Pepper plans for 2018

Pepper plans for 2018.

I am dreaming of red ripe peppers in my 2018 vegetable garden. To find photos of red ripe peppers in past summers, I had to go back to the summer of 2015. Please see the post Red ripe peppers and colorful salsa for a look at some lovely red ripe jalopeña and cayenne peppers in 2015. Now here I am in March 2018, getting ready for our 4th nor’easter of the month, and dreaming about red ripe peppers.

As can be seen in the photos above, red ripe peppers were scarce to nonexistent in my 2017 vegetable garden. Habaneros turned orange, as they should. Havasus remained their pale yellow immature color–still good but none turned orange or red, as they should. The bells, cayennes, and frying peppers all stayed green, green, and green, with none turning red ripe, as they should. This may have been caused by weather conditions, or by poor gardening techniques on my part. I don’t know, but I must try to do better this summer and understand the reason why or why not.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, from which I buy the majority of my seeds, recommends a 4-year rotation for peppers. Good grief. I have trouble achieving a 3-year rotation for most vegetables. This year going forward, I have determined to try a non-rotation of tomatoes. Please see the post Strategizing the 2018 tomato crop for details. Peppers and tomatoes are both nightshades (Solanaceae), which must be considered in planning a crop rotation. My vegetable garden is not big enough to incorporate both tomato and pepper needs. I’ve tried growing peppers outside the fenced-in vegetable garden in grow bags with some success. This year, I have some new ideas about peppers in grow bags that I want to explore.

Vegetable garden during March 2018 nor’easter March 13, 2018

First, I plan to fence off a narrow strip of wildflowers at the near side of the vegetable garden, as can be imagined perhaps in the above snowy March photo. Before the recent snowstorm, I set up the small bamboo poles seen above, planning to dig a trench 4′ out from the near vegetable garden fence, to put in fencing stakes and wire fencing, to fill the trench with gravel, and to then plant peppers in grow bags among the existing wildflowers. Our family now includes 3 dogs, so more fencing is needed to curtail their exuberance somewhat. Life is good.

Wildflower strip with blossoms beginning to fade August 12, 2017

I plan to cut X-shaped openings in the bottoms of the grow bags to let moisture and earthworms in without harming the integrity of the bags. Last summer, I decided that I needed to irrigate the wildflowers to keep them blooming into the fall when the butterflies are still looking for nectar. With water becoming increasingly expensive, it seems extravagant to irrigate wildflowers, but if I’m watering peppers at the same time, I can better rationalize irrigating wildflowers. The peppers will still require some top watering, but with the bottoms open to the ground below, some moisture from rain and irrigation can come into the bags.

El Jefe jalapeña plant in grow bag September 20, 2016

I also plan to fill the bottom half of the grow bags with soil I dig from the trench. Then add garden soil and compost to the top. This year, I once again have ewe poo, composted sheep manure from a local sheep farm, incorporated into my compost. I’m hoping for better, more balanced, soil and therefore better peppers.

This all may seem rather tedious, but part of the fun of gardening is getting to the point of tweaking gardening methods and judging the results. This blog has helped me to keep a record of successes and failures over 3 years now.

Soil fertility is a big concern. I want the best soil for the least expense. As an organic grower, I depend on crop rotation, green manures, compost, and rock minerals to achieve and maintain soil fertility. Eliot Coleman cautions in The New Organic Grower that feeding the plant is the agribusiness way, while feeding the soil is the organic way. Last summer I spent too much money on fish emulsion fertilizers, such as Neptune’s Harvest, watering the fertilizer in around the roots of tomatoes and peppers twice a month. Then I realized that as good as fish emulsions may be, I was nevertheless feeding the plant, not the soil. As a result, the plants last summer were too large and spindly, while the fruits, although numerous, were small and often misshapen. As can be seen in the photos above, both plants and fruits just didn’t look healthy.

I read several books on soil fertility this winter, but only got more confused. So, first this spring, I plan to do soil tests, starting with the soil I’m digging from the trench in the wildflower strip. It seems to me this soil best represents my vegetable garden soil before I started adding compost and organic fertilizers, so perhaps that’s a good place to start. A square one, so to speak. Once I understand the makeup of my garden soil, I will better know what needs to be added, how much, and how often. As soon as this March snow melts and the ground thaws, I will proceed with this first soil test and go from there.

Here is a rundown of the pepper seeds I purchased from Johnny’s for the 2018 vegetable garden.


Intruder F1. Seen above from 2017 garden. Large, blocky fruits with thick walls. 62 days to green; 72 to red ripe.

Sweet Sunrise F1. No photo available. Blocky to slightly elongated fruits. Flavor is fruity and sweet. 65 days to green; 85 to yellow ripe.

CORNO DI TOROS (bull’s horn)

Carmen F1 frying pepper. Seen above from 2017 garden. Best tasting sweet Italian frying pepper. Sweet flavor for salads and roasting. Tapered fruits averaging 6″ long and 2 1/2″ wide. 60 days to green; 80 days to red ripe.

SANTA FE (Guero Chiles)

Havasu peppers September 27, 2017

Havasu F1. Seen above from 2017 garden. Thick-walled peppers, changing from pale yellow to orange to red. 60 days to pale yellow. 80 days to red ripe.


El Jefe jalapeños September 27, 2017

El Jefe F1 jalapeños. Seen above from 2017 garden. The boss. A great name for a jalapeño. Best combination of earliness and yield for jalapeños. 67 days to green. 90 days to red ripe.

Baron F1 ancho/poblanos. No photo available. Very large 2-lobed fruits. 65 days to green. 85 days to red ripe.

Helios habaneros September 27, 2017

Helios F1 habaneros. Seen above from 2017 garden. Extra early and very hot. 67 days to green. 87 day to orange ripe.

Cheyenne F1 cayenne chiles (Johnny’s renamed them Arapaho in this year’s catalog). No photo available.  Attractive, wrinkled fruits averaging 8″ to 9″ with medium-thick walls. 65 days to green. 85 days to red ripe.

Pepperoncini peppers from John Scheeper’s Kitchen Garden Seeds. These are a mystery to me. Lidia casually mentions pepperoncini flakes on her TV cooking show, as if we all should know what they are. I’ve come to think they are a variety of pepper, like San Marzano is a variety of tomato. I saw pepperoncini pepper seeds advertised recently in a seed catalog, and the accompanying image looked a lot like habaneros. So, it’s a mystery to me. I have leftover seeds from last year. I will plant them for another year, and hope to be enlightened.

As can be seen from the above descriptions, it takes from 10 to 23 days longer to go from green to red ripe or yellow/orange ripe. Much depends on the season. In addition to providing the best soil fertility I know how to, I will do everything in my power to give them the longest growing season possible.

Just so we all remember what I’m dreaming about, above are images of the red ripe pepper harvest from September 2015. Peppers to dream about on a cold snowy March 2018 day.



Robins, and holly–and starlings, oh golly

The harbingers of spring.

American robin in magnolia tree February 9, 2018

An American robin (Turdus migratorius) stopped by on February 9, 2018. Perhaps he was a loner. Perhaps he is a member of the small flock of robins I saw recently in the park across the street. He sat in the magnolia tree above a Sparkleberry winterberry shrub and chirped. His dark black head identifies him as a male. Female robins have lighter grey heads.

American robin on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub February 10, 2018

By the next day, February 10, 2018, the robin, which I’m assuming was the same one, decided to taste a winterberry fruit, and he was joined in the tasting by a male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).

Northern cardinal on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub February 10, 2018

This cardinal is definitely a male since female cardinals are brown. I’ve been hearing his che-e-er, che-e-er, che-e-er since the middle of February. As I watched the two birds vie for position on the small winterberry shrub, I wondered if they were congenial, or if they were fighting for territory. A little later, I saw them flying together. Or perhaps the cardinal was chasing the robin. It was impossible to tell.

Winter Red winterberry shrub December 21, 2017

Winterberries are deciduous hollies. I have 4 winterberry shrubs in my garden. 2 female and 2 male. Above is an image of the Winter Red winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a female, on December 21, 2017–before the robins stripped it bare. Well, I hope it was the robins.

Bare Winter Red winterberry shrub February 28, 2018

In 2016, the Winter Red fruits were eaten by a small flock of robins on December 28. See the post Robins ate the winterberries for details. I didn’t get photos of their feast this time, but I would guess the Winter Red fruits disappeared at about the same time this winter. The above photo of the Winter Red shrub was taken on February 28, 2018. It had been bare for some time before I took the photo.

Sparkleberry winterberry shrub December 21, 2017

The other female winterberry shrub is a Sparkleberry (Ilex serrata x. I. verticillata), a cross between a Japanese winterberry and a North American winterberry. I have always been annoyed that the nursery I bought it from tagged it as an Ilex verticillata, never mentioning that it was a cross with a Japanese holly. At first, I thought the birds didn’t like the Sparkleberry fruits, but now I think it’s just that the fruits become edible at a different time of year than the Winter Red fruits. I try to buy native plants, not because I have ideological notions about plants. I don’t. I buy them because the birds and insects in my garden seem to prefer them, or at least it seems so to me. I’ve read Douglas A. Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, which has influenced my opinion on these matters. By February 10, when the robin and the cardinal showed up to eat winterberries, this Sparkleberry was their only winterberry option since the Winter Red was stripped bare in December. And the story doesn’t end there.

