Monday, June 30, 2008

Cloudy Day in Vegas

I walked outside this morning and found something unusual. The sky, rather than being its normal blue, was filled with grey clouds! It doesn't rain very often here in Vegas. On the way to compiling our 4 inches of annual precipitation, we'll go months without a single cloud. The last raindrop I remember seeing here fell sometime in February. Who knows, maybe today will be the day to see another.

rare clouds over our backyard

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Grilled Carrots

Last night, Marianne and I decided to try a new method of cooking carrots. Neither of us had ever considered grilling carrots until about a month ago. At our wedding's reception dinner at Bergen, Norway's Galleri Nygaten, Marianne's vegetarian meal included the most delicious carrots that either of us had ever tasted. We quickly decided that their smokey taste and slightly charred exterior indicated grilling, and that we should try this with some of our own carrots after returning stateside. So, feeling a bit adventurous, I headed out to the container garden yesterday, pulled a few, and started trying to decide how to recreate those exceptional Norwegian grilled carrots.

As my carrots are still small (they grow excruciatingly slow), I simply scraped off the skin and left them whole. I then marinated the skinned carrots in a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, coarse salt, and freshly ground pepper. After allowing the carrots to soak in the marinade for about an hour, I cooked them over a medium hot grill for approximately 20 minutes. The difficult part is to cook them until they soften up without burning the thin ends. For larger carrots I would recommend slicing them into thinner pieces to speed up the cooking time and improve the uniformity of the cooking.

Although our grilled carrots didn't quite meet the standard set by those from our wedding dinner, they were very good. They were sweet and tangy with a soft but not mushy texture. Grilled carrots have definitely earned a spot on our home menu from now on.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Attack of the Hornworm!

Yesterday afternoon I noticed that some of the few remaining green leaves on my Better Boy tomato plant had disappeared. I quickly decided that some sort of hungry pest must be eating them, but when I looked I couldn't find anything unusual. Then, as I walked by yesterday evening, I happened to glance up and discovered the culprit. A huge hornworm was feasting on the poor plant. It was so large that I don't know how I missed finding it earlier in the day. In just the few hours between my first unsuccessful search and finding the offending and well-fed creature, it had stripped an entire limb of the plant. These things can really eat!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Compost Bin and Tomato Seedling Update

My mini-compost bin seems to be composting fairly well. I've been keeping it damp and stirring it every few days. As a result, most of the vegetable, leafy, and paper matter seem to be breaking down rather rapidly. Stems and other woody materials are, of course, taking a bit longer to decompose. All in all, I'm very pleased with its performance so far.

a look inside the compost bin

A few days ago I posted that five of the six Black Prince tomato seeds that I harvested and planted had sprouted. The sixth joined the other five shortly after the that update post. They seem to be doing well.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Heat and Veggie Production

It looks like the heat is starting to take a heavy toll on my container garden's vegetable production. We've now had many consecutive days in the 105 degree range, and 100 plus degree days will likely be the norm until September. It's getting pretty uncomfortable out there for human and plant alike.

My tomato plants are really showing the heat's impact. I haven't noticed any new tomato production in about a week now. The growth rate of tomatoes already set on the vine seems to have slowed tremendously, with ripening occurring at a much smaller size. The plants themselves are still growing, but the fruit may be finished until cooler weather arrives. My dilemma is whether to try and keep the vines alive until Fall, or pull them and then set out some early producing varieties sometime in late August for an October and November crop.

While I'll try and grow a Fall tomato crop, I've decided against any further attempts at growing beans in this location. Back in late February, I planted several lima bean, green bean, and black-eyed pea plants. All the limas and black-eyed peas died before producing anything. The green bean vines, by contrast, grew like mad until the temperature consistently topped 90. After that they stopped producing any beans, and showed signs of severe stress. I think location played a role in this, as the trellis to which I trained the vines was very close (about an inch away) to a Sun-heated wall. Although I didn't realize this at planting time, this wall gets surprisingly hot during the mid afternoon. This added heat source greatly exacerbates the problem of plant overheating. As a result, the six surviving vines have produced a whopping total of nine bean pods.

