Black Widows

May 26th, 2012

… another public service announcement …

I saw my first black widow spider many years ago – in a box of mail-order plants I was unpacking. Nothing bad happened. I smashed it with a trowel and it made a good story and I assumed I’d never see another.

I saw my second black widow spider here in the woods of central Virginia. It was a few years ago, maybe 2007 or 2008. I probably should have killed it.

I saw my third black widow spider on Monday of this week. On my front porch! I knocked it down and stomped on it with my garden clogs.

Black Widow Spider

The Monday front porch spider

I saw my fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh black widow spiders yesterday. All in various place on the outside of our house. But now some of them were busily making babies.

Black Widow Spider

One of the Friday black widows

I shredded my green credentials and called an exterminator. I really hated to do it, but we just can’t have so many of these things around. Everything I read about them says they inhabit damp dark spots generally hidden to human view. Well I don’t know about that – all the ones I’ve seen have been clearly out in the open. With the exception of one that was on the foundation nestled up against the first row of siding, all the rest were under the eaves of the house and garage. How many more are there in those damp dark hidden places?

What would Rachel Carson do?

More information about black widow spiders:


A Change Will Do You Good

May 16th, 2012

I’m bored. With this blog I mean. It was fun when I started it in 2003 (over nine years ago!), and even more fun when I found out that people were actually reading it. But now, and forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but I find that I’m struggling to come up with something original to say about gardening. Especially in this year of the downsized vegetable garden. I looked over my last year’s posts for the Garden-to-Table-Challenge at and see that I made exactly the same food this year in exactly the same week last year. Should I write about it again? Nah…

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day? Wildflower Wednesday? Foliage Follow-up? Harvest Monday? These are all great community-building projects, but……I’m tired.

Oh and what about Facebook and Twitter?  I’m there, but not very enthusiastically. Twitter was fun when I was following a small number of people, but now I just browse the stream for a short time every few days.

Facebook, well, you all know the issues with Facebook.

[edited to remove links to Twitter and Facebook]

And I’m also on Ravelry and Flickr and probably lots of other places that I don’t even remember…

All this is by way of introducing my newest internet gardening project. I noticed that people and organizations are using MediaWiki – the software that powers Wikipedia – for all kinds of interesting things. Tatiana’s TOMATObase is a wonderful reference. I signed up a few months ago with WeRelate – a non-commercial genealogical wiki. And I starting thinking. I really intended this blog to be a gardening journal. Then when blogs got popular, I started writing posts that I thought would please other people. Far from what I intended when I started. But what if I had a personal gardening wiki? It could be an even better version of what I thought I’d have when I started this blog. Introducing CultivatedWiki.

Now, this is very much a work in progress, so don’t go there looking for a complete garden encyclopedia. I’m adding to it a little at a time. Eventually, if I stick with it, it should be a good record of my gardening activities. Right now I have no plans to make it collaborative. It’s just a personal record which may or may not be interesting to others.

I don’t know what to do about this blog. For the time being, I’ll keep it around. Maybe I’ll do a weekly summary or something. Or just post when I have something new and different to say.

Venomous Caterpillars

May 11th, 2012

…a public service announcement…

Buck Moth Caterpillar

Buck Moth Caterpillar

Venomous caterpillars? Yes. If you see one of these things, don’t touch it. Even if it’s dead. If you want the graphic version of the warning, click here.

I suspected this might be one of the several types of venomous caterpillars, even though I didn’t know what it was when I took these photos. Those spines just look ominous.

Buck Moth Spines

Buck Moth Spines

Click the photo above to enlarge it. You’ll see that each spine looks like a micro hypodermic needle and that is essentially what it is.

These critters were crawling all over the outside of the house yesterday afternoon. The experts say they’ll be around for a few weeks and then will burrow and pupate to turn into spectacular moths.

Thanks to the folks at the excellent bug site for the ID. If you want to know about other caterpillars you shouldn’t touch, the University of Kentucky has an illustrated guide.

