Survivors of the ‘Winter’ of 2016-17

Overwintered spinach that in mid-April is already starting to bolt

Note to self: next time you plant a crop of spinach in the fall intending to keep it going through the winter and into the next spring, jot down the name of the variety or varieties you plant.

I’ve attempted to grow spinach through the winter for three years in a row. The first of the three crops was a spectacular success, yielding a light harvest of baby spinach in the fall and bulging bags full of mature spinach from March into June. (And that was entirely inadvertent, as I explained in a post at the time.) In the fall of 2015, I planted hundreds of spinach seeds but just a few seedlings sprouted–and promptly keeled over and died long before winter set it.

collard green

This past fall, I planted two varieties, both of which got a healthy start. They survived the winter under a row cover in fine shape.But now that spring has arrived and I have uncovered them, they are already bolting after just one modest picking. What the heck? I was counting on a continuous harvest right up to the start of summer! I had alerted friends and neighbors to prepare to help me eat it all. Then this: my patch of spinach, lovingly tended all winter long, is going to yield a couple of servings.


The weather is obviously one factor. And I probably kept the row cover on too long. We had a number of days during this past so-called winter when the temperature got into the 70s, which means it must have been in the 80s under the row cover. But the varieties of spinach I have planted these past three winters was surely also a factor in the wildly varying results. Trouble is, I have no clue what varieties I’ve planted. I’m going to try again this fall, but due to my lack of notes, I’ll be starting from scratch in my effort to get it right.


Oh well. I’m getting at least some homegrown spinach this spring. And several other crops are coming back:  one collard, a kale and chives (no surprise with any of them). Unexpectedly a couple of cilantro plants are also coming back from a crop that I had given up for lost last fall. Most surprisingly of all, some parsley that I started from seed about this time last year and yielded a continuous harvest last summer is now coming back strong this year. Hurray for the parsley! It is showing no signs of bolting. I’ve already made one batch of chimichurri with, I hope, many more to come.

Italian flat-leaf parsley looking good to go for a second year

Growing Spinach Under Snow

My Mt. Airy spinach house, Jan. 6, 2017, after a 1-inch snowfall

I didn’t want to toss off the blanket of snow and pull up the row cover to look, but the crops underneath are deep green and glowing in the sunlight filtering through after a 1-inch snowfall covered my backyard garden last night. The temperature will dip into the low teens tomorrow night. Most of my plants should survive–I’m not so sure about the radish sprouts and last little heads of lettuce–but the spinach, kales and one collard plant shouldn’t be fazed.

Nice place for spinach on a snowy day

I’m less confident about whether the tunnel covering them will make it through the winter. The hoops are too widely spaced and the cover is a mere light-weight Harvest-Guard frost blanket. So far it’s holding up under wind, rain, light ice and snow. I’m not going to press my luck too far, though. If there’s more than a few inches of snow in the forecast one of these days before winter is over,  I’ll take steps to shore it up.

Meantime, here are the salad fixings that I picked on New Year’s Day. Yes, it was a very tiny salad.  Keep in mind, folks, the main goal of my overwinter garden isn’t winter production as much as it is a really early spring flush of greens, from plants that will continue yielding cuttings right up to the edge of summer.

Spinach, lettuce, kale and radish sprout harvested on New Year’s Day, 2017

Home-Grown Tomatoes on New Year’s Day

Home-grown, kitchen counter-ripened tomatoes, Jan. 1, 2017

Tasty despite pallid yellow color

I picked several dozen green tomatoes off the dead vines in my Roxborough garden in early December, before the first deep freeze of the winter reached Philadelphia. You’re supposed to wrap green tomatoes in newspaper, put them in paper bags and store them in a cool place to get them to ripen, but I put them all in a big bowl on my kitchen counter, where they sat for weeks. I had intended to make fried green tomatoes with some, while waiting to see if the others would ripen. Over several weeks of neglect, half rotted, but the others eventually appeared to ripen. Their pallid orange color didn’t lead me to expect them to taste like much, but they weren’t bad at all. They had an unmistakable homegrown taste, with no mushy or mustiness from aging, and were certainly better than anything we’ll find in local markets around here between now and June.

Spinach Unfazed by Winter’s First Big Punch

The row cover on my winter garden, Dec. 17, 2016

My Mt. Airy backyard winter garden under a row cover, Dec. 17, 2016

Winter arrived in Philadelphia this past week. For a couple of days, the temperature didn’t get out of the 20s. The low dipped into the teens on two nights. The bout of winter ended with half an inch of snow capped by freezing rain.


Row cover holding its own…so far

The shelter housing my overwinter garden, a thin row cover stretched over wire hoops, sagged under the weight of the frozen precipitation but held up without trouble.


Winter spinach looks hale and hearty on Dec. 17, 2016

The spinach underneath came through it all looking as healthy as ever.

Battened Down for Winter


Hoop house for spinach, kale and other winter greens, Dec. 2, 2016

Bring it on, winter! Nothing’s going to stop me from growing spinach from now right through spring.  As of Dec. 2, I’ve got a small patch of spinach, some lettuce, radishes and a few kale plants that have gotten a good start this fall under a light row cover pulled over hoops. I’ll harvest the lettuce soon and see if I can keep the rest going right through the winter. I’ll put polyurethane over the row cover if there’s a deep freeze or substantial snow in the forecast. But the flimsy row cover alone is all the protection my garden needs for now.


Spinach and lettuce under cover, Dec. 2, 2016


December Harvest of Leftovers


Dead vines still yielding things to eat

I found a couple of cherry plum tomatoes in my garden, hiding among the dead foliage. Homegrown tomatoes fresh off the vine in December! What a treat. Also among the dead foliage: several handfuls of never ending sour Mexican gherkins.