American robin on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub February 13, 2018

On February 13, the robin was back, again assuming he’s the same one. He wasn’t eating much, just sitting around. Maybe the fruits weren’t ripened yet quite to his liking.



On February 17, 2018, a small flock of robins, probably from the park across the street, came for the Sparkleberry winterberry fruits. I guess the fruits were finally ripened just right because the robins were eating them energetically. Unfortunately, a flock of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), as seen in the bottom photo above, came not more than 5 minutes after the robins and stripped the shrub bare. What a nuisance starlings are. I didn’t get photos of the robins as a flock. I would guess perhaps 30 robins, and about that many starlings. It was a free for all with the starlings winning most of the fruits I fear.



European starlings are pests for sure, but they are interesting. Please see the post European starling for some background on starlings. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, when European starlings grow fresh plumage in the fall, the feathers are brown with white tips. By summer, their feathers are a dark iridescent brown. Starlings don’t molt. Their feathers simply wear away and the white tips disappear. It’s called wear molt. Also, their beaks are brown in winter but turn to yellow as mating season approaches. Starlings mimic the songs of many other birds, including robins. Also, they are a nuisance, as I’ve mentioned before.

Sparkleberry winterberry shrub stripped bare February 26, 2018

The above photo, taken on February 26, shows the Sparkleberry winterberry shrub stripped bare. Winterberry shrubs pretty much disappear into the winter landscape once their fruits are gone.

The male winterberries don’t produce fruit but are a necessity if you want berries on the females. Jim Dandy winterberry, an early male, was recommended by the local nursery mentioned earlier for female Sparkleberry winterberries. I have since discovered that they were wrong again. According to online sources, a late male, such as Southern Gentleman, is recommended for Sparkleberry winterberries. I am so annoyed at that nursery. Never buy any plant, other than maybe annuals, without doing your own research. Go and shop around. Then go home and do research. Then go back and buy–maybe. The RareFind Nursery catalog recommends a Southern Gentleman male for the Winter Red female, so that’s the male I bought for the Winter Red. Since the Southern Gentleman made its appearance in my garden as a successful pollinator for the Winter Red, the Sparkleberry has produced more fruits without a doubt.



The Southern Gentleman, seen in photo at left above, is small but mighty, evidently, serving as pollinator for both the Winter Red and Sparkleberry females. The Jim Dandy, seen at right, has nothing in my garden to pollinate. Guess I need to find him a female mate this spring. At any rate, the Jim Dandy is a nice-sized, attractive shrub even without berries or a mate. Gardening is difficult.

A few years ago, we spent a lot of time and effort researching evergreen hollies. Because of my preference for native species, I soon found that the American hollies (Ilex opaca) were much to my liking. Their native range includes most U.S. states on the Atlantic coast, ranging north as far as Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims took note of them in 1620, and also including the U.S. Southeast west to Texas.

But American hollies aren’t easy to find in nurseries. A different local nursery from the one mentioned above had some 6′ to 8′ American hollies, but the nursery wasn’t sure of the cultivar name, which was not encouraging. Then there was the expense, not only of more mature trees costing over $200 apiece, but also the delivery and planting expenses involved with larger trees. Also, it’s true that more mature trees take a long time to become established in their new environment after transplanting. They can sit around for a couple of years before starting to show growth again.

So, after much more thought and research, we opted for small potted American hollies, knowing we would have a long wait to see the holly trees we dreamed of in the garden. But it’s fun to watch them grow. At least I think so.

We bought 6 American hollies from RareFind Nursery. We picked them up ourselves to save shipping charges. Our visit turned out to be a most pleasant experience, exploring their extensive grounds and visiting with the knowledgeable and helpful staff. We came home with 3 female Dan Fentons; 2 female Old Heavy Berries; and 1 Jersey Knight as a male pollinator.

American hollies from left to right: Dan Fenton, Old Heavy Berry, and Jersey Knight–with some crabapple twigs interspersed in foreground February 7, 2018

There are New Jersey stories about these American hollies. In the 1930s, the Holly Society of America started a holly collection at the site of the Rutgers Gardens. They hoped to cross American hollies with English hollies (Ilex aquifolium) to produce attractive cuts for the east coast Christmas holly market. The crosses turned out to be sterile and produced none of the attractive fruits needed for the Christmas market. Enter Dr. Elwin Orton, Rutgers University professor, who became legendary as a plant breeder of hollies and dogwoods. Under Orton’s guidance, the project evolved into an American holly breeding program, subsequently producing many new cultivars, including the 3 American hollies that we selected and brought home.



The Rutgers Gardens holly collection is certainly worth a visit, if only to see what stately specimens little hollies might grow up to be, given enough time and good fortune. The photos above were taken on August 27, 2015, during a visit to Rutgers Gardens.



We brought home and planted 3 Dan Fentons, 2 up front and 1 in back. The Dan Fenton in the middle photo above is not thriving, perhaps because it is in partial shade, or perhaps because it is in a poor drainage area. Several online sources recommend mulching hollies with used coffee grounds. After reading about this, I purchased a second compost bucket for the kitchen counter and starting separating coffee grounds from the rest of the compostable scraps. Since coffee grounds are acidic and hollies love acid, it seems like a good plan to use the coffee grounds for this dedicated purpose. Anyway, the vegetable garden doesn’t need acid in its compost.

According to RareFind Nursery, Dan Fentons have dark green leaves, showy red berries, and a pyramidal form, growing to 30′ over time. Dan Fentons are female hollies. There’s a Jersey story about that as well. According to an article on the Cumberland County, New Jersey web site, Dr. Orton, who bred the cultivar, named it for Daniel Fenton, a Rutgers University graduate and World War II veteran, who was a co-founder of the Holly Society of America. After the war, Fenton came home to Millville, New Jersey, hoping to regain his teaching position at the local high school teaching agriculture and science. While waiting for an opening at the school, he got a job at the Silica Sand Company in Millville, whose president, Clarence Wolf, was in the habit of sending native holly boughs to his customers nation-wide as holiday gifts. After hiring Fenton, Wolf put him in charge of the holly farm that he had developed on site. In time, Fenton became known as Mr. Holly, and Millville became known as the Holly City, through Fenton’s efforts to preserve and propagate the native hollies. Fenton is credited with planting more than 4,000 holly trees in Cumberland County.



Our second selection, Old Heavy Berry, doesn’t has such a memorable story, but you have to admit that’s a good name. Old Heavy Berry. I’m a pushover for good names. When I heard that name, I was sold on the spot. It is also a cultivar developed by Orton at Rutgers, reported to grow 40′ tall. The Old Heavy Berry we planted up front, as seen in the photo at left above, is tall and slender; the one in back, seen in the photo at right, is wide without an upward inclination as yet. We will see what happens with that.

American holly Jersey Knight February 28, 2018

Finally, we chose 1 Jersey Knight as a male pollinator. According to the Missouri Botanical Gardens web site, Jersey Knight grows to 7′ or 8′ tall in its first 10 years, but may grow to 30′ tall over time. In another Jersey story, this web site reports that Jersey Knight was discovered at the New Jersey home of Judge Thomas Brown in 1945 and was introduced and registered by Dr. Elwin Orton in 1965.

Crocuses blooming on February 28, 2018

To bring this lengthy post full circle, I had planned to end with a photo of crocuses blooming on February 28, 2018, as yet another harbinger of spring. Alas, on March 7, 2018, a nor’easter dumped 16″ of snow on our area, burying crocuses and any other signs of spring in its wake. Please see the post Nor’easter of March 2018 for details.

Small American hollies completely buried in snow March 8, 2018

The little American holly trees were buried beneath the snow. Are their branches just bent under the weight of the snow, or are they broken off. We didn’t know the answer to that on the morning of March 8, 2018, when the above photo was taken.

American hollies after being dug out from under the snow March 8, 2018

Fortunately, they all survived. After we used our gloved hands to dig the snow away, the hollies proved just how limber they are by resuming their normal upright habit with nary a broken limb. Above is a distance shot of the 4 American hollies up front. The 2 in back were intact as well.

Robins and crocuses may be harbingers of spring, but they aren’t guarantees. Now I am impatient for the snow to melt. Spring will come. In the meantime, I must remember to cherish winter things–like holly. Seasons are good.








Nor’easter of March 2018

Nor’easter of March 2018.

Nor’easter dumped 16″ of snow on garden March 7, 2018

Actually, we’ve had 2 March nor’easters. The second one, on March 7, hit this area hard with around 16″ of heavy snow, but no wind, thank heaven. We didn’t lose power. Much to be thankful about. Today, March 8, the temp is above 40°F. The heavy snow should be off the tree branches shortly, and we will see exactly what lasting damage happened in the garden.

Pear tree uprooted in nor’easter March 7, 2018

Some damage is already apparent. The old pear tree was uprooted. Like the old apple tree a few years ago, it just sank to the ground, managing to miss the fence, the benches under it, the picnic table, and a river birch. I will miss its blossoms this spring and its perfect shade this summer.