Herb of the Year

May 4th, 2012

Herb of the Year? Says who? The International Herb Association will have you know that the 2012 Herb of the Year™ is the Rose. They’re a trade organization so I suppose that little trademark symbol is inevitable, but it still made me squirm. And this upcoming week is National Herb Week—as declared by the International Herb Association. Or if you don’t want to spend a whole week on it, there’s HerbDay—May 5 this year—brought to you by a consortium of various herb organizations. Isn’t there some kind of official proclamation for these things? I couldn’t find one anywhere and I googled for at least 30 seconds. Anyhow, we kicked off our herbal celebrations a little early by visiting Herbs Galore & More last Saturday at Maymont in Richmond. It was a good plant sale, although most of the vendors didn’t have much to do with herbs.

I’m planting more herbs this year, after concentrating the last few years on vegetables. Fresh herbs are so expensive to buy as food (farmer’s markets, grocery stores) and so easy to grow (seeds, nursery plants). A few weeks ago I started seeds of my favorite basils which aren’t always easy to find as plants, but readily available as seed—Mexican Cinnamon Spice, Mrs. Burns Lemon, and Sweet Petra Dark. I’m going to start more basil seeds in a couple of weeks, so they’ll be still be young and fresh when the tomatoes are ready.  I’ve read that in Liguria, home of pesto, basil plants are grown quickly under glass and the entire plant is harvested when still quite young. For better flavor or a better bottom line? I don’t know, but I’ll assume they know what they’re doing. The selection of basils at the Maymont show was overwhelming, but I came home with only one basil plant – Cuban. I hadn’t heard of it before, but I loved the fragrance.

Up in Northern Virginia, I shopped for herbs (and more) yesterday at DeBaggio’s. The first time I visited there, years ago, it was in the middle of nowhere. Last time I went, suburbia was encroaching. Now, DeBaggio’s is a rural holdout, totally surrounded by housing developments. The plant selection is outstanding if you’re interested in edible and aromatic plants. And some well-chosen ornamentals too.

But back to the Herb of the Year™. Yesterday, I cut a few flowers for the house—’Krinkled White’ peony, ‘Vi Luihn’ Siberian Iris, and ‘Hugh Dickson’ rose. It’s astonishing to me that roses are in bloom here in the first days of May, and what’s more astonishing is that my ‘Hugh Dickson’ is blooming. I tried to evict him from the garden in 2005 and thought I’d succeeded, until last year. I started to see rose shoots where he used to be, but I thought, “Well, they were probably grafted plants. This is probably some weedy rootstock that survived.” But no. Those shoots are now blooming and they do appear to be ‘Hugh Dickson’. Hugh has a good pedigree, bred by the illustrious Dickson family of Northern Ireland. I remember that I chose him based on a catalog description of the fragrance and disease resistance. The fragrance is fabulous, but disease resistance? I guess that just means that it doesn’t get blackspot and mildew as bad as some other roses do.

'Hugh Dickson', 'Krinkled White', and 'Vi Luihn'

'Hugh Dickson', 'Krinkled White', and 'Vi Luihn'

I considered making that bouquet my entry for this week’s Garden to Table Challenge. It was on the table, but the combined fragrances were too overpowering and now it’s in the family room where I can still catch whiffs of it as I sit at the kitchen table and type this.

But I searched my memory, and remembered that early in the week, I did make food with garden ingredients. It was a Caribbean-style Black Bean Soup, made with a sofrito including Ají Dulce and Brown Habanero peppers from the freezer, and topped with chopped fresh scallion from the garden when finished. My version was adapted from a recipe in an old Time-Life cookbook, but this recipe is similar although much more complex.

What’s cooking in your garden lately? Join the party at

Hardy Lemongrass

April 26th, 2012

At the risk of repeating myself again, today I’m going to write about lemongrass. For the last couple years, I’ve started lemongrass plants from grocery store stalks. You can read my previous posts ¹ ²to see how I did it, but the basic idea is to buy lemongrass at the grocery store, root it, plant it, watch it grow, eat it, and repeat the whole process next year because lemongrass is a tropical plant and won’t survive a central Virginia  winter. Or will it? Cleaning up the garden, I was surprised to find fresh green shoots at the base of last year’s lemongrass plants.

Lemongrass shoots

Lemongrass shoots, April 26, 2012

It was a warm winter, but that warm? Cymbopogon citratus is said to be native to southern India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and/or Malaysia. None of those places ever have freezing temperatures as far as I know.

