Compost revisions

In today’s Chez Howard garden: general cleanup; working end-of-season leaves & grass clippings into the compost pile. That pile, incidentally, is still cooking. After all these years of composting, we now have a really good mower that picks up and delivers all the grass and leaves. So for the first time, I’ve worked the pile all the way up to this point in IMG_0011November. Always before, I’d stop working the current season’s pile in August, when I’d begin building next year’s pile. But “building” just meant dumping stuff—watermelon rinds, winter squash shells, biodegradable kitchen debris, and raked-up whole leaves—onto it.

This year, in contrast, all those leaves went into the pile all chopped up and mixed with late-season grass clippings. So this year as I built the new pile, I worked it, using my four-tine manure fork and a tilling fork with 6″ tines to turn, mix, unearth, break up, rebury garden and kitchen waste. (Yes, a half hour of this counts as my day’s workout!) And friends, I’m here to testify it’s worth it. We’ve had a very cold November here in the CNY featuring some single-digit overnight lows. Yet today, as I worked the pile, earthworms and maggots wiggled in some spots while pockets of steam drifted up from others. That compost pile is very much alive, actively decomposing, promising good contributions to the 2016 garden. Tomorrow the remaining grass and leaves will be dumped on it, and on top of that, the remaining holiday pumpkins. And there they will sit until compost-turning begins when the ground thaws again, in April of another year.

Coldframe miracles

The snow is melted off most of the surface of the yard. The sun is shining and the coldframe is warming up enough that I’m having to vent it during the day. And! miraculously, some of the seeds I started in it have sprouted—apparently the lettuce from the February 28 and March 9 plantings are both busy sprouting, despite nights in the single digits since their plantings. Clearly I have much to learn about coldframe gardening. 


Enthused by these apparitions, today I planted lettuce (benito), spinach (corvair), chard (prima rosa), maché (vit), and arugula. 


How to start seeds indoors

  • Bring the sack of seed starter mix in from the garage so it will reach room temperature.
  • Find the seeds.
  • Cut up the slats of an old window miniblind to make plant tags
  • Clean off enough of the kitchen counter that a whole new mess can be made on it.
  • Open up Gchat and gab with Krista about everything under the sun (including seed-starting)
  • Find the plastic gallon milk jugs that have been stashed over the past year.
  • Cut same into nice square seed-starting flats.
  • Ladle seed-starting mix into flats, adding water to the layers and spraying the surface of each layer so that the mix really does get wet
  • Carry on even when Krista ditches to tend to her dinner
  • Don’t water the top layer yet. Use an index card to smooth out the top layer of dry mix
  • Use the index card to make furrows for the seeds
  • Fold the index card; put seeds in the fold; and shake them carefully, one by one, into the furrows
  • Cover the seeds
  • Use a spray bottle to give the top layer of mix a good soaking
  • Pull a Baggie (or any brand of clear plastic bag that doesn’t have a zip top) up around the container. Twist it a bit, and then blow into it as if it were a balloon
  • Twist the Baggie closed, and seal with a twist tie
  • Put the containers where they won’t get any sun until the seeds have sprouted. Below they’re on the potting table in the second floor of the garage (which is heated).
  • Check the containers every day to make sure the Baggie mini-greenhouse hasn’t collapsed. Blow up any that have.
  • Pray that you still have any clue how to do this after a multi-year hiatus from gardening.

Started today: Wrinkled Crinkled cress seeds from Pinetree; Flashy Trout Back red romaine from Johnny’s—last year’s seeds, so who knows; English thyme from Seeds of Change.


P.S. The second planting in the coldframe failed, too. When the nighttime temps dip down into single digits, any germination is doomed. Undaunted, I’ll plant again on March 23, assuming that the 10-day at that time shows nothing colder than 20°. Hey, I can dream.

First for-reals coldframe planting

Chez Howard coldframe, 3/9/2013
Chez Howard coldframe, 3/9/2013

Actually, I planted to the coldframe 10 days ago. But it was a really long shot, and yeah, the 10° nights that followed whacked the liddle bit of lettuce seeds that I stuck in the ground.