Pear tree uprooted by nor’easter March 7, 2018. And Daisy, who will miss eating fallen ripe pears this summer

Daisy, our Labrador retriever, will miss the fallen pears, which she dearly loves to eat. The birds, bees, wasps, and various critters will miss them as well.

Pear tree uprooted in nor’easter March 7, 2018

Now we get to clean up the debris and think about how to replace it.


I’m worried about the hemlocks. One is leaning precariously over the shed and garage. These hemlocks have suffered from hemlock wooly adelgid the past 2 years. I don’t know the extent to which they have been weakened by this. Even if they bounce back once the snow melts off of them, will they be so resilient the next time. Good question for the tree guy.

Dwarf river birch buried in snow from nor’easter March 7, 2018

Under mounds of snow are 2 tangled dwarf river birch trees that previously had nicely rounded shapes. It’s hard to tell what the structural damage to them is. We’ll know when the snow falls off. The redbud at the far left looks all right.

White pine covered with snow from nor’easter March 7, 2018

The white pines always look in dire straits after a snowstorm. But they are so limber that they almost always pop back the minute the snow is off them. Branches of a Japanese maple are hanging over the young white pine in the photo above. They could cause big damage to the pine if they fell. I’m not fond of the Japanese maple. I am counting of the white pine as a screen between our windows and the neighbor’s windows. I think it’s time for some severe pruning of the maple.

Small American hollies are nothing but mounds under snow from nor’easter March 7, 2018

The American hollies are still little trees and are totally buried. Are their branches cracked or just bent over. We will know in good time.

Magnolia covered in snow from nor’easter March 7, 2018

The magnolia lost one dead branch that needed to be pruned anyway. Mother Nature took care of that for us. Otherwise, the snow-covered bare branches of the old tree look beautiful against a blue sky–even with the power lines in the background.

Crabapple tree after nor’easter March 7, 2018

I’m delighted that the young crabapples stood up so straight and tall in the snow from the nor’easter.

The bird feeders and bird bath are covered with snow. A chickadee greeted me this morning with dee-dee-dee-dee. It seemed to be demanding some action to remedy this situation as soon as possible. The mourning doves and juncos were busy under the feeders, although I don’t think they were finding much to eat.

A few days ago, I took out the table and chairs from the shed and returned them to their rightful place in the wildflower corner. Then I took some photos of crocuses, the harbingers of spring. Looks like my excitement about spring was a little premature.

I took the snow pictures in this post around 8 am this morning, March 8, 2018. It’s almost 3 pm now. Most of the heavy snow has fallen off the trees, and I should be better able to determine what the nor’easter wrought in my garden. I’ll hope for the best.



Strategizing the 2018 tomato crop

It’s time to dream about nutrient-dense, old-time sweet-tart, juicy tomatoes in my 2018 vegetable garden.

Ramapo tomatoes September 11, 2017

Garden tomatoes in 2017 were a disappointment. They all tasted good, but the vines were spindly, and the fruits were sparse. In 2016 I froze more than 20 large Mason jars of tomato juice and sauce. See the post A short history of the 2016 tomato crop for details. In 2017, I had enough spare tomatoes for 2 jars of sauce. That hurts.

Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes as part of the daily harvest on September 27, 2017.

Thanks to Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes, I have enough delicious homemade salsa in the freezer, but nothing else tomato-wise. It’s time for a new plan. My strategizing for 2018 includes ideas about crop rotation, soil fertility, and tomato varieties.

Vegetable garden on February 9, 2018

I’ve followed a 3-year crop rotation for several years in the vegetable garden. As can be seen under the ice and snow in the photo above, taken on February 9, 2018, my vegetable garden largely consists of 3 rows of raised beds separated by walkways. Each year, I planted tomatoes in a different row, fitting the other vegetables into rotations in the  2 remaining rows. This strategy had its drawbacks. The middle row is only 18″ wide. Indeterminate tomato plants in the middle row sprawled into the walkways, making access difficult. The row to the left in the photo above is closest to the raspberry bushes. I think this is detrimental to tomatoes, although I haven’t found any expert opinions to back up this premise.

The row on the right in the photo above seems to produce the happiest tomato plants. It was from this row that I got the 20 large jars of tomato juice/sauce. If only I could just forget rotation for the tomatoes and plant them year after year in the righthand row. Maybe I can.

For several years, we have noticed a large garden in our community with tomatoes in the same place year after year. How do they do that, we wondered. Then, on rereading some of my favorite garden texts,  I found these endorsements for a non-rotational tomato plan. First, Louise Riotte, in Carrots Love Tomatoes, offers the following tidbit that pleases me no end:

Unlike most other vegetables, tomatoes prefer to grow in the same place year after year.

So unless you have disease problems, Riotte recommends planting tomatoes in the same place, plus using compost or decomposed manure to prepare beds, then mulching them, watering them from below and deeply, and never using tobacco products around them. Most of Riotte’s advice is standard procedure for organic growers. Planting in the same place is unusual and welcome news to me.

Then, I noticed the following paragraph about tomato rotation in Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower, which evidently had not registered with me in previous readings of this book. Coleman writes:

In some cases, no rotation at all is recommended. Many old-time growers insist that tomatoes do best if planted every year in the same spot. They even recommend fertilizing them with compost made from the decayed remains of their predecessors. I once grew tomatoes that way for eight years in a greenhouse. In truth, they were excellent, and they got better every year. I do not grow field tomatoes that way now and cannot really defend my decision except to say that it is more convenient when they are part of the rotation. It could be that I am just uncomfortable about breaking the rules I have found to work so well with other crops. It could also be that I am unnecessarily limiting my options. I suggest that you try growing tomatoes (or any crop, for that matter) without rotation. Nothing is as stifling to success in agriculture as inflexible adherence to someone else’s rules. . . .

Well now, that is certainly encouragement to experiment with tomato rotation from 2 farmers I admire most. In truth, 2018 won’t really be an experiment since the righthand row of raised beds hasn’t been used for tomatoes since 2016. The experiment will truly begin in 2019. Also, giving up the rotation is only for the tomatoes. As I wrote in the post, A new garden plan for Fortex green pole beans, I think crop rotation is useful for keeping pole beans healthy. I’ve also had good results with rotating alliums such as garlic and onions into different rows each year. So, I talking about tomatoes only–at least for now.

Ugly tomato plants with sparse fruits were the rule for most of the 2017 season.

My next tomato concern is soil fertility. It’s not that I didn’t fertilizer in 2017. I did. But maybe not wisely. I need to know what the soil needs to raise nutrient-dense tomatoes, and when it needs it. Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog recommends abundant soil phosphorus for early high yields. Too much nitrogen will result in too much foliage at the expense of fruit, as well as in soft fruits with susceptibility to rot. Abundant soil calcium and an even supply of soil moisture will prevent blossom end rot. Watering in transplants with a high-phosphate fertilizer solution is recommended by Johnny’s as well.

In 2017, I used Neptune’s Harvest fish fertilizer 2-4-1 twice a month through the tomato season. I watered it into the soil around the tomato plants. No only was this expensive, it didn’t give the results I hoped for. Obviously, fish fertilizer is good stuff. I just didn’t use it effectively. During soil preparation in May of 2017, I added rock phosphate and limestone to the compost, but I was missing composted manure. Unfortunately, my local source of composted sheep manure with bedding straw, affectionately known locally as ewe-poo, had mechanical problems with their composting equipment and shut down production for awhile. Looking back on the difference between 2016 and 2017 vegetable harvests, I wonder if that might have been the biggest problem in 2017. I’m happy to say that my compost for this spring has 4 40-lb. bags of ewe-poo incorporated into it. I’m also planning to do soil tests this spring, so I will have a better idea of what the soil needs rather than adding stuff helter-skelter. In The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient-Dense Food, Steve Solomon warns that balancing nutrients in the soil is as important as supplying an abundance of them. He supplies rather daunting worksheets for figuring out what is lacking and why. The first step is a soil test, so that’s my starting point this spring.

Finally, I’m rethinking tomato varieties, hoping to choose the best for my needs and reduce the number of varieties to better concentrate on the needs of those few I have.



First, I’m sticking with Ramapo F1 hybrid for slicing tomatoes and adding Moreton F1 hybrid in hopes of an earlier slicer. I’m not proud of the vines pictured above, but the Ramapo fruits were good. I think they can be better. Both Ramapo and Moreton are Jersey Tomatoes that the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) at Rutgers has reintroduced in recent years. They were the tomatoes of choice for New Jersey canneries as well as gardeners in the 1960s and ’70s. They have a memorable sweet-tart taste that got lost when the canneries chose firmer varieties that shipped better and had a longer shelf life. I remember that wonderful taste from back then. Whenever we visited out-of-state friends, we were always asked to bring along some tomatoes from New Jersey farmers’ markets. I just didn’t realize what I was missing until I started reading about the Ramapo tomato, and more recently, the Moreton, which is an old-time variety that produces earlier in the season. Both are F1 hybrids, but are often found listed with heirlooms because of their taste, their semi-determinant growth habit, and their illustrious history. I ordered seeds for both from Rutgers. Much more information is available at the Rediscovering the Jersey Tomato website.

