in rich soil with lots of seasoned horse manure, and fertilized them regularly.

If you grew melons this year, let us know which varieties you loved. And we’d appreciate any tips on improving flavor and harvest πŸ™‚ !

There are many firsts that we cherish: First crush, first kiss, and of course, first pullet egg from your new chickens.

You remember where you found it, what time it was, and how you first tweeted about it.

It was the morning of August 2nd, tucked away in a corner next to the water tower. It was smaller than a small supermarket egg, but cute! The shell was like 50 grit sandpaper with bumps, and I felt sorry for the hen who laid it.

Discovering our first chicken egg

Our first egg in the new hen house!

This is the first time that I have had chickens since I was a boy. These are my wife’s first chickens.

Closeup of our first chicken egg.

These free-ranging beauties are hard at work to take care of us!

What happened to the egg you might ask? Sunny side up and shared so we got to enjoy it together πŸ™‚

We have gotten a pullet egg per day since the first was laid three days ago. Because hens are supposed to start laying small eggs only once every 3-4 days, it stands to reason that we have three hens that have started to produce. None of our 11 chickens (all about 22 weeks old) have cockledoodledooed, so we presume that they are all girls!

Let the omeletsΒ  begin!

P.S. We won’t fail to say “Thank You” to our girls every time we collect eggs.

Here’s an update on our first season garden at our new digs. We enjoy and appreciate comments (including constructive criticism) so don’t hold back on your impressions πŸ™‚

But first, a bird’s eye view of the garden with our Plangarden layout. Click on the image to get the larger size:

Plangarden's Veggie Garden July18 Status

Here's our garden plan as of July 18, 2010

Starting from the top and moving somewhat left-to-right, here are our garden pics starting with our “Tower of Potatoes”:

Roy inspecting our potato tower which is beginning to blossom!

Roy inspecting our potato tower which is beginning to blossom!

Next is the red Kennebec potato and Yin-Yang shelling bean “boxless” plot. A couple of *huge* rocks stuck out of the ground and were removed, leaving large divets. We thought why not fill it with soil and just make a “normal” bed? The potatoes are doing well but we had problems with this plot for the beans. Roy suspects that root-knot nematodes affected bean germination:

Yin Yang Shelling Bean and Kennebec Potatoes in background

Yin Yang shelling beans and four Kennebec potato plants in rear of bed

Our melon and watermelon patch is going nuts! Good thing we provided lots of “crawl area” for the vines in between boxes (~4-5ft). The “Far North” melon (~65 days) already has fruit the size of a baby’s head. The “Golden Midget” (~70 days) watermelon has some fruit about the size of small apples. This 3-pounder’s rind is supposed to turn golden yellow when ready to harvest – can’t get easier than that! As for the “Sugar Lee”, we have had lots of trouble germinating this baby which is supposed to produce 15-18 pounders. Only one plant is growing vigorously, albeit slowly. But if it succeeds, we may be harvesting watermelons through October!

Melon and Watermelon Patch

Melon and watermelon tendrils have draped well over the sides of garden boxes!

The Yin-Yang shelling beans grown in this box are thriving; so are the cukes “Dragon’s Egg” (technically a melon) and “Straight Eight”.

Yin Yang Beans and Cucumbers

Thriving Yin Yang shelling beans and cucumbers in rear

Royal Burgundy beans in the neighboring box are also doing well though surprisingly not as prolific as I had expected (we’ve only had 1 meal and it’s mid-July!). Suspect a small varmit has been visiting. Roy’s looking to see if the Butternut squash have developed fruit (not yet).

Roy inspecting Butternut Squash and Royal Burgundy Beans

Roy looking for Butternut squash fruit. Royal Burgundy beans in foreground

We love it when a stray seed or two goes from soil to compost and back to new soil. These two beautiful purple Amaranth plants are “squatting” in between the bell peppers. We didn’t have the heart to remove them, and the peppers don’t seem to mind it (yet). We will probably harvest the Amaranth leaves for salad and not let them get too large. In the rear of the box are a gorgeous sweet Armenian cucumber (“Metki White Serpent”) and two prolific straightneck yellow summer squash plants.

Bell peppers, Armenian cucumber, Yellow squash & Amaranth

Amaranth popped out of nowhere but don't seem to bother the bell peppers

We think our tomato plants are probably the most spoiled on the planet. Some would probably have abandoned them long ago, but not us. Well, not Roy. I nearly gave up, but acquiesced to Roy’s insistence on buying the black shade cloth that blocks 60% of the sun (~$50) and a misting system (~$25) to cool down the tomatoes in the middle of the day. Since the temps started climbing in the upper 90’s to 100’s in mid-June, these babies have been suffering from blossom drop. I also used old muslin fabric to protect the western side. We had our first attack of tobacco hornworms, but now have them under control, thanks to our chickens πŸ™‚

Heirloom Tomato garden box

Doing everything we can to salvage our heirloom tomatoes from extreme heat

Our last veggie box houses the corn. We sowed two different varieties with different days-to-harvest times about a week apart to further stagger the harvest. We also sowed climbing beans about 2 weeks after planting the corn so that the stalks would be larger than the bean plant. This looks successful so far.