Today was quite another matter. There’s still a lot of chanciness involved—we’re zone 4B, and wintry weather isn’t done with us yet. But today I stuck my gunboats in my pink (hells yeah) barn boots, tucked seed packets in my shirt pocket, and put in a half-row each of maché (though using last year’s seed—is that a mistake?) and lettuce (Burpee’s Green Ice).

To the garden!

The good news: When the back porch thermometer said it was 52° outdoors, the thermometer in the closed coldframe said it was 72°. Scott, the coldframe builder, has been tinkering with it to get it truly windproof, and I think he just may have succeeded. We’re not having a sunny winter (we did last winter! I swear!), and that’s not helpful. The coldframe needs sun to get really warmed up. Still, when it’s holding heat that well, it just might make it through the nights in the the teens that await us here in Squirrelyville. This second planting has a much better chance than the first did.

Devil’s food cake with Bigmother’s icing

Today I get to make tacos for friends who are coming to dinner. The perfect finish to spicy tacos is chocolate. And for me, the perfect chocolate is cake. I bake a recipe adapted from the 1972 Joy of Cooking, and I frost it with my grandmother’s recipe. Here we go. This is a complicated yet straightforward recipe, and the result will ruin you for Hostess and Sara Lee for life:

This recipe is adapted from the 1972 Joy of Cooking


  • Bring the butter, eggs, water, and milk to room temperature before beginning to cook.
  • For this recipe, you’ll make several different mixtures: a custard, a flour mixture, sugar, a butter mixture, and whipped egg whites. These all get combined into the cake batter.
  • Equipment needed: measuring cups and spoons; a big mixmaster; a small hand mixer; 5 small bowls; a big mixer bowl; a spatula and a wooden spoon; a double boiler; and a flour sifter.
  • Grease two 8” round cake pans.
  • Oven 350°

Custard: Add the following ingredients in this order and stir in a double boiler:

4 oz. unsweetened chocolate

½ c milk

1 c light brown sugar, firmly packed

Stir those together; then add:

1 egg yolk

Remove from heat when thickened.

Flour mixture: Sift twice before measuring:

2 c flour

Resift into a small bowl with:

1 t soda

½ t salt

Liquid mixture: Combine in a separate small bowl:

¼ c water

½ c milk

1 t vanilla

Sugar: Sift into a separate small bowl:

1 c sugar

Butter mixture: In the big mixer bowl, beat until soft:

½ c butter

Add the sugar gradually. Blend until very light and creamy.
Beat in, one at a time:

2 egg yolks

Cake batter: Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in 4 parts, alternating with thirds of the liquid mixture. With any cake, always start with the flour and end with the flour.
Stir in the chocolate custard.

Whipped egg whites: Using the small hand mixer, whip until stiff, but not dry:

2 egg whites

Using the wooden spoon, fold them lightly into the cake batter.

Pour the batter into prepared pans.
Bake at 350° for 40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool on a wire rack before removing from the pan.

Bigmother’s icing:

1/2 c. brown sugar
2 sq. bitter chocolate
pinch of salt
1 box confectioners sugar (in contemporary terms, this comes to about 3/4 bag)
1/3 to 1/2 stick butter
1/2 c. sweet or sour cream
Melt brown sugar, butter, & chocolate together. Add cream. Boil 1 min. Cool a little; add pinch of salt. Beat in confectioners sugar. If too stiff, add a little liquid—cream or water will work, but coffee is best!

Inventing bread

I love to bake. I pride myself on my biscuits and French bread, both oven-baked from scratch. Real Southern biscuits, the kind that soothe your soul and raise your cholesterol. Perfect French bread, stellar with spaghetti and lasagne. I also mastered (though for many years haven’t practiced) the art of salt risin bread, the kind you start with potatoes as yeast. Smells like hell, tastes like heaven. (I do think I need to resurrect that art!) 

So why, for cryin out loud, haven’t I transferred that gift and that love to the breadmaker? Why have I treated breadmaker bread like an invitation to mechanics rather than art? Why have I resigned myself to the breadmaker crapshoot, never knowing how the loaf will turn out or whether it will actually taste good?