In addition to the Jersey Tomatoes, I chose an heirloom slicer, Cherokee Purple, from Johnny’s. Missing from my slicer lineup for the first time in many years is Celebrity F1, a nostalgic choice in past years because my mother always grew Celebrities. Nothing wrong with them, just an issue of garden space mostly.

Spindly plum tomato vines October 10, 2017

Plum tomatoes are a necessity. Whatever variety I tried in 2017 is lost to history. I can’t find any record of it. It was not memorable, to say the least. Spindly vines and sparse fruits account for the dearth of tomato sauce in my freezer this winter. For 2018, I decided to go back to Amish Paste from Johnny’s. In September 2015, I wrote a post, Plum tomato mash-up about Amish Paste and Speckled Roman plums cross-pollinating. This bothered me at the time. Now I look at the photos of those luscious lovely plum tomatoes and wonder why I was so upset about a little cross-pollination. Amish Paste is an heirloom from which I’m hoping for many jars of tomato juice and sauce for the freezer next winter, as well as good eating all summer.



Finally, my tomato lineup would be incomplete without Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes from Johnny’s. I worry sometimes that Johnny’s will discontinue them. The catalog blurb warns that they don’t produce so well as modern varieties and that the fruits are soft. However, the flavor is superb. Yes, it is. As for the production issue, I can only say it hasn’t been a problem for me. Every day during tomato season, there’s more cherry tomatoes to be picked, almost more than can be used. As for the soft fruits, it’s true that Matt’s wild cherries won’t sit around unused on the counter for days on end. They are best eaten the day they are picked. But they also don’t have to be cut in half to be edible in salads or on pasta. They burst open almost on their own, either in your mouth as you savor a salad, or as they are gently heated in olive oil for a pasta dish. Their softness is a large measure of their appeal.

So, that’s my tomato strategy for 2018. My decision is made regarding non-rotation of tomatoes. I will try it. My choice of varieties has been made and seeds have been bought. That’s done. Now what’s left is the big challenge. Learning the best way to provide soil fertility that will produce nutrient-dense, juicy, tasty tomatoes. Lots of them. That begins with a soil test this spring.





Home-grown monarchs and milkweed

Home-grown monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus).

Monarch on verbena October 19, 2017 with milkweed in background

In 2015, a monarch visited my garden on September 18. In 2016, monarchs passed through on September 13 and September 20. Last summer, in 2017, monarchs were present in my garden pretty regularly from September 13 to October 28. In the photo above, taken on October 19, a monarch is nectaring on verbena. A milkweed plant with pods and tufts of silk can be seen in the background. Looking at this photo, I have to wonder if, for the first time, perhaps I had home-grown monarchs in my garden.

Monarch on verbena September 13, 2017

It’s possible. According to MonarchWatch, a monarch life cycle takes about 30 days. So, the female adult monarch butterflies from mid-September may have laid eggs on milkweed in my garden, from which larva, or caterpillars, may have passed through their 5 instars, or intervals between molts, to form pupa, or chrysalises, resulting in the adult flying monarch butterflies of mid-October. All this is conjecture on my part because I failed to discover eggs, larva, or pupa during that month. Next summer, I will pay closer attention.


Both male and female adult monarch butterflies were present in my garden during that period of time. As the images above from September 27 demonstrate, male monarch butterflies have a scent patch, a black spot, on each hind wing. Female monarchs are without a scent patch. They tend to be darker in color with wider veins on their wings.


By September 29, multitudes of monarchs, well, 3 at a time at least, were nectaring at the verbena in my garden. At most during October, I saw 5 adult monarch butterflies at one time. It seemed like a multitude, but perhaps cluster is a better term for monarchs. A small cluster. October monarchs in New Jersey are destined to migrate to Mexico, living as long as 8 to 9 months, as opposed to the 2 to 5 week life span of summertime adult monarchs. According to a nifty field guide I recently acquired, Milkweed, Monarchs and More, by Ba Rea, Karen Oberhauser, and Michael A. Quinn, fall monarch butterflies are in a state of reproductive diapause–meaning that they are reproductively immature. After migrating and spending the winter in Mexico, they break their diapause and become reproductive on the return migration, usually in the southern U.S. The resulting offspring continue the return migration, and the cycle continues.

Female monarch October 2, 2017
Monarch on verbena October 2, 2017

According to MonarchWatch, adult monarchs are not choosy about flowers they visit as long as there is nectar. In my garden, verbena is certainly popular with them. They use their proboscises to suck in nectar. They use their vision to find flowers while in flight. They use receptors on their feet to find nectar once they land. In the lower image above, the monarch seems to be seeking new blossoms with its feet while feeding on a blossom through its proboscis. No time to lose.


Although I had a few milkweed plants in my garden previously, I planted many more native varieties last year–Asclepias syriaca, (common milkweed); A. incarnata, (swamp milkweed); and A. tuberosa, (butterfly weed). I don’t have photos of these plants in bloom this summer. See the posts What are monarch butterflies doing in my garden, and Planning for butterflies for images of flowering milkweed in previous summers. Perhaps milkweed in my garden reached some sort of critical mass in the summer of 2017 in order to attract reproducing monarchs, or perhaps 2017 was just a good year for monarchs in New Jersey.


By October, milkweed plants are well beyond the point when female monarchs would lay their eggs on the underside of leaves. The milkweed in the images above are forming pods, or follicles, and releasing tufts of silk with seed. Their primary purpose at this point is to reproduce themselves. Milkweed plants may appear in new areas of my garden next spring due to air-borne seed dispersal. Common milkweed (A. syriaca) may develop into dense stands from underground rhizomes. That’s a little scary for a gardener with a small garden. I will be brave and wait and watch.

Large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) nymphs on milkweed October 18, 2017

Large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) nymphs were discovered in milkweed seed pods on October 18, 2017. Large milkweed bugs are migratory. They overwinter as adults, but not in New Jersey. They don’t seem to be harmful.


Intent of being a messy gardener this winter in order to attract more wildlife–although please not groundhogs or field mice, I left milkweed plants in my wildflower garden as can be seen in the images above. I’ll clean them up in the spring. It’s an experiment.


By October 10, 2017, the verbena is noticeably going to seed, as can be seen in the images above, but the monarchs look young and fresh and ready for a long migration.


On October 19, 2017, both painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) and monarchs continued to grace my garden. See the post Ladies’ day out in my garden, for more garden news about the migration of painted ladies in 2017. While monarchs and painted ladies were more plentiful, I sorely missed the swallowtails I thought would be present every year, but were not in the summer of 2017.

I recently read an article by a butterfly gardener who painstakingly planned and built a monarch butterfly garden and was upset because only swallowtails, fritillaries, and various other butterflies, bees, and birds showed up. Good grief. I say be thankful for what you get. Don’t try to play God in your garden.


October 28, 2017, was the last day that I photographed monarchs. Of course, there are many days when I’m not in my garden at the right time with my camera in hand. Next summer, I hope to be much more attentive to the life cycles of butterflies. What a great thing it will be to discover and photograph butterfly eggs, larva, and pupa. Then I will truly know that there are home-grown monarchs in my garden.

Persephone months

December 21, 2017 at 7:05 am

Eliot Coleman calls the period of time when days are less than 10 hours long from sunrise to sunset the Persephone months. In his Maine winter garden, this is when vegetables under cover will be available for harvest, although they do not grow. The trick is getting them to the harvest stage before the Persephone months set in. I haven’t accomplished that as yet in my northern New Jersey garden, but I like Coleman’s idea of the Persephone months.

December 21, 2017 at 8:18 am

This winter, my Persephone months started on November 12, when the sun rose at 6:42 am and set at 4:41 pm for a day length of 9 hrs. and 59 min. They will end on January 28, when the sun will rise at 7:10 am and set at 5:11 pm for a day length of 10 hrs. and 1 min. So, my Persephone months are a mere 2 months and 16 days long, but they seem longer. The shortest day of the year, December 21, the winter solstice, saw the sun rising on my garden at 7:10 am and setting at 4:33 pm for a day length of 9 hrs. and 15 min. The interspersed images show the sun’s path on the day of the winter solstice, never rising above the tree line.

December 21, 2017 at 9:20 am

In Greek mythology, Persephone was abducted by Hades and taken to reign as queen of the underworld. Her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest and agriculture, refused to allow plants to grow until her daughter was returned. Zeus agreed to let Persephone return to earth but because she had eaten pomegranate seeds, she had to spend some period of time with Hades in the underworld. Demeter made the earth barren in Persephone’s absence, and thus winter is explained.