But freezing is exactly what I did with last year’s lemongrass stalks. Late last fall, I cut down just two of the clumps, separated the stalks, trimmed off the top part so they’d fit in a gallon-size freezer bag, and this year I probably used more lemongrass in the winter than in the summer. I think you have to use more than recipes suggest because the freezing seems to diminish the flavor somewhat, but otherwise I don’t think you could tell the difference between frozen and fresh.


Last year's lemongrass (August 2011)

I don’t have any original ideas for using lemongrass, but I have a lot of cookbooks and Google. I found a recipe for Lemongrass Shrimp on Rasa Malaysia and have made it several times. Quick, easy and good!

Are you cooking from your garden? Or a local farmers’ market? Tell us about it! Go to and join the Garden to Table Challenge.

More as a record for myself than a recommendation for anybody else, here are a few more meals from last week with garden ingredients (shown in parentheses):

Green Chile Cheeseburgers (Sandia hot peppers from freezer, Yellow Moon Dutch Shallots, baby cilantro)

Pohe (Serrano peppers from freezer, Yellow Moon Dutch Shallots, baby cilantro)

Vietnamese Braised Meatballs [I didn’t precisely follow the linked recipe, just used for inspiration] (Yellow Moon Dutch Shallots, dried Catarina hot pepper) & Steamed Cabbage (mint/garlic vinegar)

Lemongrass Shrimp (lemongrass, Lemon Drop hot peppers from the freezer; dried red hot peppers)


April 18th, 2012

Having only just written that I plan to shrink the garden to where it  provides fresh food in season for two people and that’s all, I’m now going to write about the satisfaction of food preservation. If I hadn’t put last year’s surplus into the freezer, fridge and dehydrator I wouldn’t have much to contribute to this week’s Garden-to-Table-Challenge. And as we cycle through our seasonal favorites I’m afraid of repeating myself too often, but here goes.

Herb Vinegar. A few drops of vinegar or citrus juice almost always improves whatever you’re cooking. That little bit of extra acidity seems to bring other flavors forward. But season the vinegar with herbs and you’ve added another dimension. Making herb vinegar is so easy and rewards you so much for very little work. The finished product will last a long time because you only use a few drops in any given dish. I even have some vintage herb vinegars from previous years still in the fridge. When I last wrote about herb vinegar, I was contemplating whether to combine garlic and herbs or to make a batch with garlic alone. I decided to combine garlic with ‘Kentucky Colonel’ spearmint in a base of apple cider vinegar. I strained it into another bottle after several months to conserve space in the fridge. Generally speaking, I liked the combination, but next time I think I’ll go back to my favorite rice vinegar as the base. It’s happy to be the quiet assistant while the herbs are the stars of the show. The apple cider vinegar added too much of its own flavor to suit me, but it might work better with different herbs.

Herb Vinegars

Herb Vinegars

Anyhow, I used it this week in a little relishy sort of thing to go on shrimp tacos. I make a sort of simplified version of Camarones Brochettes by threading a slice of bacon over and under shrimp on a skewer. Add a hot pepper to each skewer. The hot peppers were from last year’s garden via the freezer. More about that in a minute. Grill until the shrimp are cooked through (try not to incinerate them with bacon drippings on the charcoal…ahem) and have each diner assemble tacos in flour tortillas (or grocery store rotis in this case) with any toppings (s)he likes. This time it was salsa (store-bought, but the spouse likes it) and this relish: chopped green onions, minced ‘Peach Habanero’ pepper, salt and a few drops of mint/garlic vinegar. We dunk shrimp tacos in garlic butter as we eat.

The green onions from last year’s seed onions are starting to flower, so I need to use them up soon. So we had a few cebollitas with our tacos. I wrote about cebollitas last year, but the short version is throw some green onions on the grill; season with salt, pepper, and lime juice; eat.

OK, now about those hot peppers in the freezer. This is one area where I just can’t shrink the garden too much. We use a lot of hot peppers. There are so many types and flavors that I just can’t go back to buying them in the grocery store, not even in the big international supermarkets we have now.

Hot Peppers in the Freezer

Hot Peppers in the Freezer

Peppers are simple to freeze – no blanching or other preparation required. Pick them, put them in a plastic bag and put them in the freezer. Then be smug and happy until the next crop is ready.

Freshly Minted

April 12th, 2012

“You know they say snakes won’t go around mint,” Laura Dorsey remarked casually.

“They won’t?” I cried.