Beyond the recent slow down in tomato production and the problems with beans, everything else seems to be handling the heat well. I'll keep you updated on both the tomatoes and these other plants in the coming days.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Starting Tomatoes from Seed: Update

The Black Prince seeds that I harvested and planted last week (see June 18 post) have now started to sprout. So far, five very small seedlings have grown from the six seeds that I planted. I'll provide updates on their progress and let you know when the other plant decides to make an appearance.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Desert Blooms

The importance of color is often increased by its rarity in desert surroundings. While the desert can, at times, be a strikingly beautiful place, it can also lack the vibrancy and vitality accompanying the blooms and greenery of more hospitable climates. Beyond the ambers, oranges, and black painted upon its mountains by early morning Sun and late evening shadows, the abundance of brown dirt, brown rocks, and brown shrubs at all times intervening can grow both monotonous and disheartening. Here are just a few non-vegetable plants that we've sown in hopes of adding a little color to our small corner of the desert.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Under the Desert Sun

Yesterday afternoon, I noticed that my Tabasco plant wasn't looking very happy. In fact, after seeing its droopy and quite wilted leaves, I decided that it must be rapidly approaching its demise from thirst. The temperature, after all, was relatively hot at 107 degrees (going to be 110 today), and we hadn't seen the lower side of 100 for about 8 hours. So, assuming that the heat must have dried out the soil, I walked over and stuck my finger in the dirt just to make sure. What happened then was a bit of a surprise.

While the plant's soil wasn't entirely dried out, my finger found its temperature to be painfully hot. I would compare it to sticking your finger in a brownie that hasn't had time to cool properly after being taken from the oven. The ceramic container that the heat-struck Tabasco calls home was also so hot that I had to wear gloves when moving the plant to a shady location.

A very hot plant

Last night, after having moved the plant, I noticed that the spot where it had been located receives direct sunlight until around 7:30 pm. This morning, as I'm writing this at about 8 am, I see that the same location is already in full Sun. So basically I have been slow roasting my Tabasco plant under approximately 12 hours of full desert Sun each day, with the temperature the past week being over 105 degrees for much of the time. It's really amazing that it's still alive.

After cooling down for a couple of hours

Friday, June 20, 2008

Homemade Grow Lamp

Back in January, I decided that I needed a grow lamp. My plan was to start some seeds indoors and get a jump on the growing season. By using an indoor light setup, I figured that I could get many plants well along the way to bearing by late February/early March. This would allow me to make better use of the limited time before the burning heat of Summer caused the plants to stop producing. So, with this in mind, and after having been shocked by grow lamp prices, I naturally concluded that I would build my own.

The project actually turned out to be easier than I expected. I constructed the frame from 3/4" pvc pipe and hung a a 24" double fluorescent light fixture on chains and hooks. The light's height can be adjusted as needed by simply rehooking the chain in different links. For a little extra expense, you can also do away with the standard fluorescent bulbs and purchase aquarium bulbs such as Flora-Glo or Sun-Glo that supposedly increase plant growth.

All in all, the light has worked very well. It holds one large Jiffy seed starting tray perfectly, and is small enough to place on a table or workbench top. Most importantly, my plants really like it. They thrive under its glow as long as I keep the bulbs adjusted to within one inch or so of their top leaves.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Turn on the AC, Please!

It looks like the dreaded 100 plus degree days have arrived to stay. Today will be the third or fourth in a row in the 105 range. The ten day forecast has all highs coming in at over 100, with tomorrow being the hottest at 108. I 've decided post pics of a few of my plants now, and then repost more of the same plants in a few weeks. It should be interesting to compare the pics and see how they are handling the heat.


Sunmaster (left), recently planted Heatwave (right)


Lemon Boy

Black Prince

Tabasco Pepper


Basil (second planting)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Starting Tomatoes from Seed

Several days ago, I decided to start another Black Prince tomato plant from seed and use it to replace my last and very poor looking Better Boy. I'm doing this because the Better Boy appears to be losing ground rapidly, while the Black Prince continues to thrive and put on fruit. Hopefully, the time it takes the Siberian heirloom's seeds to grow into transplantable seedlings will give the few (3) small tomatoes on the Better Boy a chance to ripen. That is, of course, assuming that the plant survives that long.