December 21, 2017 at 10:20 am
It’s a good story, with much more detail than is outlined here. Coleman’s term, Persephone months, gives the darkest days of winter a beginning and an end, making them seem more manageable and less hopeless. In January, the east coast experienced a bombogenesis, or bomb cyclone, of nasty weather–a rapidly intensifying area of low pressure–with snow, wind, and much colder temperatures than we are used to having. On January 5, for example, the high was predicted to be 13°F. with wind chill as low as -10°F. The night low was predicted to be -2°F. with wind chill as low as -13°F. Those predictions were pretty accurate. Of course, other areas of the country had it even worse.
December 21, 2017 at 11:43 am
The above image shows the sun near its zenith on the day of the winter solstice. The term solstice means sun standing still as it reaches its southern most latitude, the Tropic of Capricorn, and pauses before starting back north. So the winter solstice is one of the few times when the Ptolemaic system inadvertently got its terminology right. Sun standing still. Of course we know the sun stands still while the earth circles it, but it’s easier to speak of the sun rising and setting and moving in an arc across the sky because that’s the way it looks from any given point on earth, such as my garden.
December 21, 2017 at 11:44 am
From the  vantage point of my garden on the day of the winter solstice, the sun soon disappeared behind the house, and shadows encroached for the remainder of the afternoon, as can be seen in the photo above.
Dark-eyed junco on bird feeder January 4, 2018
Dark-eyed juncos under feeders on January 4, 2018

The Persephone months have positive aspects. The dark-eyed juncos are back, for instance. I first saw them on December 10 this winter. The above photos were taken on January 4 during the wintry blast, yet the juncos are cavorting on and under the bird feeders. They seem happy. I love juncos. Please see the posts Dark-eyed juncos are back at last and Bird news for more information about juncos.

In addition to their cute white bellies and overall jovial appearance, juncos have several endearing traits. As ground feeders for the most part, they double-scratch in snow to uncover seeds, making them seem even more animated. They even tunnel under snow in search of seeds to eat. They perch on dead grasses and wildflowers, riding them to the ground where they can more readily get the remaining seeds from the dried-up blossoms. Recently, I observed a junco eating verbena seeds, so verbena not only supplies summertime adult butterflies with nectar, it also feeds the juncos in winter, and has enough seeds left over to come up volunteer the following spring. Please see the post Ladies’ day out in my garden for fall images of butterflies nectaring on verbena blossoms.

Verbena seed pods on January 8, 2018. There are junco tracks in snow around seed pods.

The photo above shows evidence of juncos riding verbena seed pods to the ground and feasting on the seeds. I saw the juncos in action, but didn’t get a photo of their activity.

Coneflower seed pods capped with snow on December 10, 2017

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology partnered with The Nature Conservancy and Habitat Network to sponsor the messy garden pledge. Gardeners pledge to let leaves lie over the winter, let seed heads of flowers and grasses remain over the winter, leave snags on their property, and build brush piles for winter protection of wildlife. In a messy garden, spring cleanup should not begin until after several days of 50°F., allowing overwintering wildlife time to move on. I don’t have any snags or brush piles. I’m still trying to get rid of groundhogs and field mice, so there are limits to my cooperation with the messy garden pledge. However, this winter I left magnolia leaves in the wildflower beds; I left wildflower and native grass seed pods in place for the winter; and I left more green manure cover in the vegetable garden than in previous years.

I would venture to say that the resulting landscape, with snow


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and without snow,


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has more visual interest than a tidy yard and lawn have. It’s an acquired taste I suppose. There is also the potential of saving more butterfly eggs and pupa, even though I can’t spot them, and of watching birds like juncos and chickadees feasting on seed pods, which is reward enough for being a messy gardener.

Here are some things I hope are happening in my messy garden.

I hope more native milkweed  (Asclepias spp.) becomes established, through both air-borne seeds and beneath-ground rhizomes, that will attract more monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) to my garden next summer. Monarchs overwinter as adult butterflies, but not in New Jersey, where they are common and widespread as migrants.


Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) currently present in my garden includes common milkweed (A. syriaca), butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), and swamp milkweed (A. incarnata). These are all native to New Jersey. Beware of hybrids, which may or may not attract monarchs. In the past, I have worried about milkweed overrunning my garden, but this has not happened. So, until milkweed becomes as big a problem as, say, mugwort, which also spreads by rhizomes, I’m ceasing to worry about having too much of it.

Monarch on verbena October 19, 2017 with milkweed in the background

Could the milkweed plant in the background of the above photo have been the very place where this monarch metamorphosed through egg, larva, and pupa to adult flying butterfly. It’s certainly possible. This adult butterfly, which looked young and healthy on October 19, may well have migrated to Mexico, living for 8 or 9 months in the process. I hope so.

Eastern tiger swallowtail on swamp milkweed August 14, 2017
Magnolia leaf on January 8, 2018

One female eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) was photographed in my garden on August 14, 2017, nectaring on a swamp milkweed. According to the NABA North Jersey website, larval food plants for eastern tiger swallowtails are black cherry (Prunus serotina) and tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), but the website also shows eggs and larva on an ornamental magnolia leaf. Not having black cherry trees or tuliptrees on my property, I am hoping my magnolia tree might serve as a larval food plant for these beautiful butterflies. As a messy gardener, I managed to save some of the large magnolia leaves from the mulching mower by raking them into the wildflower beds and collecting them in small fenced-in areas. Eastern tiger swallowtails overwinter in New Jersey as pupa, the final cocoon stage in metamorphosis before the adult butterflies emerge. I have not found signs of swallowtail life on any magnolia leaf, so I’m going on hope and faith that they might be there.


Very few black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) were seen in my garden in 2017, and none were photographed. This is disappointing since I took great pains to plant fennel, dill, and parsley in my vegetable garden and to leave them through the fall and winter. Above are some photos of these black swallowtail larval host plants in my messy vegetable garden. Black swallowtails overwinter in New Jersey as pupa. I’m hoping for a black swallowtail resurgence in my garden next summer. Hey, I’m trying.


Finally, for butterflies, a great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) graced my garden on September 22, 2017. Great spangled fritillaries are New Jersey residents. They overwinter as first-instar caterpillars. Their larval host plant is the violet (Viola), but eggs are laid in wood chips and leaf litter surrounding the violets. Violets are weed-like in my garden. Most of them are surrounded by leaf litter and wood chips. Great spangled fritillaries should find an hospitable winter environment here. I just hope I don’t step on them. So I look forward in great anticipation to great spangled fritillaries in my garden next summer because I kept the messy garden pledge.


A true beauty of winter is surely the winterberries. Robins love winterberries. I’m waiting for the day when the robins, who have been mostly absent so far this winter, will return to feast on the winterberries in my garden. Please see the post Robins ate the winterberries for the story of what happened last winter with the robins and the winterberries.

Cardinal at feeder January 4, 2018
Juncos under feeder January 4, 2018
House finch at feeder January 4, 2018

I leave this longish post with pictures of the birds on January 4, 2018. The January bombogenesis was so cold and so windy. I hope the birds all made it through. On those cold days, whenever I went out to fill the feeders, a chickadee would greet me with a dee-dee-dee-dee. I didn’t always see the little bird, and did not get a photo. But I always thought he/she was telling me thank you-you-you for all those black-oil sunflower seeds.

Today is January 11, 2018. Since the winter solstice, we have gained 15 minutes of day length with 17 days to go before reaching 10 hours. On that day, January 28, the Persephone months as Eliot Coleman defines them will come to an end. Of course, there will still be much of winter left, but as the days grow longer and the sun gets stronger, the thought of spring will become more real with each passing day.









Ladies’ day out in my garden

Painted ladies (Vanessa cardui), that is.

Painted lady and monarch on verbena October 4, 2017

Painted ladies are sometimes referred to as cosmopolitans because their range is nearly worldwide. They are not resident in New Jersey, but they often migrate to this region from the deserts of northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. Their abundance here varies by year. This year, 2017, has been an irruption year for painted lady migration. Online sources from across the continent, from Colorado to Iowa to Montreal and spots in between, have reported their epic migration. They have been abundant in my New Jersey garden this fall for sure, as have monarchs. What a joy.

Painted lady on verbena September 11, 2017

Painted ladies are smaller than monarchs but usually larger than American ladies, with whom they are often confused. Female painted ladies are somewhat larger than males. Painted ladies have an orange spot enclosed by a black median band forming a semicircle on their topside forewing, as can be seen above, which distinguishes them from American ladies.

A sure identification of a painted lady is the 4 or perhaps 5 eye-spots on its lower hindwing, as can be seen in the photo below.

Painted lady on verbena September 25, 2017

American ladies have 2 big eye-spots as opposed to the painted lady’s 4 or 5 smaller ones. I don’t have photos of American ladies yet, but photos of them can be viewed at the NABA North Jersey Club website. Look under True Brushfoots.

In Butterflies of North America, Glassberg names red admirals as the third lady that migrates to this area. I photographed a red admiral in my garden on July 10, 2015. See the post Red admirals for details. On October 13 of this year, I spotted a red admiral in my garden but did not get a photo of it.

Larval host plants for painted ladies are first and foremost thistles, which I don’t have. I’m not sure that I want them. Gochfeld and Burger, in Butterflies of New Jersey, suggest burdock and hollyhocks as other possible host plants. I allowed a burdock to grow once, just to see how awesome it might grow to be. I pulled it out and sent it curbside for municipal pickup when the absolutely frightening seed pods appeared, so I think burdock is out for me as well. I’ve always wanted to grow hollyhocks like I remember in my grandmother’s garden. Maybe I’ll give old-fashioned hollyhocks a try. Hmm. However, according to Marent and Orenstein, in Butterflies, painted lady caterpillars feed on more than 100 species of plants. That may be a reason for their worldwide presence.