Being of a scientific bent, Laura wasn’t about to give me any gold-plated guarantee but she did tell me this story. When they first settled their old house on the hill in Cherokee County they kept finding snake skins on the fireboard in the living room and this struck cold terror to the hearts of the young girls in the family, as it would to mine if I knew a snake was sneaking into my house unbeknownst to me to make his seasonal change of clothes.

“I planted mint all around the foundations and by the steps and the snake skins didn’t appear again,” Laura related.

However the snake himself showed up in the tool house. He was harmless, a kind of pest repellent in fact, but he also repelled Laura so she planted mint around the tool house. She never saw the snake there again.

“Where did he go, I wonder?” I mused, thinking of distant mintless regions.

“To the privy,” said Laura. “I’m planting mint around it now.”

~~~ The Sweet Apple Gardening Book by Celestine Sibley

It was with this passage in mind that I planted mint next to the side door.

Kentucky Colonel Spearmint

Kentucky Colonel Spearmint

There’s a small porch there with an open space under it, just large enough that I can’t see all the way underneath. It looked like a snaky place to me and one where I was planning to spend a lot of time.When Celestine Sibley wrote the words above, she was looking for empty places to deploy her exuberant surplus mint, but so far I haven’t had that problem. I pull up some stray runners in the spring, but that’s about the extent of my efforts to control its growth. I do use it a lot in the kitchen. With our weirdly warm winter and spring this year, it never really died all the way to the ground and we have plenty to use now – so early in the spring.

Easter Dinner was glazed ham, mashed potatoes with sour cream and chives, and peas with mint. The only garden components were chives and mint. I think I’ve mentioned peas and mint before. It’s something that I make often and usually with frozen peas (yeah, I know, sorry, but it’s easy). Put frozen peas in a microwave-safe lidded casserole. Add salt, pepper and butter to taste (more butter is better, up to a point). Microwave until the peas are tender – if you buy petit pois this only takes a couple minutes. Sprinkle with finely chopped fresh mint, and taste to see if it needs more butter, salt, or pepper.

I used ‘Kentucky Colonel’ Spearmint for this, but I also have Chocolate Mint and Peppermint growing by the side door.



Chocolate Mint

Chocolate Mint

This post is my contribution to the first Garden-to-Table-Challenge of 2012. And hopefully not my last, but this year the kitchen garden is going to be much smaller. Celestine Sibley and I reached the same conclusion, taking about the same amount of time to do it:

It’s funny how long it takes you to see a perfectly obvious thing. For the first half-dozen years in the country I wanted a big garden and everything I had ever heard about to be growing in it—the delicate spring lettuces, endive, escarole and romaine, radishes and tender young peas, new potatoes and all the summer vegetables—black-eyed peas and butter beans, okra, squash, tomatoes and great purple eggplant. I saw no reason why I couldn’t have strawberries and asparagus and blueberries and raspberries and blackberries and grapes and watermelons and cucumbers and cantaloupe.

The plain truth was that although I had the space—five acres mostly given over to young pines and hardwoods—I had neither the time nor the help to handle a big garden.

It was a terrible temptation to sit there and read and and sip coffee before work in the mornings and to sit there and sip something cool and visit with friends in the late afternoons but how could I with that disheveled, sun-baked garden standing there shaming me for my neglect?

“There just isn’t TIME enough!” I used to wail to anybody who would listen.

And then I remembered Mary Kistner and her one-woman garden.

“It’s so small!” I cried to Mary and she took me around and showed me that it was indeed small, tailored to supply fresh vegetables in season for two people and occasional guests.

She had worked out a system, probably after a little period for trial and error, that gave her time for other activities, but assured that in the growing season she would always have fresh vegetables for the table, herbs to season them and flowers to ornament the yard…

That’s my goal. Not to give up the kitchen garden, but to make it of a size where I don’t feel either frazzled or ashamed all summer long. I’m still seeking that proper size and contents. Right now the too-big garden is a mess of weeds that never stopped growing over our warm winter. Every time I looked at it, I felt so discouraged that I stopped looking at it. As a result, there won’t be many spring crops this year. There are still perennial herbs to use (like mint), but they’ll be seasoning store-bought vegetables until at least early summer.

Celestine Sibley was wrong about one thing though. I reached for the outdoor faucet handle one day last fall, and jumped back suddenly when I saw a black snake slithering along the house foundation—right through the mint.