So, earlier this morning I planted several seeds that I harvested from a Black Prince tomato about a week ago. It is pretty simple to harvest seeds from tomatoes. Only try it with heirlooms, however, as any plant you get from a hybrid tomato may differ greatly from the plant that produced the seed. I used the following method:
Allow one a plant that you like to fully ripen, pick it, and cut it in half. Then scoop out the seeds with a spoon, knife, finger, or whatever you have. Now, dump this gooey mess into a cup, add a little water, and cover with the top with some wrap with a few holes punched in it. You'll want to remove the cover about once a day and stir the seeds. Soaking/fermenting in water helps remove the gelatinous coating from the seeds and some claim that it rids the seeds of any diseases that might be present. After the seeds soak for a few days, the top of the water will look pretty scummy. This is a good thing, as it lets you know the fermentation is taking place. Now remove the seeds, rinse them off, and spread them out one by one on a paper towel. Place the paper towel in an out of the way place and allow the seeds to dry for several more days (3 or 4 should do it). Once dry, they are ready to store or plant.

When the plants sprout, I'll thin them down over the course of several weeks to the strongest one and use it to replace the Better Boy.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Managing Bugs

While this post isn't about my container garden, it is marginally about vegetables. But if you don't like bugs (or if you like them so much that one's demise makes you all teary eyed), stop reading now.

Last night, Marianne and I joined a couple of friends for dinner at a local casino buffet that shall remain nameless. I will say that this wasn't one of the ultra cheap buffets, but rather one of those that we only patronize if we have a two for one coupon. We had quite the experience.

Following the usual wait in line, we got our table, fixed our plates, and sat down to eat. At first, everything seemed fine in the world, as we enjoyed decent buffet fare and good table conversation. Then, Marianne began gazing intently at something she had excavated from her half-gone food. Of course by the time I recognized her Oh Sh*t look and heard her exclaim that there was a rather large bug in her salad, mine had long since disappeared with only the slightest scrutiny having been applied to it.

After we all looked at, studied, and confirmed the offending matter to be an insect in nature, Marianne called over the server who then passed the message (and the dead bug) along to the restaurant's manager. You would, and we did, expect the manager to come over and apologize for serving my wife dead crawly things with her dinner. Instead, we waited in vain for quite a while as nothing happened.

Finally, Marianne happened to bump into the aloof manager while searching for some other, non-infested, nourishment. After questioning him about the bug, his only response was that "people eat an average of 7 or 8 bugs a year." Marianne then asserted that she was vegetarian and preferred not to eat any bugs. On hearing this claim he surmised that, "in that case, you probably eat more bugs than the average person." Ultimately we did get a coupon for a free buffet out of the deal, but only for her. When she requested another coupon so that the two of us might return as a couple, the manager explained his policy of "one bug, one meal!"

Anyhow, all of this aroused my curiosity as to how many bugs the average person unknowingly consumes each year. After a quick Internet search, I came up with widely varying claims. A low estimate provided by a message board poster claimed that people eat approximately 50 insects per year with their food. A fitness blogger cited a recent issue of Woman's Health Magazine as support for claiming the much higher amount of two pounds of bugs per year. I suspect that if all restaurant managers react in the same lackadaisical manner of the one we encountered last night, the higher estimate is probably closer to the mark.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Grocery Rant

Marianne and I went grocery shopping yesterday and the only thing higher than the prices was my blood pressure as we drove home. The rate at which food prices are increasing in this country is just mind boggling. I think the only thing going up faster is the price of gasoline, which is, of course, the engine that is driving up grocery costs. Can you believe that a watermelon is now $7.00? And this isn't one of those nice two foot long melons. These things were smaller than a bowling ball! If you want to buy an ear of corn it will cost you at least $.50 (they were on sale 2 for a dollar!). Oranges have certainly become a delicacy at $.67 apiece. Good grief!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Making Some Dirt

One drawback to container gardening is the requirement of a good potting mix. As anyone who has bought a bag of Miracle Grow mix recently can attest, the stuff just doesn't come cheap. Also, there's the ever present possibility of getting a little something extra in your store-bought soil from who-knows-what chemical fertilizers to pesky plant diseases. If you want the peace of mind that comes from all organic soil...well that costs extra.