Painted lady adult butterflies love verbena and zinnias for nectaring, just like every other butterfly and bee that visits my garden. If you decide to grow zinnias to attract butterflies and bees, remember to grow the old-fashioned single-blossom ones. The newer double-blossom hybrids don’t have nectar and therefore will not attract wildlife.

I planted verbena from seed once several years ago. Since then it has self-sown itself and comes up volunteer without fail. Verbena particularly loves the rich soil and abundant water in the vegetable garden, as what plant doesn’t. It’s a weed-like nuisance at times, except that it’s beautiful, and I’m always entertained by the butterflies and bees that visit while I’m working with the vegetables.

On September 25, at 9:37 a.m., I took 5 photos, in 28 seconds of time, of a painted lady nectaring on a verbena. The photos demonstrate the butterfly’s proboscis and antennas quite clearly, as you can see below.


The first 3 photos show the proboscis, or “tongue,” deep in a verbena blossom. The proboscis is likened to a drinking straw and is used to suck up liquids like nectar. Marent and Orenstein, in Butterflies, report that in most butterflies, the length of the proboscis is perhaps 80% of the butterfly’s body. The last 2 photos above show the proboscis curling up under the butterfly’s mouth.

The antennas are also clearly in evidence. In the first 2 photos, one antenna is a blur of motion. The clubs at the end of the antennas distinguish butterflies from moths. They contain chemoreceptors used for smelling. In the last 3 photos, the antennas are stationary.

The fourth photo shows a front leg in motion. Finally, look at those eyes. According to Butterflies of North America, butterfly eyes are composed of subunits, each of which functions as an eye as we know it. Imagine seeing like a butterfly–just for a few seconds.

According to Butterflies, a painted lady may visit 150 flowers in less than an hour. Since the lifespan of most adult flying butterflies is measured in mere weeks, there’s no time to waste.

Painted lady on verbena October 4, 2017

NABA North Jersey Club website gives painted lady flight dates as mainly June to October with extreme dates in North Jersey of 4/5—12/22, so these October painted ladies fall well within that range. But what are they doing in my garden.

Painted lady on verbena October 4, 2017

Butterflies are always intent on one thing. To reproduce their cycle of life–adult butterfly, egg, caterpillar, pupa, back to adult butterfly. Some butterflies depend on diapause, a temporary suspension of their life cycle, while they wait for better conditions to hatch from an egg or to emerge from a pupa. Painted ladies are not known to diapause. Also, they overwinter as adult butterflies. If they try to overwinter in New Jersey, they will probably freeze to death. Our first nip of frost was on October 17 this year, when the thermometer in my garden dipped to 30°F.

So the flying adult butterflies in my garden could attempt to reproduce a new brood, or perhaps they already have. Or they could start a southerly migration. I assume they have to direct their energies one way or the other–that they don’t have enough energy or time to do both. Early October was unusually warm here this year. Perhaps their course of action is influenced by the weather, or perhaps by day length.

Painted lady on verbena October 10, 2017

Butterflies of New Jersey, published in 1997, reports that painted lady migrations are one-way trips northward, where they breed and die. But, as later studies indicate, maybe not always.

Everyone agrees that the northward migration of painted ladies is spectacular. It doesn’t happen every year. When the deserts of northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest experience rain and the wildflowers bloom, the butterfly population explodes. When there’s no food left in the desert due to overpopulation, the painted ladies migrate northward in huge numbers.

Painted lady on verbena October 10, 2017

In September of this year, painted ladies were reported by the National Weather Service to be flying across the Front Range of Colorado in a 70-mile wide mass visible on weather radar. What is not clear to me is whether this migration was northerly or southerly–or perhaps even downward from higher altitudes. At this time of year, one would think they were headed south, and most seemingly knee-jerk online accounts of the phenomenon assume a southerly fall migration, usually comparing the painted-lady migration with the better known monarch migration. But, as was reported in the Boulder Daily Camera, Jan Chu, a volunteer with Boulder County Parks & Open Space, thinks the spectacular show of painted ladies along the Front Range was a special fall migration northward from the Anza-Borego region of Southern California, which had more moisture than usual this year.

Painted lady on zinnia October 18, 2017

A northerly migration may be bad news for the painted ladies in my garden. If they are still northward bound, they may be nearing the end of their adult flying lives, and the coming frosts will undoubtedly kill them. On the other hand, it’s possible that these painted ladies of October are a successful brood born and bred here. Maybe they are young ones getting ready for a southward migration. Or maybe there’s a mix of old and young painted ladies. Much is not known about painted lady migration, and I personally know even less, but I’m trying to make sense of it.

Painted lady on zinnia October 18 2017

In 2009, an enormous northward European migration of painted ladies occurred from North Africa across the Mediterranean to as far north as northern Norway, a distance of some 4,000 miles, according to Butterflies. During 2 days in May, 2 million butterflies were radar-tracked crossing the English coastline. Butterflies reminds us that it may take as many as 6 generations of painted ladies, hatched at different points along the route, to complete a migration cycle.

What Butterflies doesn’t make clear is that the 2009 data include a return migration of painted ladies at high altitudes. BBC Nature reports that while radar tracked some 11 million painted ladies entering the UK at high altitudes in the spring of 2009, it also counted 26 million departing in the fall.

The BBC Nature article mentions a “Pied Piper hypothesis” concerning painted lady migration–that painted ladies make a one-way migration north from North Africa to the UK only to die in winter. But the 2009 data prove otherwise–that painted ladies do indeed complete the migration cycle of some 9,000 miles, often at high altitudes out of sight except by radar.

Painted lady on zinnia October 18, 2017

Well, that’s pretty exciting news regarding the painted ladies in my garden. Perhaps they are awaiting propitious conditions for a southerly migration. Maybe not the tattered ones, like the painted lady in the photo above, who looks as ragged and worn as the verbena and zinnia blossoms. But perhaps the younger, more able ones, are awaiting the right conditions for a southwesterly migration.

In a Montreal Gazette article, Max Larrivée, an entomologist at the Montréal Insectarium and founder of, was reported as saying that the early arrival of painted ladies in April and early May allowed for 2 generations instead of the usual 1, creating a huge population of painted ladies in the eastern half of North America. Larrivée believes that their southern migration this fall was interrupted by strong winds from the south that forced them to the ground where they are nectaring on fall flowers, waiting for a shift in winds to the southwest that will carry them back to Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. He adds that some painted ladies may be migrating already at such high altitudes that we are not aware of them.

Painted lady on verbena October 19, 2017

The strong winds from the south Larrivée mentions must have been the unsettled weather conditions brought on by this fall’s hurricanes, which were not destructive in this area but did result in a period of wind and rain coming up the coast.

Painted lady on verbena October 19, 2017

Many reports of abundant painted lady populations this summer and fall have counted hundreds or at least dozens of butterflies. I have seen 5 at the same time at most. More likely I see 1 or 2 at the same time, which I consider an abundance in my small garden. Still, I wonder if these few painted ladies are capable of joining up with the thousands that may be migrating southward at high altitudes.

Painted lady on verbena October 28, 2017

My last photo of a painted lady was taken on October 28, as seen above. It still seems in good shape for migrating. I can only hope so.

One final thought concerning my research into painted lady butterflies. Many online sites are in the business of selling caterpillars for children’s science projects and adult butterflies as release packages for weddings, funerals, and memorial services. Sources include individual sellers’ websites as well as sellers on Amazon and eBay. Release packages are being sold for as much as $500. I’m surprised and appalled by this, somewhat naively, I guess.

The best response to this practice is perhaps on the NABA website in the FAQs & Links section, which I have quoted in the paragraph below:

This well-meaning but misguided practice spreads diseases to natural populations, inappropriately mixes genetically distinct populations of the same species, may disrupt migratory behavior of native butterflies, confuses scientific studies of butterfly migrations, and usually results in the untimely death of the butterflies released.

Me again. The untimely death part bothers me most. It also seems to me that children who grow up thinking it’s a good thing to mail order caterpillars are more likely to plan weddings with release packages of adult butterflies.

In an article on the NABA website entitled “There’s No Need to Release Butterflies–They’re Already Free,” butterfly experts call the practice of releasing adult butterflies at weddings and other festive occasions a form of environment pollution.

From a quick online search, it seems that while monarchs are no longer advertised for butterfly release envelopes, painted ladies have become a popular choice. Perhaps the excitement about their epic migration this year will save them as well. Let’s hope so.

Monarch and painted lady on verbena October 28, 2017

October 28 was my last sight of the mighty migrating butterflies, in the form of 1 monarch and 1 painted lady, as seen above, in my New Jersey garden. Here’s hoping for their return next year and for many years thereafter.





A new garden plan for Fortex green pole beans

Pole bean (Phaseolus vulgaris).

August 12, 2017

Fortex green pole beans have been my favorite green bean for many years now. I’m not inclined to try bush beans (again) or to experiment with new varieties of pole beans. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s the way I feel about Fortex green pole beans. However, I’m contemplating a new garden plan for next year to make Fortex green pole greens in my vegetable garden more productive for a longer period of time.