Yesterday it finally came through to me that I didn’t have to use mixes, didn’t have to follow recipes. The result is quite wonderful. Here’s my recipe for breadmaker spelt bread:

Crust setting: dark

1 c minus 1 T lukewarm water (err on the cool side if you’re not sure)
2 T canola oil
2 T maple syrup
½ t liquid lethicin
2 c spelt flour
1 c white bread flour
3 T whey
1-½ t sea salt
2 t yeast

As the loaf begins to knead, have a spatula, some lukewarm water, and some white bread flour on hand to adjust the dough as needed. It should pull away from the pan as it kneads, but it shouldn’t be lumpy.

Enjoy. We are.

thinking about design

I’ve had two previous perennial beds. The first became so overgrown that friends and family, as a birthday present, were persuaded to help me dig it up and replant it. The second became archaeology last summer; raised beds, driveway, and a tool shed now cover it over. So this new bed I’m going to establish will be #3. I’m hoping to keep it going for a few years!

With bed #3 I’m finally thinking not just in terms of purty thangs growin (though that’s still what dominates); I have a chance, for the first time, to think in terms of design. So I’ve made a list of the flowers I’ve ordered according to their bloom time and height. We’ll see where this takes me:

alyssum Carpet of Snow 6″

Oriental poppy 36″


alyssum Carpet of Snow 6″
salvia Blue Queen 12″
butterfly weed 12-36″
rudbeckia Autumn Glory 20-24″
painted daisies 20-24″
coreopsis 24″
speedwell (veronica spicata) 24-36″
echinacea 24-36″
yarrow Summer Berries 30″
Oriental poppy 36″
lupines 36-40″
delphinium 48-60″
foxglove 60″
alyssum Carpet of Snow 6″
salvia Blue Queen 12″
centaurea 18″
butterfly weed 12-36″
rudbeckia Autumn Glory 20-24″
rudbeckia Ruby Gold 20-24″
coreopsis 24″
shasta daisy Crazy Daisy: 24″
aster 28″
echinacea 24-36″
yarrow Summer Berries 30″
lupines 36-40″
monarda 24-48″
hollyhock 60-84″
alyssum Carpet of Snow 6″
salvia Blue Queen 12″
centaurea 18″
rudbeckia Autumn Glory 20-24″
rudbeckia Ruby Gold 20-24″
butterfly weed 12-36″
shasta daisy Crazy Daisy: 24″
coreopsis 24″
rudbeckia Goldsturm (black-eyed Susans) 24″ 
aster 28″
echinacea 24-36″
monarda 24-48″
hollyhock 60-84″
alyssum Carpet of Snow 6″
rudbeckia Autumn Glory 20-24″
rudbeckia Ruby Gold 20-24″
rudbeckia Goldsturm (black-eyed Susans) 24″ 
aster 28″
monarda 24-48″
hollyhock 60-84″

but how do I USE my coldframe?

Last fall the guys doing work (building a garage, replacing dangerous sidewalks, clearing brush, putting up a deerproof fence) on the Chez Howard property also built four 3×6′ raised beds, one of them with a coldframe cover. 

Swell. About 15 years ago we had a very surprising spell of warm February weather during what was then our brutally cold upstate winters, and the Beloved Partner and I scampered out and, using old windows and random bricks, Mcgyvered a coldframe. We tossed some seeds in there and—to the amazement of all the gardeners in our little corner of Earlville—we had salads in March.

That experience has been on my mind ever since, so I seized the opportunity to have a for-reals coldframe made last fall. One of the raised beds is a coldframe; one will be for herbs; and the other two will be for salad greens and table vegetables. Our big gardens (approximately 5,000 square feet) are for squash, beans, corn, tomatoes, and the like.

Now, however, I have to figure out how to for-reals use the coldframe. I’ve done some scouting, and I’ve browsed Siegchrist’s Building and Using Cold Frames pamphlet. Most of the guidance has been about how to build the things (done already!) and how to maintain them (it’s clear that I should procure an automatic venting device). But what, exactly, should I plant, and when?

In addition, I have bought frost-protecting sheets and hoops for the three raised beds. What planting schedule should I use for them?