So, with all this in mind, I've embarked on a little experiment that will hopefully be good for my wallet, good for my plants, and good for the ecosystem. I am going to begin recycling dead plant matter, leftover vegetables, and other organic material into what should be a rich compost for my future veggies.

I decided to start out small with my experiment and upgrade later on if things work out. So I made a trip to the store and picked up a 64 quart Sterilite container for about $7.00. I chose the clear plastic model because I want the sunlight to get in and heat things up a bit in order to speed the composting process along.
After getting home with my new container, I proceeded to take it out back and drill two rows of 1/4" holes around it spaced about 4 inches apart (both between the holes and between the rows). These holes are intended to provide adequate airflow so the much needed bacteria can grow and do its job breaking down the compost material. Also, I drilled a few holes in the bottom for drainage of excess water. As the compost breaks down, I want to keep it warm and moist, but not soaking wet.
Once I finished drilling all the holes, I placed the compost bin in a spot where it would get a few hours of direct sunlight per day, added some old shredded leaves, stems, dirt, crushed eggshells, outdated veggies, and even a little paper. I then wet the contents down mixed it all thoroughly and placed the lid on top. From this point on, I'll add material as it becomes available, sprinkle in a little water as needed to keep moist, and stir/shake the contents up once a week or so. I'll keep you all updated over the next few weeks to let you know how my dirt is coming along!

Friday, June 13, 2008


In a way, the last entry revealed the anticipation of the unknown as one of gardening's greatest joys. And it's true that the wait to see how a strain of vegetable new to your garden is going to produce is equally exciting and rewarding. Yet, at the same time, the uncertainty inherent to the unknown and the duration that it must be endured also underwrites my greatest struggle as a gardener. While patience is most certainly a virtue, this virtue is exceedingly difficult to obtain in the garden.

I would be willing to bet that if you have planted carrots then you know exactly what I am getting at. With this year marking my first attempt at carrot growing, the anticipation is murderous. Envisioning that deep orange and crisp delicacy, I find myself tormented daily by the fact that I can't see how big they are! So, you know the routine....each day I'm sticking my finger down into the dirt around their stems, carefully probing and digging until I can see the orange tops of the roots. But this glimpse of orange only makes matters worse, as I now know growth is taking place but have no idea how much. And my carrot growing mind takes off: Is it ready? I should just pull one and see.... No, wait a couple of more weeks and make sure....If you pull it you can't put it back. Oh the indecision!

Well today, my patience ran out. I just had to know.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lemon Boy Tomatoes

For me, much of the fun of gardening results from the thrill and anticipation of growing new things. One new thing we've planted this year is the Lemon Boy variety of tomatoes. As of this point in the season, I must say these yellow orbs have been a very pleasant surprise.

So far, most of my Lemon Boys have been smallish to medium in size with the largest weighing in at about five ounces. As for production, I've harvested six ripe ones, and presently have another ten ripening on the vine. And despite the rapidly increasing heat, a few blooms are still setting fruit (we are now consistently in the 90s each day, with a few 100 plus days already mixed in).
While production has been ok for the Lemon Boy, it's the taste and color that really sets it apart. Marianne has proclaimed it her favorite as for flavor, and I must admit that it is running a really, really close second to my choice, the Black Prince. Its bright yellow appearance is also very appealing, adding great color to the presentation of any dish.

The only problem that I have experienced so far with the Lemon Boy has been a bit of blossom end rot on the first few tomatoes produced. This seems to have lessened, however, with subsequent batches.

I'll definitely be planting more of these in the future!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Tomato Shake Up

Better Boy tomatoes certainly haven't turned out better in our container garden this year. Back in February and March I started several Better Boys from seeds, nurtured the three strongest seedlings into to healthy young plants, and set them out in mid-March and April. All looked great for a while, as they grew rapidly for the first few weeks. Then, two of the plants just stopped growing at about two feet while the third sprouted up to about five feet. Soon after their growth slowed, the leaves of the two stunted plants became a mottled yellow and green. Following this unsightly occurrence, their blooms began drying up and falling off. Now, leaves on the five foot plant have also started to yellow, while its blooms are also showing signs of drying out. So far it has produced only three small green tomatoes.