The Italian flatleaf parsley I started from seed way back in May is still thin but still verdant and giving up enough sprigs  for small batches of chimichuri.   The patch of spinach, lettuce and kale I am growing under a cover contributed a garnish of sprigs for the tableau of my backyard harvest on Dec. 2.


December harvest: spinach, parsley, oregano, cherry tomatoes and sour Mexican gherkins

Mexican Sour Gherkins Everywhere


As my tomatoes died, the gherkins continued to thrive


Sept. 23 haul

The unexpected star of my garden two years ago was, no question about it, spinach. Last year: never-ending basil. This year’s surprise star performer: sour Mexican gherkins.

I planted just one seedling at the start of the summer. It was a leftover from the delivery of seedlings we get at our community garden several times a summer from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society as part of the City Harvest program.


nickle-sized “mouse melons”


co-existing with tomatoes

I had never heard of sour Mexican gherkins before but they’ve begun showing up in cutting-edge farmers markets in the last few years, selling for $24 a pound, according to a report by Christopher Weber in Modern Farmer. They’ve got many names,  including cucamelon, mouse melon, and sandita (little watermelon) in Spanish.  One thing they’re often called that they’re not is cucumbers. Though they’re from an entirely different genus, they have a cucumber taste with a slightly lemony tang.

The one seedling I had to work with was a wispy little thing that wouldn’t last in my crowded garden, I thought, as I wedged it into a tiny opening next to the leg of a trellis for my cherry tomatoes. I figured it would be overwhelmed by the cherry tomatoes in short order. But it grew, sending fragile vines shooting up through the top of the tomatoes. Over the weeks and months of the summer, that one plant sent a web of fast-growing vines for 10 feet in each direction down my garden row, covering everything.


climbing up the okra

The vines formed such a lacy net of fine stems and dainty leaves that they didn’t kill off the plants they engulfed. To the contrary, my sour Mexican gherkin seemed to coexist with everything, from tomatoes and okra, to the ferns in my asparagus patch, and even my potted fig tree.


intermingled with asparagus ferns

That 20-foot web of vines from one plant is covered with tiny gherkins by the dozens, amounting to hundreds over the course of the harvest season, that started in July and is going strong with a week to go in September.

What to do with them all? I tried refrigerator pickles. Didn’t work. They are crunchy and a bit too tough to eat of hand in any quantity. I found they were best when chopped and marinated for a day or two, as in this chopped salad with onions, tomatoes, parsley, basil, vinegar and oil. For a relish-style variation, I pulsed some of the chopped salad a few times in a food processor.


Ingredients for a chopped sour Mexican gherkin salad


the salad


relish-style after a few pulses in the food processor

Early June Harvest

Here’s what I harvested today, Saturday, June 3 (clockwise from lower left): sprig of oregano, cilantro, arugula, lettuce, radishes, hakurei turnips, and asparagus.

Four-Season Slide Show of Community Garden in Roxborough


These photographs were taken from June 2014 through June of the following year at the Garden R.U.N. Community Garden in Roxborough.

Putting Philly Muni Compost to the Test

compost 6

Compost cluttered with litter

It’s been nearly a month since I spread a thick layer of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation compost on my community garden plot in Roxborough, and planted some salad-mix seeds in it. The seeds germinated, the seedlings are thriving, and I haven’t seen any five-legged toads in the garden. So that load of city compost, from the parks department’s recycling center at 3850 Ford Road in Fairmount Park, was apparently good, non-toxic stuff.

The compost, in a pile set aside for the general public, alongside piles

Compost in early April was cleaner that plastic-littered stuff later in the month

Compost in early April was cleaner than the plastic-cluttered stuff later in the month

of mulch and manure, varied on each of my three visits to the recycling center in April. When I dropped by for a bag on April 24, the compost was riddled with shreds of plastic bags, nylon rope and other decidedly nonbiodegradable trash, which was easy enough to pick out but a bit unsettling anyway. Earlier in the month, the recycling center’s compost was free of trash.

You can’t complain about the price. It is available free-of-charge, 30 gallons at a time, to anyone with an ID proving that that they are a Philadelphia city resident.

The recycling center’s web site describes the material as “screened leaf compost,” which is made on site from “leaves and herbivore manure.” It contains no sewage or sludge material and is “approved for various applications and is tested periodically through the U.S. Composting Council Seal of Testing Assurance Program,” the web site says.

The most recent test results were released on April 7 by the Penn State Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory, which analyzed a sample of compost collected in late March. The detailed analysis, posted on the recycling center’s web site, indicates that the compost on that day hit the sweet spot by the most important measures.

The nitrogen content was 1.9 percent by dry weight, towards the upper end of the average range for finished compost of 0.5 to 2.5 percent. The Ph level was 8.0, a notch above the neutral measure of 7, which is about what garden soil for vegetables should be.

compost 10

My seedlings like Philly Parks & Rec compost

In addition to a chemical analysis, the test also entailed planting cucumber seeds in the stuff to see whether they would sprout and thrive. The U.S. Compost Council uses the germination rate to group compost in three grades, from “immature” to “mature” to “very mature,” with a germination rate of over 90 percent required to qualify for the latter, highest grade. The sample of Philadelphia municipal compost from late March passed that part of the test with flying colors. Germination and seedling vigor for the cucumbers planted in it were both clocked at 100 percent. I can’t say that 100 percent of the seeds I planted in parks department compost germinated, but most of them did,  as the photo below will attest.