Finally I find a really good source from the Harvest to Table site, with a “season-by-season cold frame operations calendar.” Bless their hearts. Working from that, I’ve drafted a schedule for the coldframe and table-veggies raised beds. I figure the frost protection on the raised beds buys 2-3 weeks, and that the hood on the coldframe buys me 4-5. So here’s my schedule, and I’ll try to report on how well it works for our Zone 4 (now teetering toward 5) climate:

February 20: start lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula, broccoli, chard, and radishes in the coldframe

March 13: start them in the frost-protected raised bed

April 3: start them in an open raised bed

. . . and that completes my garden planning for 2013!

Seeds of 2013

The Beloved Partner will be adding his own items to this list (notably corn, squash, tomatoes, beans), but here’s my list of garden seeds for 2013, and where I’m ordering them. Weird comments are my notes to him; BP is placing the “master” order.

alyssum: Pinetree #602 CARPET OF SNOW
arugula: : got ’em
basil: Pinetree #503 ITALIAN LARGE LEAF
—and #51002 LEMON BASIL
beets: Pinetree #34 GOLDEN BEET
—and #31 DETROIT
black-eyed Susan vine: Pinetree #821 ALATA THUNBERGIA
broccoli: Seeds of Change Early Green, #01525
—and Seeds of Change Fiesta F-1, #05864
brussels sprouts: Pinetree #53 FALSTAFF
—and #50 Jade Cross
butterfly weed: Pinetree #711
centaurea: Park # 00515-PK-P1
chard: Pinetree #99 PRIMA ROSA
chervil: Pinetree #519
chives: Pinetree #551
cilantro: Pinetree #W555 CARIBE
collards: Johnny’s #2190 Top Bunch
—and #366 Champion #05694 Vates Champion
coreopsis: Pinetree #728 BABY SUN
coriander (attracts wasps that feed on aphids): Pinetree #W555 CARIBE
cress: Pinetree #18802 WRINKLED CRINKLED
delphinium: Burpee #19912 Diamonds Blue
dill (attracts wasps that feed on aphids): Seeds of Change #06069 Bouquet
echinacea: Pinetree #737 ECHINACEA PURPUREA
foxglove: Burpee #46250A Excelsior mixed
gourds: Pinetree #166 LUFFA
hollyhocks: Burpee #19687 Country Romance
hyacinth bean vine: Pinetree #811 DOLICHOS LABLAB
kale: : got ’em
lavender: Pinetree #567 Lavender Vera
lettuce: Seeds of Change #05929 Benito
—and #01905 Bacarole
—got ’em: Black Seeded Simpson
lupines: Park Item # 01243-PK-P1 Tutti Frutti
mâché: : got ’em
monarda: Pinetree #75702 PANORAMA MIX MONARDA
morning glories: got ’em
mustard greens: got ’em
oregano: Natural Gardening Company Greek Oregano (OG)
Oriental poppy: Burpee Brilliant Red #38844A
painted daisy: Burpee #36137A
parsley: Seeds of Change #01360 Italian Flat Leaf
peas: you know better than I. If it’s feasible, I’d like to do garden peas and freeze ’em
pie pumpkins: Territorial Small Sugar
Radicchio: got ’em
radish: Territorial #RD741 Cherry Bell—get 7 grams organic
rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans): Park Item # 01777-PK-P1 Goldsturm
—and Item # 01787-PK-P1 Autumn Glory
—and Item # 51654-PK-P1 Ruby Gold
sage: Seeds of Change #06532
salvia: Park Blue Queen Item # 01802-PK-P1
scarlet runners: Natural Gardening Company Scarlet Runner Bean (OG)
shasta daisies: Park Crazy Daisy Item # 00558-PK-P1
sorrel: got ’em
Spanish flag: ordering thru Amazon
spearmint: Territorial #HR1246/S
speedwell: ordering thru Amazon
spinach: got ’em
sunflowers: got mammoth; need a couple of purty varieties
thyme: Seeds of Change #01599 English
yarrow: Territorial #FL3473/S Summer Berries

Maybe at the end of the season I’ll have the presence of mind to report on how it all went. It’s been years since I did any serious gardening, so this is all a theory right now, and not much more. But with all that was done on the property last year, and with me being on sabbatical this spring and not wanting to be strapped to my desk writing for every single second of it, it may not be entirely crazy for me to think I would set up a new perennial garden and also participate in BP’s long-established (and highly successful) efforts at home food production.