But first, here’s a look at this year’s beans. The photo at top shows the vegetable garden on August 12. The green pole bean plants, seen at far left in the photo, in 2 3’x3′ raised beds, are just starting to predominant in a vegetable garden slightly overrun with volunteer dill plants and wildflowers. Life is good when wildflowers surpass weeds as the garden nuisance.


In August and early September, the pole beans, planted on Memorial weekend with 2 bean seeds per bamboo pole and 6 poles per raised bed, seemed about right in both timing and number. Above are photos of vines and beans on September 5. Nice long beans on plants with leaves that still allow some air flow and sunshine in. Green beans that are uniform in size, perfect 7″ thin filet beans, for example, are the supermarket norm, but that just doesn’t happen in a real-life garden. Some pesky beans always get hidden away until they reach the 11″ length that Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog describes. So it’s fortunate that the 11″ beans continue to snap resoundingly and to crunch after a 9-minute boil.


By September 7, the bean vines are more densely packed, as can be seen in the photos above, keeping the interior and northeastern side in shade. The blooms and beans are mostly on the southwestern side, on vines sprawling over the vegetable garden fence and climbing over any wildflower in their way.

September 11, 2017

Sunflowers, seen above, which were evidently planted in the bean beds by the birds or the squirrels, like the compost-rich garden soil just fine. Pulling out sunflowers because they are in the wrong place is not one of my strong points as a gardener, especially when the American goldfinches stop by for sunflower seeds while I’m working in the garden. Bean vines and sunflowers coexist, with the bean vines using the sunflowers as another means of support.


The photo at left above was taken on September 7. The photo at right above on September 16. The difference is striking. At left, the leaves are healthy; the beans are straight enough. At right, the leaves are showing signs of rust and the bean is deformed. Possibly, bean plants are in their prime for only a short period of time. Hmm.

Let’s take a look back at bean history in my vegetable garden. Last year’s post on green beans, Fortex pole beans are thriving, published on September 20, 2016, shows photos from September 9 with healthy vines, leaves, and beans, pretty similar to this year’s September 7 photo above.

Going back to 2015, the post Green pole beans in June reports that Fortex green pole beans were planted on May 15 that year. On June 7, when the post was published, the little bean plants look healthy but are not vining yet, so they were off to a bit of a slow start. However, by June 13, the vines were vigorously climbing up the twine. The post Green pole beans in July, published July 3, shows healthy bean vines topping the bamboo teepee with some blooms in evidence. By July 13, 2015, in the post Harvesting green pole beans, the beans are long and plentiful, and the bean vines and leaves still look fresh and healthy. But by September 8, 2015, a post titled Trouble in Beanville bemoans problems with rust and spider mites. The bean leaves look terrible and no beans are in evidence. By that time, the beans, planted May 15, were almost 4 months old. Perhaps that was the problem.

This year’s beans were planted around Memorial weekend, so let’s say the end of May. Soil temperature needs to be at least 60° F. for bean seeds to germinate. Fortex green pole beans take 60 days to mature. I have always planted beans once a year. I’ve never considered succession planting for beans. Perhaps I should rethink that strategy if I want to produce more and better Fortex beans over a longer growing season.

September 5, 2017

Let’s guess that beans planted the latter part of May will start growing vigorously the first of June. So 60 days to maturity means they will spend most of June and July maturing, with some bean production the last part of July and all of August–6 weeks of production perhaps. By September, if the vines become too thick or develop rust or other problems, they should be torn down and taken curbside for municipal pickup. Never composted because of the danger of disease lingering in the soil. Below is a photo taken September 19 of some ugly bean leaves with no beans in evidence. Time to tear these bean plants down.

September 19, 2017

But I want beans in September if possible, so I will need to try succession planting of beans. Let’s say May 30, June 15, June 30, July 15. The July 15 sowing will mature around September 15. Our frost date is the end of October, so that’s 6 weeks of production if all goes well.

Of course, beans may not grow well in the fall for other reasons, so the July 15 planting may fail. But at least I will know which plantings are worth the effort. Having green beans in steady production from the end of July to sometime in October would be awesome. Certainly worth writing a post about.

Besides tasting good, green beans have amazing nutritional value. We all understand intuitively that garden-fresh vegetables are good for us, but to find out a little more about their nutritional value is a remarkable thing, amazing, really. And don’t forget there may be nutritional values yet to be discovered in all fresh produce.

To start with, green beans are low in calories with no saturated fat. They are a good source of vitamins A, B1, B6, and C as well as minerals and dietary fiber.  I didn’t realize that green beans contain phytonutrients such as lutein and zeaxanthin, those magical patented ingredients in Bausch + Lomb’s PerserVision designed to protect old people from macular degeneration. Who would have thought the humble green bean could be so trendy. They are an excellent source of potassium, which helps to control blood pressure and heart rate. Also rich in iron for persons like me with a history of anemia. Many online sources provide nutritional information on green beans. Garden-fresh green beans are nutritious, for sure, along with garden-fresh lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and many more. If you are able to do so, plant a garden for nutrition, exercise, fun, and all-around good health. It doesn’t come in a bottle.

One of my favorite easy recipes for summer is as follows. Boil the green beans for around 9 minutes or until they achieve a lovely soft crunch when you sample one. Spear it on a fork and run it under cold water before sampling so you don’t burn your tongue. While beans are boiling, sauté some peppers and sliced summer squash in olive oil and butter. If the squash gets a little brown, that’s perfection. Drain the beans and dump the peppers and squash into the bean pan. Stir to give the beans a lovely coating of oil and butter. Salt and pepper to taste and enjoy. See below.

September 20, 2017

Back to my green bean plan for next summer. I’ve always used 6 poles in the teepees in each 3’x3′ raised bed. Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog suggests 4 poles per teepee. I’ll give that a try to cut down on the density of the leaves and vines as they grow bigger.

My new green bean plan will require the use of 4 3’x3′ raised beds, but not all at the same time. If I pay attention, I can plant radishes and lettuce before and after the bean plantings, or perhaps sow some green manure crops into the beds after the beans are cleared away. Just remember to clean the bean plants up really well to prevent disease. Also using a 3-year crop rotation for the beans will help to keep them healthy. That’s a lot of planning come to think of it. But an extended harvest of delicious, nutritious green beans will be well worth the trouble.



Couldn’t resist adding photos of an American goldfinch female on a purple coneflower stalk. Goldfinches seem to enjoy purple coneflower seeds almost as much as they enjoy sunflower seeds. Male American goldfinches lose their bright yellow coloring in the fall, but they keep their black forehead year round. So this is a female American goldfinch. Wildflower seed heads may look a little ugly in the fall and winter, but seed-eating birds add enough beauty and entertainment to make up for any ugliness.


Weeds of spring: purple deadnettle, henbit, common chickweed, and hairy bittercress

Weeds of spring, also known as winter annuals: purple deadnettle, henbit, common chickweed, and hairy bittercress.

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Last year, in the posts Purple deadnettle, or is it henbit, and Weed report 2016, I fessed up to misidentifying purple deadnettle as henbit and wondering if any henbit was even present in my garden. Also, in the post Weeds of April, I identified weeds in a photo as common chickweed, but the photo clearly shows a predominance of hairy bittercress in the center of a patch of chickweed. Now, I wonder how I ever could have made such errors. I think the errors derive from paying too much attention to blooms in late spring. I saw purple blooms and thought all of them were henbit, even some creeping Charlie blooms. When more attention is paid to the leaves and structure of the weeds such identification errors start to look pretty silly. But one learns by making mistakes.

In this post, I will describe each of these winter annuals in turn, showing photos of each, and also showing how the 4 of them intermingle in the spring garden.

Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum).

Weeds of the Northeast identifies purple deadnettle and henbit as similar species, even comparing their habits and blooms in illustrations. For me, distinguishing one from the other started with observing that purple deadnettle has triangular leaves with shallow lobes. The upper leaves of purple deadnettle are predominantly purple. The petioles, or leaf stalks, are long near to the roots but become shorter nearer to the blooms.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), on the other hand, has leaves that are more rounded and deeply lobed. Below is a photo of henbit in some creeping juniper alongside the driveway, a favorite spot for henbit, it seems. Its square stems, characteristic of the mint family, can be seen.


The lower, young leaves of henbit have petioles, or stalks, while the upper leaves are sessile, or without stalks. Henbit also has purple blooms, which have not yet appeared in the photos of henbit below, taken on April 8.

Henbit and purple deadnettle often occupy the same bare ground in early spring. Below are some examples.

These photos were taken in early April from alongside the driveway. It’s easy to distinguish the triangular leaves of the purple deadnettle from the more rounded, lobed leaves of the henbit. The purple deadnettle is blooming before the henbit this spring. The pyramidal structure of the purple deadnettle at center in the lower photo is striking, but not always a dependable identifier.

Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is omnipresent in my garden. This is the 3rd year of my 7-year weed eradication project without herbicides, and chickweed has become more pervasive each year. This is not progress toward a weed-free garden for sure.

Common chickweed grows in bare spots of the area we mow and call a lawn. As Weeds of the Northeast points out, chickweed can remain prostrate in grass while forming a more upright habit in open areas. This upright habit is certainly in evidence around the blueberries in my garden. Chickweed foliage is lush. The blooms and seedpods appear simultaneously. The white blooms look like 10 petals but are actually 5 deeply lobed petals. Robins and juncos like chickweed seeds, so when my chickweed gets out of control, I think of the birds and what a kindly act it is for me to let the chickweed run rampant.