I'm assuming that some sort of early blight infected the plants or that they just couldn't overcome a short stretch of 105 degree weather we had in mid-May.

So, a couple of days ago I decided to pull the plug on the smallest Better Boys, replacing one with a Heatwave and the other with a Sunmaster. While it may be too late for these to produce in the Summer, the mature plants will hopefully provide a good crop in the fall. I'm still undecided on whether to replace the taller plant immediately or leave it a while in hopes that its three tomatoes ripen.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Grilled Okra

Having grown up in the Deep South, I've eaten alot of okra in my life. As anyone that's ever tried it can attest, okra fried in some cornmeal batter is one of the world's best tasting treats. Yesterday evening, however, my wife Marianne and I set out to find a new way to prepare it that was both better for us and wouldn't stink up the house with that frying smell that she detests.

After looking up a few recipes, we decided that grilling was the way to go. We took some okra that I had harvested from the container garden in the last couple of days, skewered it, coated it in olive oil, sprinkled on some Cajun seasoning, and threw it on the grill for about 4 minutes per side. The finished product was very flavorful, tender, and devoid of that infamous okra slime. And to top it all off, the house didn't smell like a deep fryer afterwards. All in all, grilled okra makes for some fine eating!

Grilled okra with a homegrown Lemon Boy tomato

Monday, June 9, 2008

Salmonella Outbreak

Restaurants seem to be getting a bit worried about salmonella in tomatoes. Reuters reports that:

McDonald's Corp said on Monday it has temporarily stopped serving sliced tomatoes on its sandwiches in the United States as health officials work to pinpoint the source of a Salmonella outbreak.

And earlier today, my wife stopped by a local In and Out Burger joint only to find that they too had sworn off tomatoes. It is also being reported that Winn Dixie grocery stores are removing certain varieties of tomatoes from their shelves.

News like this makes homegrown veggies all the more appealing!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Okra Blossoms

For those of you that are curious about the blog's title image of the pretty yellowish flower, wonder no more. The picture is of an okra blossom on one of my plants. So, beyond producing the delicious tasting pods that they're famous for, you can see that okra plants are really very ornamental. There are also multiple strains of hybrid and heirloom okra plants that vary greatly by size and color. Maybe I'll plant a few of a dwarf variety like the red Little Lucy in some small pots around the back just to liven things up a bit. Some other interesting possibilities include: Alabama Red, White Velvet, Red Velvet, Red Burgundy, and Star of David.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Our Container Garden

Here are a few pics of our container garden. The setup is pretty simple, with a couple of half whisky barrels, several large pots, some shelves, and a couple of 36" window boxes. In this mix of containers we're growing seven tomato plants (three Better Boys, and one each of the Lemon Boy, Sunmaster, Heatwave, and Black Prince varieties), carrots, 1 bell pepper plant, 1 jalapeno, 1 tabasco, 4 okra plants, green beans, several varieties of basil, parsley, cilantro, and chives. Everything is organic, with the exception of having purchased some Miracle Grow potting soil.

As regular irrigation is so important in this arid climate, I've installed a timed drip system to keep things alive and growing. In each container, adjustable drip emitters run for five minutes intervals twice daily in the early morning hours. Seems to work ok so far....

Barrels with tomatoes, peppers, carrots, and beans

Okra, tomatoes, and herbs


Hi. I've started this blog to chronicle my attempts at growing vegetables here in the often inhospitable environment of Las Vegas, Nevada. We--my wife & I, and our rescued four-legged kids--live about twenty miles to the northwest of the Strip, in a suburban home with a very small backyard. As the yard is covered in concrete tiles, I garden in containers exclusively. Halfway through my second year as a practioner of this style of gardening, I've learned that it's possible to have some fun and put healthy food on the table, even with the limited space of modern suburban/urban living and the extremes of desert climate. Hope you enjoy following my garden's progress, and thanks for visiting and commenting.