Corn provides trellis for pole beans

We staggered planting of two different corn varieties

Pole bean plant climbing up corn stalk

Pole bean plant climbing up corn stalk

Our first attempt at upside-down tomato plants have not been successful, probably because of the high temps that have overheated the plastic paint bucket containers. The “Celebrity” tomato plant has died, but “Early Girl” is still hanging in there, and produced two ripe (albeit small) fruit. The cloth you see is what I used to cover the plants to protect them from too much sun:

Upside Down Tomatoes & Thai Basil

Upside-down tomatoes may have broiled in those plastic buckets. Thai basil on top.

Finally, here’s the big picture showing our recently-built (final) chicken coop on the left (click on the image for larger pic). We’re still adding more plants, sorely needing ornamentals, but we have had to prioritize. Hopefully next year, we’ll have more grapevines, landscaped paths around the fence, more flowers and attractive shrubs.

Plangarden's veggie garden and coop mid-July 2010

Our veggie garden and coop in the heat of the summer.

Quick flashback to May 1st, just 2 1/2 months ago:

Finished Building Veggie Garden Boxes

Construction of veg garden was a Herculean effort, thanks to abundant rocks, most of which had long been cleared out of this photo

And here it is the morning of April 1st, just 3 1/2 months ago, with snow-covered Mt. St. Helena in the background. It looks idyllic here (gee why did you ruin your view?), but the shrubs you see are a fire hazard (chamise or “greasewood”), and the overgrown former lawn was teeming with yellow star thistle!

View of Mt. Saint Helena from our backyard

A vegetable garden was but a dream in early Spring ...

Well-camouflaged tobacco hornworm can be a garden menace!

Well-camouflaged tobacco hornworm can be a garden menace!

Time to talk about the nasties. This bugger is a vicious defoliator, mostly attacking plants in the Solanaceae (nightshade) family – tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and of course, tobacco. The specimen above was first assumed to be the tomato hornworm, but a master gardener from Colorado State clarified the difference between the two caterpillars. They’re the larval stage of the “hawk”, “sphinx” or hummingbird moth – begrudgingly beautiful – but can wipe out your tomato plantation in no time.

These critters added to our tomato heirloom woes (notably “blossom drop” from the very high temps) just yesterday when Roy discovered them feasting on the leaves. In the evening, he applied Bt, Bacillus thuringiensis – an effective natural pesticide against caterpillars. In less than 48 hrs, we put on our “pattern identification lenses”, and picked about 20 of these nasty buggers. Picking them off the leaves is like pulling velcro apart, and they seem to fight back by bending backwards and grabbing you with their vicious little jaws. (Actually I don’t think they bite and people will handle them with bare hands … but these critters still gross me out!)

The Bt was effective almost overnight, but we still found a half dozen or so lively, fat beasties today.

Bt already took effect in less than 24 hrs. for some caterpillars

Bt already took effect in less than 24 hrs. for some caterpillars

The happy ending to this story is that we get a whole lot of entertainment feeding these caterpillars to our chickens. The chooks will come to you eagerly, snatch the beasty from your hand, and fight over the gourmet meal. They were pretty subdued in the video, but you do see the Buff Orpi do an Olympic sprint well away from the competition!

A more informative video on tomato and tobacco hornworms to watch is from GardenForkTV.

Straightneck Summer Squash is a better alternative to zucchini

Straightneck Summer Squash wins over zucchini hands down

This is our first year growing straightneck summer squash, and I wonder why it has taken years to discover this absolutely delightful veggie. In fact, I scratch my head wondering why on earth zucchini became as famous as it is today? Because it rhymes with spaghetti? Does anyone have an answer?

This squash is meatier and deliciously creamy unlike its watery flavorless cousin. When stir fried, zucchini tends to get limp, transluscent, and loses lots of water, whereas the yellow straightneck stays relatively firm and almost butter-flavored. The best part is that it is as easy to grow as zucchini, not to mention prolific!

You can use the yellow squash for my zucchini bread recipe , replacing the zucchini with this squash variety as shown in the photo. The bread was a bit denser but still delicious! Next time, I may add about 1/8 cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice just to see what happens when you add a bit more liquid.

As an FYI, we got our seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at the Seed Bank in Petaluma, CA.

As many chicken owners know, these wonderful, food-providing creatures can also be frustratingly destructive. Lush green lawns can quickly turn to wasteland. Fresh chicken poop is too potent a fertilizer to use and can quickly “burn” grassy areas and gardens. Chickens also love taking dust baths, creating large cozy divets – which can be problematic for people who don’t care much for moon landscapes!

Cultivating chicken garden allows hens to feast on greens

We plant hulless oats for our chicken garden

Using a chicken-wire frame shown in the above picture, we can cultivate a “chicken garden” to allow greens to grow undisturbed in our chicken pen until the plants are more mature. When the area is ready, we can either remove all or just part of the frame to let the chooks go wild and feast on the greens.

Chickens feasting on hulless oats in our chicken garden

Chickens feasting on hulless oats while part of their garden remains protected

The above area is quickly laid to waste within 24 hrs, but provides a great source of nutrition for our hens. This frame allows us to cultivate gardens in different parts of their pen. The hulless oats shown above took about 1 1/2 months to grow to that size, so we’re looking for other greens that grow faster and are just as attractive a food to our chooks.