Above are photos of common chickweed blooms. Many seed capsules are in evidence. They are present at the same time as the blooms. Each capsule contains numerous seeds. The leaves are opposite and rounded to egg-shaped to pointed. This description from Weeds of the Northeast. The leaves have petioles, or short leaf stalks, for the most part, but the petioles may be lacking on some upper leaves, as seems to be the case in the top photo above.


Interestingly, no chickweed has appeared so far in the serendipity corner, seen above, which was covered in chickweed last summer. Is this because the corner tends to be shadier and moister than other areas of my garden, or is it because it was mulched with wood chips. This corner was the last spot for the March snow to melt. According to Weeds of the Northeast, in shady, moist conditions germination of chickweed often occurs throughout the summer with multiple generations being produced in a single summer. So I shouldn’t rest easy about the chickweed problem in the serendipity corner yet. They may appear later.


Garden columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) is plentiful in the serendipity corner, as seen above, promising much loveliness in the coming weeks. Not a weed. A wildflower.


Back to spring weeds. Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) starts as a basal rosette of heart-shaped to kidney-shaped leaves with upright flowering stems sporting seed pods, or siliques, extending beyond the blooms. The siliques are making an appearance in the photo above of a larger than usual hairy bittercress rosette, at least larger than most in my garden. The first true leaves, those that are heart-shaped or kidney-shaped, are somewhat similar to the more rounded leaves of chickweed, but the structure of the plants is very different, and the later pinnate leaves of hairy bittercress are unique unto themselves.

I confused hairy bittercress with chickweed last year, only because I wasn’t paying attention. Both have white blooms, but the blooms are quite different. Chickweed blooms look like stars, hence the botanical name stellaria. Hairy bittercress blooms cluster at the end of stems, have 4 white petals, 4 green sepals, or outer floral leaves, and 4 or 6 stamens, as can be seen in the photo below. Not like chickweed blooms at all.


Hairy bittercress is often found standing erect in a patch of prostrate chickweed, so I think that may be the reason for my confusion.


Above is a photo of hairy bittercress and chickweed mixing it up. Mixing me up. The bloom of the hairy bittercress is prominent. The later pinnate leaves of the hairy bittercress, seen directly below and to the right of the most prominent bloom, now contrast with the rounded, pointed, egg-shaped leaves of the surrounding chickweed. Pinnate leaves have 2 rows of lateral parts along an axis. It’s complicated. No chickweed blooms are evident in the above photo.


Purple deadnettle is mixing it up with common chickweed is the photo above. The purple blooms of the purple deadnettle are apparent, as well as the starlike blooms of the chickweed.

Finally, a few other spring weeds are coming on now. Corn speedwell (Veronica arvensis), seen above, is another winter annual. A few showed up in the vegetable garden paths, just enough to remind me of their existence. Now that’s the way I like weeds to behave. Just a few dandies in the spring. Just enough galinsoga to remind me of its unusual name. But no, that’s just not the way most weeds operate. Corn speedwell produces tiny blue flowers at the very top of the flowering stem, which are not in evidence in these photos, taken April 13..


Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and wild mustard (Brassica kaber) obligingly grew side by side for the easy photo op seen above. The garlic mustard, on the left, knows its place in my garden and is easily pulled. Its white blooms have not yet appeared in this photo, also taken April 13. The wild mustard, on the right, is a pest this spring in the area we mow and call a lawn. Wild mustard is not hard to pull, but we have been content so far to just keep mowing it down. And it keeps coming back. The photos below show its habit of invading bare spots in a so-called lawn.

This post could go on and on with spring weeds, but it’s been too long in getting published already. My 7-year weed eradication project without herbicides has taken a hit this spring because I haven’t spent enough time at it. For the remainder of this growing season, I plan to work on weed control, without herbicides, instead of eradication. Fill in those bare spots. Mulch, mulch, mulch. Weed eradication may be a fantasy anyway. Weed control, on the other hand, may be a practical and rewarding endeavor.





Robins ate the winterberries

For Christmas 2015, I bought a small Winter Red winterberry shrub (Ilex verticillata). Sometime the following January, something ate the red berries. I suspected the robins, but did not have proof. This Christmas, the winterberry bush was double in size with multitudes of beautiful red berries. Below is a photo of the winterberry on December 12, 2016.


On December 28, a small flock of American robins (Turdus migratorius), perhaps 10 or so, showed up for lunch. They sat in the magnolia tree above the winterberry and took turns swooping down to enjoy the berries. Perhaps they have a custom about not eating the festive red berries until after Christmas. You never know about birds. They also sampled some holly berries, which did not seem to be as tasty. Below is a photo of 1 robin enjoying the winterberries. That was the only photo I got of the robins. Drat.


In a short period of time, the Winter Red winterberry was bare, and the robins were off. I didn’t get around to taking the photo below of the bare winterberry shrub until January 9, but it was bare by the time the robins left on December 28. So, a small puzzle of the garden is solved. I am eyewitness to the fact that the robins ate the winterberries.


In Wild Fruits, Thoreau includes a section on winterberries. He identifies them by their common names of winterberry and black alder, but he also identifies them as Prinos verticillatus, rather than Ilex verticillatus.

The Monticello shop website sheds some light on this name disparity. Carolus Linaeus, the Swedish father of modern taxonomy, gave the name of Prinos verticillatus to this native American shrub, thus indicating that it is the species Bernard McMahon, a Philadelphia nurseryman at the time, listed as “Ilex prinoides–Deciduous Holly.” It’s complicated. Thoreau has something to say about Europeans giving names to American native species in Wild Fruits, pretty much indicating that they didn’t know what they were talking about in naming American species much of the time, often giving a European twist to naming that was unwarranted. McMahon was right, winterberries are deciduous hollies, but they didn’t get their Ilex name until later.

The Monticello website also mentions that George Washington was probably thinking of winterberries when he rode out looking for the native Red Berry plant to transplant to Mount Vernon. I’m thinking I have a historical shrub in my garden.

Finally, the Monticello website mentions that the dark green foliage of the winterberry turns yellow in the fall. This is a great relief to me since I feared that my Winter Red winterberry was in ill health when its leaves turned yellowish in October, as can be seen in the photo below, taken October 16.


Winterberries have male and female plants, both of which are necessary if you want the red berries, which of course I do. In my garden, there is a female Sparkleberry winterberry with a male Jim Dandy companion. These are early bloomers. The female Winter Red has a male Southern Gentleman companion for later blooms. So far at least, the Winter Red is superior to the Sparkleberry in all-around growth and berry production. RareFind Nursery catalog calls Winter Red the standard against which other winterberries are measured. I think so too.

I’ve always been annoyed that the Sparkleberry was marketed as a native Ilex verticillata by the local nursery where I bought it, but it’s really a cross with I. serrata, which is a Japanese winterberry. Impulse buying is not good at garden nurseries. Best to plan on 2 trips–the 1st to shop around, and the 2nd to buy only after going home and doing some serious research and thinking about the purchase.

But back to Wild Fruits. Thoreau takes into account the usefulness of wild fruits for human consumption, the appeal of their beauty to the eye, and their importance to wildlife. As to human consumption, Thoreau does not seem shy about tasting wild berries, but does so not foolishly, but through knowledge and experience. He mentions that he learned about some edible berries by walking behind an Indian in Maine and observing the Indian eating fruits which Thoreau had never thought of tasting before that. He also mentions the Indian’s hand-to-mouth use of berries. I like that. I have a hand-to-mouth habit of eating blueberries and raspberries in the garden during the summer. Also sugar-snap peas. Most never make it to the kitchen.

Thoreau often notes the beauty of wild fruits to the eye. In the case of the winterberries, he describes how handsome they are, first the bright-red berries against the dark-green leaves of summer, and also later when the berries remain bright red on the bare branches. When he describes high blueberries in another section, he says that our appreciation of their flavor commonly prevents our observing their beauty. So we admire holly berries, which we don’t eat, yet fail to admire the beauty of blueberries, which we do eat.

Winterberries are significant wild fruits in Thoreau’s mind not because humans eat them, but because robins, partridges, and mice do. In November, he discovers the skins of winterberries at the entrance of a mouse burrow under a stump, the mouse having gathered the winterberries in the night and eaten the insides near the safety of its burrow. Thoreau’s response to this discovery underscores his understanding that edible fruits include fruits for wildlife, not just for humans. He writes, What pretty fruit for the mice, these bright prinos berries! 

When he is describing chokeberries in another section of Wild Fruits, Thoreau says the taste is pleasant enough, but they leave a mass of dry pulp in the mouth. But, he says, it’s worth the while to see their profusion, if only to know what Nature can do, but she can do some things as well as others and has other children to feed beside us.

Is it any wonder that we continue to read Thoreau, and that we continue to find hope and solace in doing so.

Next winter, I hope to have more berries in the garden for the robins to feast on. More winterberries, more holly berries, and, hopefully, some little crabapples from the Golden Raindrops crabapple trees even.